Saturday 30 March 2024

The Saturday List #434 - My top ten biggest personal weaknesses

 As Lent is almost at an end and it's the one day of the year where Jesus, according to Christian tradition. is officially dead, it seems like a good day to look at my weaknesses and frailties. It is only by facing up to these and working on them, that we ever improve. I don't believe that admitting such things is a weakness, it is a strength. But only if we acknowledge this and work on it. 

1.  I am hellishly unhealthy. I've had more operations, ailments and illnesses than just about everyone I know. I'm not a hypochondriac, I just see them as things to be gotten over. Here's a list of the operations and serious medical conditions I've had. Born in 1962 with blue baby syndrome, I spent my first month in an incubator.  1966 - Tonsils out, 1984, in Hospital for Mallory-Weiss stomach bleed, 1985 - Operation for polyp in left ear, 1988 - In hospital following car craash with damaged vertibra and tibia, 1990 operation for mastoids, 2000 - Operation for inguinal hernia and torn groin, 2011, diagnosed with prostate cancer, numerous biopsies under anaesthetic, HIFU treatment in 2016 and a radical prostatectomy in 2023. I suspect the next thing will be an operation on my ankle as it is my achillies heel! It's a miracle I'm still here

2. My issues with anger. When I found out I was going to be a father in 1995, I sought professional help and enlisted on some therapy for anger management. Much to my displeasure, the first thing I was told was that it wouldn't 'cure' my anger issues. It would simply help me manage them better and be more rational. It is a work in progress. The thing I learned is that when you are in a real 'red mist' situation, there really isn't too much you can do, so try and avoid them. It works pretty well most of the time. I recall once at work a particularly nasty management individual screaming in my face. I simply walked away and went for a cup of tea in a local cafe. When I returned, they screamed "Don't you EVER walk away when I am talking to you". I very calmly said "I have and will never walk away from you when you are talking to me, but if you abuse me and shout at me, that is a different matter. Now can you make your point in a polite and rational manner". They were visibly shocked and said "Who do you think you are, talking to me like that". I simply responded "Somebody who the company pays to do a job, not somebody the company pays to be verbaally abused".  The said individual walked off. I realised I'd made progress, because before I had counselling I reacted very badly to people shouting at me. The person in question was a real bully, but after that they never acted that way in my presence again. Keeping calm is far more effective.

3. My dyslexia. This was diagnosed only as part of the anger management therapy I had and explained a lot. I could never understand why, when I did what I thought was excellent work at school, I came bottom of the class ir why I can't spell or understand grammatical rules. It cast a shadow. At least now I have some idea why I always did so badly and have strategies.

4. I hate bullies. Again, this is tied up with the two preceding weaknesses. I cannot respect bullies and if I see someone being bullied I tend to get angry. If it is me, I can react very badly. I am also aware that I am not perfect. I went to a school where there was a lot of what we called banter, but I now recognise as bullying. I was as bad as everyone else and now I realise that it was awful. I think that to some extent nearly everyone at FCHS was the same, but there were some natural victims, who had an awful time. I was far from the worst person, but it is pretty shameful to me to realise that I was not nice to some people. I owe a few people an apology. Oddly enough, I was one person a couple of years ago, who I had the perception I had been horrible to and they said that I was fine, just a bit of a pisstaker and they really didn't mind. I set higher standards of myself now.

5. I am hellishly lazy around the house. I just hate housework and tidying up and I love mess and clutter. Whilst this isn't a problem for me, it bothers certain other members of the household. 

6.  I am deaf. This is partially due to the mastoid operation I had and partly due to loving loud music. It is becoming a real pain in the bum. I should do something about it and get a hearing aid, but keep finding reasons to put it off. I am ok in a quiet place one to one, but in pubs etc, I often can't hear a thing.

7. I am greedy. I love food and alcohol. Until I was 30, I couldn't put weight on. Now I can't keep it off. There is no excuse really. The one saving grace is that I don't have a sweet tooth. In my head, I have it all under control, but sadly much of the time the scales disagree.

8. I suffer fools badly. One thing I learned when I stood for the council and did a lot of canvassing was just how badly informed many people are. That is bad, but they are convinced they are a genius and know everything. Sadly, people are indoctrinated by newspaper such as the Daily Mail and The Sun and have many opinions that are completely unsustainable by a rational analysis of facts, but sadly they are unwilling to even look. Somehow, there are no trusted sources for many (apart from some dodgy video on Youtube by a bloke in Estonia apparently). It drives me to distraction.

9. If I find someone boring, I switch off. This is OK at the pub, but more problematical at work, when you are supposed to be listening to what people are saying. I try and be respectful, but I really can't stand crashing bores.

10. I believe there is a solution for every problem. My Dad actually pulled me up on this once. He said "You think there is a solution for every problem and you are right. The problem is, for some problems the only solution is a coffin"

I think a lot about my Dad at Easter. He passed in January 1987, but he was a man of faith and this was a time loved, as he said it was spring and the time of new life. Oddly I'd say most of my weaaknesses, I inherited from him. I wonder if he ever really worried about them? I wrote this song about the business he ran, Mac Metals crash repair shop and the individuals he employed in the 1970's. This sort of sums up the prevalent attitudes of young men in the 1970's in London.

Have a great Easter

Thursday 28 March 2024

What makes you have a hit record?

Having run a music studio and played in a band for 45 years, I've done a few gigs, seen a few artists come and go, at close quarters and seen a hell of a lot of gigs. I wish I'd kept a diary of all of them. These days, I take a snap and put it on Instagram to remind myself, but I actually remember very few details of any. The first few gigs I saw, I have pretty clear memories of, but for most, there may be a snippet. I was fully engrossed at the time, but when the gig finished, that was that really. Onto the next one. What I did remember were the bands that were good and the ones that were bad. The ones that were sort of OK ended up being forgotten. That is why I have no recollection of seeing some of the biggest bands in music. In fairness, when I saw them was before they really got their act together. I saw U2 supporting Modern Jazz at the Moonlight and Pulp at Pindar of Wakefield in Kings Cross and have no recollection at all. It takes bands a while to get top the point where you think "Wow, that is amazing". The gigs I saw were very much at a time before they became what we recognise as having their sound together.

Sometimes, I've seen bands that were brilliant that sunk without trace. Usually personal differences emerge before the bands get established. I was reminded of this by a tweet posted by the rather marvellous Gary Crowley.

I never saw the band Gary mentioned, but his post reminded me of a couple of bands that I'd been listening to earlier. As Mrs T was away, I had a little vinyly 45 frenzy. One band I mentioned in my response, was Cowboys International. I saw them at a Virgin records sponsored gig. They were pretty good and we were given a free copy of their single "The aftermath" which is a pretty good pop song. I thought they'd do well at the time. I never heard of them again, despite some heavy hype from Virgin Records for the single. 

There is an saying that success in music is 80% hard work, 10% luck and 10% talent. I am not convinced of the percentages, but the theory is sound. Sometimes, what I thought were surefire hits, got nowhere because the week they were released, something else by a bigger artist hogged the media attention. Sometimes, the timing is wrong. It is worth noting that Roxanne by The Police didn't trouble charts when it was first released in the UK. It was re-released and became a hit later. For whatever reason the timing was wrong. There are many songs that didn't get the re-release and were overlooked. One band that I'm a massive fan of, who had a string of what I thought were surefire hits in the 1970's that did nothing were Art Punks Wire, with only Outdoor Miner making the outer reaches of the charts. 

That was in the days when it was tangible to say what a hit single was. It was released on vinyl and an auditable number of copies were sold. Now? The charts are made up of all manner of stats, Vinyl/CD's/Downloads. WIth platforms like TikTok, something can have millions of plays, often with no one knowing what they are listening to. 

So what makes you have a hit single in 2024? Well a chart position is always something that is measurable. However, you'll make more money if your music is featured in a TV production than a UK chart placement. Just having people hear your music is no guarantee of success though. In 2011, a track I co wrote and performed called Spotlight was used by Manchester City FC for the backing music for their website goal of the month show. It got 11 million hits, but I am not driving a limo on the proceeds!

If you want to have a hit record, it helps to understand how the chart is compiled. This article details the process. To have a hit, you need to make your music attractive enough to buy a copy, download or watch on a video app. This can be quite daunting. Getting featured on popular radio shows or the Jools Holland show are still the best way to get a hit, although there is always the prospect of getting something to go viral on social medial. In my experience, a new band, with the best song ever written is unlikely to get a viral hit, unless they have a bit of clever attention grabbing marketing. This does not have to be expensive. If you are making a video, make it so that people circulate it and tell their friends. This will be a different process for every genre. In this era, getting noticed by social media influencers is absolutely key. 

So how do you do this? The best way is to find some sort of angle that makes it interesting and unique and impossible to ignore. What works well for a Country and Western track will be rather different to a Rap track. Often people see a great video and are inspired, but end up just doing a bad copy. My advice is to think what makes your track unique and any publicity pics, videos, clips etc you do, make sure you bring out the uniqeness of the music. A bit of originality will go a long way. Before you release it, test it on friends. If they aren't interested but tell you it's great, try something else. Try and make any video as dynamic as possible. If you can cut in things people talk about and get interested in, that works well. Quite by accident, my band had a mini hit a couple of years ago with a track called "The Burnt Oak Boogie". The plan was to film lots of scenes around Burnt Oak, then splice in the band being silly, but we ran out of time and just put the Burnt Oak scenes in. Within a couple of days of release, it had thousands of views. The reason?  The people who lived in Burnt Oak were excited to see their hometown in a video. There was a lesson there. The fact the song also mentioned places with a resonance helped. There was an old adage that if you wanted a hit, write a song with a girls name in. That way, everyone who knows a girl with that name will buy it. Van Morrison went one better and did "Brown Eyed Girl" that appealed to about 80% of the population. Artists like Morrissey go the other way. They go for a niche market appeal. If 98% of the UK population hates you, but  2% loves you, then you'll sell a million records. Morrissey connects with his audience, which when it comes down to it, is what sells records.

So the rule is to make music that connects with an audience. If people get you then you have a chance. 

Since releasing The Burnt Oak Boogie, our audiences have been great. There is a connection. What is your connection?

You can see The False Dots at the following gigs. Click the gig for tickets and details

Monday 25 March 2024

Even Tony Blackburn OBE is sick of the Potholes in the Borough of Barnet

Did I ever tell you my Tony Blackburn story? No? It's not really very exciting but about 25 years ago, I'd see Tony every Saturday morning and have a chat with him. My daughter was about three years old and he had a child of the same age. We'd both take them to the Wacky Warehouse soft play area (now the Harvester at the Green Man). Us old farts would wait outside whilst the kids played joyously for an hour. As parents do, we'd have a chat about various things. but as we both have a deep love of music, we'd often chat about obscure soul artists from the 1960's. Tony was spinning them on Radio Caroline when my sisters were playing them to me on the radio when I was the same age as our kids. I never dreamed I'd end up sitting with Tony whilst our kids did what kids do in soft play areas.

For Tony, the Wacky warehouse was a handy local resources, as he's a Barnet resident. I never discussed politics with him and he never expressed an interest in the issue. However, no matter how little you are interested in the subject, it can come and bite you on the bum. Last week, Tony posted this on Twitter

This blog has spent over a decade berating both Tory and Labour regimes over their total mismanagement of our roads and the repairs of potholes. Not only are these unsightly, it is only a matter of time before someone, probably a cyclist or motorcyclist is killed by one of these. Then the false economy of not maintaining roads will hit home in both tragic personal ways and financial ones as well as the family will no doubt sue. It is perverse that the government instructs the Police to fine and ban motorists with dangerous cars, but they can allow the road network to be lethal, with no comeback at all. 

The pothole plague of Barnet is nothing new. In 2018, when I was running as a candidate for Barnet Council, I charted some of the Potholes in Mill Hill, as well as detailing some ideas for fixing it. What was shocking was that the situation had got worse, not better since I first blogged about the appalling potholes in the Borough in 2010

Hopefully this tweet from such an esteemed character as Tony Blackburn might spark some action at the council. The thing that really annoys me is that this whole sorry situation is the result of some rather stupid false economies. My drummer works for Camden Council and tells me that the roads in Camden, which borders Barnet, are nothing like ours. The reason? Camden Council manage repairs properly. 

Back in 2018, I spoke to a senior executive working for a civil engineering company and asked why Barnet's potholes are so bad. The reason? They stopped inspecting repairs and allowed contractors fixing the holes to 'self certify' repairs. This means that to get paid, they'd snap a picture of the repair and send it to the council, rather than have a civil engineer come out and check it. I asked how to fix the problems. He suggested that Barnet should appoint a borough engineer, responsible for getting such things back on track. Ideally an experienced engineer, who had worked for contractors previously, with experience of the fiddles and short cuts. They would set up a team to ensure value for money with repairs and other civil engineering programmes. Ideally I'd prefer to see an in house team responsible for repairs. I am not a believer that councils get value for money paying contractors, where they have to cover the costs of profits for private firms. Having a team in house and instructing them to do proper, robust repairs in a Borough the size of Barnet would be a far more sensible approach. The outsourcing of everything has simply seen the Brough's roads crumble.Barnet

Sunday 24 March 2024

The Sunday Reflection #8 - What is old?

 Last night, my band did a gig at The Beehive in Bow. It was a bit of a schlep to get there, to play a venue that holds around sixty people. We wanted to do the gig as we've a few friends in that neck of the woods, who make the effort to come up North to see us, so we thought we'd return the favour. One mate of mine, who I used to work with, only lives around the corner.  He turned up and the early start (we were second support and played at 8.30pm) meant we could have a proper chinwag. He is being made redundant and was telling me he is set on retiring, if the finances can be sorted. He is someone who likes to enjoy life. He's going to New York on the Queen Mary to celebrate the end of his career in IT. He goes to gigs all the time and is a big supporter of our band. He was saying the best thing is getting to see the young bands who play with us. Last night, there were three excellent ones. If you like hardcore Rock Metal, there were Silvercain, if Indie Pop is more to your taste, Poppyshow from Exeter were fantastic, Exit were also great, with powerful bluesy riffs. When I was sixteen and started the band in 1979, the idea that I'd still be playing in a band when I was 61, with cool young bands would have seemed bonkers. My Dad was younger than that at the time and he seemed ancient. But here we are. 

Things have really changed since then. For my Dad's generation, born in 1917 and involved in WWII, when you turned 20, you were expected to get a job, be sensible and buckle down. When my Dad was 16, in 1933, Rock and Roll music didn't exist. For him, music was mostly something you had a dance to. He never really got my obsession with Rock and Roll. I think he felt I had a mental disorder being so obsessed with it.  Dad's idea of entertainment was jokes, glamourous dancing girls, magicians and crooners singing love songs and songs about the old times. His fave singer was Slim Dusty, who was an Aussie who had a hit with Pub with no beer. He simply didn't understand how a band such as the Sex Pistols or the Clash could even be considered music. The one artist to emerge from new wave that he liked was Ian Dury. Much to my disdain, he reckoned Dury was really a music hall entertainer. It took me a long time to realise he was probably right. I couldn't really have a chat with my Dad about music as he simply didn't get my obsession. I assumed that when you 'got old', that was what happened. You became obsessed with things that us youngsters considered hellishly dull. I assumed that the same thing would happen to me.

As my Dad passed away when I was 24 I never had the chance to speak to him as a parent. When we were young and silly, our parents would say grow up. We didn't want to, so it was a poor reprimand. When I had children, I thought that I'd fall into the pattern my Dad did. But I didn't. Whereas he gave up sport when he could no longer play cricket competitively., I played football until I was 60 and my ankle gave up. I'd have played forever and miss it. In some ways, I have morphed into my Dad. I have joined the Mill Hill Services club, started going to church again and we've been on cruises. But I never lost my love of music.

Last night was a joyous night. Our band played eight songs in 30 minutes. One was written in 1979, one was written in 1982 and the rest have been written since covid. What really is great for me is that the songs connect with a young audience as well as with our mates. Ian Dury is a big influence on my music. My Dad got one thing spot  on. People who made music like Ian Dury have something for everyone. 

So what is old? When are you too old to do the things to do the things you enjoy? For me, the truth is that you are too old when you can't do it. I am now too old for football as I physically cannot do it. Hopefully I've got another 20 years making music. I'll stop when I either can't or it's not fun. At the moment it is more fun than it's ever been. 

Just can't wait for our next gig. That is back on home turf in Barnet, supporting The Silencerz up at the Bull Theatre in Barnet, featuring Lee Thompson of Madness on Sax! It will be a blast. Get your tickets here The Silencerz plus The False Dots at The Bull Theatre event tickets from TicketSource

Saturday 23 March 2024

Dear Kate, welcome to the club no one wants to join

I'd never really paid any attention to the Princess of Wales, Kate Windsor before yesterday. Royal watching is not my thing. If you'd have asked me, I'd have said "We've got nothing in common". To the best of my knowledge, she's not a fan of Punk Rock or football and doesn't do beer and curry nights. What would we talk about? All that changed yesterday. I watched her short video on the news and nearly cried. I've been in that chair (not literally, I didn't make a video), I know what it is like to be told that you have cancer. In 2011, when I was told, I had an eleven year old son and my daughters were 14 and 16. The thought that I may not see them grow up was at the forefront of my mind. 

One thing I've learned is that you form a bond with other members of the club. It's like when I had a VW camper van. As you are driving along, if you see another camper van, you wave or flash you lights. With cancer, it is the same. If there's another sufferer, you don't need to explain. When you talk, you can speak openly and freely. You don't get asked the wrong questions. People who've not been through the mill, simply do not understand what it is like. Kate is in the early stages, when it is overwhelming. What has been truly awful has been the media circus around her health, the conspiracy theories have been horrible. I was completely baffled by the furore about the photoshopped picture. I photoshop pictures all the time, put filters on them etc, to make them look better or more interesting. We have old photo's of the family that had to some degree perished. During lockdown, I cleaned them up. So what? Why shouldn't Kate want to look good? Now she has been forced to go public. I hope the press leave her alone. I doubt they will

If Kate did want to come for a beer and curry, or a cup of tea and a chat in studio reception, what would I say to her? A lot of what you say when you chat to another person on the cancer journey is very spontanious. You simply cannot predict what they will be struggling with. Often it is highly irrational. For me, my biggest fear was that my missus would leave with the milkman, when I became permanently impotent following surgery. Luckily I am not, and she assurred me that was the last thing that would happen, but it did make me seriously consider declining treatment. When I opted for surgery, which hopefully will be a permanent cure, she was actually relieved and overjoyed. She felt that any sexual imparement was a small price to pay for having me around (I know, she's mad, that's why I love her). I am sure Kate will have similar dark thoughts about the future. 

I made the decision to be completely open and honest about my situation and write a blog about the progression of my cancer story. I would urge Kate to consider doing the same. Not because I have a salacious interest in her problems, but there are huge benefits. The first is that it is truly cathartic to write. I have no doubt at all that it has helped me. Maybe for Kate, a diary or a book might be better given the media frenzy around her, but just putting your thoughts and fears down helps. The second benefit is that it would encourage others to talk. Isolation and the thought "no one else understands what I am going through" is a powerful thing to do. The third is that it will give her the opportunity to control the narrative. If she puts it out there, there is nothing for the press to speculate about. I get that her kids are young and he wants to protect them. I've been on the other side of that. My mother was told that she had a terminal prognosis and had a maximum of three years to live in 1970. No one told me. I was told by a cousin that she was going to die and I'd be put in the orphanage, when I was staying with them whilst she was being operated on. It was devastating. I was seven. I asked my Dad as he was driving me to see my mum. He burst into tears, nearly crashed and then told me that the prognosis wasn't good, but he believed that with prayer, she'd come through (amazingly she did). He also told me that whilst he was alive, I'd never live anywhere but with him at home. Kids are cruel. That is the truth. I told my kids that I had cancer, but it was treatable and I'd be a round for a long time. It was the truth. What would I have told them if the prognosis was not that good? The truth, but in a slightly sugar coated fashion. Everyone has different considerations and it is for Kate and William to decide what works best for them. I just hope she still has a friendship group that can support her. Joining the Royal family puts her in a goldfish bowl.

And finally on the subject, what really strikes me is just how immature we are as a society when it comes to discussing cancer. I don't know anyone who hasn't been affected by cancer in some way. When we are told XXXXXX has cancer, the first assumption is that they are doomed. This is not true. It sounds to me like Kate's disease has been caught early and is most likely treatable. Screening for common cancers like breast and prostate cancer is the way to give yourself the best prognosis. I'd love to see Kate say that, when she is ready and in her own time. The first thing though, is for her to get her head around the whole thing. It isn't easy. Give her the time and space to do it.


About Rog T's cancer blog.

For those of you who are regular readers and have read the previous posts on Cancer, there's what this is all about. I write this blog because knowledge is power and if you know what you are dealing with, you have more weapons in the locker to fight it. It is a personal view, I'm not medically qualified. This is for the sole purpose of information for those who are interested.This is the latest installment in my occasional series about how I'm adjusting to living with a big C in my life. 

 For those of you who aren't, here's a quick summary. I'm 61 years old and in October 2011 I had a prostate biopsy following two "slightly high" PSA tests - 2.8 & 4.1. The biopsy took ten tissue samples and one of these showed a "low grade cancer" which gave me a 3+3 on the Gleason scale. I was put on a program of active monitoring. In early February, I got the results of the a PSA test - down to 3.5 and an MRI scan which found absolutely nothing, two more tests in 2012 were at 3.5 and 3.9, in 2013 my test was 4.0, Jan 2014 was 3.8, August 2014 was 4.0, February 2015 it was up to 5.5 and my latest in August 2015 was down again at 4.6. In October 2015 I had a transperinial Prostate biopsy, that revealed higher grade cancer and my Gleason score was raised to 3+4 (Small mass + more aggressive cancer). On 22nd Jan 2016 I had HIFU (Hi Intensity Focused Ultrasound) treatment at UCHL). 

My post procedure PSA in May was 4.0 which was down, followed by 3.7 in August, and 3.5 in October which means that the direction is positive . However in January the follow up MRI revealed "something unusual which requires investigation" After a follow up biopsy, it appeared this was nothing to worry about. My two most recent PSA tests were Ok (3.7 and 4.6) and an MRI scan in March was very positive. A PSA in October 2019 was 4.6, so stable and good news, the last in May 2020 was 5.45 a small rise, so worrying, however after a review against the most recent MRI, it was decided that this was fine. This was followed by two in February 2022 was 6.7 and October 2022 was 6.6 was stable. 

In March 2023 had an MRI scan that showed 'significant change'. This lead to a biopsy that indicated a tumour of 4mm that had a gleason score of 4+4. A PSA test in June saw a rise to 12. On 9th August, I had a radical prostatectomy and am currently recovering. 

Six months on, I am continent and have a degree of erectile function, assisted with Cialis

Got the picture?

Cancer is not a death sentence. With treatment, you can get past it and have a great life. I am still alive, to the extent that I am doing a gig tonight with my band, The False Dots at the Beehive pub in Bow tonight (Sat March 23rd). Please come along if you can! 

Here is a song I wrote to raise awareness amongst men of the need to get checked for Prostate Cancer

Thursday 21 March 2024

When everything else has gone, you still have music

 Have you ever reached that point where you just feel like you've had enough of it all, you can see no great reason to carry on and you can see no way out of the situation you are in? I was rather surprised to open the Guaridan this morning and find myself reading the story of the final few weeks of someone I vaguely know. They had stage 4 bowel cancer and took the decision to travel to Switzerland and end their life. They spent the preceding few weeks living life to the full and I presume took the decision to end their life before things became truly intolerable. I must confess that I found the article profoundly disturbing, on many levels. It is 100% clear to me that the law is not fit for purpose in this regard. It is obvious that Paola Marra was more than capable of making her mind up to visit Dignitas and it is ridiculous that anyone should risk prosecution by going with her, assisting her. I have reservations when people cannot demonstrate mental capacity, but where it is clear cut, someone has a disease like bowel cancer, where treatment paths are exhausted and all that you can be certain is that today will be bad and tomorrow will be worse, then I can't deny anyone the right to end it all at the time of their choosing and be around their loved ones at the moment.

Why this causes me so much angst is that I have two friends who lost children to suicide.  Like Paola Miller, we can only presume that they felt the situation was beyond hopeless, but unlike Paola, they were not in a good place when they made their decision and were clearly deeply troubled. Both seem to have been influenced by online material and I have little doubt that had things worked out a little bit different, at some point both would have been overjoyed that they survived. The thing that is sadly the same for both them and Paola, is that in the UK the law, the powers that be and the medical industry does not support their situation adequately. All have been let down. 

I have not been at the point where I have seriously considered taking my own life, but I have on three seperate occasions been at a point where it did, for a short period of time, seem a realistic option. The first time was when I was a very unhappy teenager aged 14 and I simply felt that I was living on the wrong planet. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, doing terribly at a school, which had an extremely oppresive environment. I had mates, but no close friends that I could tell anything at all to. The second time was when I was 22 and I had serious health (not mental health issues) issues following the breakdown of a very significant relationship and the band splitting up. I was living on my own in a horrible flat and the firm I was working for had just been taken over, the new firm were encouraging me to leave, as I didn't have a degree, which was a requirement for their technical staff. The third time was last year, on the day when I was told that my cancer situation was far more serious than I had expected and that I had to have treatment, which would, most likely, remove all erectile function. By a cruel twist of calendar, my wife was away at the time. I have never felt so low and lonely and for a couple of days was in a horrble place and I was extremely angry with everything, as well as rather depressed.

Each time, I was in a dark place. The circumstances of each time were very different, but oddly, the solution, for me was the same and I realised something last year that no one ever tells you. We come into this life alone and we leave alone. There may be people there, but whatever happens before we are born and after we die, it is a journey we make alone. I've always hated being alone. When I was a kid and may parents were not around, I heard every creak in the house. When I was fourteen, my folks went to Australia for three months, leaving me with my brother and his wife who were wonderful. When the returned at Xmas, I went home and realised that they really didn't want a stroppy teenager in the house. I felt very alone.

When I was 22, in my grotty flat, without the person I'd been with for two years, it was grim. Having no one to talk to, share a cup of tea with, chat to was horrible. I cannot imagine how prisoners cope with solitary confinement. When I had my cancer diagnosis last year, it was something I really needed to talk about, but no one was home (well the kids and the dogs were, but in some ways that was worse, I didn't want to burden the kids and the dogs were just too cheerful). 

What lifted me out of these troughs? From Xmas 1976 to June 1977 was awful for me. Then on 6th June, I saw The Ramones at the Roundhouse. I'd never really got music until then. It was revealation. Any depression lifted and I found my gang. I'd listen to John Peel at night, go to gigs and started planning a band. When I felt down, I'd put an album on. I bought a stereo system and some headphones and things became alright. Music healed my soul.

In 1984/5 when things were at there worst, I picked up my guitar. The band had split up, I was physically in very poor shape and had been hospitalised for an extended period following a stomach bleed. I started to play a few notes and realised that I couldn't make the noises I wanted. So I vowed to practice for three hours a day. For maybe three months, I lead a very Zen existence, where I would go to work, come home and then just practice guitar. I bought a Tascam Port-A-Studio and started to write songs. I then enrolled in a songwriting course. After a few months, I made the decision to get the band back together, with a new line up. The constant practicising, learning new chords and scales payed off. It was the one time in my life, where I really felt on top of the instrument. It chased the dark shadows away and let the light in.

Last year, when I was at a real low point, not knowing what to do, I decided that I would not have surgery. I would let the cancer take it's course and then do what Paola did when it became unbearable. My reasoning was that I'd have 2-5 years where I would still be fully functional and then, well so what? I ran a bath, took my phone and a speaker and put on my Wire playlist. I sat in the bath, in floods of tears, just wishing I was someone else, somewhere else and not going through this. I had never felt so alone. But then the music started to cut through. There is a line in the song "A mutual friend" that says

So precipitous a decision
Has clouded your vision
And altered the pitch of your tune
Please don't turn a deaf ear to the noises you hear
While savagely your love you prune

This really hit home. It was a wakeup call. Written by someone I don't know, for reasons I never understood, but for a few seconds, it unclouded my vision. I didn't feel miraculously OK. But a penny dropped. Whatever happens in life, I want music in it. Whatever happens, music is always there. It is an inspiration and a therapy. I followed the Wire playlist with a blast of The Ramones. It is impossible to be miserable for too long if you listen to The Ramones. I followed that by listening to one of my own songs, "Buy me a bottle of Jack", a song I wrote about facing up to living with cancer.

I realised I am not ready for the "Bottle of Jack" yet. There is still stuff to do. Yesterday, a Facebook friend asked what song do want played at your funeral. I gave my choice. I've told everyone that I want "I'm stuck in a Pagoda with Tricia Toyota" to be played. What I'd not given any thought to is what playlist I'd like playing for my final moments, as I drift to the next plane (assuming I don't get hit by a bus). (Maybe that will be the next playlist I put together).

I do wonder what people who do not have my deep love of music do when they are at rock bottom? For some, they never really listen to the lyrics, don't appreciate the playing and the solo's. It is just a pleasant noise in the background. I just don't get that. To me, it is a gateway to something or somewhere better. When I play with my band, it elevates me. The act of playing makes you focus. It is a good form of therapy. I was once asked whether I thought 'being a musician makes people self destructive" given so many young people who are musicians die early. I was flabberghasted. It is clear to me that the opposite is true. Being someone who needs something in their life and is struggling, makes music attractive and gives them a gateway out of the horrors that they otherwise may have to deal with. For some, even being in the finest bands in the world and writing the best music is simply not enough and they succumb to the grind that is life. But music gave them a reason.

There is more to life than simply existing. For me, when you lose everything you can still have music in your life. I've known this for most of my life, but only recently properly appreciated the fact.


My band, The False DOts are affirming life this Saturday! Live at the Beehive in Bow!
If you love a party, come on down. It will be fun, if it isn't I'll give you your entry fee back!

Wednesday 20 March 2024


A Guest blog by Claire Shah - MHMTC Chair

As Mill Hill Musical Theatre Company gears up to mark its 70th anniversary in 2024, we look to pay tribute to our operatic past, celebrate a present based in musical theatre sorely tested during lockdown, and strive to forge an exciting future that hopefully will see us around for another 70 years. 

We are lucky that we have an archive of material to review and are able to tap the memories of our President Grant Graves. His parents, Richard and Margery, formed Mill Hill Amateur Operatic Society (as it was originally known) in 1954, riding the crest of a post-war wave for live entertainment. Professional theatre had been decimated during the war, and there wasn’t much competition from other forms of leisure, with just one TV channel (ITV would come in 1955), three radio stations and, if you could afford it, cinema.  


Our first production, Gilbert & Sullivan’s satirical operetta The Gondoliers, was then itself 65 years old. A great success it was followed by Lilac Time and My Lady Jennifer, a mix of other G&S favourites, and the likes of The Merry Widow, La Vie Parisienne, Die Fledermaus and La Belle Helene.  Featuring large casts and bolstered by sell-out performances, the classics of the genre would form the backbone of the society.  


The full-blown productions were graced with amazing costumes and hand-made scenery and props constructed by Richard Graves and his talented team, including a collapsible grand piano for Bitter Sweet and a grand curving staircase for Perchance To Dream.  In the late 1950s, we began organising smaller social gatherings, accompanied by cheese and wine, which gave everyone a chance to do some more singing, and especially allowing chorus members to take centre stage. It also provided an additional opportunity to build our Patron numbers. 


Little did we know that these informal spring “Patrons’ Parties” would morph into somewhat bigger and more involved affairs, serving as a huge thank you to our Patrons for their invaluable support. They do, however, retain an intimate quality, which the cast enjoy as much as the larger shows. In addition, these revues encourage the less experienced or anxious member to build up confidence and enjoyment by taking on anything from a couple of solo lines to verses and even songs. We’ve had many young members go on after these Patrons’ Parties to audition for – and secure – parts in a main show. 


Moving into the 1960s, the focus – and the bulk of the budget – was still very much on the main shows. The group now used an orchestra rather than two pianos as at the outset with a young cast – some of whom are still with the Company to this day. The audiences were mainly from Mill Hill, and there were many groups who would block book performances in those days, notably the Church Women’s Guild, the WI, The Townswomen’s Guild, the Rotary Club, the Cottage Homes groups and the Anglo-American Club (though the latter were a noticeable no show on the night JKF was shot).  


One of the most crucial aspects of MHAOS that helped keep cast, Patrons and audiences committed was that the productions were excellently staged and performed. In the 1970s Orpheus And The Underworld, Princess Ida and Merrie England were staged for the first time. We would regularly get double-page spreads in the local press, which, added to excellent word of mouth, ensured shows were well attended. There was also always a rush by the cast to read the reviews garnered in the likes of Mill Hill Times 


As the 1980s approached, there seemed to be a pervasive shift in attitude from supporting amateur theatre to wanting to watch the professionals – either on screen or in the West End.  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were foremost in reinvigorating musical theatre. As a result, and during the relatively short and forward-thinking chairmanship of Sue Graves, we began sampling the likes of The Boy Friend and Salad Days within our Patrons’ Parties. It’s fair to say, that this was a seismic shift for MHAOS. 


However, within the Society, operettas remained a firm favourite, with stalwarts Gipsy Baron, Veronique, Tom Jones and the G&S hits getting repeated airings. Having the multi-talented Margaret Dewar as our accompanist was a big bonus (she also taught some of the casts tap dances routine on occasion). However, even the most popular and grand operettas suffered from casting difficulties – even for well-known Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, finding a strong tenor for the main role was becoming increasingly difficult (a recurring theme!).  


Turning into the Noughties, the committee continued to weigh up casting and audience appeal when choosing main shows – something that is still the case to this day. With a large and supportive group of Patrons, operettas remained our stock in trade. Musically we were still strong, with the baton having been handed to another group of engaging younger principals, although as is the case for lots of societies, these were mostly women, with the men still being in short supply. We were still satisfying our Patrons and our core audiences, but numbers were contracting, including on stage, with older members retiring and some younger cast settling down to  family life.  


I joined the Society in 2001, keen to get back on stage after a short break following my time in my university’s G&S Society. Coincidentally, my first show with MHAOS was The Gondoliers – our debut back in 1954 – and somehow, I was persuaded to direct the Patrons’ Party the very next year. In double-quick time, the group became a very big part of my life.  


While Grant was Chairman, the focus had turned to MHAOS being financially secure enough to withstand at least one financial failure if necessary. Thankfully, that never transpired, helped in part by having prudent treasurers. This cushion stood us in good stead, allowing us to make some bold decisions in the difficult years ahead. 


Audience numbers were dwindling. Primarily filled with our Patrons, the Gala performances, on Fridays and Saturdays, were always well attended and had a festive atmosphere with a light supper served during the interval. Those performances were always amazing, with a warm audience always appreciative of our efforts. The other nights were hit and miss – and when only 16 people attended opening night one cold Tuesday in October, it was clear to the committee, led by Chairman Chris Hubbard, that a shake-up was required.  


In 2008, the Tuesday night show was axed in favour of a Saturday matinee. However, in 2011, to improve audience numbers and to help with casting shows from within our membership, we made our first major foray into musical theatre.  


Our first show of that genre was an easy pick – Guys And Dolls, an iconic smash hit from a different era with a contrasting, more vibrant feel – a huge move away from operetta. Originally planned for autumn of 2010, it was moved to April 2011 due to a licensing issue: another break with tradition as our main shows had always taken place in the autumn half-term because many of our founding members were teachers.  


For the first time the Society advertised externally for a director and MD. We hit the jackpot with Robin Scarborough as director and music student James Murray as MD. We also threw a launch night, through which we secured some new members. It was a huge success – every performance sold out.  


It was a new era in more ways than one, as it was also our final production in the old Hartley Hall, which had been our much-loved home for 57 years. It was idiosyncratic, draughty and aged, but had a great stage, decent rehearsal rooms and loads of storage for our sets and props. We were also blessed that we could use it to build and paint our sets, a team effort lead by our clever stage manager Dave Smith, with Jill Kelly lending her artistic talents on painting. However, our noble Edwardian stalwart was to be replaced by a new community hub, complete with modern amenities and performance space.  


We therefore had the problem of locating a new base to rehearse and perform in for an estimated three years on a very limited budget. We found a temporary home at John Keble Church, slightly outside of Mill Hill – and, although we managed to stage three Patrons’ Parties there, it was not possible to perform a main show there in the autumn due to its arrangements with other long-standing users.  


In 2012, St Michael and All Angels Church, Mill Hill, played host for our spring event – a semi-staged production of HMS Pinafore which benefitted hugely from the building’s wonderful acoustics. Upbeat Broadway classic Kiss Me, Kate was to be our next autumn show, and after much searching, Copthall School (our half-term show dates working in our favour) in Mill Hill East was chosen as the venue.  


Our main issue with the loss of Hartley Hall, was not having a space to construct a set. Long-term member Angus Henney generously gave the use of his garage and driveway, where our set designer, Rob Barker (also our lighting director for many years), devised an ingenious set of reversible backdrops and flats. However, as Rob was in New York for much of this period, most of the work was carried out by cast and committee. Following his hand-written instructions was a challenge to say the least, with calls going back and forth to the US for clarification – plus, the weather definitely wasn’t on our side! Luckily everything came together and Kiss Me, Kate did very well – we were delighted to receive some lovely feedback from our Patrons about how enjoyable it was.  


Not having a proper base at this time made us very aware how lucky we had been in Hartley Hall and long for its return! We made the difficult decision not to find another venue to perform a main show in 2013 and opted to come back with a bang in the new Hartley Hall for our 60th anniversary in 2014.  


In 2013, we had made official our intention to move away from operetta clear by changing our name to Mill Hill Musical Theatre Company, and also updated our ancient website. While most people were supportive for this update, sadly we couldn’t hang on to some long-term members, who only wanted to sing the more classical songs. 


Wanting to celebrate our birthday with a real crowd-pleaser and mark our return to full strength with a vengeance, we chose Oliver! – including children in the cast would mean lots of their families and friends in the audience! It did throw up a lot of new and interesting issues, however, with the need for chaperones and extra rehearsals.   


It was a nervous time, as we awaited news of Hartley Hall’s reopening, even going as far as to pencilling in dates at an alternate venue. Thankfully, Hartley Hall was ready a few weeks before curtain up. While vastly different from the old hall – no wings and a much lower stage than previously – it looked great. We did, however, have a steep learning curve getting used to the new hall and using a hired set – we no longer had space to build or store one – and using microphones for the first time. 


Calamity Jane followed in 2015 and, although successful, some members wanted to return to the occasional operetta – the saving in not needing a performance licence was a definite bonus. In 2016, we staged The Pirates Of Penzance but, despite the cast having a great time, ticket sales were sluggish, and we had to reduce prices, including a two-for-one deal. The first night was notably problematic, as some of the cast and half the orchestra got caught up in a terrible traffic jam around north-west London and didn’t make it for curtain-up!  


Financially disappointed with our return to operetta, Sister Act was chosen as our 2017 production. An ambitious musical, there was plenty to keep the committee busy, but it did attract lots of new members – most of whom are still with us today. We were also lucky in finding the perfect and most simple set ever, from A1 Staging – giving us wings at long last!!  


The biggest difficulty we had, though, was getting an MD. With such a complicated score, it took a while to find someone willing and able to help. Thankfully everything worked out and the show was a total joy. The cast thoroughly enjoyed every minute, we sold out every performance well in advance of show week and received standing ovations every night. It was a big turning point for us.  

However, we still had people living in Mill Hill who said they didn’t know we existed. We decided to take a serious look at how we promoted ourselves, and make use of social media, etc, going forward. We know it is vital in raising our profile – attracting not just audiences but fresh blood to join the mix of more experience cast stalwarts who are the backbone of the Company. 


Moving to 2018, Fiddler On The Roof proved another huge hit, with every performance sold out, helped by the large Jewish community in Mill Hill. Through David Rose, who played Tevye, we secured the directing talents of David Coleman, who is now a great friend and supporter of MHMTC, having helmed two other shows for us. The production issues, however, included negotiating another massive set. Getting the cottage roof down a flight of stairs (it wouldn’t fit through the narrow stage hatch), was no mean feat – taking eight of us to ease it around several tight corners, avoiding various fire alarms, light fittings and a slanted ceiling! Pivot!


With a view to keeping our more traditional supporters happy, we staged Oklahoma! in 2019. At this stage, we were in a comfortable position financially and with our membership. But then things changed for us dramatically, as indeed they did for the entire country in March 2020, when we cancelled our spring Patrons’ Party weeks away from curtain up and went into lockdown. 


We had decided to postpone the week before lockdown was announced due to great concern from our audience, and some of the cast, regarding the spread of the virus. Little did we know at this point that the restrictions would last as long as they did, or that the pandemic would impact everyone’s lives for such a long time. We did, however, want to ensure that the Company stayed part of people’s live and routines during these unusual times. We therefore continued to meet each week on our rehearsal nights – through the miracle of Zoom – and staged play readings, bingo nights and quizzes. Eventually, we met up in the park when allowed to do so – socially distanced, of course! 


Prior to lockdown, we had chosen Made In Dagenham as our next main show. During that period, it became clear casting (unsurprisingly the male roles) would be problematic. We felt it was important to choose a well-known and loved show to encourage members to take part and audiences to come and watch! The obvious choice was Guys And Dolls – and proved to be an incredibly pragmatic and fortuitous decision. Still under heavy constraints, with the rule of six, etc, we held auditions without practising, staggered rehearsals with cast waiting outside rooms until they could go in, wore masks in the hall for the note-bashing, and taught choreography over Zoom – thankfully people had missed it so much, they were willing to endure these rules. 


We were also hugely fortunate to have the support of our Mill Hill community, both at Hartley Hall and the Sacred Heart church opposite. The latter was especially useful in that we had access to a large screen and projector which we could use for people isolating to join/lead rehearsals – this was especially vital when a month before the show, three of the lead principals (one of whom was also choreographer) all tested positive. As we wanted to make our audience feel as safe as possible, we reduced the capacity in the hall to allow for distancing. We were delighted that we sold out every performance and the atmosphere in the hall every night was electric. 


Kiss Me, Kate in 2022 was also a winner for us, playing out to packed houses, and garnering overwhelmingly positive feedback. We didn’t believe it was the right time to push a very modern show, or something we didn’t know would work. We felt we were building our brand and the audience’s trust that they would get a good night out, even if we put on something riskier.  


I became chair in 2021, taking over from Chris Hubbard, who had steered the Company through the rockiest time in our history, overseeing many changes with a steady hand. We all admire and acknowledge the diligent, unwavering work she did.  


I knew MHMTC still had a lot of work to do in attracting young cast members, changing perceptions, and making it a modern, slick outfit. We drew up a three-year-plan to take us a step closer to reaching that goal each year. Kiss Me, Kate was the launch point, with 9 To 5 the second step in 2023. We are hopeful that the iconic title track and the movie, plus the redoubtable Dolly Parton will attract a younger crowd, while keeping older audiences happy. 


For our 70th anniversary year, I was keen to stage a musical that would repeat the Sister Act effect for both our membership and audience. Calendar Girls: The Musical is that show! It’s definitely a leap into the unknown for us – and quite a test logistically – but the story is truly uplifting.
 We are delighted that Robin Scarborough is returning as director, working with our super-talented resident MD Ricardo Fernandes (who joined us in 2019). We can’t wait to get started! 


Our 2024 Patrons’ Party, Our Platinum Years, will be a chance to celebrate 70 years of the good songs and the wonderful shows we’ve done, while a special one-off performance in June of G&S staple Ruddigore will allow us to show old and current members where it all started.


Staging three shows in one year will be a challenge, with rehearsals for Calendar Girls and Ruddigore running at the same time – and not forgetting our quizzes and bingo and some festive social events for cast and Patrons. We are under no illusions that it is going to be a huge amount of hard work for the committee (and the cast), but we are also convinced that our MHMTC family and its future is worth every moment.  



Guest blogs are always welcome, especially when they support local arts and culture.