Thursday, 31 December 2015


I learned today that a very close friend's mother has died. The mother was a woman I knew very well. I've known her for at least twenty years. She was always incredibly supportive of me. She loved the wedding and came to see The Man In the Straw Hat. She had a long-term illness, but was a brilliant, resilient fighter and I always assumed she'd outlive us all. Nathan and I raised a toast to her tonight and if her daughter happens to be reading this blog: we are all here for you. Just say the word and we'll be there...

It's been a difficult day all round. The whether was appalling. Another storm is battering Britain. This one's called Frank, which strikes me as a fairly ludicrous name for a storm. There's no aggression and only comedy in the name Frank. I once dumped a bloke called Frank because I couldn't imagine telling people I was going out with someone with that name. I think it was when he told me to call him Frankie that I drew the line. "Frankie, do you remember me?" I reckon Felix would have been a better name for a storm. Or Fred...

We came to Julie's tonight to watch "The Lady In the Van", or "The Woman In the Car" as I called it by mistake. It's a lovely little film. It's a little bit too "meta" in places and it's catastrophically badly shot, but in amongst the hammy over-theatrical turns from the film's bit parts, Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings shine like the most glorious beacons. I suspect both will get BAFTA nominations and Smith will probably find herself up for an Oscar. I think Jennings is too nuanced and subtle to be liked by the Yanks, who will, of course, have no idea who Alan Bennett is, and therefore won't know what a superb impression Jennings is doing of the writer. You're not meant to say "impression" about the work of a proper actor, are you? What is the word? Interpretation? Variation?

We ate pizza and salad and talked about relationships and the concept of men shopping.

Perhaps I'm coming down with something. I've been a bit shivery all day, and yet again I didn't sleep last night, so I actually think I might be simply stressed out. Christmas has been a lot of fun, but all the traveling and wonderful socialising rather took it out of us.

I have just discovered that the word flak, as in "taking flak" is spelt without a c... In the past I would probably have spelt it "flack" (which isn't entirely wrong because that way has now become an accepted alternate spelling.) The word, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from Germany during the Second World War and is an acronym for the "Fl(ieger)a(bwehr)k(anone)" anti-aircraft gun. You learn something new every day!

Wednesday, 30 December 2015


We've been with Abbie all night tonight. It was her birthday yesterday and she booked a table in the old Colherne Pub, which was where Nathan, Philip and I had our joint 40th birthday party. The Colherne was a gay pub, back in the 70s, when Earls Court was a proper homo-hub. All that remains of that particular community these days is a lone Clone Zone, a sort of upmarket sex shop for men who like to go out for an evening without their wives!

It was a lovely evening. We played a few games and I had a nice cup of tea. One of the games caused a bit of a broiges, which flared up like a flash fire over a hat filled with innocent-looking pieces of paper. I think there are people in this world who passionately love to play games and people who hate them with as much alacrity. This evening witnessed a massive clash of these two types of people.

Abbie's Mum brought an enormous box of vintage sweeties; brilliant things like Parma Violets, Refreshers, Love Hearts and Drum Sticks which went down very well as the evening rolled on.

The evening ended with a cheeky haloumi kebab around the corner. Naughty but nice.

We talked about the flooding in York. Facebook informs me that at least one of my friends has been evacuated. I found a map online of the flood-damaged zones and it seems that both of the streets I lived in as a student have suffered extensive damage. It's so awful to watch the news and see sodden Christmas decorations and sofas being thrown into skips whilst shell-shocked families stand outside houses with tide marks reaching up to the first floor windows.

About ten years ago I made a film about flood victims in Sheffield. We were able to follow a woman as she went back into her house for the first time since she'd been rescued by a boat from her bedroom window. The place was an absolute wreck. A little soft toy was sitting on the front door step. The woman picked it up, went into the house and used it to wipe the mud away from several framed photographs which were lying smashed and water-logged on the floor.

She was apparently known in her family for her collection of porcelain and glass clowns which had once been displayed proudly on her side board. I watched as she discovered that every single one had smashed. She wept bitterly. It was devastating.

Perhaps even more devastating was taking the cameras into a refuge centre where local people who had been flooded out could have a free meal, get legal advice and find second-hand furniture and cleaning products. I helped to unload a patio furniture set and nasty chipboard single bed from a van which had been collecting donations from around the county. A fight broke out between two men who were desperate for some replacement furniture. It was extremely distressing to watch.

I remember a man coming into the centre with his family and sitting down to eat a free meal from flimsy paper plates. He looked so ashamed and when the cameras came out he tried to hide his face. A great deal gets written about the need for gender equality and how awful it is for women to be brought into a world where they're treated like second-class citizens. But ingrained gender perceptions go deep. Spare the odd thought for the working man who is taught from the moment he's born that his job - his duty - is to provide for and protect his loved ones at all costs. When he loses that ability, for whatever reasons, he loses the right to call himself a man, and that is one of the greatest tragedies a man can endure.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Cross at Brent Cross

I "popped" to Brent Cross this afternoon to buy myself a photo album. I use the term "pop" rather lightly. I staggered there through ghastly traffic and had to enter the car park illegally because all of the other entrances had been coned off.

The shopping centre itself was like something from Dante's Inferno. People were rushing about trying to find bargains, dropping things all over the floor in their rush to leave no stone left unturned. Shops end up looking like fields attacked by locusts. I was elbowed in the side by a woman brandishing a fifty pound note which was actually turned down by the man behind the counter. I would have been horrified on her behalf had she not been an obvious psychopath. Also, she smelled of margarine.

I bought the last album in Paper Chase. I like the albums with big Ivory-coloured pages where you have to glue the pictures in yourself. It feels more respectful to the photographs, somehow. I have been religiously glueing pictures into Paper Chase albums, or their equivalent, since 1991. I have subsequently filled more than thirty and I'm very proud of the collection. One of my great joys in life is watching an old friend leafing through pages which tell the story of another lifetime. When I die, I hope someone will be interested enough to keep the albums together. I think they represent a colourful life in a colourful period of time... I hope that's the case, anyway.

It took forever to get out of Brent Cross. The North Circular was chockablock and there was a prannie on the A1 who nearly ran me off the road.

I've been cold all day. I hate it when it's damp and dank outside. Give me snow and ice any day, but this kind of murky weather is just depressing and makes me want to eat.

I wonder how many people were back at work today? The shocking traffic around London yesterday implied that everyone was heading back to the city for some reason, but in my industry, everything goes incredibly dark during the Chrimbo Limbo. When I worked in corporate films we were expected to take compulsory holiday in the week between Christmas and New Year. It counted as one of our three weeks, which I always thought was a bit dodgy!

I am horrified to see such apocalyptic scenes coming from my beloved York. The Yorkies tend to take flooding in their stride and certain areas of the city centre flood every year, but the arial photographs I looked yesterday imply something a great deal more cataclysmic is happening. I'm tying to work out if either of my student houses are presently under water, and imagined how helpless I'd have felt if I was at home for the Christmas holidays and found out my house was under water.

I'm horrified to learn that the government has cut the budget it intends to spend on flood defences by 8%, and that schemes in York and Leeds have been put on hold.

I don't know... We're happy to pointlessly drop incredibly expensive bombs on Syria, but we can't afford to protect ourselves from flooding. Boo!

Sunday, 27 December 2015


We woke up in Crawley and had a very pleasant breakfast in the hotel. I love Premier Inn, and don't really know why anyone would need a hotel to be any fancier. We had a lovely bath tub, a big comfy bed, and the staff were all incredibly friendly.

We met the parents in the Tesco car park in Lewes. A classier rendezvous there never was! They'd arrived early and were reading newspapers. We had a quick tea and a hot chocolate in a Costa Coffee before heading off into the town itself to pick up Hilary and drive due south to the coast at Newhaven, where we met Meriel.

We spent the morning at Tide Mills, which is a darkly atmospheric spot by the sea which was once the site of a village, a water mill and TB hospital. I'm told that the village was condemned in the 1930s and that the last residents were forcefully removed in 1939, before much of the site was cleared when authorities started to worry it would create a useful hiding place for invading Germans!

These days, the entire area is nothing but a labyrinth of ruined outer walls melting into windswept fields of orange and burgundy sea grasses.

The sea front at Tide Mills is entirely unspoilt. It's a pebble beach where all sorts of flotsam and jetsam gets washed up by angry waves. We found beautiful shells, heart-shaped stones, cuttle fish, shoes and blocks of sanded down wood. There are no cafes or shops at Tide Mills, just an expanse of beach and tall, brooding sky which meet in an almost invisible smudge on the horizon.

The waves were huge today and bursting and crashing in the distance over the harbour wall at Newhaven. The air was thick with foamy spray and periodically a yellow wave would rush up the shingle and the heavy wind would smack droplets of water onto our faces.

After walking for about an hour, we jumped into a flotilla of cars and drove to a village called Rodmell, which those with knowledge of the Hogarth Press and the Bloomsbury group, will recognise as the final home of Virginia Wolf. My mother is probably the biggest fan of that particular novelist in the world, so Meriel's decision to have lunch in a pub in the village was utterly inspired.

Wolf's cremated remains are buried under an elm tree in Monk House, which is the house in the village where she lived. During summer months it's possible to have a look around the inside of the house, which is a National Trust property these days. It's a well known fact that Wolf committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the Ouse, but I didn't realise that her body wasn't found for three weeks, which is a fairly grim thought. Her husband, Leonard, must have been out of his mind with worry.

Rodmell is a stunning village, which is almost entirely unspoiled to the extent that you could film a period drama there tomorrow. The food in the Abergavenny Pub was pretty good as well!

We drove home, using Google Maps to try and avoid ludicrous traffic jams on the M25 whilst listening to Radio 4, which seemed to be stuck in some sort of poetry hell. I flipping hate modern poetry, particularly when it's read out by the poets themselves, who, these days, insist on speaking in a boring monotone which makes the nonsense of what they're saying even less interesting. I entirely lost interest every time any of them started to read. The show was being presented by a pretentious-sounding man with a thick Liverpudlian accent who interviewed the poets in "cool" rather noisy locations like cafes. After one of the poems he simply said, "that poem gives me the willies." Nathan turned to me after listening to one particular poet and said "is she not embarrassed to read this out?" It really did sound like a piss take!

Saturday, 26 December 2015


We've been in a village in East Sussex called Ditchling all day. We drove down from Thaxted first thing via London where we dropped Tina back home.

Ditchling is a charming little place in the Sussex Downs where there's still a troupe of mummers and scores of ancient pubs and chocolate-box-pretty buildings. It's where my cousin Matt lives, in a beautiful, Art Deco-style house on the edge of the village, surrounded by fields and orchards.

There were twenty seven of us there today and we all sat down to eat at two very long tables. I never think of myself as having a particularly large family, especially not by Nathan's standards (who has over forty first cousins), but I guess we're just small and contained enough for everyone to be able to get together on occasions like these.

As I get older, my family means more and more to me and seeing them regularly feels important. It's been a troublesome year for some of my cousins, so today felt like a genuine show of solidarity. As Matt said in an impromptu speech, "we'll get through this... We will..."

We had a big quiz. My team came last, largely on account of opting to answer almost impossible questions on the Borough of Islington and not knowing any of the answers! How many properties on the Monopoly Board, for example, are in the N1 postcode?

Answer, 2. The Angel and Pentonville Road.

How many train and tube stations are there in the Borough of Islington?

14, apparently...

Our next round was on International Rugby and the one after that was on Disney princesses, so we never stood a hope in hell!

We went for a little walk around a neighbouring field and met a horrible farmer who asked if we were lost. When we said we weren't, he said "so you're not lost? Even though you're not on the footpath, you're not lost? I shan't shoot you, though... It's a Saturday." Twat.

I was walking one of my cousin's dogs, who was the most wilful creatures I've ever met. She literally pulled me along with all her might until we got to a stile, where she froze rigid, and refused to move until I'd picked her up and carried her over.

It's my mother's birthday tomorrow, so we're staying in a Premier Inn in a place called Crawley so that we can take my Mum out in the area tomorrow morning for a birthday walk. It's only 10pm, and we're already in bed!

Merry Christmas everyone

We're watching Downton Abbey at the end of a rather charming Christmas Day. It seems really very weird to be watching the final episode of a show which has been in our lives for so long. It feels like the programme has been running for far more than six years and when a show goes out at the top of its game, it always feels a bit of a wrench to lose it. ITV must be desperate to find an alternative.

We've been in Thaxted all day, sitting by an open fire, eating copious quantities of grub and opening lots of presents.

I've done very well on the gift front. Fiona gave me a wooden piano stool in the shape of an elephant and (incredibly excitingly) Nathan bought tickets for us to see the Electric Light Orchestra at the O2! ELO was a childhood obsession which became almost fanatical as a teenager and has lived in my back pocket ever since. I am so profoundly excited.

Lunch was brilliant. I have no idea how my Mum managed to prepare and cook so much delicious food. I did the potatoes and the gravy. I did well, although Fiona posted a picture on Facebook of her cooking a Christmas dinner with a full 1950s chignon without a bead of sweat on her forehead, which made me feel somewhat inadequate in my brown smock!

I was also in charge of lighting the Christmas pudding and managed to create a flame which was four feet tall, and set fire to the table cloth! The near disaster was all captured in photographs. I think next time I might try a little less brandy!

It was such a treat to have Tina with us all day. She and Nathan have been knitting all day and she's been a lovely addition to the family particularly in a year when Brother Edward is absent. I think in my life I've only spent two, maybe three, Christmases without him and his presence was greatly missed.

After lunch I spent some time sticking photographs of this year into an album, starting with shots from last Christmas and working sequentially, only choosing my very favourite pictures. It's been a good year: a year, perhaps, of consolidation rather than charging forward, but we've been on some wonderful trips and won some prestigious awards. I wasn't a BAFTA-nominee this time last year, that's for certain! Looking through the pictures was a lot of fun, although I'm going to need another album because I've managed to fill an entire book without getting beyond September!

We went to see Stuart and Sally and their two kids in the evening. They're very close friends of my parents who have become good friends of ours as a result of being on various quiz teams together. They actually met whilst working at my Dad's school when he was a headmaster and I think their kids see my parents as unofficial grandparents and vice versa. It's a pleasure to see them all together. Life is about the creation of these unorthodox families.

They live in a very quirky, ancient house opposite the church in Thaxted, which is incredibly homely. We sat around the wood-burning stove playing parlour games and eating yet more food. Tina and Nathan continued to knit whilst Sally crocheted a blanket. At one point Nathan showed her how to "spit splice" yarn with a knot in it. It's like a curious form of alchemy which involves flobbing on two ends of a piece of wool and rubbing them manically on a thigh to join them together. I can't begin to imagine how it works!

Friday, 25 December 2015

Pizzas, bells and smells

I couldn't sleep last night and spent a few hours in the wee smalls curled up in a corner of Sam's sitting room writing music. I tend to think there's no point in tossing and turning on these occasions... Knuckle down and get on with something worthwhile instead.

We drove in convoy to a Pizza Hut on the edge of Chester this morning. Because we celebrated Christmas yesterday, today has felt like Boxing Day, so when we arrived in the city to find everyone bustling about and all the shops open, we were briefly confused.

Eating in Pizza Hut on Christmas Eve is a Gaitch family tradition and today we all opted for the eat-all-you-can buffet. The vegetarian pizzas arrived rather sporadically on the buffet table, so we ended up eating copious bowls of salad whilst waiting for more to arrive. A very fat family seemed to move in like hippopotamuses in a swamp every time a new pizza arrived. You could see them piling their plates high with as many slices of pizza as their huge gobs could chow down on.

I can't talk. I've systematically over-eaten every day for the past week and today was no exception. As Nathan's niece Jenny succinctly put it "every day is so yummy..."

We entertained other diners at the cafe with carols and Christmas songs sung in multi-part harmony. I guess there are few families baring the Von Trapps who could claim to be so vocally adept!

We drove the 212 miles from Chester to Thaxted through remarkably beautiful skies which brought us both rain showers and bright sunlight.

We picked Tina up from Bishop's Stortford and drove her back to Thaxted through the dark country lanes behind Stansted Airport. There's a little house in those parts which gets very big at this time of year. We call it the Christmas House and its increasingly gaudy, somewhat ludicrous Christmas lights have been part of my Yuletime experience for the past twenty years.

We stopped the car outside this evening and got out to have a look around. The proud owner of the house opens the front driveway for visitors and collects money for animal charities.

It may be tacky, somewhat over the top and a bit naff but it made the three of us feel proper Christmassy! There were lots of children milling about who were loving the experience. There are scores of singing Santas, dancing dogs and flashing reindeer. If it's garish, shiny, luminous or multi-coloured it's in. Several times! I think my favourite ornament was a nativity scene with fibrotic pulsing straw in the manger!

I accompanied Tina and my Mum to midnight mass tonight, which proved, if ever proof were necessary, exactly why it is that traditional religion in this country is dying. We sat through litany and liturgy, lengthy prayers delivered by a flat-voiced vicar. There was a raggedy "choir" who insisted on singing the most dirge-like, endless, tuneless chants incredibly badly. It was ghastly and boring. The only time the congregation perked up was when they got to light candles and walk around the beautiful church in a procession behind some kind of 19th century smoke machine. That sort of religion should be about mysticism and theatrics, not boring people half to death. I would be ashamed to be a vicar of a church whose congregation looked quite so passive and uninspired as I spoke. Frankly I'd start by sacking the choir master and increasing ten-fold the number of congregational hymns, telling the flock that if they didn't sing louder and with more joy Jesus wouldn't want them for a sunbeam!

Still, walking through the silent streets of Thaxted as the bells drew us to the church was rather magical, as was the almost full moon, surrounded by a corona, which glowed like a spotlight in the sky.

The vicar, in his dull sermon, told us not to use the word magical. "Magic means trickery and fakery..." We're apparently to use the word mystical instead. What a load of baloney!

We came home and watched News 24, pulling apart a newsreader who appeared to be acting the news, which was odd. She had a funny mouth, a speech impediment and you could see her nipples through her top. Not sure the person who hired her could see much beyond her blonde hair.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Whitchurch and scarfes

Today started with a visit to Whitchurch, which is a charming little Shropshire market town somewhere near the border with Cheshire.

We'd rather hoped to park in the enormous Tesco car park, but the place was teaming to the rafters with flustered-looking people doing their Christmas food runs.

We almost gave up, but found a little space on a road just off the High Street, and took a stroll up towards the church in the hope of finding one final present. There are some very curious shops in that town, many of which are hilariously dual-purposed. There's a barber-cum-toy shop, and a pet shop which becomes a card shop and then a saw mill the further back you venture. Brilliant!

It was the sort of pet shop you used to find in the 1970s with hundreds of gold fish crammed into dirty aquariums and scrag-taggy parrots looking forlornly and hopefully at customers from behind their bars. They also sold huge statues of dogs and cats (I assume for gardens) which were magnificently ghastly.

We celebrated our second Scramshit today at Sam's house. Today was the turn of Nathan's extended family who will be scattered all over the country on Christmas Day itself.

It was a brilliant turn-out. Seventeen of us sat down to a dinner which featured pretty much every vegetable you could imagine. I have seldom seen so many colours on a single plate. Purples, yellows, greens, oranges and reds: a rainbow in a roast dinner... And utterly delicious.

There was a slightly uncomfortable moment, later in the day, when we were reminded that it wasn't actually Christmas Day. A whole slew of emails suddenly arrived from people who were trying to clear their desks before vanishing for two weeks or more. Sadly, we enter the Yuletime period without having sorted out our contract, which isn't ideal, but we'll try to keep our spirits up.

Nathan has spent the last few months in his spare time making glorious brioche-knitted scarves for his two nieces and nephew. We spent some time in the afternoon doing photo shoots of all of them so that Nathan can release the patterns. One of the scarves, which Nathan knitted for his erstwhile emo niece, Bex, is called the "scarfe" and features skulls and crossbones with little holes instead of eyes. We took some beautiful pictures as it got dark with torches behind the scarf making the eye holes look like little glowing gems. All of Nathan's nieces and nephews are hugely photogenic.

We played games, blew up and burst balloons and drank tea. Well, I drank tea and Nathan drank coke. I'm pretty sure everyone else was drinking alcohol. Towards the end of the night they moved on to Julius' home made gin, which I'm told was delicious.

I have pretty much stopped drinking any form of alcohol of late. I've never been a drinker, but recently I've worked out that I don't really like the taste and certainly don't like how it makes me feel the next day. I used to think I'd get to a certain age and suddenly appreciate the taste of wine and beer, but that age never came and I'm now fairly convinced it never will.

This evening we had a cheese-tasting with eleven delicious cheeses including a Cornish yarg, an aged Leicester, and two Wensleydale cheeses, one with "drunken sugar plums" and one laced with chocolate brownies. We sat in a circle and gave marks for all the cheeses out of ten and then ranked them all like a cheesy Eurovision Song Contest.

There was controversy when Jenny added all the scores up hopelessly badly and ended up declaring a really very bland shop-bought, mass-produced cheese the over-all winner. The recount revealed that the aged Red Leicester had won... And a bloody lovely cheese it was as well!

My friend Fiona would have fainted at the sight of the table!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Something about unicorns

We're in Shropshire. Nathan's Mum is showing off her new vax and a cat is sleeping on my suitcase. There's an enormous vat of Quality Street in front of us, and we're being force fed biscuits. There's a beautiful Christmas tree in the corner of the room. The loo paper in the bathroom is covered in pictures of reindeers and santas. I think Nathan's Mum rather likes this time of year!

Two hours ago we were in Cheshire, which is one of those English counties I've no concept of. It's where Sam, Nathan's sister, now lives and it would appear to be a pleasantly rural place where pleasantly rural (and fairly well-off) people live.

It's Sam's birthday today, and we ate delicious plates of pasta and one of Nathan's step mother's famous Malteeser-topped Tiramisus. It's just struck me that the word Tiramisu feels much more like a Romanian word than it does an Italian word. Why might that be? Or am I wrong?

We started the day in a grubby-skied London. We were running auditions for two roles in Beyond the Fence. I don't like auditioning people. It's a necessary evil, but, since becoming the partner of an actor, I find it increasingly difficult to watch actors feeling nervous and vulnerable. When an actor leaves the space and no one even bothers to talk about whether they were right for the part because we all know they weren't, I imagine them leaving the room secretly hoping for the role, waiting for the phone call and being bitterly disappointed not to hear from us again.

There's always a fine line between working with an actor for long enough in an audition situation to make them feel like they've not had a wasted journey and giving them an over-inflated sense of their likelihood of getting the role.

That said, there were a couple of people who came in today so under-prepared and (in one case) late, that I'd feel hugely justified in telling them never to audition for me again. Doing a bit of research, or taking the time to prepare the script you've been sent goes a long way in this industry. If the only problem is that you're not right for THIS role, then the director will remember you for the next time.

We saw some wonderful actors. One of them made me cry... And, really interestingly for this project, the two front-runners for the show were accompanied by heavy bursts of wind outside which rattled the windows and made the trees twist and bend into bizarre shapes ... Keen readers of this blog will remember that rehearsals for the workshop of the show were temporarily stopped by a mini-tornado! I like to think the universe is trying to tell us something. As Nathan would say to me and my mate Llio when we go off on one about this sort of thing: "something about unicorns..." I prefer to think of it as a tribe of little Welsh dragons...

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Preparing for an odyssey

My day started in Muswell Hill, driving in circles around the roads behind Colney Hatch Lane where the parking spaces are free... But a little hard to find. On my third pointless revolution around the block I had a little hissy fit, gave up and slung the car at a parking at a metre nearer the shops, which set me back about a fiver, but it was worth it for the lack of hassle.

I headed to Snappy Snaps to complain about the quality of the photographs they'd recently developed. In the light of day, they looked even worse; a bit blue and very gloomy and dark. Some of my friends look like they have bruises all over their faces, which is really unsatisfactory when the original snaps looked so lovely. The man behind the counter pretended to be perplexed and gave me all the excuses about decent exposure being in the eye of the beholder and the fact that when you look at a photograph on a computer screen you're looking at an image that has been lit from behind. "Oh come on, mate" I said, "You and me both know I've been coming here for ten years... I know about photographic prints and I know what you're capable of creating!"

In the end we made a compromise, and he re-printed 38 of my favourite shots with more colour saturation and less general gloom. The new results weren't perfect either, but I was grateful for him for trying.

I wandered around Muswell Hill panic-buying last-minute presents. I never give enough credit to a beautiful shop called W Martyn on the High Street, which must have been there for about 100 years. They sell teas, jams, dried and jellied fruits and home made biscuits, and at this time of year they stock all sorts of wonderful goodies for grown-up stocking fillers. They roast coffee in the window, so it always smells divine when you walk past. It's funny: I love the smell of coffee, but absolutely hate the way it tastes.

The rest of the day was spent back at Till Towers, preparing for what's set to be an epic five-day jaunt around the country. There was so much to do. We wrapped gifts, did washing, got a bit ratty with one another and tidied the house (cus God knows you can't leave an untidy house for the burglars.) We were going to put a Christmas tree up, but have made the decision that this will need to be the year that Christmas forgot. We simply haven't had the time to even think about decorations, so went up into the loft, rifled through our Christmas boxes and pulled out a miniature clown, a wind-up snowman and a Santa and a 30 centimetre-tall plastic fir tree on a little hessian mount which we have displayed on our television. It's a fabulous modern-day version of a nativity scene!

Monday, 21 December 2015


What a lovely day! We woke up in Thaxted to celebrate a faux Christmas with Brother Edward and Sascha. We've christened the day "Scramshit", which feels like the perfect anagram for a pretend Christmas. 

We had a walk around the fields behind Thaxted in the morning and visited the spot which my mother always tells us is laden with a magical and healing atmosphere. In recent times, whenever any of us have been a bit depressed, she's taken us down there for spiritual rejuvenation. She recently discovered a sixteenth century map where the spot was marked with the word "chapel." My Dad believes it was probably the site of a small monastic building, perhaps even the home of a religious hermit. The street at the top of the field is called Monk Street so I think he's probably just about on the money.

We had a meal sitting around the table, with not one but two advent crowns. It is, after all, the fourth advent. The one we made at Raily's house was lit during the main course, and the one my mother made was featured during the pudding.

Edward gave me a wonderful wooden travel chest for Christmas, which he'd had engraved with all of the places I've lived in my life. "David Benjamin Till. Oswestry. Potton. Higham Ferrers. York. London." I'm very excited about deciding what to put inside. Special things, obviously.

We drove back to London at about 5pm, traveling the length of the North Circular down to Kew where my mate Nat was celebrating her 40th birthday. We were hugely amused to learn (during her brother's lovely little speech) that Wikipedia reveals Nat's age as 36... Natalie tells us that she had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision to knock four years off her age. It's a strange old world!

We met some lovely people and reacquainted ourselves with a few more whom we hadn't met for many years. One woman remembered us playing pop songs on a piano at one of Nat's parties eight or more years ago. I chatted to one bloke I'd last spoken to twenty years ago!

Two chaps there had seen our wedding and wanted us to know they'd enjoyed it very much and cried all the way through. They're getting married themselves next year, so we wished them the very best for that.

Jo Emery, Tom and Nicky were there from Big Book For Girls, a show we performed in 1994 and 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival. It's so wonderful to think that something which happened so long ago has generated such long-lasting friendships. I reckon I'm still in regular touch with at least half the cast from that play (one of whom is in the new Star Wars film).

We drove away from Kew vowing to see more of them all. Tom promises to organise something which allows us to get together in March. I'm so holding him to it!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Daffodil and chips

When you live in a third floor flat, it's always a little bit odd when you see a little head floating past your window... When you're naked! They're taking the scaffolding down on the next door property. You could probably make a pretty decent documentary based around interviews with scaffolders. They must see some pretty astonishing stuff through windows.

Our local secondhand bookshop has closed down. It's such a terribly sad sight to see the empty bookshelves still attached to the walls. We're told the rents got too high for them to remain in business and part of me hopes that the property stays vacant for long enough to punish the building's owners for being greedy.

Ripping Yarns was a fabulous little shop which sold mostly children's books. Nathan once bought a first edition of the Just So stories there and my Mum has often been seen disappearing inside in search of Famous Five books, which she collects. I'm told Philippa used to go there with her Mum back in the 80s when she was a child. It's been there for a long long time... Right back to the days when all the houses on Archway Road were condemned because they'd decided the A1 needed to be dual carriageway. I think I'm right in saying that decision was thwarted by a group of women, who, even before Greenham, tied themselves to trees and things and re-shaped the way people protested.

I've recently been trying to find an old copy of The Faraway Tree and it would almost certainly have been there. I want an old print of the book because in recent editions, all the central characters' names have been changed. It is perhaps a tad unfortunate that the children in the original book are called Joe, Bess, Dick and Fanny, but those are their names. I really don't see the point in sanitising them to Rick and Frannie.

I walked into Muswell hill this morning to print all my photos for the year which I will spend the Christmas period putting into a lovely album. £120 seemed a large amount to shell out for the privilege, but there are 500 pictures. Sadly, the quality of prints these days is really poor. There's far more detail in the computer files than ever ends up on the paper and I think that's a terrible shame.

As I walked back home I passed a brass band playing O Come All Ye Faithful. They weren't even very good, but I found the sound incredibly moving, like a sort of echo of the joy of Christmases past.

I found a daffodil growing on one of the verges off Southwood Lane. A daffodil! Three months early! That's how warm it is in the UK right now. Nature is in turmoil! I'm told the cherry blossom is already out in Kew Gardens. It strikes me that someone needs to tell the flowers that if they don't go back to sleep again, Santa won't arrive this year!

Many thanks for all the concerned messages about my teeth. I am feeling much better today. I'm taking my antibiotics like a good boy and hope to be right as rain in a couple of days.

I took the bus down to the garage in Gospel Oak, picked up and paid for the car, drove to Muswell Hill to pick up my pictures and then did a rather counter-intuitive journey to Tottenham Hale which involved going all the way to Euston on the Northern Line in order to change tubes and head back north again. When you live in the north of London it's easy to head to the city centre but impossible to travel East or West without going via central London. A natural route for me would have been to get a bus to Finsbury Park which would have put me on the right line for Tottenham Hale, but there isn't a direct bus. In fact, the fastest way to get from Highgate to Finsbury Park is probably to walk along Parkland Walk, which is the site of an old overground railway line which actually once linked Highgate and Finsbury Park. I would say that I wished the line was still operational if it hadn't provided north London with another beautiful nature reserve.

I was horrified to discover upon arriving at Tottenham Hale that there was a discrepancy of £9 between the costs of journeys to Bishop's Stortford depending on which ticket machine you used! If you use the machine labelled "Stansted Express" the journeys are sneakily more expensive. The grumpy Nigerian woman standing by the ticket barriers couldn't have been less interested when I told her. I went back a few minutes later and said "I realise you don't give a shit, but people are being ripped off simply because they've picked one machine over another." She plastered her face with a sort of mock shock. People like that don't like to be told what to do.

The journey to Stortford was quick, and my brother and Sascha picked me up from the station and drove me to Thaxted where we watched the Strictly final with plates of fish and chips on our laps.

We've descended on Thaxted for the fourth advent, which we're treating as a family Christmas before Ted and Sascha head off to South Africa.

Nathan joined us after finishing work, so we're all here now. A chocolate log has been made. It's a family tradition. Every year we all make a wish whilst stirring the cake mixture. The trick, according to my Mum, is to wish for something specific rather than nebulous. I did wish to get married two years ago (which didn't look at all likely that particular Christmas), so perhaps there's something in it!

Friday, 18 December 2015


I woke up this morning - after spending much of the night watching telly because I couldn't sleep - to discover the whole of the left hand side of my face had gone into spasm. I couldn't smile without looking like I'd had a stroke. I called my dentist, barely able to talk without dribbling and she immediately sent me to the emergency dentist in Kentish Town.

Who knew such a thing existed? Who would also have thought that there could be a huge modern health centre in the little residential roads running parallel to Kentish Town High Road?

Anyway, the dentist was a little confused when I opened my mouth. He prodded: "I can't see much..." He did an X-ray. Biting down on that little sharp square of film is a deeply unpleasant experience which always makes me gag. I tried to go all zen in the hope that the experience would end sooner. The X-ray revealed that my wisdom teeth were sitting at an odd angle, but he said he could also see evidence of "brutal and systematic" teeth grinding. He gave me some anti-biotics "in case" it was an infection but his preferred diagnosis was that I'd pulled a muscle in my jaw whilst grinding teeth at night as a result of a high level of stress.

How about that, then?! The body really has a habit of telling you when it's not happy doesn't it?!

We found out today that my wonderful union, the MU, have provided us with a solicitor to help speed up the complex and terrifying process of drawing up a contract for our project. We spoke on the phone and he was calm, helpful and incredibly knowledgable. I instantly felt better.

If any musicians are in any doubt about whether to join a union, I can expressly tell them that it's not just sensible (so one can take advantage of things like free legal advice) but it's also your duty. Without unions, creative people get taken advantage of, either because everyone thinks we should do what we do for the love of creating, or because we're not bright enough, or don't have the skills/time to understand legalese. When confronted with a contract which seems to stack the odds against you, it becomes difficult not to take everything horribly personally. A lawyer comes in, however, and everything seems businesslike un-scary. I can't tell you how grateful I am to the MU for helping us in this way.

If you're a musician; a performer, a writer or even a singer, you're reading this blog, and you're not a member of a union, do have a read about the MU

...So what else? I worked sitting opposite Philippa in a cafe in Highgate this afternoon. Plainly it was wonderful to see her. I've missed my friends so much lately and she always makes me feel calm. I read her one of the lyrics from our show to see if she thought it was perhaps a little bit misogynist. All but one of the rhyming couplets passed her scrutiny... and one line (sadly the song's title) got a sort of "so-so" gesture. I've changed the couplet. There's not much I can do about the title!

We came home, picked the car up and drove down to Kwik Fit to change the tyre that blew out about two weeks ago. It turns out the brake pads are worn away and something else has rusted over, so the bill kept getting higher (£500 and counting) and we kept having to go away and come back again.

Kwik Fit is down in Gospel Oak, which is a joy to reach by car, but absolutely useless to get to via public transport. It's still not ready. We're told noon tomorrow. Watch that not happening!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

No sleep

I didn't sleep very much last night. In fact, an extraordinary adrenaline bolt woke me up at 3am, and I was so distressed that I sat in the sitting room watching television until I drifted off to sleep again as the sun rose. Late night telly on Channel 4 is actually quite relaxing. I saw a repeat of Deal or No Deal where the poor lad only won £50 despite confessing at the start of the show that he was desperate for money, and then an episode of Countdown.

Not being able to sleep is deeply upsetting, especially when a million conversations are bouncing around in your head. Things you want to say. Things you wish you had said.

The last six months have stretched me like no other period in my life and I'm so overwrought that my body is now playing tricks on me.

Things got a little worse this morning, so we have given our quills and our computers a much-needed break and, in the words of Why Don't You, we've "gone out and done something less boring instead."

For the foreseeable future we will be trying to relax as much as we can. There is work to do, and it is stacking up, but it will have to keep. As Fiona keeps telling me, it's really important to look after your body. She says she's never seen Nathan and me looking so wrung out and stressed. She is right. I don't want a heart attack.

So, we went Christmas shopping at Brent Cross. It's not the most Christmassy place in the world, but John Lewis is a fabulous spot for buying presents that feel quite classy without breaking the bank.

We bought mince pies and sausages and hot-footed up the M1(1) to Thaxted for a bit of parental TLC. We watched Strictly It Takes Two, had a lovely meal at the kitchen table and then lit an open fire and sat in the living room until late, eating satsumas and Malteesers whilst playing a game involving song lyrics. It was just what the doctor ordered after such a stressful and frightening period of time.

We drove home under the path of scores of aeroplanes coming into land at Stansted. The lights on their undercarriages flashed eerily in the misty moisty sky. 

So that's me. A little more relaxed, I think, but still in danger of not sleeping tonight. Looking forward to a break from work. Nathan says he's feeling zen. He feels we've finally had the strength and courage to push a boulder down a hill, all we can do now is wait to discover where it's going to land!

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Again. Don't read this. I've nothing to write

You know when you're astonished by the levels people will sink to? That. We should be relaxing tonight after a long, hard day of work. We're not. We're wrangling. We're trying to make sense of things...

Anyway, that's enough of that. Fiona stayed the night last night and we woke up with mist swirling around our sitting room window.

She was doing a session in a rather grotty area of Holloway, so we drove her down there first thing this morning, before coming home and working all day.

I don't really feel like writing anything more.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Nothing to say... Nothing!

We got up early-ish to start a day of work on the computer project. We were distracted on and off by nice surprises. Brother Edward face-timed us from Marrakesh. It's Sascha's birthday and they appear to be staying in a giant box of milk tray chocolate. Their room is literally full of dark purple silks. It was a joy to see out of their bedroom window at a row of palm trees and a bright sun. Apparently it's cold at night, but in the afternoon it gets into the mid 20s. You wouldn't catch me any were near a country like that in this present climate, but maybe that's my loss!

Fiona popped around at mid day and we spent twenty minutes watching brilliant classical music shreds. There's a genius version of a viola tutorial from the lead violist of the Sydney Philharmonic. It is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

We went for beans on toast at the spoon and then Fiona practised her violin in my bedroom whilst the two of us worked in the kitchen and sitting room.

We went to the gym and skipped about a bit and then came home to work late into the evening. In fact I've only just finished, which means I'm an incredible bore and have very little more to write.

Q - What's orange and sounds like a parrot?

A - A carrot.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Under achieving

We've spent the entire day under-achieving! We slept through the morning. We must have been knackered. Waking up naturally at mid day is not an ordinary occurrence, even for us.

We spent the afternoon looking through contracts. Yawn. When you're not a solicitor, a contract can be a bewildering thing, so we literally had to go through it one line at a time to get a sense of what any of it meant. Fortunately we've had some help from solicitors at the MU, who took a look through it, but I am left wondering why on earth we need legalese. It strikes me that legal language is deliberately designed to trip us up and pull the wool over people's eyes. Why can't contracts simply be written in plain language? I'll tell you why... So that lawyers can charge a ludicrous fortune for their services! It's bonkers.

It started to get dark way too early for my liking today - I may well still have been in a dressing gown - although the sky did turn a rather fetching shade of lavender just before the heavenly lights went out, so there was a little hint of magic to get excited about. We had a quick stroll around the block to clear our head of nonsensical words before treating ourselves to a roast dinner at the Woodman pub opposite. They do a lovely veggie alternative over there, which comes with all the trimmings. The joy about roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and all of that malarkey is that, baring the blob of meat on the side, everything is completely vegetarian, so why offer us a butternut squash risotto piled high with bitter rocket?

We came home and watched various results shows, wondering, in the case of the X Factor, whether we were actually listening to One Direction or one of those fabulous YouTube "shred" videos when people over-dub live performances of famous bands with terrifyingly bad vocals. The greatest shred, in my view, is Jessie J singing Bang Bang. But only watch this if you know the song and who she is, or you'll be insanely confused.

Listening to Reggie and Bollie singing their "winning song" live was like having my teeth pulled out one by one without any form of anaesthetic. I'm writing this before knowing who has won the competition, by the way, so this is not a spoiler!

What I would say is that I have probably not seen a live event as badly staged managed as the X Factor final since the 1989 Brit Awards! And whoever choses these winning songs needs to be sacked! They always sound the same; their own genre of over-inflated mush with layers of synths, clearly designed to favour one contestant over the other! My favourite faux pas tonight was the all-white "gospel" choir, who, when the black lads sang, threw on red and white gospel gowns to give the reggae feel a special air of authenticity. Gah.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

A murder of crows

Hilary and Meriel came to North London today and we had a very splendid time.

We went to a spoon in Muswell Hill for lunch and all three of us opted for the all day veggie breakfast with extra halloumi!

It was meant to rain, but we threw caution to the wind and went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. It turned out to be a good decision. It was muddy under foot, but it remained dry. I wanted to show them my new discovery: a beautiful area of shallow ponds between Spaniards Road and North End Lane, which I discovered today is called Sandy Heath, and was ruthlessly quarried for its natural top layer of sand in the 19th Century. The story goes that the owner of the land was told that he couldn't build on it, so instead pulled up all the trees and sold the sand to the people building the train line out of St Pancras. There are two oak trees, both of which are 300 years old, which were the only two trees to survive the quarrying and are now fenced off and protected by law. The other trees in the area have grown in the last 100 years.

The place looks very bleak in the dead of winter. The bare, gnarly trees were creating all kinds of intricate silhouettes against the white sky and the ponds looked black as tar. Meriel thought they looked like the black ponds in the Narnia books. I have never read a Narnia book...

It was fairly windy today and there was a noticeable roar coming off the trees. Trees sussurate and rustle in summer. In the winter they make a far more hollow, empty, rather sad sound. They also creak and squeak like birds.

The sun was setting within minutes of us arriving on the Heath and a great deal of our walk took place at dusk, which was rather magical. The sky was a bruised shade of amber and I kept losing my bearings because I couldn't tell the difference between the setting sun and the dirty halogen lights of central London. We ended up walking in a giant circle in the middle of the Kenwood Estate, which in fairness is the bit of the Heath I know least well, but really... Epic fail!

As the light disappeared we started to hear the owls, and then, for some reason scores of crows started cawing in the sky above us. We could see their black forms, like Scooby Doo bats, circling. As we stood up at Kenwood, looking across the London skyline, we could see search lights filling the sky, catching the clouds in a most eerie war-like way. I've no idea what they were for.

We eventually found our way out of the Heath and made our way to Highgate village, which looks absolutely beautiful at this time of year with glorious strings of white fairy lights hanging across the road and all the shops lit up with Victorian-style Christmas decorations in the windows. We went to all the shops, buying books in Oxfam and cakes for tea at the pantry.

Here's a joke:

Q -What's the difference between Delia Smith and a cross country run?

A - One's a pant in the country...

We came home to eat cakes and drink tea... Except Hilary doesn't drink tea, which I find really odd. I never know what to offer her to drink. In my house, the kettle is on before anyone's come through the door.

The girls left and Nathan returned from doing gigs around the county and we sat down in front of the X Factor final.

Here are some observations about that show.

1) Leona Lewis seems to have lost the ability to sing
2) Cheryl thingie is now so thin you can see the outline of her skull through the skin of her face
3) Caroline Flack needs to learn how to stand (odd for a bird who's a brilliant dancer.)
4) I don't know how Rod Stewart's ragged nodule-filled voice is still capable of making sound
5) Rita Ora has a surprisingly good voice
6) Nick Grimshaw is a terrible waste of space.

Night night.


There's not a lot to say about yesterday other than that I got hugely frustrated with work and then with the world around me. At one point I was in Cafe Nero, or some such, in Muswell Hill, surrounded by nincompoops. The woman on my right sounded like Waynetta Slob, the child opposite would not stop staring at me and the two Asian girls on my left were talking about how unlucky in love they both were and attributing their misfortune to the fact that they always talk to boyfriends in the same way as they talk to gay men, which confuses them. I'll say! Actually, it became quite a refreshing conversation when one of them started talking obsessively about the rapport she has with gay men. Part of me felt like saying "seriously? ALL gay men? Are we a species?" But then I thought it was so great that someone from the Asian community was talking in this way, that I decided she'd been sent to irritate me whilst I work for a reason: namely that gay men are on a fast track to universal acceptance.

Of course, as if to turn this statement on its head, I heard this morning, that two louts had rushed up to one of my friends and screamed "faggot" in his face, which is tediously 1980s. It's terrifying to think that people still think and behave like that. I personally think the only way to irradiate this sort of behaviour is to get people like that arrested. They'll soon learn...

...Then I found out that another close friend's cat had been mauled to death by a greyhound. She 'phoned me this morning in a terrible state and my heart broke for her.

...Then I got a text from another friend, who told me she was in the Star Wars film! I was going up and down like a yoyo!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Oily tantrums

I received a missed call this morning from Radio Northampton who wanted to chat to me about yesterday's award ceremony. The guy who'd left the message said his name in a bit of a rush. I listened several times to see if I could catch what he'd said, but failed every time. It genuinely sounded like his name was "Oily Guilder." Was this a Dutch man? He sounded rather English...

I bit the bullet and called back...

Her: Hello BBC Radio Northampton?

Me: Hello. Now please don't laugh, but one of your colleagues called me just now, and I didn't catch his name. It sounded a little like he might have been called Oily Guilder.


Me: Perhaps it was Ollie Guilder?

Silence. A little snort of laughter.

Her: (in a faltering voice) It's Willy Guilder...

A burst of hysterical laughter was followed by the sound of the phone being put on hold.

Two minutes later Willy Guilder came on the line and told me that I'd made his colleague laugh so much that she'd been unable to speak! Glad to oblige!

Jeremy from NYMT brought my attention to the Rogers and Hammerstein website this afternoon, which is announcing Brass as one of their shows, so it's now official: Brass is a published work! If anyone knows any amateur groups who might fancy performing an epic First World War musical with as many female roles as roles for men, then please bring their attention to the following link.

I have to say it's been a really very good week! I've won two awards and had a musical published. When I'm feeling down in the dumps, it would be good if someone could remind me of these things! A job in the arts genuinely is feast or famine!

I witnessed something on the tube today which made me giggle in a Schadenfreude sort of way. A 4-year old child from hell got on the carriage and immediately started bashing merry hell out of his mother. He only came up to her waist in height and was just able to reach her thighs with his tantramonius little fists. The mother didn't seem to be reprimanding him and I felt sure she was making a rather large rod for her back by pretending that her son wasn't thumping her. To make matters worse, the father was there, watching the scene passively. Maybe he's taught his son that Mummy needs a smack when she gets disobedient. Ghastly!

Anyway, as the train pulled out of the station, there was a jolt, and the little boy was sent cascading down the carriage only to land flat on his face. He burst into tears. I smiled internally. And then externally. Little shit!

I was in Shoreditch Town Hall this afternoon. I've been invited to take part in a musical theatre initiative called The Dark Room (I know, I know... No one seemed to fully appreciate the comic value of the name!) Slightly salacious title aside, I'm excited by the concept of what we're doing. Four musical theatre writers are being paired up with four theatre practitioners who very specifically haven't worked in musical theatre. The writers include Pippa (from Jake and Pippa) whom it was just fabulous to see. We chatted for hours in the bar afterwards.

We didn't meet any of the theatre practitioners, and one of the writers wasn't there, but there was a host of interesting people in the room representing different regional theatres. I was slightly perturbed to hear people talking about how we need to rip up the musical theatre rule book and find daring ways to innovate the form. I wasn't entirely sure that the people crying out for change knew what the rules were that they so desperately wanted to break. I also became somewhat concerned that, for a number of people in the space, innovation seemed to mean just one word: diversity.

At one point during the discussion someone mentioned how we all needed to get away from the conventional "book musical." At this point I piped up: "and what on earth is wrong with a conventional book musical?" The feeling seemed to be that it was cliched. I piped up again; "the joy of musical theatre is that no two shows are the same. Some people write rock scores. Others write classical scores. It's all musical theatre and only bad musical theatre is cliched." There was then a discussion about how we perhaps needed to stop calling musicals musicals because it "puts people off..." I felt like a jaded dinosaur in the corner.

I was glad to reacquaint with a lass called Alecky who was at drama school with me. We had a long chat and I told her I'd spent a lovely day with Sharon out in New York last week. It was only half way through her subsequent presentation to the group that I realised she was the writer of the seminal musical, London Road. I felt like such a Charlie when I realised! I'm so pleased I didn't say the thing which was going through my mind when she told me she'd made a lot of verbatim theatre: "I bet you're only copying the woman who did London Road!"

Another award

From where I work on the kitchen table I can see at least fifty windows. When it gets dark, the lights go on and off like some kind of curious arcade game, or a message from an alien life form. There's a blue room with an ornate fire place. An orange room with a fancy standard lamp with fringing all over it. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of one of my neighbours peering out, or a cat sitting happily on a window ledge. There's a little Christmas tree in one of the windows at the moment, with dark red lights. It's rather magical. 
This evening we went to the British Museum, where, I'm proud to say, we won the Rose D'or award for Best TV arts programme. It was a genuinely lovely surprise. We made fairly political acceptance speeches. I told the audience to remember that bigotry was bigotry whether or not it was being justified by religion and that the people in the room from countries where gay marriage was not legal needed to return home and lobby! 

The ceremony was presented by the lovely Paddy O'Connell with whom we had a lovely chat about Eurovision afterwards. As part of his presentation he'd managed to track down some seriously amusing clips from highly camp 1960s European TV shows. The awards themselves are run by the EBU and whenever a judge from another country got up to announce a result, they were serenaded by an obscure Eurovision song from their nation. My brothers would have been in heaven!  

I also finally got to meet Stephen Fry, who, of course narrated our film, but also became the first recipient of a Rose D'or life time achievement award. I'm rather proud to say that he congratulated us on our speeches;  "Thank you for the comments you made. Both of you. It's important that those things get said." I could have melted there and then! 


We also got a chance to meet Rob Delaney, who wrote and performs in the incredible Channel 4 sit-com, Catastrophe, which also won an award. He's a massive fan of musical theatre (he tells us) and was actually a musical theatre major at university. You learn something new every day! 

Rob Delaney
Mary Berry was there, although Bake Off was beaten in its category by one of the few mainland European winners of the night. It really was an award show which was all about the Brits, a fact which became a little embarrassing as the evening wore on, particularly in the radio awards which almost exclusively went to the BBC, including a gong for a show about the brilliant John Grant, which featured Fiona's string arrangements. The clip they chose from the wedding was Nathan's vows (which also include Fiona's arrangements) so I think she can legitimately claim to have won two Rose D'ors tonight. 

Everyone was super-friendly to us, and I don't think that's just because we won. I think the Europeans are simply a friendlier bunch. End of... 

Anyway. I should probably Foxtrot Oscar. I've been drinking a ginger and lime drink all evening, which I was assured was non alcoholic, but it's made me a little light-headed and I have a busy day tomorrow. 

Nathan and Ben

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

No gym

I was woken up this morning by the sound of one of my neighbours banging nails into a wall. I think that’s what the sound was. It could have been any number of things actually. Quite why nails need to be banged into walls at 8am, I’m not sure, but I guess, to some people 8am is like mid day. What else are you going to do with your time once you’ve had breakfast and read the paper?

I was awoken in the middle of the night by another strange sound. This time it was a dreadful clattering somewhere within the house. I opted not to explore. I assumed no one was breaking in because it wasn’t followed by any other weird sounds. I discovered in the morning that our angle poise lamp had hit the floor in the sitting room and landed on a pair of plates, which, randomly, had remained unbroken. 

It was awfully gloomy in London at 8am. A blue mist was hanging around in the trees above the tube station and, to quote Topsy and Tim, I wondered if the sun had forgotten to get up. The sun burned through at lunch time, however, and we had a rather pleasant afternoon. Well, at least it looked pleasant enough from the kitchen table. As we drove to the gym, the sun was setting, clouds were bubbling, and the sky suddenly resembled a glorious assortment of metals from silver through bronze to gold. 

Our gym is closing down. I spoke to one of the regulars there today, who seemed most upset, which, in turn, made me a little nostalgic. I started that particular gym in 1999 whilst working as Associate Director on a Raymond Gubbay opera at the Albert Hall. We were rehearsing in Three Mills out East, and I used to get up super early, do twenty minutes of exercise and then get on the train at Gospel Oak. In those days, the North London line was one that no one paid to ride on. There were no barriers and people use to pile on with absolutely no intention of paying. I remember a hand-written sign at Kentish Town West which read: “Ticket inspection 02.02.99. Many thanks to the forty people who were found travelling with valid tickets. To the five hundred and seventy who weren’t, please be aware that more regular checks with be happening on this service.” Or words to that effect! 

The train used to take me to a station called Hackney Wick, which was close to Three Mills, but seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s now been entirely redeveloped for the Olympics, but back then it was a mass of derelict concrete tower blocks with broken windows and tattered curtains flapping about. On more than one occasion there was a burned-out car. I used to hate waiting there in the dark for trains to take me back to civilisation. My mate Ted had a party there around that time, and I remember Philippa and Fiona meeting me at the station and fearing for their lives. I think Philippa was accosted by a random man several times before we arrived! 

So, 16 years is a long time to go to one gym. It’s probably the most continuity I’ve ever had with a single building with the exception of my parents house in Thaxted and my Grannie’s old house in Warwickshire which was a constant part of my life until I was about thirty. The gym has been taken over by a different company and is being refurbished. The pool and wet room area is being torn out and I’m told there will be no reception staff. Most of the other regulars are changing gym. Some are going to a place in Muswell Hill where there are jacuzzis with flashing coloured lights, but, for £104 a month, I shan’t be following them. 

I realised as I chatted that a gym, for some people, is far more than somewhere to work out. This particular chap, who is a very jovial tree surgeon, has a group of friends who sit in the steam room talking about philosophy and politics. He goes every day, has a quick swim and then sees who’s about to chat to. It seems a pity that he’ll have to make a new set of friends. “I shouldn’t complain” he said, “human beings fear and resist change far too much. In the animal kingdom, change is thrust upon creatures, and they do nothing but learn to adapt. Perhaps we should be more like that…” He then made a joke about arms which I didn’t understand. Obviously I laughed politely. This is something I often do. I don’t understand many jokes… 

Monday, 7 December 2015


We spent the morning putting the final touches to the latest draft of Beyond the Fence, before sending it out to all the relevant people. There'll be another draft before we go into rehearsals, probably two, but it's important to let everyone know the direction things are heading in so that they don't panic and worry we won't be able to deliver.

The afternoon was spent with Nathan beavering away on a lyric whilst I sat at the kitchen table making changes to the opening number. The words were flying out of Nathan, so much, in fact that we had to keep reminding ourselves to use as much computer-generated lyrics as possible. We have a data-base of lines from the computer system which we've decided might be useful for certain songs. They're, in the most, rather uninspiring, but occasionally have the power to send a song in an unexpected and exciting direction.

For the first time in my life I have a touch of writers' block. I know exactly why it's come. So many constraints have been put on this project by the computer processes, that finding interesting ways out of the cul-de-sacs they create becomes exhausting and utterly thankless. I feel stifled and uninspired most of the time. Sometimes I think the computers are doing nothing but making the music I would have written without their aid just a little bit less good! It's been hard to stay upbeat for too long on this project.

I went to the gym in the late afternoon and then trotted into Euston to meet young Josh, our assistant director on Brass, for tea and a catch up. It was lovely to see him, and I think he's doing everything right in terms of making contacts and, more crucially, keeping in touch with the contacts he's made.

His writing seems to be really taking off. I think he's found a niche for himself in Manchester, which he paints as a really happening and inspiring city. He actually takes tourists on guided walks of the place and tells me he's very keen to rid me of my prejudice for the city.

Only on Saturday I was discussing my ambivalence towards Manchester with a woman from Leeds who described it as being a bit "up itself." I've always found Mancunians a bit unfriendly (and very anti-southerner) in a way that Loiners and Geordies don't seem to be. I've always had a theory that the further north and east you travel in the UK, the more open people appear. The Cumbrians, for example, seem more closed than their North-Eastern counterparts. There are theories in this respect about the majority of British immigration (and invasion) coming from the East.

Liverpool is considered to be an exception to this rule because it became a Mecca for the Welsh and the Irish. I've genuinely never been to Liverpool, so have no idea if this is the case. I'd like to go. It's where my brother Tim was born.

I'd genuinely like to be proved wrong about Manchester. Plenty of my friends, and brother Tim live in and love Manchester, so perhaps I ought to go on one of Josh's tours and find out what all the fuss is all about.

When I got into York university I was also offered a place reading music at Manchester, so, perhaps if I'd taken that up, I'd be living there now, criticising Londoners and knowing I was living in the finest city in the world!

stay safe

We had a bit of a lie in and then spent the late morning working on the script for Beyond the Fence. I still can't quite get used to calling it by that name. The show's working title was Green Gate and my head hasn't entirely managed to move on!

We were working on the end sequence, trying to cut sequences and tidy bits up. The last but one song in the piece is the most troubling song in the show. We are struggling like mad to make it work. It seems computers don't much want to help us with that song. Sometimes they're like that. We once met a computer system which drew portraits of people based on the mood it was in after reading a randomly selected news story. Sometimes it decided it was too depressed to draw at all. Readers won't be at all surprised to learn that it was too depressed to draw when it was my turn to sit for it!

Brother Edward and Sascha came over this evening to watch the results shows and catch up on gossip. They're off to Marrakesh, lucky bastards, and then South Africa. It was so lovely to see them up on our patch. Usually we're down their way on a Sunday night. I'm secretly hoping that they'll think about moving to these parts one day.

It's been a horribly rainy night in London, though nothing compared to what they've been experiencing in Cumbria. My mate Becky, who lives in Keswick, keeps posting apocalyptic photographs on Facebook of flood barriers being breached and bridges being swept into angry looking rivers. It's mayhem up there.

Well anyway, I hope everyone reading this blog is safe tonight and that, if Desmond the storm is anywhere close to you, it doesn't cause you too many problems.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Random composer

At about midnight last night I found out that I'd been chosen as the recipient of the John Cage Memorial Random Composer Award. I like to think of it as a very prestigious award, despite my name having been selected as the winner by a process involving random noise! The recipient is selected in this manner so that no composer experiences prejudice as a result of their gender or the style of music they write. In the words of its organiser, Benjamin Hjertmann, "it's a fun, lighthearted and special honor in its own right. It's a way for us all to recognize the subjectivity of our field, to celebrate serendipity and its intimate relationship with music, and to serve as a kind of equalizer rewarding the act of composing itself, not our opinions of the results."

I'm therefore rather proud to have won!

Of course the award organisers were thrilled to hear about the computer musical.

You can read about the awards here:

We were at Craft and Cake this afternoon. It took us forever to get down to Catford. Every section of road which could have been traffic-logged was chockablock with angry drivers, cutting other drivers up, and using sneaky short cuts which simply delayed everyone else even further. I was driving and ended up with clutch foot. During the first hour of our journey, we covered exactly eight miles. We went down Highgate Hill at the same speed as a jogger, got stuck in the middle of a crowd heading to an Arsenal match on the Holloway Road, and then got trapped in Hackney like a pair of wasps in a bottle of lemonade. Even our sat nav was forced to acknowledge it would have been quicker to cycle!

Anyway, we were rewarded by a lovely pot of tea and some amazing food at Julie and Sam's. Profiteroles were the order of the day: raspberry and salted caramel flavour, but there was also a delicious fruit cake, scones, potato salad and panettone.
Kate announced that she was pregnant, which gave us all something to smile about. Hilary continued to knit her endless blanket, Julie made odd socks, Sam was knitting a lengthways scarf and Tina, for the first time ever, was knitting something which wasn't red. Something must be wrong with the world. Poor lass looked very uncomfortable! I bet she rips it out!

Abbie gave me an early Christmas present in the shape of a lovely reproduction Rice Krispies tin. I've been searching for ages for a tin to carry CDs about in to prevent the cases from cracking in my bag and Abbie told me she'd spent almost as long trying to find one to give me as a present. It's the perfect size and I was incredibly touched.

This evening, Nathan and I lent our dulcet(ish) tones to the Fleet Singers who were doing a little Christmas concert at the Methodist church in Gospel Oak. It was a really lovely evening. The audience was incredibly appreciate, everyone sang really beautifully, and as always, the choir rose to the challenge. The readings were particularly good. Everyone really threw themselves into them and some really unexpected poems were found.

We came home and watched X Factor and Strictly. I'm suffering from tinnitus again, so I'm a little worried about going to bed, because it's only when there's silence around me when the infernal whistling starts. I hear a very high-pitched sound like a crazy distant car alarm which oscillates between an E flat and a D. They're not even useful notes! I haven't noticed it for a while, so I'm sort of hoping it's something which won't be a constant part of my life. Nathan thinks it's returned recently because I'm stressed. Who knows? I think I simply have to try and embrace it. If I can get to a place were it starts to feel comforting, perhaps I'll stop obsessing about it.

Friday, 4 December 2015


It's been a bit of a frustrating day, if I'm honest. We were meant to be finishing off a draft of the script, but Nathan had a morning gig which over-ran catastrophically. When he got home there were admin emails to send, which took far too long to write, and so we only managed a couple of hours at the end of the day, and, as a result, missed a deadline for the first time on this project.

Add to this the somewhat unnecessary and aggressive ramblings of a woman who took offence to my Facebook post about women last night. It was actually fair enough. I'd chosen the wrong words to describe what I was looking for, but instead of politely telling me, she went in throwing muck about, telling my friends who were posting anecdotes that they ought to feel ashamed of themselves for saying how embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions could be. Worrying about showing your breasts in public is apparently reenforcing male attitudes. It probably is, but she was so aggressive and bullying that several of my friends who wanted to add something to the thread emailed me instead to say they were too frightened to post anything for fear of what she'd say! I think, when the conversation turned to the fact that women have it far worse in life than gay people, and that gay people only suffer abuse because they're perceived to be more feminine than men, I started to lose patience. When she started moaning that white men were the only "acceptable" face of the LGBT movement, I lost my rag. How dare she undermine the work of people like Peter Tatchell who was regularly beaten up for making a stand? Emmline Pankhurst's work was not undermined by the colour of her skin!

It has never been illegal for gay women to be gay and therefore gay women have historically been far more likely to attach themselves to the feminist agenda. Fact. I don't have a problem with this, I just feel it's important to note that gay men were right at the forefront of that particular fight and it wasn't until relatively recently that larger numbers of women started to fight as well.

The trouble with some "feminists" is that they don't seem to think that we all have to live on this planet together. Jumping down the throats of men like me who have never believed in anything but true equality is so far off the mark it's laughable. I only have about three male friends. All my friends are female. They always have been. She called me weird. She even inferred that, as a man, I shouldn't try to write about women. It was like she didn't realise she was saying all of this to a captive audience of my friends and seemed genuinely surprised when they started to defend me. I guess, in her world, women are supposed to gang up on men out of solidarity. It was a shame, because behind the bluster and the insults, she was actually saying some very sensible things. But she managed to alienate everyone.

I took myself to Brent Cross this morning to buy some shirts. Sometimes I look in a mirror and realise I've turned into a tramp, and the older I get, the less acceptable the boho chic look becomes! I've often found clothes shopping a bit of an unjustifiable waste of money, so when I'm finally forced to bite the bullet, I go a little crazy.

...And so I bought five shirts. The woman in the shop told me is was almost cheaper to buy the five in her special offer than it was to buy the three I wanted, so I panic-grabbed two more! I think she did me a favour. The five shirts only cost £100 and hopefully I can avoid buying more for another five years!

Anyway, all of this footle prevented me from doing more writing, which is bad because rehearsals for our show start in a month and we still have six songs to write. Then I have to orchestrate everything we've done. I'd also like to spend some time actually thinking about the numbers rather than throwing notes onto a page and hoping they'll stick.

In all of this, the search for useable melodies from the computer systems is the most painful process. I think those who have asked us to do this experiment sometimes forget that finding a tune which works as music is only the first stage in the journey. Next it has to have the right feel for the song we're writing. Then it has to fit the words. One of the major issues with musical theatre is that it thrives on pastiche. You don't just get up tempo numbers and ballads, sometimes you need a sleazy jazzy number, or a Disneyesque whistle chorus or a gospel number or a tango. And only certain melodies are versatile enough to have these different feels. So, if one out of every fifty computer melodies has promise musically, imagine how the odds shrink when all the other processes come in? I reckon we're actually only able to use one melody in every 100, which is insane.

Still, we continue with the insanity! It's a brilliant project. And there's genuine jeopardy in spades for the TV documentary!

Endless book

We've been working on the script of Beyond the Fence today. Dialogue is one of the parts of this process where there's been considerably less computer activity. Readers of this blog (particularly those who write for a living) will probably be relieved to hear that computers can't yet write dialogue. To my knowledge, there are no teams of academics focussing on that particular aspect of computational creativity.

An edict has come from above telling us that the show needs to be two hours long, so we're having to trim it a little bit. We've already cut a scene and an entire song, but I'm still wondering if the show's running a bit too long. It's difficult to gauge. If the cast crack on with their lines and don't get all indulgent with the text, then we'll probably be okay!

We went to the gym this evening. I've started a health and fitness regime. The ludicrousness of the last few months has turned me into a giant beach ball, so, to avoid a heart attack or being too fat to get out of my front door, I thought it might be time to take the bull by the horns. It's salad and soup for most meals and five kilometres a day on the treadmill.

There's little else to say other than that keen-eyed Facebook users will notice I've put a post up asking my female friends what the most horrifying and undignified things are that regularly happen to them. I'm wondering if I can use some kind of computer process to fling the thoughts together as part of one of the musical's lyrics! What I would say is that, after reading the comments people are leaving, I'm rather pleased not to be a woman. It strikes me they have an awful time: beyond misogyny and inequality, there's all sorts of oft-un-discussed physical nonsense from childbirth to seepage which most men would probably struggle to comprehend! And here was me thinking hairy backs and dodgy prostates were as bad as it gets!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Kentish Town

I had an astonishing dream last night. I'd submitted a score for a musical which the director told me he didn't like very much. He said the score didn't have enough ebb and flow and told me the only way I was going to become a better writer was by doing character building physical exercise. He made me run with the cast of the musical in a circle around a table. We were going so fast that centrifugal force sent me spinning off to the edge of the room. The cast then decided to wade in and give me some ill-conceived hints about song writing. At that point I lost my temper, "how on earth is running around a table going to help me as a writer? And why am I taking hints about composing from non-musicians?" To which the response came, "if you're resistant to ideas you'll never know..." I was then accused of being difficult. The sense of injustice woke me up!

The tubes were in a right old mess today. Someone had "gone under a train" on the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, and so, as I returned from my osteopath appointment this morning, there was a huge queue of people, who'd been thrown off the tube network, waiting for busses at Camden. The roads were gridlocked, so I sat for twenty minutes in a jam near the tasteless Jews for Jesus shop in lower Kentish Town before getting off the bus and walking. Everyone was flustered, tutting and miserable. Of course we always assume that the person who's gone under the train has committed suicide, so everyone thinks "how selfish" and continues to feel annoyed. But what if that person was pushed? Or stumbled? How awful to be one minute looking forward to getting home to put your feet up, or see a friend for a coffee, and the next being hit by a train. How long will your friend sit waiting for you in the cafe you've agreed to meet in? It's too miserable for words.

I've left the previous paragraph in. I wrote it as I was wandering up Kentish Town High Street before discovering that the gridlocked traffic had been caused by thirty or so emergency vehicles parked up outside Kentish Town tube.
Twitter was buzzing with the news that a man had been pushed under a train at the station, which made me feel a bit odd after writing the previous paragraph. I wasn't sure why quite so many emergency vehicles were there. Perhaps the multiple ambulances had been called for distraught passengers who might have seen something awful. But ten fire engines? I tweeted a picture of the emergency vehicles and was immediately contacted by two news teams asking if they could use it. The BBC ran my picture all day. I started to wonder whether something had happened that we weren't being told about...

The day ended with the news that we're now at war. I have a terrible feeling that we're going to end up bitterly regretting this decision. Civilians will be killed. More Muslims will be radicalised and I think we can expect a terrorist attack on our soil almost immediately. As a Londoner, that scares me enormously. Just seeing how a single person being pushed onto a train line can bring a city to a standstill, I can't image what would happen following a larger scale event. It makes me shudder. My further worry is that David Cameron will merely use the vote as a point-scoring exercise over Jeremy Corbyn and that the UK dropping a couple of bombs on Syria will actually prove to be insignificant in the quest to rid the world of these nonsensical fanatics. It is, as we've proven, easy to get into a war, but almost impossible to get out of one.

Is it possible to use computers to write a musical?

So, word is out: Nathan and I have been working, in secret, on a very special project for Sky Arts which asks a very interesting question: "Can computers write a stage musical?" Actually, more specifically, the question we're asking in the documentary is "how can computers aid and influence the creation of a stage musical?" The subtle difference is necessitated by the fact that there are still some things, like the writing of dialogue, which computers can't even pretend to do.

Nathan and I are over-seeing the entire project. We're writing what the computers can't write and curating and adapting the stuff that they can. The different processes we're utilising have been and are being developed by teams of top academics across the world. That's why we spent time in Madrid, Durham and Cambridge over the summer. Some of the processes are astonishing. Some are laced with bugs and issues. Our task is to stumble from one to another interrogating systems and finding out how they can be used to help our musical.

So far, we've had most success with computer systems which deal with ideation; the generation of creative ideas which aid people like me and Nathan. A computer is able to offer any number of curve-balls which can make a writer or composer think in an entirely different way. Years ago, for example, David Bowie invented computer programmes which generated pairs of random words which he used to inspire lyrics.

It's been quite a journey. I have learned much. I've been inspired. I've been blissfully happy. I've been frustrated. I've been incredibly stressed.

But will the musical be any good? Well, you'll have to see for yourself! It's on at the Arts Theatre from 22nd February... So go buy a ticket at:

I am proud to report that the show is set in an anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s. Believe it or not, this setting was selected by computer and I'm so pleased that the virtual Gods landed on that particular spot. I have long since been obsessed by what happened in those camps 35 years ago. Those women are my genuine heroes. They re-invented feminism and ultimately returned Greenham Common to the good folk of Newbury. And having spent a great deal of time in a CND commune in my early childhood, they're also women that I feel I know very well.

Readers will not be surprised to read that the day was spent writing. I've been working on a song called How Dare You, which has been inspired by a computer composition with the catchy name "Show Tune 1.74." The music comes in batches of up to 100 melodies, which we have to patiently sift through with our pianist Katharine. Some are awful beyond words. We howl with laughter. We wince. We get punch drunk and wish that we were deaf. And then once in a while a strange thing happens, our collective ears perk up and we get a little excited. A nip here, a little tuck there, a change of chord, and a driving accompaniment... and suddenly there's a number we can be proud of.

So there you have it. That's my secret and that's what I'll be doing till February! Do book yourself a ticket before the show sells out.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

When we were young

I've been listening to Adele's new album quite a lot this week, in particular a song called When We Were Young, which, for some reason, touches me in a way that few other pop songs have touched me recently. The lyric is incredibly moving and the whole package is imbued with a gentle theatricality which feels reminiscent of the 1970s. Maybe I'm romanticising because the '70s is when I was young, but there's definitely a timeless quality to the track which I find hugely alluring.

"Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realised we were sad of getting old. It made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song"

Beautiful, wistful lyrics...

Today started with a music session in our loft. It's probably a bit cold up there at this time of year to be receiving visitors but we had the little fan heater going whenever we weren't filming. Tomorrow our secret project goes to press, so I ought to be able to write more about what we've been up to all this time. You may be able to read all about it in the meantime in The Guardian. The session this morning was good, although Nathan, with he blepharitis looks increasingly like a boxer with a black eye and felt incredibly self-conscious in front of the cameras.

Our director made a cake - a glorious Nigella recipe. I think she's learned that I'm much less spiky when I've got a bit of food in me. I work with a camera man in Newcastle who's realised the same thing, and puts little chocolate treats in my monitor bag for when I'm getting hangry!

This evening we went to rehearse with the gorgeous Fleet Singers, who are missing a few basses for their Christmas concert on Saturday, so Nathan and I are stepping into the breach. If anyone is free on Saturday night and wants to come and hear (and sing) some jolly carols, the concert starts at 7pm and is at Gospel Oak Methodist Church on Agincourt Road, NW3.

We came home to watch the results of Strictly, and I was horrified to see the female professionals pouting, gyrating and doing slut drops to the song "Woman." It's a song I loathe passionately. The lyric, which goes back to the era where women got patronisingly applauded for saying they were housewives on quiz shows, is about how brilliant women are at multi-tasking; how they can wash socks and rear children whilst looking fabulous. It's a woefully old-fashioned song that is often performed by very boring singers who use it as an excuse for a vocal w**k off which is never quite as impressive as they think it is! When women get dressed up like dolly birds and go all coquettish and slutty whilst performing it, I feel excruciatingly embarrassed and sense the feminist cause being shunted back millions of years.

As Nathan puts it, "being a woman doesn't make you amazing. Being amazing (and a woman) makes you an amazing woman!"