The Early Bird

The red kites are out in force this morning. I got a good view of one just now as it careened over the bus and then pulled away towards a field, its rusty underbelly flashing, almost close enough to see the individual feathers. They’re an astonishingly good example of species rehabilitation – read about them here

Look! I got to sit in front this morning!

Whether or not I’m getting my own worm (or carrion, or baby rabbit, more probably, in the case of the kite) remains to be seen. I’ve been going into London early every day for so many days now I can’t even keep track of them anymore. There was an exception on Sunday night, when I stayed with a lovely mezzo friend near Waterloo for an early start the next morning after a 9pm finish on Sunday, but the other days have been a little hard. It’s amazing how travelling for five hours a day renders you barely capable of making dinner and maybe doing laundry when you get home. But not much else. I’ve started to understand the true horror of commuting, though I’ve only been taking the 7.40 bus every morning. If you have to be at work in London at 9.00, you’re on the 6.00 or 6.30 bus from Oxford, no exceptions, and you sit in traffic for Many Hours. 

There are fun things to do on commutes, though, and following the London Book Fair on Twitter in the mornings is one of them. I have two Twitter handles (public ones, anyway): one “writer” and one “singer”, and it’s refreshing to be able to curate incoming content based on what I want to read about. Don’t knock Twitter; among its many virtues (not least of which is that it isn’t Facenook), it allows you to inhabit different spheres and absorb whatever collection of information you want. I love this: I can catch up on what’s in The Bookseller  and who’s been hired as a new agent at DKW, and be a writer for the morning before I plunge into rehearsals. 

The rehearsals, if you were wondering, are for a tour of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the 1610 Vespers by the same composer. We fly to the US on Friday morning, which will give me a chance to see much-missed relatives and indulge in the single foodstuff whose absence in British life truly haunts me: breakfast sausage. I might even get its close cousin, biscuits and gravy, as we’ll be in Chapel Hill, NC at the beginning of the tour. 

I don’t talk about work online much, for Reasons, but I will say that the Orfeo part of this project has been a good chance to do a hefty amount of writing. Attention is a funny thing. I’ve been sitting in rehearsals where, 90% of the time, I haven’t been singing. I’m doing a small role and am second cover for two others, so I give my full and intense attention to the sopranos who are rehearsing those roles, but when there are seemingly dozens of tenors rehearsing for (seemingly) hours at a time, I begin to flag, and I feel incredibly unproductive just sitting there with my “mm, that ornament was different than the other guy’s” face on. I can’t learn music because there’s other music going on right in front of me, and I can’t openly read a book — there are rudeness limits. But I can work on Chapter 2 of the novel, whose tentative title is Magician’s Geometry. Scribbling in a notebook on my lap is unobtrusive, right? When my options for achievable goals are limited in such a specific way during rehearsals, it makes it surprisingly easy to just sit and write for a couple of hours, and I’ve made more progress on this chapter, more quickly, than I thought was possible. I’m going to try to have a rough draft done by Sunday to send to my mentor. There’s also the delicious spectre of the York Festival of Writing in September, and I want to have a good draft done by then so that I can give the first three chapters to agents ahead of the one-on-ones. 

But back to the present. Another problem/treat of being in rehearsals all day is the Foyles bookshop in Waterloo station. It’s just too easy… 


I know it’s an old trope, and every book lover has this problem, but my Shelf of Shame has now expanded into nearly an entire bookcase of Unread Things, and I still linger lustfully over the new releases section in Foyles — and end up buying four books in two days, one of which I bitterly regret: Amelia Freer’s Eat. Nourish. Glow. Its irritating title aside (the weird punctuation means you can’t put it at the beginning of a sentence), it promises a revolution in the way you think about food and nutritional self-care, and though I like a lot of the ideas in the book, the recipes are dull, the photographs are (mistakenly?) re-used on multiple pages and usually with no relation to the text, and the text itself… God help the copyeditor at Harper Thorsons, or whoever was tasked with making this thing cogent and presentable before it went to print. The book is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and so poorly written that it seems the text was plucked wholesale from a series of hastily-composed blog posts and stuck into the book, which was then rushed to print without being glanced at even once to check that it made sense. I’ve now had the singular experience of reading a freshly-purchased book on my commute home, only to immediately feel I should take it back to Foyles the next morning and ask for my money back. It’s awful. 


The other thing I bought that afternoon, though, was an utter delight: a tiny pamphlet by Lorrie Moore called How to Become a Writer. It’s an essay from a bigger collection, and has fulfilled its purpose in making me desperate to read more. See how I considerately avoided a pun there? 


Rather than go on about it, I’ll leave you to read it yourself (it takes about ten minutes at most, and is worth every one of the 199 pennies I paid for it). But let me say this: it’s gently satirical and impeccably written, with little twists of humour that make me uncomfortable because I’ve recognised myself, but make me snort with pleasure all the same. Highly recommended. 

And what do I take on bus journeys, when I have so much to read and so much guilt about it? The New Yorker. Though, to be fair, I’m also reading “Dear Committee Members” on my phone at the moment, and it’s glorious. We need more satire in this vein. 


And now, dear reader, I’m approaching Baker Street and must leave you. Here’s a picture of a red kite to improve your day. 


I’ve decided that they’re my temporary spirit animal. I’m pretty sure next month it’ll be a puffin, though. 




Review: Love, Sex, And Other Foreign Policy Goals 

Jesse Armstrong, who was part of the team that wrote Peep Show and The Thick Of It, has had his first novel published by Jonathan Cape. It came out earlier this month, and my full review can be found over at Quadrapheme. A précis here, though:  “Love, Sex, And Other Foreign Policy Goals” is a tale of a group of twenty-something activists who decide that the best thing they can do to stop the war in the Bosnia is to hire a minivan, write a peace play, and take it all the way to the Balkans, where they’ll perform it for refugees and soldiers. And this will somehow… Stop the war. 

does what it says on the tin

It should be very funny; unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its own promise (or premise). Apparently the Guardian disagrees with me mightily, which is faintly alarming. In cases such as these, when the craft is so lacking and the writer is so successful elsewhere, I really wonder how much of the praise is contextual to other, better works. You can read my full review here

Please comment below if you’ve read the book or (like my husband) have firsthand experience of the war. I’d love to see more discussion on this peculiar novel. 

Noodles and chocolate

I had an unholy craving for Korean glass noodles on my way back this morning on the Eurostar (the Terminus hotel, our usual bolthole opposite the Gare du Nord, famously has the worst breakfast of anywhere the Monteverdi Choir tours — apart from that hotel in Pisa. But I digress). So I made a detour to a tiny Korean restaurant on a side street near the British Museum and got some. I would have taken a picture, but I inhaled them too quickly.


I’ve been thinking about the British Museum quite a lot since I finished The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (pictured above, with a view of the window of Terminus. Thrilling.). It’s a dark, deliciously-written dystopian fantasy set in a crumbling, nightmarish future version of London, and a lot of references are made to the British Museum, which acts as a barometer for how bad things have got: in the narrator’s early childhood memories, most of the objects are in place, but by the time her family flees London on a giant ship, the museum has been emptied of artefacts and become, instead, a last refuge for the homeless, who are eventually murdered where they sleep by government troops. As the utopian escape-ship, captained by her increasingly messianic and power-hungry father, travels on its seemingly eness journey away from land, Lalla, the narrator, uses her screen (something like an iPad) to access the British Museum’s collections virtually, reminding herself of happier times, of history, of all the things her father wants her to forget. Reading the book made me desperate to visit the museum, which I’ve never really been to properly. I’m not sure today is the day, since I have a suitcase and backpack with me. But I can try. I’ll see if they let me in.

The Philharmonie de Paris was an excellent place to do the final performance of the B Minor Mass on this exhausting tour — and who knows if it’ll be the Maestro’s last? We were all quite moved at the end, thinking about it. The Philharmonie staff really outdid themselves with the stuff in the dressing rooms, too. It makes such a difference to find a programme, a selection of tea, some fruit, a kettle, and a little box of chocolates. And to have your own bathroom, a door that locks (valuables often disappear backstage — more on that later), and a mirror to yourself. Sometimes we’re all sharing and nobody can get to a mirror… And only one toilet for thirty women (I’m looking at you, Munich). In the picture below, the hair clip is mine.


There was a disaster backstage, though: several people had phones, money, and entire wallets stolen from their bags in the choir dressing room, which is a dirty trick that only seems to happen when we’re touring in France. One of the violinists tried to take a small black handbag on stage with her for the concert and was stopped by a stage hand. When she pointed out that there was nowhere secure to store valuables, she was told in an aggrieved tone that the Philharmonie was “very secure”.

There was drama on stage, too – in probably the quietest movement, the Et Incarnatus, there was a loud snap, and the leader of the orchestra stopped playing and jerked her violin away from her face; a string had given way violently, right next to her eye. The next thirty seconds were a masterful example of team work: as everybody calmly kept playing, she swapped violins with her desk partner, who then passed her violin back another two rows, where the string was quietly replaced by an intrepid member of the last desk. It was amazing to watch.

I’m so glad to be — I nearly said “home”, but I’m still sitting in the Korean restaurant, tapping away on my phone. Back in the UK, anyway, with four or five days off. Here are some amusing photos of the view above, and in, Aix-en-Provence, where we did our penultimate concert…


… And here’s one of the bizarre Easter Bunny woman who appeared on the outbound Eurostar, like something out of a high-budget Alice In Wonderland film, giving out chocolate.


Happy Easter, everyone, when it comes. I’m going to try to get to a vigil tonight, and will not be purchasing either of these abominations, spotted in the St Pancras M&S two days ago.

Much love from (somewhere near) the British Museum. May you be filled with Easter joy, or, if you prefer, high-quality chocolate. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.

Buses, work, the moon, and a name-this-cat competition

It’s 5.07am and I’m halfway to Heathrow – not the ideal start to a day, you might say, but I’m actually kind of enjoying it. 

We had the world’s most enormous six-hour pork roast last night for dinner, so I’m not starving, and I’ll have plenty of time at the airport for a decent breakfast. Maybe it’s age (I am, after all, hurtling towards thirty at alarming speed), but I’m starting to really understand how nice it is to be early for flights. As in, early enough to sit down and have a meal without harassing the restaurant staff for the bill as soon as I order my food because I know I’ll have to sprint for the gate. It’s nice to be able to walk, not run. 

So I got the 4.30 coach to Heathrow this morning, not the 5.00, because check-in closes at 6.30. And subsequently saw the most beautiful nearly-full moon hanging low on the horizon in the dark, a golden, milk-and-honey colour that I’ve never seen before. It had a few wisps of clouds around it and was downright magical. Looking it up (all right, I actually have an app), I found that it wasn’t a full moon quite yet – that’s happening on Friday, which also happens to be Good Friday. 

It wrenches me that I’ll be travelling and doing concerts during the Great Triduum, my favourite part of the church year – I’ll miss all of its intensity,  and the rhythm of being on retreat (the last few years have been the same as this one, but I have good memories of previous Triduums). But at least we’ll be able to go to mass on Easter Day, and we’ve been invited to another (more grown-up) couple’s house afterwards for lunch, which is exciting. It’s wonderful to be taken into  the bosom of a family like that when you’re slightly new at doing holidays as a married couple. 

Today’s thrilling pre-dawn bus journey marks my official return to a tour that I had partially absented myself from due to loss of voice. I went in two days ago, having missed an afternoon session the previous day because I was hoarse from over-singing and lack of sleep and a minor throat infection, to record the Qui Sedes from the B Minor Mass, and it went well, but I knew there wasn’t much left even though things had improved. So yesterday was spent mostly in silence again, and I did freelance research all day. 

Another lesson I’m in the process of learning: not doing too much when you’re being paid by the hour. I did manage to take a lunch break, but it’s amazing how unpaid projects fall limply by the wayside when you’re being paid to do something else. So today’s thoughts are primarily about work-life balance, or maybe work-work balance. I’m nearly finished with my next book review, which will be up soon over at Quadrapheme. I’ve brought my laptop on tour (if 28 or so hours can be called “tour” – we’re back tomorrow at lunchtime), so that, at least, gives me a little freedom to get things done. 

In more exciting news, the invader cat who appeared about two weeks ago and ate all of Irene Adler’s food as fast as I could replace it has officially moved in, being evidently very hungry, and very much a stray. She’s ginger and white, and in the words of the fine novelist Harriet Smart, “an attitudinous creature”. Here are some pictures: 



Mr C thinks she looks  like a ginger hare because of the large back haunches. I’m accepting naming suggestions (Celia Fiennes, so far, is the best – look her up). Let me know in the comments. 

We’ve posted alerts on lost-animal sites, and I very much hope someone is reunited with her soon. Irene Adler, having unsuccessfully attempted to repel the interloper, has resigned herself to cohabitation, and they’re tiptoeing around each other cautiously, both eating normally (but at different times), which is a relief. 

Apologies for typos and rambling – it’s very early in the morning. I will see you on the other side of this tour. Until then, dear Reader, I’m going to try and get some sleep on this bus.