Ooh aah aren’t they lovely?

I write in praise of Firework Night, aka Bonfire Night, aka the day Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament and honestly, not sure I blame him at the moment but that’s a subject for another blog assuming I want MI5 to bug my phone.

But no. I don’t write in praise. I write on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of animals who are so utterly terrified by the constant and ever-louder bangs that they start to shake as it gets dark, won’t go out, won’t eat, won’t drink. Their heart-rate goes rocketing up, their adrenal system is on override and no matter how much Rescue Remedy you shove down them, or how many DAP plug-ins you try, or Thundercoats you wrap round them, they are still terrified. Some run away and are lost for good. Others have to be sedated.

A dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than ours. Whereas people can detect sounds ranging from 64 to 23,000 Hertz, dogs can detect sounds ranging from 67 to 45,000 Hertz. If we can hear a sound at 100 feet, a dog can hear it a quarter of a mile away. Ever laughed at how scared your dog is of the hoover? That’s because the sound is deafening them.

When we acquired our beautiful lurcher Dylan, it was pretty clear that he’d never been in a house before. Dumped as a stray in Merthyr Tydfil, picked up by the pound there, transferred to Watford animal shelter and rescued by us, Dylan was traumatised, stressed by everything from the back door to a cupboard opening. Gradually, he calmed, settled and became the first dog we’ve ever had who loves to play. But here we are again at 5th November – or not, in fact. Fireworks have been going off for a good couple of weeks already, thanks to Diwali and people thinking it’s fun to let them off because why shouldn’t they, it’s their human right to let off fireworks at any time from dusk to 3am? Who am I to tell them that their constant firework action is terrifying my dog and so many other people’s animals? 5th November only comes once a year doesn’t it – oh sorry, I mean 5th November for six weeks or so. And then at New Year. And then some other random time.

Dylan begins to shake as it gets dark. He won’t eat or go out, he is now in that Pavlov’s Dog state where he associates the dark with noise and fear. And of course he’s not alone.

In Canada or Australia, you’d need a permit to set off fireworks in your back garden.
In the UK it’s illegal for anyone under 18 to possess a firework in a public place. According to the law,
fireworks cannot be set off by a private individual between 11.00pm and 7.00am except for certain nights of the year. What certain nights of the year might they be? Any night between say 15th October and 10th November, with a few added extras to use them up?

There’s an organisation called Ban the Bang currently campaigning for stricter firework law – this is what they propose:

1. Ban the private use of fireworks and public displays except for three festival days per year (plus Saturday nearest to each festival day). (I.e. in UK, November 5th, New Year and Diwali)

2. Fireworks that bang and rise more than 2 metres (average garden fence height) would be banned outright for use by the public. Only bang-free ground based fireworks (with a dispersal range of no more than 2 metres) could be sold to / used by the public – and only sold for two weeks prior to festival days (see 1.).

3. Outside of festival days – the public would be able to apply for a private party / wedding reception licence (restricted to one licence per household per year). With this one-day licence, the licence holder would be able to purchase no-bang ground fireworks from licensed all-year firework shops. (These shops will not be allowed to supply loud / aerial fireworks to the general public at any time – see 2.)

4. Sensible restrictions should also apply to professionally organized public displays. For example, enforcing a maximum threshold on noise:
No public firework displays louder than 85db.
Locations of displays must be carefully planned (and revised), whereby they can only take place in open, strictly designated areas least likely to affect wildlife. Displays must be a minimum distance of around 1.5 km from rural habitat areas such as trees, woodlands, heathlands etc. and at least 2km from stables, zoos and farm animal locations.

Wow, what a bunch of joyless arseholes you might think. But is it really so outrageous? I actually love firework disaplys, I think they’re beautiful and was lucky enough to be in Sydney one New Year’s Eve and watched the display from the Opera House. Fantastic, and I wouldn’t want to ban them. The fireworks at the Olympics? Bloody marvellous. But that’s because they were special. Made special, because the occasion called for it. What’s so special about setting off a banger every night for a month? Have we so lost our ability to wait for an occasion, to plan for something wonderful? Does everything have to be now, all the time? Where’s the joy in that?

So yes, I will be looking at the firework displays and thinking how pretty. I might even go to one. But I will also be aware of Dylan hiding in the darkest, smallest place in the house, of the other dogs, cats, horses, rabbits who are thoroughly and comprehensively traumatised. Ever been so scared you thought you might die? I have. It’s not nice. It’s not nice for animals either.


One about writing and the Word Factory (with some shameless name-dropping)

“So when did you start writing seriously?” someone asked the other day.  Drawing a veil over the ‘novel’ I began when I was around fourteen, dealing with the invasion of the UK by Germany during WW2 (move over Robert Harris), I suppose it was when a friend and I began what we called The Comic, but could probably be better described as Fan Fiction.  I do not propose to speak a word about what went on in The Comic, but we then progressed to writing a novel based entirely on multiple choice.  As I recall, we were on a rowing boat on Regent’s Park lake when we began mapping it out thus:

1.  It is set in a) 20th century b) ancient Rome c) Medieval Tymes.  (We chose c).

2.  The hero is called a) Dickon b) Robin c) PanPot.  (None of those, though Robin did end up as a subsidiary character.)

You can probably imagine the rest.  We loved writing it, even though it was shite.  Never ones for much research at that time, we decided one character needed a wheelchair and duly ‘invented’ it.  The anti-hero was a necromancer, so it was pretty easy for him to do (his name was Gui, in case you’re wondering).

Then I went to India for 6 weeks, my first time travelling alone.  A couple of years later, I saw that Bill Bryson, whose writing I love, was the judge for the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year competition.  “What the hell?” I thought and entered with a piece about a 24-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali.  Dear Reader, I won.  The prize was a round-the-world air ticket and a posh camera that I dropped in the Okavango Delta whilst escaping from a hippo.

Still,, I never seriously considered writing as an option, although I did a lot of freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, mainly about travel, sometimes not.  Not even when my then-flatmate (name-drop alert) Michael Grandage wrote me a letter – yes, we did write letters then – to say: “I’ve just seen three people on the tube reading your article.  I wanted to shout ‘I know her!’  It’s brilliant.  Be a writer.  Why would anyone want to be a poxy actor anyway?”  Michael, as we know, gave up being a poxy actor and pretty much took over the world as a director.

Still I didn’t consider it as an option.  I loved being a poxy actor, I still do, though have diversified quite dramatically into all sorts of other things.

And then I wrote a novel.   One that I think is good enough to be out there (and which is currently being read in its entirety by two agents), and that is not based on a multiple-choice scenario.  And I met other writers, all incredibly generous with their time and advice.  One is Stella Duffy (name-drop alert 2) and she introduced me to the Word Factory one Saturday night at the end of January, where she was reading one of her short stories.

Now, I’ve never really got short stories.  I mean, I like them and all, but offer me a novel instead and I will take it.  But the Word Factory showed me what short stories could be.  This is what the website says:

“In the beginning was the Word Factory – a series of intimate short story salons bringing brilliant writers and readers together for wine, conversation and great work.”

And when it says “brilliant writers” it isn’t kidding.  Since January I’ve heard Val McDermid, Toby Litt, Alex Preston, Evie Wyld, Vanessa Gebbie and more read their fantastic stories.  And if that weren’t enough (for £12 including a glass of wine), you can also go to the free Short Story Club for an hour before the salon.  Each month, clubbers are sent a story which we then discuss, fairly politely.  I’ve been introduced to George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor thanks to the Short Story Club, and can’t believe I’d not read them before.  And as if THAT weren’t enough, there are Masterclasses to sign up to on the Saturday afternoon.

I love the Word Factory.  It is welcoming, friendly and relaxed and that’s thanks to the organisers – Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and team – and I always come out of a salon inspired to write more, write better.  Every writer needs a Word Factory in their life.  And the wine is excellent.



All creatures will make merry

Fantastic piece on the Tories’ latest masterplan to take benefits away from those with mental health issues.

It's not the despair

You can tell three things about whoever thought it might be a good idea to take away benefits for unemployed people who refuse therapy for depression.

First, they have never been unemployed. Second, they have never been depressed. Third, they have never been unemployed and depressed.

Since I have, I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t work that way. Unemployment makes you depressed, even if you weren’t depressed. Unemployment makes depression worse, if you’re prone to it. Unemployment and depression is a dark spiral in which your diminishing self worth is constantly attacked by the evidence around you of your failure. Failure to work, failure to stop being depressed. Failure all round.

Another reason I can tell whichever person scribbled this fag packet proposal down has never been through depression is that you can’t just get therapy. You get put onto a waiting list. Depending on your postcode…

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Songs without words

I was doing OK. I hadn’t cried. No emotional involvement, lots of interaction and smiling. But there was this one woman, well-dressed and beaming, not that old. She didn’t sing along but she was loving the music. Next to her was a younger woman (her daughter, as I later found out – the lady had only been moved to the home days before). She was holding her mother’s hand and smiling at her whilst tears poured and poured down her face. I had to walk away and do an impromptu tango in the middle of the room.

Lost Chord is a charity which uses music to increase awareness and self-esteem in dementia sufferers. Dementia is without doubt one of the most devastating diseases of our century. The training day for Lost Chord took place in Nightingale House, a Jewish residential home, beautifully-maintained, full of care and consideration. Any of those residents could have been my relatives. One man remembered the bakery our family used to own in Edgware. I was physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day, and pretty nervous about how my first tour was going to go. So I planned. Oh, I planned. Hours of shuffling music around, putting medleys together, discarding, adding and also borrowing bits of percussion from all over the place.

We had four gigs booked for one day, scattered over Suffolk. Four care homes, all with different rooms and acoustics, all with residents of differing stages of the illness. In one home a budgie in a cage sang along with me. I wanted to let it out and set it free – I hate seeing caged birds. And what a cliche that turns out to be. The lovely residents, many of whom danced and clapped and shook maracas or sleighbells were as caged as the budgie, trapped in an illness that has no cure, only a slow decline of every faculty you have.

The room was a mixture of early and late-stage dementia and probably the most challenging of the four gigs – around 40 people (plus staff and visitors), and the Lost Chord ethos is that you interact with each one of them, pretty much all through the hour-long concert.  So I ended up doing laps, making sure I didn’t miss anyone out and if they can’t move or dance, you hold their hands, kneeling down in front of them and making the strongest connection possible.  There were two men, one maybe late 60s, the other a lot older.  They both held toys.  The younger man had a stuffed tiger, the older one a plastic doll.  They cuddled them like children, they held them as protection and perhaps as the last thing left to them, either in reality or wherever they were in their memories.

I wanted very badly to engage these two fractured men.  None of the songs I’d done so far (mixing up show songs, bit of classical, bit of Elvis) seemed to touch them.  Then I played the mastercard – a World War 1 medley I’d pretty much cobbled together the night before.  I’ve avoided WW1 songs in all my other seniors sessions – it feels patronising to go ‘oh you’ll love this’.  Why would they?  Most of them weren’t even born then.  One brilliant woman said when I rolled up at a session in Borehamwood “Please don’t give us any of that war rubbish – we’re bored to the back teeth with Vera Lynn,” so they get Elvis, Bill Haley, the Rat Pack and Barry Manilow.  This was different.  I started with Tipperary and the room lit up.  Everyone was clapping, smiling and singing.  I homed in on the man with the tiger.  He almost smiled.  He started to mouth the words. I stayed with him for the rest of the song.  Then I went to the back where the man and his doll were.  I knelt beside him, sang “If You were the Only Girl.”  And he looked at me, and began to mouth the words.  It was the same in all four homes – those were the songs that did it.  I was talking to my mother about it afterwards and she said, “But all those songs were in films when we were children.  Their parents probably sang those songs to them.”

So what happens to our generation?  What songs will we get?  Blur, Adele, Elton John?  What are the songs that bind us, that will make a room a place of collective joy.

There are countless studies being done on the effect of music on people with dementia and Alzheimers.  It’s a bit of a thing at the moment, lots of money being earmarked, and that’s brilliant.  And everyone wants to do their own thing, have their own spin and that’s brilliant too.  But Lost Chord has pinpointed the thing that matters most.  These are individuals – they had lives, joys, loves and griefs.  They had more stories than we can ever know.  They sit with dolls and toys and their thoughts are god knows where.  But when I knelt beside them, and held their hands and sang into their eyes, they lived joyously within that instant, if only for that instant.


The cancelling of Klinghoffer

As a left-wing, liberal Jew, there is one subject I rarely discuss in private, let alone publicly, let alone in a blog.  The Israel/Palestine situation is heart-breaking, anger-making, painful and divides Jews all over the world.   Violence cannot and never will be the answer.  The hatred on both sides fills me with despair. Of course,  fear of the other, intransigence in opinion and belief in the rightness of the cause is not confined to Israel/Palestine, but because of who I am, because the bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful in the world and because people I love live in that tiny country, it feels personal.  Of course it does – I’ve never hidden either my Jewishness or my political beliefs, but part of my history – my personal history – lives there.

Today, the Metropolitan Opera said this:

“After an outpouring of concern that its plans to transmit John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer might be used to fan global antisemitism, the Metropolitan Opera announced the decision today to cancel its Live in HD transmission, scheduled for November 15, 2014.”

Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, says the following:

“I’m convinced that the opera is not antisemitic. But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising antisemitism, particularly in Europe.”

For those who don’t know, The Death of Klinghoffer deals with the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Front) and subsequent murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.  The opera is devastating on many levels;  difficult and challenging as the greatest art is and should be.  Since its first performance, Adams has been vilified by both sides, being accused of being both antisemitic and anti-Palestinian.  Or rather, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli.  In my opinion it is neither.  It is raw, it is grief and despair. It doesn’t romanticize terrorism in the slightest – I often wonder how many of those baying for its closure/banning have even seen or heard it?

I had the privilege of recording the soundtrack for Penny Woolcock’s superb Channel 4 film of Klinghoffer – I was singing with the London Symphony Chorus at the time.  John Adams conducted his own work and we recorded just days after 9/11.  No-one who was there will ever forget how it felt to record Adam’s beautiful, heartbreaking score at that time.

Mr Gelb says he is convinced that the opera is not anti-semitic.  However, he is also convinced that to transmit the performance would be inappropriate.  I’m not sure how that works.  How can you be convinced of those two things at once?  And the bigger question – if you are staging it at all (which of course you should) why should the rest of the world be denied the opportunity of making their own minds up?

I am not denying for one second that there is rising anti-semitism across the world – similarly who can deny that there is anti-Muslim feeling across the world?  But how can censorship of great art be the answer?


Grief and cuddly toys

My father died on June 4th, 1993.  21 years ago.  I could write about that, or the sort of man he was, or not write anything.  I wasn’t going to write anything.  But today I read a piece by Justin Webb (journalist, Today programme, Radio 4) about his daughter losing her beloved blue donkey in Switzerland, and how they eventually got it back.

My father died in the early hours of the morning.  When we all got back to the family house, I sat up for the rest of the night holding a stuffed toy, a ring-tailed lemur handpuppet that he’d bought me because I love lemurs.  Poppy the lemur became a sort of talisman from that night on, went with me everywhere, even around the world for a year, in tents and on trains, through a car crash, being chased by a hippo and getting malaria.  Poppy was always there, stuffed in my backpack or down inside my sleeping bag.

And then I lost him, on a tour to Sydney with the London Symphony Chorus.  We were there for New Year, it was brilliant.  New Year’s Day on Bondi Beach, New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks from the Opera House after our concert.  A couple of days later, I left Poppy on the hotel bed, instead of putting him in my bag as I usually did.  When I got back that evening, he was gone.  The sheets had been taken away and washed and Poppy with them.

I collapsed, hysterical.  That’s not an exaggeration.  My great friend and roomie totally understood what had happened – I’d lost my father all over again.  Some of my other friends got it, some were embarrassed, awkward, lots of raised eyebrows.  I begged the lovely hotel staff to check the laundry, the washing machines, anything.  No sign of him.  The rest of the trip was blurred and painful.  My friend came back to our room one day with a furry opossum, which I still have.  He wasn’t Poppy, but he represented kindness and care.

I was staying on for a week after the tour ended, and I left the phone number of my new guesthouse with the hotel, just in case.  And they found Poppy.  The manager phoned and said she was so pleased that she’d wanted to tell me herself.  I rushed back to the hotel and there he was, looking a bit thinned out and very clean.  I burst into tears again and the manager sort of did as well.

I’m delighted that Justin Webb’s little girl got her blue donkey back.  In the article, he also talked about a charity called SAFE (Stuffed Animals for Emergencies), whose purpose is to bring soft toys to children who have seen trauma.  He says this: “There is a big relief effort to help the millions of Syrians now living in refugee camps but I doubt that soft toys are at the top of anyone’s agenda.  Perhaps they should be; if not at the top, then at least on it somewhere.  Let us not be sentimental: Syrian children need all manner of things before they need stuffed animals, but still, to a child who has lost everything, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of total despair.”

I still have Poppy and I still take him all over the place.  I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him again; it’s not something I want to consider. I’m sure there will be people reading this who think ‘how ridiculous,’.  Perhaps it is.  Responses to grief are not quantifiable.  Until I lost Poppy, I had no idea how I would react, or even if I would.  I no longer question it, and I certainly don’t care that other people may indeed think it’s ridiculous. (If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging about it now, would I?)  Soft toy, photos, letters, gifts.  Doesn’t matter.  They mean what they mean.  And I know what Poppy means.

What is the difference between an opera and a musical?

I’ve had three singing teachers.  The first was a Bel Canto specialist, an opera term meaning ‘beautiful singing’ in Italian.  I stopped going to him after he stuck his fingers down my trousers and told me it was a secret technique to help me access my emotions and therefore I wasn’t to tell anyone.

My second teacher was a woman at drama school who ruined my voice for years until I found the wonderful Penni Harvey-Piper who completely changed the way I sang by basically teaching me American music theatre singing crossed with opera technique.  Never looked back from there.

In the Indie on Saturday, David Lister’s column contained a piece about the head of English National Opera’s announcement that ENO will be staging some musicals alongside operas.  David Lister largely approves of this, but says: “It’s a move always certain to have detractors among opera-goers.”  It’s also got one detractor here and I say this having spent much of my career to date in musical theatre, but also singing opera for odd recordings and in workshops.  I am very fortunate that I can do a pretty good cross-over, but in no way would I consider myself an opera singer.

Which brings me to the problem of opera houses doing musicals.  I love ENO and I’ve seen some of the best opera productions there – Peter Grimes, Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China, Rodelinda, etc etc.  I will draw a veil over The Passenger, but kudos to them for giving it a go.

Some musicals work well in opera, which is David Lister’s point.  Bernstein’s fabulous Candide, for example, is pretty much an opera anyway.  But I’ve seen two opera houses have a crack at Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd.  Opera North was acclaimed by many, but not by me.  The difference between the musical theatre performers (Beverley Klein as Mrs Lovett for example) and the pure opera singers was jarring.  It didn’t work.  Imagine Sir Donald Wolfit trying to do a sitcom.  Worlds not so much colliding as passing one another in bemusement.

And as for the Royal Opera House’s execrable attempt… well, those of us who were there still speak of it in  hushed tones.

The best Sweeney I ever saw was at the National Theatre, with Alun Armstrong and Julia Mackenzie.  Not everyone in the cast was the best singer, but god did they know how to perform Sondheim.  And it’s not about how well you sing.  It’s not about making a lovely noise.

The ROH production pointed this up perfectly.  You could see them thinking ‘oh how hard can this be?  It’s not exactly Wagner, is it?’  Well, guys, let me tell you, musical theatre is bloody hard work – yes I know, so is opera, but at least you don’t have to do it 8 shows a week, every week.   And it’s not just the stamina required, it’s the stylistic understanding of another genre – and most importantly, respect for that genre.  If you think you’re slumming it by singing one of the greatest musicals ever written then perhaps you should put a dep in.

Having said all that, I was fortunate enough to be standing directly behind Bryn Terfel in the opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall concert performances of the musical.  He had his back to the audience, head down right next to me as we’re sending our terrifying top Cs into the stratosphere.  And then he turned round and that voice belted out ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…’ It was stunning, not only because he can sing like a god, but because of his total commitment to the piece.

So – good luck ENO.  I have no objections to your doing musicals, and even less objection to being in one of them, so long as it’s done with the respect that it deserves from all concerned.