Saturday, 16 December 2017

Claude-Michel

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 December 2017

Studio done

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Cold Kitchen

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Romford

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

Monday, 11 December 2017

Gridlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Old friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lovely, nostalgic evening.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Lucca by night

We drove up into the hills just above Lucca last night to a little Trattoria which was recommended by the guy that runs our B and B. It turns out that Monday and Tuesday nights are the quiet ones in Italy, and most of the places we wanted to visit were sadly closed. This one, he assured us, was always open! 

It’s quite scary travelling along the winding country lanes at night time, knowing there are deathly drops around every hairpin bend. Wildlife is also somewhat unpredictable in those parts, which is something we experienced when a deer rushed out in front of us, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill under our hire car wheels!

The Trattoria was very charming and very much a place frequented by locals. It’s commonplace for large groups of men to eat together in these parts. The Italians don’t have the same binge-drinking mentality as Brits, and, in fact, they don’t seem to drink without eating, so guys come out of work, head to the local Trattoria, sit in a back room around a giant table, drinking cheap plonk whilst eating plate-loads of food.

The restaurant is situated on a little bend in the road, by a fast-running stream, next to the crumbling arches of an ancient viaduct. The whole corner is invitingly lit-up like a Hopper painting. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the cured hams dangling from the roof, or the pig carcass stretched over the bar, but the food was fabulously rustic and they didn’t seem at all freaked out by my being vegetarian. I had a very hearty minestrone soup followed by a mushroom pasta dish and loved every mouthful to the extent that I used a piece of bread to mop up every last drop. No one in Italy makes a big deal about produce being locally sourced. Everything which is served is locally sourced. If you live by the sea, your local restaurants will be full of fish. If you live in the mountains, they’ll be more meat-heavy. No one really bothers to cook with ingredients which they can’t get on their doorstep. That’s just how things are. If you want honey, wine, olive oil, vinegar, cured ham, tomatoes, mushrooms, truffles, bread, lemons, even chocolate, you’ll be given the stuff which the locals grow or make. It’s just really honest like that. No one needs the gimmick of writing “farm fresh Cornish free range sausages served on a rustic bed of Northamptonshire cottage loaf.”

I was somewhat amused to note that the house plonk was served on tap, like beer in a British pub.

After dinner, we drove down the hill into a freezing cold Lucca to stroll around the icy streets and soak in the atmosphere of the place after dark on a cloudless full-mooned night. Perhaps it’s different in summer or at the weekend, but the place was eerily empty. We encountered the odd couple, wandering back to their hotels, enjoying the elegant Christmas lights twinkling blue and white over the pavements and the charmingly tacky seasonal displays in all of the shop windows. My favourite window featured disco lights dancing on the surface of a load of ceramic pots and vases! The juxtaposition was delicious! 

We discovered what appeared to be the only bar open within the city centre and I had a cup of tea... “con latte fredda.” You have to be so specific here about asking for cold milk, or you’re given a weird, sweet, hot, foamy nonsense, which tastes utterly rank with tea. There’s always a great deal of eyebrow raising to endure, which only stops when you announce that you’re English, and (in their eyes) eccentric to the extent that all bets are off.

On Monday Tammy told me about the Torre Guinigi, a tower in Lucca with an oak tree on its roof, which I’d somehow managed to miss on our visit at the weekend. It sounded too good to miss, so I found it on a map and we went for a gander. Obviously it was way too late to actually climb up there. I have a vague memory of possibly going up there twenty years ago when I last visited the city, but if I did, no clear pictures of it have lodged themselves in my mind.

It’s certainly rather impressive from below. The streets in Lucca are so narrow, and the houses, in the main, are so high, that you don’t really see it until you’re right underneath. It’s one of those medieval skyscrapers which the Tuscans built with great alacrity, and, at 44.5 metres tall, the fact that there’s a tree on the top seems all the more remarkable! Heaven knows how it manages to grow up there and whether its appearance was by design or the result of some kind of freak natural occurrence.

They light it very well. From below, it takes on the appearance of a tall, thin corn dolly with hair made of cress!

This morning was our last in Tuscany. Michael is actually rather interested in buying a property out here, so we went to a couple of viewings, both of which were rather stunning. It’s such a treat to be able to visit houses which are both beautiful and affordable. Even I could probably get a mortgage for the properties we were looking at. Both had large rooms, two bedrooms, and outdoor terrace space. One was built in the 1960s and was full of original features, which, ten years ago, I might have turned my nose up at, but now I think they’re deeply stylish. The other, which was too much of project, I suspect, actually made me cry. It was in the medieval main square and covered two floors. It was utterly ramshackle, with bits of rooms all over the place, but the views looked onto the cobbled market place and out onto the mountains behind.

The absolute piece de resistance was the Veronese roof terrace, which sat right on the top of the building. The terrace has a roof and walls but no glass in the large windows. That’s apparently the style. I have seldom felt so attached to a space. I imagined having breakfast up there every morning. Or writing music up there.

We drove back to the airport at Pisa (which one of the cabin staff on the way over pronounced as “pizza”). You can see the beautiful dome of the cathedral and the iconic leaning tower from the motorway. Today they were sort of looming out of the mist, which made them all the more impressive. You can also see them very clearly from the air as the plane takes off. The tower is so familiar that it actually starts to look like a sort of film set. You can’t quite believe that it’s actually there.

I arrived back in London during rush hour, wondering quite why it is that I call this city my home. I could literally feel the anxiety levels rising as people repeatedly crashed into me and the tube carriage filled up with more and more angry, sweaty people.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Torrente Pescia

There’s a mad Bengali man in our B and B with weird staring eyes. He cooks us breakfast in the morning and stands by the cooker whilst we eat it, making us feel deeply uncomfortable. He never smiles. I think he’s suspicious of my vegetarianism. Sometimes his face suddenly appears at a window or in a doorway. He watches us, almost as though he wants to kill us.

We opted for breakfast in Pescia this morning, which may have triggered some wrath from our Bengali friend who probably felt a little snubbed. I think we’re the only people staying here, so he may have stood by the cooker for a long time. We went to the cafe where they squeeze orange juice in front of you and sat on one of their communal tables eating croissants.

I worked for about an hour before we set off for a little walk along the river bank. The river is somewhat romantically called “Il Torrente Pescia” (the Torrent of Pescia) and it cuts a fine swathe through the middle of the town. Various bridges, some pedestrian-only, link the two halves of the town together. I’m told the area was badly bombed in the Second World War. One assumes that the paper factories along the river were a legitimate target, or maybe that they were converted for other, more sinister, uses during the war. Whatever the case, the charming town square in Pescia mercifully avoided being bombed, but the buildings by the river weren’t so lucky. Their replacements are lacking in old-worldly charm.

It’s obviously a river which goes nuts in the spring when the snow melts on the nearby mountains. There’s a large area of flood plain covered in scrubby grass and a few hardy-looking trees, and this is where we were walking. At one point a bird flew past which must have been some sort of kingfisher. It was almost entirely turquoise. Its feathers literally shimmered in the sun.

The “other” side of Pescia is a little more ramshackle, but all the more charming for it. Back from the river, the buildings are ancient. Inviting little roof terraces perch shambolically on the sides and tops of houses which look like they might fall down any moment. The idea of sitting with a cup of tea in the morning, staring out at the Apennines is a rather lovely one!

The sun was setting and winter mists were descending on the valley below us when we returned to the B and B, so we took ourselves for a walk through the olive groves and around the little streams which are all part of this estate. The colours around here are majestic. The trees have not yet shed their leaves so there are plenty of autumnal colours. Many are still bearing fruit as well. There are both orange and lemon trees outside the house where we’re staying, with piles of windfalls on the ground. The olive trees are a silvery sage colour which intensifies and darkens as the sun lowers in the sky.

And what a fine sunset we had. A bank of cloud was sitting on the mountains to the west of us, and, as the sun vanished behind it everything became rather murky and still. There was open sky below the cloud, however, so we knew there would be one last, glorious hurrah as the sun dropped towards the horizon. We could see an arc of orange light slowly moving towards us, glinting in the windows of the buildings of Luca, and then suddenly the sun was with us again, fiery orange and warming our faces. Smoke from chimneys in the mountains behind us was whisked into the thermals and corkscrewed its way up the mountain in white ribbons. And just like that, it was dark again. The sun, nothing but a memory for another twelve hours, off to wake someone else up in the world.


Monday, 4 December 2017

Firenze

We’ve been in Florence all day today. It’s my first trip here for at least twenty years and I remembered very little. We weren’t really sight seeing. I was here to see my oldest friend in the world, Tammy. We met at the age of eleven and were inseparable all the way through secondary school. Because the two of us were behind the organisation of every inter-form competition or initiative, our friendship was seen as so important to the well-being of our class that, on the one occasion that we did fall out, the form tutor locked us in a room together and refused to allow us out until we were friends again!

It was so lovely to see her. I don’t think she’s changed to look at in all the years I’ve known her. She’s a true example of someone who decided to go out there and get life, and, in the process, beat the Northamptonshire malaise into a cocked hat. I was very moved to hear her saying today that she’d bought her seven-year old daughter, Evie, a little print which shows a baby bird sitting in a tree with a mummy bird on the ground underneath. The baby is saying “but Mummy, what if I fall?” to which the mother responds, “but darling, what if you FLY?!” Tammy wants her daughter to know that she can achieve anything in life. Tammy herself grew up in a little semi-detached house in Northamptonshire and now lives with a Ferrari engineer in Italy with two bi-lingual children. That’s what happens when you’re not afraid to look beyond the visible horizon.

The Duomo in Florence is one of the wonders of the world. It’s cream walls glow yellow in the Tuscan sun and it’s covered in the most ornate red and green geometric carvings. Of course it’s the giant dome which rightly attracts the most attention. I think it was only recently that they even worked out how they’d made it. Something to do with a false wooden wall within. I think they may have pedestrianised the roads around the cathedral in recent years because my memory of it was as beautiful building almost strangled by the cars speeding past. Or perhaps that’s another false memory...

It was rather lovely to arrive there today to find two men up a cherry picker, dressing an enormous Christmas tree. The Italians apparently don’t really start “doing” Christmas until the 8th of December which is apparently when Mary the Muv got fiddled with by some kind of angel, and if this crazy myth prevents the shops in Italy from playing carols at Hallowe’en, I’m massively in favour of it! But a three week gestation period? Come on! What was Jesus? A rabbit?

On Tammy’s advice we crossed over the iconic Ponte Vecchio (that’s the one lined with jewellery shops which gets name-checked in O Mio Babbino Caro) and walked up to a park on the north side of the city where the views are staggering. Whilst you’re in Florence itself, it’s impossible to get a sense of quite how beautiful those terracotta-tiled roofs can look. But standing on a hillside, looking down, you instantly become aware of how breathtaking they are. Seeing Florence from that hillside makes me understand why my mother cried when she saw the city for the first time.

We crossed the river and went for lunch in a fancy little cafe where plastic tubing was hanging from the roof in the style of some sort of trendy installation, which actually felt like the sitting underneath a deconstructed church organ. I briefly wondered if I would survive one of the pipes falling onto my head, and, after deciding I would, allowed myself to enjoy the pasta/Greek salad combination that all three of us opted for.


After eating we went to a shop which specialised in glassware. I got a little carried away and bought all manner of little trinkets, mostly for Christmas presents. I’ve always been quite a fan of colourful Italian glass.

We stumbled upon a Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce where all three of us, in an uncontrolled frenzy, bought large quantities of wooden and glass tat including a Christmas bauble in the shape of a tiny house, a glass angel and a fridge magnet which looked like a bumble bee. Tammy bought three packets of cheddar cheese from an English stall and I bought a pastry thing which was so dry it soaked up every inch of saliva in my mouth!

...We laughed as well. Tammy told Michael how, whenever she’s with me, within seconds she feels like a teenaged girl again, and I realised that I do exactly the same. Tammy was always a wonderfully receptive audience for my naughtiness and we have always laughed and laughed and laughed together. And then laughed a little more.

We snaked our way back through the big square where the replica of Michaelangelo’s David sits alongside all sorts of over-dramatic statues of people clubbing each other to death and things. We possibly should have taken more interest in the details. Maybe a trip to the Uffizi would have been appropriate, but actually I wanted to go to Tiger to buy more tat, largely because Tammy had bought an advent candle from there which I coveted. Walking around Tiger is such a strange experience, not dissimilar to Ikea. Once you enter, your only option is to keep going, passing all the weird little objects you never knew you needed so much.

Our magical trip ended with freshly squeezed orange juice in the glorious train station, which, “rebuilt” in 1934, is a quintessential and beautiful example of 1930s functional architecture. The Brits, of course, would have stripped out all the original features and replaced them with plastic and chip board, but the Italians have left all the original signage intact which is all in that wonderfully brutalist font which makes the train station a phenomenal deco time capsule which I would urge anyone to go and see.

As we bade our fond farewells to Tammy, we realised that a massive murmuration of starlings was happening in the sky above the station. And what a glorious sight that is. Genuinely one of the greatest gifts that nature can give. The patterns those birds created in the air, ebbing and flowing like coal dust in a lava lamp was awe-inspiring, particularly against a setting sun.

It was rather wonderful to be walking around Florence on a Monday in early December. The city was about as empty as you could ever expect it to be, and because the sun was shining, it was next to perfect. I remember the hoards of tourists during my last visit and fighting to get across the Ponte Vecchio. Like Cambridge, it’s a small city which struggles not to drown under the weight of its visitors. A rather plaintive piece of graffiti (in Italian) read, “the city is being stolen from us by tourists.” As Michael says, the interesting thing about graffiti is seeing the stuff that doesn’t get removed. For many years a star of David hanging from a noose was scrawled on a wall in the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and, in the village down the road from our B and B here in Tuscany there are two giant swastikas. Why would villagers not have that removed? And it strikes me that this particular piece of graffiti has been left in Florence either because the authorities agree with the sentiment, or, because the sentiment itself is true, namely that the money generated by bus loads of tourists descending on the city isn’t filtering down to those who clean the streets.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

le dieci castella

I was awoken by the arhythmic sound of Sunday bells calling people across the region to mass. It was like a glorious piece of minimalism. Just as I thought I was on top of the rhythmic pattern the two bells were creating, it changed. Italian bells, of course, are randomly jangled, so I was never going to be able to predict what pattern was coming next, unlike, of course, the highly complex English bell ringing tradition, which you could argue was minimalism in its truest form.

We drove into the foothills outside Pescia to visit a couple of the fortified medieval villages which cling perilously to the mountains in these parts. They’re known as the “le dieci castella” on account of there being ten of them. We parked up just outside Pietra Buona and followed an ancient, extremely steep track up the hill towards Medicina. The immediate thing which struck us both was the silence. You simply cannot hear the sound of either traffic or planes. It’s actually exactly a year since I walked the river Nene, and one of the things that struck, and disappointed, me about that walk was the fact that, even on the fens, I was always accompanied by the distant roar of traffic. In this part of Tuscany, you can’t hear any of those mechanical noises. You hear bird song, the rustle of trees and the odd barking dog from somewhere across the valley, but that’s about it. Sound really does travel in these mountain communities to the extent that I suddenly understood why yodelling and Alpen horns were used to communicate back in the day. When bells ring in another one of the villages, you hear magical harmonics echoing all around you. Like a sort of otherworldly drone. The singing of the spheres. 

As we wound our way ever further up the hill, we started to notice giant birds of prey riding the thermals beneath us. It was all rather Mrs Tiggywinkle!

The footpath was a little eerie in places. Periodically we’d stumble across a disused hut or bothy and there were gun cartridges scattered everywhere. This is plainly a place where the locals like to hunt.

Medicina is tiny and somewhat creepy. It’s apparently where ill people in the area were traditionally brought, which, one assumes, means it’s seen more than its fair share of death. It full of twisting walk ways and tunnels barely tall enough to stand in. Great protection, one assumes, from both the angry summer sun, and marauding invaders. It’s delightfully downtrodden and has all the trimmings of being a “local place for local people.” The village smells strongly of wood smoke.

We sat on a wall for half an hour eating crisps and drinking water whilst a terribly friendly and ludicrously fluffy cat wriggled around our ankles.

We followed the official road back down the hill and were passed by a father-son duo riding a miniature petrol-powered truck who were off to pick olives. It seems a little late in the year to be doing that kind of work, but perhaps there’s a type of olive which is better after the first frost. I know there are grapes like that, and, I vaguely recall, a certain type of apple...

On the way down the hill we also saw a burned out car in an entirely burned out car port right next to someone’s house. There’s plainly a story there, but it’s one we can only guess at. 

We drove back into Pescia, in the hope that we’d be able to find a cafe for a spot of lunch. It was a bit of a fool’s errand on a Sunday in Italy, but we managed to find a rather charming little spot where a woman was sitting behind the counter crocheting bags out of thick, string-like yarn. I ordered a doughnut which was delicious. It turns out she’d made it herself. I was glad I told her how much I’d enjoyed it.

We then drove up to another one of the dieci castella. This one is called Vellano, and it is the largest of the siblings. It’s also a great deal more picturesque. The views from up there are astounding. Look due east and you’ll be treated to a series of entirely snow-covered mountains which looked almost superimposed against the powder blue sky. Chilling winds whistle through the town’s snickleways and there’s an intoxicating smell of sweet, sweet woodsmoke up there.

We drove further up the mountain, astonished by the car’s thermometer which plummeted from 14 degrees to 2 during a ten minute upward climb.

We ended up in Gorailo, which isn’t one of the hill towns. It’s not really a town. It’s merely a series of houses sitting on a very high ridge from where you can see as far as Florence and all the way to the sea, which was glowing bright orange in the setting sun. There was also snow on the ground up there, which felt a little exciting. It was too cold to hang around for long however, so we travelled back down to Vellano from where we watched the orange sun sinking beneath a mauve mountain.

The air in these parts is so fresh and clear. It makes me realise how dangerously polluted London is.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Gales

It’s about 4.30pm, the light is fading and a mega gale is whipping up around the house we’re staying in. There’s a roar of sound coming from outside, trees are being buffeted left, right and centre, and, inside, things are creaking and groaning in a somewhat spooky manner. It’s a good night to be inside writing, wrapped up warm, with a nice cup of tea! The lights are coming on one by one across Lucca below us. It’s cozy, but this definitely has all the makings of a horror movie. To make matters worse, the paintings in this old house have eyes which follow you as you walk up and down stairs. One in particular, a woman with a long, Art Deco body covered in 1920s jewellery, has the wide-eyed grin of a lunatic!

We’ve been in Lucca all day, a rather fine medieval walled city, which I last visited with Stephen Twigg back in 1998. It turns out that my memories of the place were largely false. We were here during a massive holy festival and I remember standing in an enormous square watching an effigy of the Virgin Mary being carried proudly through the streets. We didn’t pass a single place which fitted any of the places I remember to the extent that I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m superimposing memories of Seville from a similar time!

We used our phone’s Sat Nav to get us there. The voice has obviously only been programmed to recognise English road names, so there were some hysterical mis-pronunciations of Italian street names, all executed in a plummy English accent. I particularly enjoyed her “Via Stradone Di Camigliano” with “via” as in “viaduct” and “Di” as in “Princess”! Via Lucchese gets announced as Vya Loo-cheese!

Within its city walls, Luca is largely pedestrianised. It’s not a city which possesses the staggering beauty of somewhere like Florence, but the lack of cars makes the winding, twisting lanes very pleasurable to get lost within. We wandered around the shops and stood at the bar in a cafe drinking coffee and tea. It’s considerably cheaper to stand with your coffee, I’m told, than it is to sit down with it. You learn something new every day!
...

We went into Pescia for a bite to eat this evening by which point the gales had died down. This is an intensely rural spot and there are very few main roads. On our way back, we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a pylon brought down by the winds. The fire brigade were there and the electricity wires were duly lifted off the road and propped up on a makeshift structure. We were held up for about half an hour. It’s just as well they managed to get the road flowing again as there wouldn’t have been any other way through for us and we’d have been sleeping in the car!

Lucca

I am in a grand, ancient, haunted house on a hill on the outskirts of Lucca in Italy. I have come here to write with Michael who knows the area well and suggested this crazy B and B. The ceiling is incredibly high. The floors are made of hexagonal polished tiles. The sitting room has an enormous window in it. It’s dark outside but I can see for miles across the valley towards the Appenine Mountains. The lights of the city are twinkling like sequins on Strictly!

The day started in the Aspire Lounge at Heathrow, which is the fancy British Airways hang out for people, like Michael, who are frequent fliers. It has free food. He could take a guest in with him. Why not?

It’s full of ghastly people. Of course it is. Anything which calls itself the “aspire” lounge is likely to attract people who consider themselves a cut above the rest. There were people in there drinking champagne at 9am, which felt embarrassingly ostentatious.

The plane journey wasn’t as hideous as these things often can be. I hate flying but have managed to get the abject terror I used to feel for 90% of my time in the air down to a thumping heart and sweaty palms for the first five minutes until the fasten seatbelt lights come off.

These days you don’t get anything more with BA than you do with the budget airlines. You have to pay for food and drink and it costs extra to put a bag in the hold, so everyone flies with an enormous quantity of “hand luggage” which spills out of the overhead lockers. One bloke had a suitcase and two large suit holders which he scattered liberally in overhead space around his seat. He got very angry and sarcastic with me when I crammed my case alongside his precious suit bag and tried to pick a fight until I made it abundantly clear I didn’t give a stuff!

We touched down in Pisa an hour later than expected, having sat on the runway in Heathrow for an age. It’s cold here but crisp and light, and the sun, low in the sky, had turned everything the colour of straw.

Tuscany is a very different place in the winter. It’s very green, completely unlike the tinder-dry, yellowy-brown, sunflower-filled landscapes you get here during the high summer.

This part of the region is heavily associated with the story of Pinocchio, whose writer was brought up in a small village around the corner from where we are. There are wooden statues of the character all over the place.

As the light faded, we stopped in a cafe in a charming market town called Pescia which smells of woodsmoke and is filled with the sound of bells chiming. I have respect for very few religions, but have always been rather grateful to Catholics for their tendency to jangle bells in ancient hillside towns! The Main Street looked incredibly Christmassy, with delicate white lights hovering over the road.

The cafe was filled to the brim with delicious-looking pastries and meringues. Michael had a sort of yum-yum stuffed with candied fruit and I opted for a biscuit coated in lustrous dark chocolate. We drank freshly squeezed orange juice which the man behind the counter prepared in front of us. The juice was deliciously tart. 

A little old lady was proudly hanging her paintings on the wall of the cafe. She explained that she had an exhibition of work the following week in the market place.

We drove through the winding roads in the foothills around Lucca to a spectacular restaurant where we gorged on delicious rustic pastas, salads, a local bean dish and roasted potatoes, all for an outrageously low cost. This part of the world doesn’t have the glamour of some of the other parts of Tuscany, which means it feels more real somehow. The towns and villages are a little more down-at-heel perhaps but that only adds to their charm. There are a lot of ruined and derelict buildings clinging to the river which runs through the valley. The fast-moving water made this area famous for the production of paper and, even now, you’ll be driving along a pitch black road, and suddenly see the bright lights and tall clouds of steam associated with a paper factory.

I slept like the dead last night and woke up this morning to discover the most stunning view from my bedroom window. I can literally see for miles across the whole of Lucca, which is a place I’m very much hoping to explore today.

Of course the joy is tinged with sadness. Being part of the EU brings this paradise to the finger tips of all Brits. A two hour plane journey and you’re in this magical little spot. Of course, regardless of what happens with Brexit, we’ll always only be a two hour flight away, but we will lose the right to call it part of our own community. Yet again, I find myself in mainland Europe filled with bitterness towards the people who have taken this utopia away from us.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos

I’ve just received a notification that prize prannie, Milo Yiannopoulos, has, for reasons I don’t understand, been invited to talk to the Australian Parliament next week, no doubt so that he can attempt to railroad the proposed legislation on same sex marriage. Those who know me well will know that Nathan and I were thrown into a debate with this prime piece of cock on the Channel 4 News around the time of our wedding. Yiannopoulos, who is gay, can always be relied on to say something utterly contentious, usually to draw attention to himself. He is a desperate and tragic self-publicist. It also became abundantly clear when we met him that he was possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, so picking a fight with him felt unnecessary: a little bit like bullying the kid wearing NHS spectacles in school.

In recent years his bigotry has increased and his tone has become more vicious and violent as his acolytes increase. He describes trans people as being mentally ill, and has been banned from Twitter for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." He is a die-hard supporter of Trump and has aligned himself with white supremacists in the US.

I don’t think he believes half of what he says. I think the detritus tumbles out of his mouth like a sewerage outlet, but instead of having the decency to apologise, he tries to justify what he’s said. Intelligent people laugh at him. Stupid bigots think of him as an important voice of reason. The fact that he’s a self-hating gay man who is opposed to gay marriage makes him delicious for the media. He can say all the vile homophobic nonsense that no one else dares to say but many still think. Half way through the debate with us, he said how much more fun it had been when being gay was considered dirty and sordid.

This man doesn’t have the right to talk to the Australian Parliament. I believe wholeheartedly in free speech but Milo Yiannopoulos is, in my view, a hate preacher and that is a very different kettle of fish. Shut him up Australia, and send him home.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Somerstown

Another day, another quiz. Yesterday’s was in the City and tonight’s was in Kings Cross in that curious district called Somerstown which runs for a few blocks north of the major railway terminuses. It’s traditionally quite a Bengali area and it’s extremely deprived: a stark contrast to the opulence of the British Library and the newly renovated St Pancras, which surely has to be one of the world’s most stunning railway stations.

I once worked in a primary school situated in the concrete jungle of Somerstown. It was a charming little school and I used to go in and teach music whenever there was a tiny bit of extra budget which wasn’t being spent on classroom assistants with the languages required to teach a revolving door of newly arrived immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. It was often heartbreaking work. One little lass took a huge shine to me and used to want to come and sit on the piano stool with me. She was a wonderfully musical child and actually had perfect pitch. The great sadness was that she’d been born with no eyes, so was obviously blind. Music wasn’t really encouraged at home. It’s often not in Muslim families. Staff told me that she would regularly attach herself to anyone who came into the school to talk about music. It seemed very sad to me that she wasn’t able to have regular lessons. Music could probably have offered her a way out of her predicament or certainly an opportunity to feel more of a sense of self esteem. I always thinks about that girl when I’m in the area. She’ll probably be about twenty now. I wonder how she turned out.

Anyway, after setting up the quiz in Somerstown tonight, I went off to write in a cafe in St Pancras station. I found a lovely quiet spot in what used to be the old lost-and-property office and had a cup of tea and an orange juice. A couple of women sat next to me and talked for two hours solidly about mental health. They talked about cycles, breakdowns, trigger points and “fear of representation” whatever psycho-babble that is. One of them said she’d banned herself from reading her self help books, because she’s “well now.” She said she’d put them all in a box so she knows they’re there if she needs them. Which she doesn’t. But she might. They talked in very studied calm voices but it was very clear there was a franticness right underneath the surface, dying to explode. What made me very uncomfortable was the fact that both of them were blaming their mothers for their mental health problems. One of them said it was a very important moment when her mother had finally apologised to her, which made me feel incredibly sorry for her mum.

Look, I know that lots of people have terrible childhoods but I’m just not sure it’s particularly useful to look to blame everyone but yourself for the way you behave. Part of the process of becoming an adult is learning to take responsibility for your actions. Yes there are exceptions and yes I am aware that I had a golden childhood presided over by the two of the best parents I’ve ever come across, but, by and large, most parents are simply doing their best under incredibly difficult circumstances. Bringing up kids is difficult. End of. And parents make huge numbers of sacrifices which it seems really unfair to throw back in their faces because we now have trendy terms for all the errors they made. Just be grateful they didn’t kill you and be thankful for everything they got right.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Football pundit

There was a bloke on the tube this morning. He was probably 60 years old. He had bad teeth but he was rather cool looking with a shock of grey hair in a fashionable cut. He was wearing headphones and reading a magazine about music. It instantly became clear that he was fairly high on (probably) ecstasy. He was having a lovely time singing along to the music he was listening to, periodically shouting words of encouragement to the people in his ears. He was bordering on threatening and I was quite worried when a father with a young daughter got onto the tube and unwittingly sat next to him. The man decided to start talking to the young girl. She can only have been about two and had no idea what he was saying, but he was talking to her as though she were an adult, almost like she was another bloke down the pub. He drew her attention to his magazine and pointed at a picture, “he’s a ladies’ man, him. A real ladies’ man.” Then he asked her what she’d thought of the match. The sight of a sixty-year old man asking a two-year old girl whether she’d enjoyed the footie was too much for the rest of the carriage, who had one of those rare and rather lovely London moments when everyone started smiling and making eye contact. When the girl failed to proffer a suitable answer to his question, he retreated back into his headphones, stood up and gave a very excited match commentary as though he were a pundit on a football show: “he shoots! He scores! And it’s 3-2 to Tottenham. The crowd are on their feet...”

Only in London! 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Quiz factor

I appear to be doing an endless round of quizzes at the moment. Quiz season is definitely upon us. Lots of companies are doing their annual Christmas parties and, often at the last minute, will decide they need a bit of entertainment, probably in an attempt to prevent the full scale, squalid carnage usually associated with these occasions!

Seasonal quizzes can be a lot of fun, but also quite draining because they aren’t for everyone, and, if they’re made compulsory for the employees of a company, many will disengage and fill their brains instead with the notion of free booze!

There’s a very curious phenomenon which happens during a quiz. The quiz master always needs to kick things off by listing the rules and regulations. Chose a team name. Make sure it’s written at the top of every piece of paper. No cheating etc. But whilst this takes place, a roar of excited chatter is simultaneously happening within the room, which makes you almost certain that absolutely no one is listening to a word you’re saying. The moment you say “okay, let’s start with question number one...” complete silence descends in the room. It’s extraordinary.

I always refuse to shh people. People will quieten down when they need to. One of the most awful sounds in the world is someone shushing people into a microphone. It’s a horrible, grating noise even when it’s not being done into a mic. I think people actually make the noise without realising they’re doing it. It’s even worse when someone else does it on your behalf when you’re talking. It feels very patronising; like they’re suggesting you can’t control your own crowd.

The brilliant company I work for, QuizQuizQuiz, really know their craft when it comes to quizzing and, over the years, have put a great deal of work into figuring out what makes a quiz go smoothly. At the end of every quiz we’re asked to give feedback about questions which have gone down well or particularly badly, and all questions are verified and painstakingly researched by the same team who write the questions for Only Connect. A question which no one in the room gets right is considered a bad question, and the majority of teams are expected to get between 60 and 80% of answers correct. If this doesn’t happen, a quiz master has incorrectly identified the demographic of those taking part. Rounds are encouraged to be as broad as possible and are usually themed with a gimmick rather than being specifically about geography, history or food and drink. There is nothing more demoralising or frustrating than being thrown an entire round of questions which you know, before they’re asked, you’ll have no hope of answering. I attended a quiz once where the music round was exclusively about Rat Pack singers. If you don’t like that kind of music, you might as well go for a walk around the block. The round on motor racing at the last quiz I attended was an all-time low.

I went to Brother Edward’s house tonight for the first time in way too long. We watched Strictly and X Factor whilst eating the most delicious Mexican fritters. They have a name which I seem incapable of remembering. Sascha made them specially after reading that we’d eaten them as street food whilst in America on our road trip. I continue to adore Debbie McGee on Strictly and continue to wonder what on earth has gone so badly wrong with the X Factor. It seems to have become a curious cliché-ridden parody of itself. I have no idea why they thought it was a good idea to have just five weeks of live shows. It strikes me that a show instantly falls apart when its producers continually try to update it. Bake Off and Strictly have proved that audiences respond best to a show which doesn’t evolve! There is something deeply comforting about familiarity.

Friday, 24 November 2017

European Capital of Culture

The news yesterday was buzzing with the story that five UK cities: Belfast, Milton Keynes, Leeds, Nottingham and, I think, Perth, had been banned from applying to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. There are, we’re told, a number of strict criteria concerning which countries are allowed to apply, none of which a post-Brexit UK would fulfil. Of course the slant of the story was that this was another example of European cattiness and bureaucracy. How dare those bastards take this wonderful gift away from people who have spent time and money preparing their pitches?

Of course, I have a huge amount of sympathy for the teams who have worked on these, now pointless, bids, but I wholeheartedly support whichever European body has made the decision to pull British cities out of the running. We voted for Brexit. We’re constantly told that it was the will of the people, and wills, even those based on nebulous whims, have consequences.

There’s a fabulous arrogance in the UK which is fanned by the notion that we’re so important we can leave the EU, dump everything that’s crap about it and reimport all the good bits. We call the shots because we’re British. And great. It’s this same sense of entitlement and hubris which probably means that many Brexiteers still think they’ll be able to retire to Benidorm if they fancy it.

And don’t we hate it when the rest of Europe calls us out on it? A woman on the radio went on and on about the cruelty of the people who decided to pull the plug on our bid for Capital of Culture status. She regaled listeners with facts about the massive investment opportunities which were generated by Liverpool winning the title in 2008. And she was right. It’s a wonderful gift for a city and, my love for Leeds aside, the combined Belfast/Derry bid could have proved really important for the future of Northern Ireland, but we no longer have a right to expect to gain from these European initiatives. It’s like divorcing someone and still expecting to have sex when you feel like it. We made it very clear that we wanted to go alone, so now we have to face up to this fact and stop expecting everything to be brilliant. The economy is in tatters, we’re facing a second decade of financial catastrophe. Before we entered the EU we were known as the poor man of Europe. And we’re heading back there. Brilliant.

And whilst I’m talking about the news, I watched with horror the stories about terrorist atrocities in Egypt today. But I was suddenly struck by how much the reporting of news has changed. I want my news to be factual, not floral. I’m not interested in a journalist trying to use words to paint a picture of how awful a catastrophic bomb must have been for those involved. Let those people involved tell me or simply tell me the facts and I will paint my own picture. The phrase which really leapt out at me was the reporter saying, “they came here to kneel in prayer but instead they laid down in death.” Sentimental. Mawkish. Badly written. Just tell me the facts.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Noisy piano

There was a very odd light in the sky as I walked to Julian’s studio yesterday morning. It was mild, but very windy. Light grey clouds were skimming at high speed across an apricot sun. The walk along Parkland Walk was delightful. The tops of the trees were rattling and swaying quite dramatically but everything at ground level was incredibly calm and still. There were scores of autumn leaves on the ground. There hasn’t yet been enough rain to turn them all to slippery mulch, so, instead they dance in circles, joyfully skimming across the roads and pavements.

We spent the day putting final touches to the mixes on the Em album, and I think we’re within half a day of completion. It’s funny how a tiny little tweak here and there, half a decibel of extra volume or a minuscule reposition of a rhythm can bring something into bright colour. The only issue I’ve had fairly repeatedly is a somewhat noisy piano pedal, which is responsible for a number of clinks, clonks and groans throughout the album. I suspect they’re the sort of real sounds which I’ll grow to love. It is, after all, these subtle noises which prove we’re using live musicians, who breathe and shuffle and feel emotions which they express and generate using parts of their bodies!


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Crowd surge

I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus! We’ve just done a quiz in a school which featured some of the biggest crowd surges I’ve ever witnessed! Note to self: run for the hills if anyone tells a group of children that the prizes for winning are a) boxes of chocolate and b) at the front of the room (where your computer and a shed load of expensive equipment are between you and them!) A stampede will almost certainly occur which will involve an almost bewildering number of 13 year olds, all of whom will tell you they were on the winning team! The capacity young people have to think adults were born yesterday knows no bounds.

I have rarely been handed such a random set of answer sheets in such a collectively awful state of repair. Several young people arrived holding pieces of paper by the corners which were literally dripping with sticky fizzy pop, covered in great blobs of pizza oil and smeared in chocolate. At least I hope it was chocolate...

Sometimes, when running a quiz, you have to understand your function. In this instance, we were definitely there to facilitate the youngsters having a good time. Many simply wanted to eat crisps and Haribo sweeties, flirt and chat. The quiz for them was just background noise. Some of them wanted to quiz, however, and those who did, on the whole, did very well. One team, right in front of me, took everything incredibly seriously and eventually won, which was gratifying. The team which wrote “I’ve just peed my pants” for every answer in the last round, I’m pleased to say, lost!

I’m back to writing Nene again. The version of the composition which is being performed in Peterborough and Northampton in early 2018 is twice the length. It feels like an old friend, but it’s a little difficult to crack into. The piece rattles through scores of different keys, and inserting sections is proving to be a little tricky from a technical perspective. I’ll get there.


Monday, 20 November 2017

hitting the ground

I need to stop! I was forced to hit the ground running today, admin and a lengthy Skype call in the morning followed by an afternoon of preparation for a quiz I was working on in the city tonight. I feel I’ve done nothing but race around. To make matters worse, I keep thumping my damaged elbows on things. It’s amazing how often we bash our elbows without really noticing. I’m pretty sure that the accident last Tuesday hasn’t done any lasting damage, but the bruising is spectacular. I’m not sure I’ve had anything this impressive since I was run over by a car at the age of 10. I’d just come out of a fair, and was holding a goldfish in a bag. I’ve no idea what subsequently happened to the goldfish. I’m sure it got royally flattened by the next passing car. I still have a little scar on the back of my leg from the incident. I remember flying through the air in slow motion and Brother Edward, who witnessed the event, being very upset. I also remember how embarrassed I felt because I knew it was my fault and didn’t want the teachers at school to know what I’d done because thought they’d be disappointed in me. I also remember sleeping in the television room that night. Quite why I was set up with a zed bed in that room, I’m not sure. Perhaps I couldn’t climb the stairs.

The quiz went well. As quiz master I was also asked to auction off a football boot signed by someone called Zlatan Ibrahimović. It’s difficult to think of anyone less well equipped to auction off a football boot than me. I know nothing about football. I didn’t even know how to pronounce his name, and, after Googling him didn’t feel particularly drawn to the man. He’s apparently had his first name trademarked, talks about himself in the third person and seems to have a penchant for violence. Not cool. No one in the room seemed that bothered about buying his boot either. It was like getting blood out of a stone. The point about charity auctions is that they should never be about trying to get a bargain. They should always be about giving money and getting something nice in return... I was hugely grateful to the guy who bought it in the the end who plainly understood this fact. I don’t think he wanted the boot but he plainly wanted to donate something to the wonderful hospice we were raising funds for. One very brave woman stood up and talked about the death of her son in a heartbreakingly honest speech. It was very difficult to stand up afterwards and get everyone excited about quizzing! I just wanted to go home and have a little cry.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Filming the hills

It’s 9pm. 12 hours ago I arrived in Coventry to film two promotional videos for our Em album. I have spent the day with cameraman Keith, Abbie (who was today’s assistant director) and Ben Mabberley, who was acting in the first of the two films we shot.

The day started at the old Coventry Evening Telegraph building opposite the iconic Belgrade Theatre, where both of my parents were young stagers.

The guy in charge of the CET is a live wire called Alan, who has set himself the mission of getting the powers that be in Cov to understand the architectural significance of their city. Coventry is unique as a result of the high number of top quality 1950s buildings which still exist in the city. Obviously this was a result of the city being literally flattened in the blitz of November 14th, 1940, but until recently the beauty of this particular style of architecture was very easy to overlook, largely because it’s often been papered over with inappropriate cladding, wrong-coloured paint jobs, and signage which doesn’t suit the clean-ness of the lines. Strip all of this nonsense away, as Alan has at CET, and you’re left with dignified and classic design statements. Coventry, in short, is a potential tourism gold mine.

Filming was slow this morning. There was a huge amount of set dressing to do to make every corner pop with 1960s authenticity. We spent a lot of time laughing as well. Ben broke the teapot mid shot, which, for some reason was more hysterical than worrying, and then I got the nozzle stuck on my little haze-creating aerosol can. We were in the middle of a take, and all Ben, Abbie and Keith could see was me running up and down the corridor followed by enormous plumes of smoke. I think at one stage I was trying to hit the can against a door frame to make it stop omitting haze. Everything ground to a halt as we all dissolved into fits of giggles. It was some time before we regained our collective composure!

Time ticked by rapidly, and we broke for lunch forty minutes later than we should have, which meant a mad dash to the next location via a smash-and-grab in a roadside M and S for sandwiches.

The afternoon was spent in the glorious Burton Dassett Hills which truly are a jewel in Warwickshire’s already rather spectacular crown. It’s such a wonderful place to walk, and be. Whilst we were filming, I watched a woman sitting on a bench, facing a wonderful view, drinking tea from a thermos whilst reading The Guardian.

It was Ruby Ablett’s turn to be filmed, singing the song, Warwickshire, which is my ode to a county which holds an incredibly special place in my heart.

I hired an ancient Morris Minor for the shoot and Ruby sat in the front seat and performed the song exquisitely as the winter sun melted into a glorious sunset formed from banks of lavender, lemon and tangerine.

There were giggles galore this afternoon as well. Ben, Abbie and Ruby froze almost solid to the extent that their hands stopped functioning! I doubt I shall ever forget the sight of Ben and me with two cans of fake snow coating Keith and his camera in a thick layer of foam! He looked like the Stay-Puft Marsh Mallow Man!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Echolalia

I was in a bit of a panic through most of yesterday. I was singing at Shul this morning but I hadn’t really had the chance to look through the music or practice as much as I would have liked. It’s actually really very lovely to flex my bassy singing muscles again. I can feel my voice responding really well to being given a regular work out. As it happened, everything went very well and I needn’t have worried. I still stumble over the odd Hebrew word, but everything else was pretty much spot on. 

Yesterday was spent rushing about buying and making props and then working on a quiz where all three of our computers simultaneously crashed. Through extremely quick thinking and a whole heap of team work, we narrowly avoided the entire evening grinding to a halt, but I walked away feeling like I’d been hit by a bus as the adrenaline spike slowly seeped out of my body. It’s funny how no catastrophe can ever be attributed to a single event. During last night’s quiz, Sara, who was inputting scores, ran out of battery on her laptop but realised with horror that she’d forgotten her charger. Abbie then handed her a flash drive so we could quickly save the scoreboard and transfer it to my Mac, but it was corrupt. It wouldn’t open on my computer, it destroyed the original document on Sara’s computer and then caused Quiz Master Abbie’s computer to completely crash, which meant she had to make up questions on the fly whilst Sara and I desperately tried to remedy the scoring situation. We got there...

I traveled home on a late night bus from Dulwich to the tube at Brixton. I hate the south of London. I don’t understand it at all. It seems to be a network of wide, house-lined streets with no discernible village centres. Those who know me well will know that I suffer from a condition called echolalia, which is similar to Tourette’s and involves me randomly mimicking phrases I hear which surprise me in the way that they’re delivered. It maybe occurs once a week, and it tends to happen with shop keepers and waitresses, particularly people with very high speaking voices or Eastern European accents. Anyway, I subjected Abbie to priceless example of my infliction on the bus last night as some poor girl got off and thanked the driver. I was mortified.

The tubes at midnight on Friday are always full of eccentric revellers. A massive number of people, perhaps as many as a hundred, were singing and dancing along with a busker performing Aretha Franklin’s Freedom.

The funniest sight I witnessed was an extremely depressed-looking woman, folded up in her seat like an old jumper, wearing a hat made out of a balloon flower. A tragic juxtaposition!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Anchovy hell

Camden Town is a horrible place these days. It’s jam-packed with thousands of tourists who seem to have no purpose in life other than to get in the way! I found myself repeatedly careering into the backs of people stopping dead in the middle of the pavement simply to take a picture. The amount of times I look into someone’s view finder and want to say “that is an awful picture which you’ll probably never look at again. Anyone you show it to will be bored and wonder why you took it.”

Photography has become so disposable.

I also had to negotiate school trips whose teachers seemed obsessed with the safety of the children over and above the safety of themselves. They were stepping out into the traffic left, right and centre seemingly just to keep the children on the pavement!

I was at Camden Market to buy some props for Sunday’s shoot. I left feeling really disappointed. It used to be really cool. You could go there, rummage about in rails of vintage clothing and racks of Bric-a-Brac but these days it’s all tat. And expensive tat at that! It’s been swallowed up by its own success. Just like Soho. And Shoreditch. And all that’s now left is a little husk of nothingness.

I went to see a really wonderful Hungarian film at the Jewish film festival last night. It’s called 1945, and it’s exquisitely shot in black and white. It’s not a film to watch if you like your films fast-paced, but I found myself utterly entranced by its fleetingness. It was like a long dream. A series of trance-like impressions of a bygone simple world. The piece is set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two in a tiny rural village in Hungary. Properties in the village which had belonged to Jewish people before the war had been “officially” handed over to non-Jewish people and there was a strong sense that the villagers didn’t want the Jewish people back. This is a village filled with guilty secrets and corruption which some are almost desperate to hide. When two Jewish people turn up, the entire place combusts. Is this the much-feared homecoming? Are the Jewish people here to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs?

We ate at the Groucho Club afterwards and, as usual, bumped into Philip Sallon. He must live there. As we sat down, the waiter plonked a bowl of olives on the table which looked very inviting. I ate one. It tasted rank. When the waiter returned, I asked if the olives were stuffed with anything. “Yes” he said, “anchovies.” I instantly felt sick. I’m not altogether sure in which world it’s appropriate to add fish by stealth to a product which gets plonked on a table without anyone saying “these are stuffed with something a vegetarian can’t eat and probably won’t be aware of the taste of.” Yeah yeah, really funny. A veggie ate fish. And no, I won’t die. But I have been a vegetarian for 35 years, it’s an important part of my identity and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to shove something on a communal table which doesn’t look like flesh, but is.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Roller coaster

Life is a funny old roller coaster. This evening I worked on a quiz. I don’t need to say where it was or who was doing it, but I will say that it’s vitally important to treat everyone you have dealings with in life with respect and courtesy. People can be heartbreakingly dismissive. As an indication of what we were putting up with today, I’ll give just one example. One of my colleagues went up to a table to collect their answer sheet and said “can I collect your answers please?” The man she spoke to said “no, but you can go and get me a slice of cake.”

Charming.

I spent the day in Soho. We were pitching this morning for BEAM, a wonderful festival for new musical theatre which happens every two years. It’s quite an intimidating process. Llio, Laura and I sat in the bar at the Soho Theatre drinking tea and waiting to be called. Llio made me laugh. “I want to sing this song really well for you” she said, before chowing down on a bar of chocolate, which is considered to be one of the worst things a singer can do before singing! We laughed like drains. Our moment finally came, and we were greeted by the lovely Rosie Archer, who, these days, works for the company who organise the festival. It must have been a little surreal for her. We were pitching to do a performance of Em, and Rosie recently sang on the recording.

She led us down a dark staircase into the studio theatre in the basement of the complex, opened a door and ushered us in. We were greeted by a panel of six people, all sitting at a table, beautifully lit and looking rather terrifying.

We were introduced to the panel one by one. A million things were floating through my head regarding practicalities. Where was I going to plug in my iPod? Were there mics for the singers? Where would I stand? I was too busy panicking to actually listen to the introductions. They went in one ear and out of the other, but I gathered that they were all incredibly influential people.

Laura and Llio couldn’t have performed the songs any better. They acted their socks off and sang like true divas. I felt incredibly proud and grateful. It struck me that we couldn’t have done any better, and, actually, you only ever want to leave a pitch feeling that way.

Llio and I sat outside a cafe on Old Compton Street afterwards. It all felt rather Parisian and bohemian. We then went for dinner in Bistro Number One, which is round the back of the Palace Theatre. Lli wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of Mediterranean cuisine, but completely changed her mind when she saw the scores of beautiful lamps hanging in great twinkling clumps from the ceiling. They’re very souk-like in their deep oranges, purples and greens. It’s a lovely place to sit and while away the hours and they do a 2-course lunch menu for a tenner. There’s never a sense of being hurried along like they used to do in Stock Pot with such comic alacrity!

I did an hour’s work on Nene in a cafe on Wardour Street where a twenty something lad made a somewhat clumsy attempt at chatting me up. I was quite flattered. It’s been a while since someone had the hutzpah (or desire) to chat me up so blatantly! I answered all his questions politely whilst keeping eye contact to a minimum. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea but I also didn’t want him to feel ashamed. God knows it’s hard enough to be a bloke at the moment treading the fine line between appropriate behaviour and sleaziness.

Albert Hall Premiere

I had a fall this morning. I was at Central School trying to take a bag full of costumes down a flight of concrete stairs. My shoe slipped and I went down about eight steps. Because I was holding things in both hands, it was my elbows which took the hit. I smashed them into the ground with such force that it took me a few minutes to work out if I was okay. After the adrenaline had cleared from my body I realised I was in considerable pain. I knew this because I started giggling like a lunatic. I always giggle when I’m in pain. It’s a thing. I don’t think anything is broken or chipped, but I do think I can expect some cracking bruises. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something in this Nene composition which is trying to kill me!

I needed to collect a prop from Wimbledon this afternoon and, coming down another flight of stairs at the train station, managed to bash my injured elbow on a bannister. It hurt like hell. I could hear a women shouting across at me, asking if I was okay. I laughed manically and explained that I’d already injured myself in the very same spot. “I do things like that” she said, cackling with laughter. She was sitting in a wheel chair and only had one arm. I deduced that she probably wasn’t joking! She then told me how nice I looked, which was nice because I was in my glad rags, wearing the scarf that one of Nathan’s knitting ladies had sent me through the post. Lesley, if you’re reading this. Many many thanks.

This evening was a very special evening. It saw the premiere of my Nene composition at the Albert Hall. I was very nervous and it all went by in a bit of a flash, so my memories are fleeting and impressionistic. I remember falling over (again) in the box I was sitting in in the Albert Hall in a rush to get to the loo. I remember my mate Tash sending all sorts of crazy close-up pictures of the orchestra from the promenading pit where she was standing. I remember the presenter asking everyone to cheer if they were from the Midlands and the entire room erupting into cheers, and feeling a sense of deep belonging and pride. I remember the presenter mentioning Higham Ferrers and the kids from Higham Junior School going nuts. I remember the sense of deep injustice and anger I felt when the presenter said the ensemble came from North-Hampshire. I remember the sound of the junior oboe players in the roof representing the sound of geese and getting a strong sense that the audience really liked what they were hearing. I remember feeling proud that all 700 musicians were being conducted by a woman and then feeling sad that so few of the string players in the whole evening were lads. I remember thinking the strings needed to give it more welly.

...And then it was all over. And I was surrounded by people saying kind things about the piece. I went down to the floor of the Albert Hall and congratulated the choir on a job brilliantly done. Then I was interviewed by the BBC. And then we went to a pub. I felt touched that so many of my friends were there to support me. Abbie, Ian, Ben, Little Michelle, Brother Edward and Sascha, Nathan, Julie, Michael, Philippa, Tina, M and Pa, Kate, Sam, Tash... I felt very loved. And very proud. I go to bed with big bruises on my arms but joy in my heart!

And to cap it all, I’ve just learned that Australia have voted overwhelmingly to support gay marriage.

Good on you, Australia. And bloody good on you, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Peterborough. You’ve done me, the Nene and our little corner of the world proud.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Two soups and a cornflakes packet

I made props for the films I’m shooting at the weekend today. I had previously thought I was going to hire some, but was given the right royal runaround by a series of specialist prop hire companies, none of whom seemed that fussed about making any money out of me. I went on one company’s website and pored over all of their pictures of items in stock only to be told all five of the items I eventually selected had been thrown away! Another company said they would only be able to hire things to me if I could provide them with headed note paper with my company’s name attached. I told them I was an independent film maker. “Oh, then we can’t help you.”

So I printed out lots of 1960s food wrappers and dutifully glued them to various boxes. Close up they look a bit crude, but I think they’ll look quite good on film. I don’t have a great deal more to say about the day. I spent way too long attempting to find a vintage car for the shoot. It seems people are only interested in the wedding market, so finding a 1965 Beetle or Mini is nigh on impossible. Especially in the Midlands.

I went to Philip Sallon’s birthday party tonight, which was a surreal occasion. It was full of larger-than-life characters, all in fancy dress. It was a themed party, but the theme was too complicated for my tiny brain to deal with. The invitation was worded like this: “My hideous Birthday's on Monday November 13th, so I'll have a few degenerates around at my flat from 7.30pm. Well, talking of themes, despite leaving Europe, I'm all for a United World, so please wear something that has the disturbing feel of any country, even your Transylvanian homeland. Hatefully. Philipx”

Philip has taste in music which can only be described as wacky, bordering on tasteless. Every second track, we were treated to a rendition of the Magic Roundabout theme tune and, on one occasion, a highly familiar song rang out. “Your letter is only the start of it. One letter and then you’re a part of it.” Yes. It was the Jim’ll Fix It theme tune!

The highlight of the party was almost certainly an ancient Irish woman who Philip had hired for the evening as a waitress. She was reminiscent of Julie Walters in the Two Soups sketch. She even wore a little pinny. She moved at the speed of a tortoise but was dead set on making sure everyone had their drinks topped up and were well fed with smoked salmon bagels! Brilliant!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Agatha Quiztie

I went to a quiz in Thaxted yesterday with Abbie, Helen, the parents, Brother Edward and Sascha. It is official. I have never scored so badly on a single round in a quiz before. We scored 2/10. The reason? The first round was on motor racing! I ask you. I think we all thought motor racing was going to be a metaphor for something more entertaining. Surely no quiz in the world would have a round so specific? It would be like me running a round on Sondheim musicals. Unless you’re really into it, you don’t have a hope in hell of being able to answer a single question. We just sat and laughed as question after question rolled by about TT racing, Formula One and Motorcross. At one point I found myself flicking elastic bands at the ceiling, I was so bored.

The rest of the quiz was a bit ludicrous as well. Lewis Hamilton was the answer to two questions, as was Belinda Carlisle! It was all incredibly surreal.

Our table of seven created a bit of confusion when we went up for food and asked for five vegetarian meals. The woman looked at me as though I’d just announced I was taking her hostage. They’d made the assumption that there would be a maximum of one veggie per team, so each table was presented with a huge vat of meaty chilli and a tiny little individual portion of the veggie sort. So basically I returned to the table with a sky high stack of vegetarian portions and a massive bowl of the meaty stuff for just Sascha and my Dad to share! The veggie stuff tasted very bland. Incredibly hot, yet bland. It tasted okay with a heap of ketchup, but I do wonder why people mistake hot spices for flavour. Everyone’s too scared to use salt these days.

We picked it up a bit in the second half, although the history round was a wipe out. We were asked to name the longest serving UK Prime Minister. The official answer is Walpole, who was also the first, but there’s so much doubt around whether you’d call him a prime minister or not, so the question felt almost irrelevant.

We were so disconsolate by the end that the news we’d come third barely registered. Sascha won some cup cakes in the raffle. That was a highlight. Helen, Abbie and I discovered a mutual obsession with Agatha Christie. That was also a highlight. As was the open fire and tea and cake at my parents’ beforehand. Ah! The smell of an open fire.

Abbie and I drove Helen back to Cambridge along the dark Northern Essex country lanes which, we all agreed, seemed particularly scary. They were all wrapped in a sort of haze and we kept seeing curious lights sweeping across the fields to the sides of the roads. It was certainly a night of curious optical illusions. I’ve no idea what they were caused by, but they made us feel incredibly uneasy.

We got home late. Very late. I think I slept instantly!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Spinney Hill and the CET

Nathan and I went up to Northampton yesterday to see the first massed rehearsal for the Nene composition. It took place at Northampton School for Girls in the Spinney Hill concert hall, which turned out to be a massive blast from the past. The first time I visited that particular theatre was at the age of 8. We went to watch some sort of TIE play there. I think I must have got over-excited about going because I had a terrible tummy ache throughout the trip. After the show, we returned to my school for lunch and I managed to vomit inside my friend Emma Dicks' lunchbox. I still remember watching the dinner ladies trying to wash her crisp packet, which was the only thing she would have been able to eat after the incident. I was sent home and when I came back to school the following day, all the kids said I had the lurgy. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it wasn't good!

Later still, the concert hall became a regular haunt for music school students. I played many a concert there. It was also the location of the first rock concert I ever attended. I say rock. It was a Fairport Convention gig which means it was actually folk music. I went with my parents, which isn't obviously as cool as wagging school to see Inspiral Carpets or whatever the cool kids were into at the time.

Anyway, we arrived at the theatre just as the whole school fell deathly silent for their armistice commemoration. I was very grateful to Peter Smalley who saw our car pulling into the car park and rushed out to tell me what was going on. Otherwise it might have felt like something from 28 Weeks Later!

After the silence, we entered the theatre and were introduced to the 600 school children who are going to be singing composition. It was an astonishing moment, particularly when they all burst into song. I found myself feeling incredibly moved. We were almost knocked backwards by the wall of sound and enthusiasm and I was suddenly struck by how lucky I felt that all these people had worked so hard on something I'd written. This piece of music, which had sat in my head and then in a computer, had suddenly been uncaged. The kids all knew all the words off by heart. I was really very impressed, particularly the sequence when they have to sing backwards to represent the Nene flowing inland with the tide.

The kids were delightful and made me feel like a rock star. I must have high-fived at least 100 of them. Most of the schools whose choirs are performing were selected as a result their proximity to the river. My old junior school, Denfield Park, was also chosen to take part, but withdrew with a very disappointing reason. I was very pleased, however, that the junior school in Higham Ferrers was talking part. I used to look out of my bedroom window as a child and watch the kids playing in the playground. One of the young people's aunts had known me at school. In fact scores of people came over who knew people who knew me. It was wonderful.

The highlight of the morning was almost certainly meeting Christine Jones, my old 'cello teacher. She taught me from the age of 7 to 17, and was hugely influential in my decision to become a composer.

The orchestra arrived after lunch, and I made a hasty exit. I really only want to hear the work sounding as good as it can and am aware that young performers have a habit of really raising their games when the adrenaline starts to flow!

I dropped Nathan off at Watford Gap. He was heading up to Nottingham for a knitting fair and was being picked up by a yarn dyer in a white van!

In the meantime I continued driving north to Coventry where I was location hunting. I ended up in the old Coventry Evening Telegraph building, a stunning example of brutalist architecture right next to the Belgrade Theatre, which has recently been re-opened for tours. It's a fascinating and deeply atmospheric place. Some of the rooms I walked through had a really bizarre and very spooky vibe. You can wander through the old print rooms and see all the state of art 1960s fixtures and fittings. The place has been handed over to artists and artisans for a year, and then the whole place will be converted into a hotel.

I went to Michael's in the evening to watch a very charming film which had been directed by someone we're hoping to work with. A jam-packed day.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Jewish film festival

Yesterday was a long old day which started in the recording studio with Julian. We're putting final touches to the mixes of songs from Em. 7 down. 7 to go. And they're starting to pop rather wonderfully. I'm beginning to feel very proud. I made the decision yesterday to use the ensemble from Edge Hill alongside the London ensemble in The Pool. Their chorus vocals really bring something to the song. 

I dashed from Crouch End back home and then drove into Central London to attend the opening gala of the wonderful UK Jewish film festival. I was surprised by how many people there that I knew. Natalie Walter and Amy Rosenthal, Uncle Archie, Carol Russell, Paul Morrison... the little film that I helped to cast, which featured Natalie and Ben Caplan, went down really well.

The opening film was An Act of Defiance, a rather beautiful film which told the story of Bram Fischer, a charismatic Afrikaans lawyer who made it his business to openly defy the Apartheid regime in 1960s South Africa. It was a very sad story. Nelson Mandela (who features in the film) has rather monopolised our perception of the struggle against apartheid, but there were countless other hugely brave individuals, white, black, Indian, Jewish, Cape Coloured, who suffered enormously and proudly went to jail for their beliefs. Fischer died in jail. The state refused to treat his cancer.

After the film, we went to Groucho club with the film's director and lead actor, a more charming pair of Dutch fellas it would be hard to find. As usual, Philip Sallon appeared like a panto witch in a puff of green sparkling dust. Either he lives in the club, or he has a sixth sense for my whereabouts at all times!

Bad interview technique

Perhaps unsurprisingly I didn't get through to the next round of the job I went for two days ago. It was to work as a guide for the ABBA exhibit at the Royal Festival Hall. It wasn't a full-time post and it was only for a few months, so with my expertise and love for the group, I did think I might have been a shoe-in. I await feedback to see what the official issue was. I suspect the woman who interviewed me, who'd told the group beforehand that she had nothing to do with the exhibition itself, took one look at me, thought "why does this old man want to do a job which is meant for pretty young people?" and instantly decided to give me short shrift. This may explain why she blanket circled the number 2 as a score on my form, called me Mr Benjamin and couldn't wait to get rid of me. I think the interview might have got off to a less humiliating start if she'd thought to apologise for calling me by the wrong name, or laughed with me when I bumblingly tried to make light of her blunder. Actually what she did was make me feel ashamed for pointing out her error. "So your surname's not Benjamin?" Her eyes rolled, her voice bristled with boredom. She made me feel utterly insignificant.

When I'm auditioning people, I take great care to write in code or make sure that people can't see what I'm writing about them. Of course, we're all capable of getting it wrong. We all have powerful instincts, and I'm definitely a man who places great emphasis on mine. I have, in the past, almost certainly written-off people because of the way they look and when I was young, I think I would have been a bit confused at the notion of an old git like me wanting to do a part-time, zero hours contract. I'd probably I have thought I was a bit tragic. But there was something about the way she marked me so blatantly and pointedly that implied her actions were company policy. Almost as though someone had said "we've got to rush these bastards through. There's way too many of them, so if they're not right, get them out of the door as quickly as you can. Don't get embarrassed about marking them. We need the scores, and they need the job, so just do it in front of them. It's their own fault if they look down at what you're writing..."

So, if you're reading this and you are about to do a set of interviews, here are some suggestions based on my experience. Feel free to add your own pearls of wisdom. 

1. People's names are really important to them. If someone tells you you've pronounced their name wrong, or used their first name as a surname, be apologetic. If they don't look offended, use the mistake as a way of putting the candidate at his or her ease. Offer candidates a box in their application form which says "how do you like to be known?" This means that those of us who use our middle names, or a nickname, or have a first name which is hard to pronounce, can aid an interviewer considerably. 
 
2. Never de-humanise a person. If you're instinct tells you you need to find young people, re-programme it to say "I need to find energetic, engaging people, regardless of age." 

3. If someone is only giving average answers, give him or her a little steer, so he has a chance to go from a 2 to a 3. 
 
4. Don't ask questions which are only easy to answer after someone has been hired and trained. Asking, for example, what a potential tour guide would do if someone was taken sick in a space/ exhibition he has never seen before is a fairly pointless question. There will be a company protocol which is based on a detailed health and safety assessment of the venue. 
 
5. If asked to score an individual, think about taking a few minutes at the end of the interview to do so, or using a code which he won't understand. 
 
6. Never make an assumption that someone who comes for an interview doesn't "need" the job as much as another person. There are many reasons why, for example, an older person might want or need a post you think they're either over-qualified for or you think would suit a younger person.
7. Smile. If an interview is going badly, it's as much the responsibility of the interviewer to turn things around.

So that's about it from me. I'm rushing up to Northampton...