Monday, May 28, 2007

Where Marabou Feathers Come From

While I was home for a few days last week, my dad and I decided to go out on a little day trip to a nearby stately home that has a rather spectacular Bird Garden.

One of the first enclosures we passed contained a couple of enormous and frankly rather grizzled looking storks, with bald heads and necks, and ferocious-looking beaks. They use their beaks for picking at carrion, and have evolved without feathers on their heads and necks to stop the blood of the dead animals they feed off from sticking to their plumage. I didn't like the look of them much, and was ready to move on to the aviaries with all the pretty birds of paradise in, until I noticed the name on the sign.

They were Marabou Storks.

Stephane made me a flamboyant and voluptuous coat about a year ago completely covered in pink Marabou feathers, and I don't know why, but I somehow imagined them as coming from small cute pink birds - if I even imagined them coming from birds at all. I suppose I hadn't really given it much thought... until I saw those great big ugly fowl stomping about in their pen. The notice on the enclosure fence said that although the birds weren't yet an endangered species, their numbers were becoming severely depleted owing to the popularity of their inner tail feathers for use in ladies' hats and haberdashery. That's me, that is.

I had a good look at their tails, and there really weren't very many of the fluffy little feathers like the ones on my coat, even on those massive, fully-grown birds (and they weren't pink, they were white). I wondered how many of those gargantuan creatures had died to make my coat.

I've always considered my predilection for glamour to be a relatively benign hobby, but it made me realise that it's not as harmless a pursuit as I always thought it was.

Consider the lilies of the field. What do they get for looking beautiful? They get chopped from their roots, wrapped in plastic, shipped halfway across the world and then plonked in a big glass vase for the likes of me to enjoy looking at.

Arum lilies have always been my favourite flowers – but I've recently noticed how lovely they look growing in gardens and on balconies around Stoke Newington: they've got big lush leaves that elegantly complement the fine white flowers I've always loved.

Maybe I should stop buying them from the florist and grow a bush of them in our garden instead.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The End Of The End Of The World

I am still in a deep blue funk after The End Of The World Variety Show reached the end of its 7 week run on Friday night.

It's looking very likely that it will be back in a few weeks time, but even so, I felt really sad saying goodbye to everybody on Friday - because I've been a performer long enough to know that you can never be 100% sure of anything until it's penned in your diary, and quite often not even then.

There are so many reasons why it's been brilliant. It's been brilliant being part of a company, and working with performers who do so many weird and wonderful things - I never met a man who makes his living juggling a glass ball before. And Matt Hennem is not only a mesmerising performer, he's also one of the loveliest and most fascinating people I've met in a long time. Mind you, he has stiff competition from the other guys and girls in the show: I want Irene the tap dancer to give me tap lessons, and the beautiful Gemma with her extraordinary soul voice to come and sing and wow the crowd at the open mic night I host. And Jack the guitarist, who walked me home to my door at 4am on Friday, turns out to be a Stoke Newington neighbour, so I'm pretty certain I haven't seen the last of him either.

It's also been brilliant coming back to the same venue every week and gradually getting to know everyone a little bit better, so that by the end even the apparently surly Nigel Burch of the Fleapit Orchestra was ballroom dancing with me around the hall.

And having the chance to sing non-stop for an hour every week has been brilliant, because it's given me so much practice, and really got me into a new place as a singer, where I could start to relax into the music. After the first couple of weeks I felt comfortable with the venue, and familiar with the sound set up, and Connie and I felt comfortable with each other as a duo, and it meant I started to sing for the sheer love of singing. Because we were the warm up act it wasn't my job to command the undivided attention of the crowd, and even that was quite relaxing, because it meant we could just get into the music without worrying about doing lots of attention-grabbing patter. In fact, I think it's taught me, more than anything else, that I don't need to talk at all to get the audience's attention. I can just sing. And I think I'm going to do a lot less talking all round in future.

This Friday, Earl Mysterio came with me and played guitar instead of Connie on piano, because Connie has been at the Small Worlds music festival all weekend, sitting in a field with her little travelling guitar, joining in jams for 48 hour stretches and such like. Mysterio found it quite tough, and said it felt like "playing through a sock" but Jack, the guitarist who accompanies Gemma in the show, reassured us that we sounded really strong, even if we couldn't hear ourselves. I like singing with just the guitar as much as I like singing with just the piano - it brings out a different sort of flavour, and I find myself going for a more melancholic, soft kind of mood, whereas Connie on piano often brings out the bounce in me. Mysterio and I are going to do a wedding together in July, with Fitz on trombone, and I think it will sound rather lovely. Where the piano provides a very full accompaniment, the guitar is somehow more spartan, and more intimate. Having said that, it's high time we got the full band together again for another full-on party gig as well - hopefully with dancing. I get a real kick out of seeing people dancing to our music. I reckon we all do. Who knows, maybe when The End Of The World comes back, The Fleapit Orchestra might need a night off sometime, and James will book the full band... and then we can work out a number for the Lady Greys to dance to as well.

Me and Sophie who runs the troupe weren't the only ones talking about collaborations by the end of the night on Friday. Not only are we getting excited at the prospect of joining forces and choreographing a number with the Lady Greys singing and dancing along with the Slinktet, but Barry and Stuart the magicians also came up with the idea of getting the Lady Greys to saw them both in half live on stage. I suggested that maybe I could write a 'sawing in half song' to accompany the spectacle. There followed lots of drunken attempts to come up with brilliant rhymes for 'saw' and 'half', after which Stuart concluded that it could be the worst song I ever sang.

Actually Connie is working on composing a special "End of the World" song already. I really hope I get the chance to sing it when the run starts up again. Please come back. Oh please come back...



Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I was in Driffield on Saturday, a pretty little northern country town near Hull, where cars have to slow down to let ducks cross the road, and there's still a Saddlers on the high street (disappointingly not selling saddles any more... but at least it kept the name). I was there for my nephew's baby naming ceremony, which was a lovely familial feast with babies crawling and squawking everywhere, getting chocolate down their white outfits, and a barrage of camera flashes capturing every moment for posterity.

My 2-year-old niece Lily has developed a particular fascination for fridge magnets, and had managed to break her granny's Prague fridge market into several pieces. My brother was demonstrating his Dad skills by sticking it back together with superglue. He also managed to stick his fingers together, which is, i think, obligatory for anyone using superglue, but luckily they came apart fairly quickly with little apparent pain.

I had a sudden flashback to the week before, when I was sitting in a Soho coffee shop chatting to burlesque star Roxy Velvet... and she pulled a little tupperware pot out of her holdall, full of false nails. While she chatted, she started applying superglue to them and sticking them on to her real nails one by one, in preparation for her red carpet appearance that evening at the International Burlesque Festival. She got distracted at a crucial moment, and stuck her fingers together by mistake... but luckily she managed to prize them apart in the nick of time, before the glue set...

I told my brother and my sister-in-law's sister's husband (what's that, a brother-in-law-in-law?) about the last use of superglue I'd witnessed, and my brother-in-law-in-law commented that it sounded like a glimpse of an exotic and glamorous world that was a long way away from his (which currently alternates between building sites and a beautiful 6-month-old baby daughter).

I think there's something reassuringly everyday about the fact that even in Roxy's world of fabulous glamour there's still room for something as practical and ubiquitous as superglue, even if it is being put to a rather different use.

The Prague fridge magnet was back on the fridge by the time I left the party - right at the top, safely out of two-year-old reach, and looking only slightly the worse for wear.

And my brother-in-law-in-law's daughter fell asleep in my arms, which made me very proud that despite all my messing about with false eyelashes and elbow-length gloves, I could still keep it real enough for a baby to nod off on me.



Tuesday, May 15, 2007

a heady week of gownage, gadgetry, and glamour tobacco

There's been so much exciting stuff going on that I've been dying to write it all up in my blog - but it's one of life's ironies that the more there is worth writing about the less time there is to write about it. So this is going to be a bit of an omnibus edition.

This time last week I was getting ready to go onstage at Volupte with the rest of the Slinktet, to a select audience of 60 of our nearest and dearest, and 5 video cameras. I was twittering with nerves, and Denise the co-owner of Volupte gave me a shot of black sambuca to calm me down. But instead of drinking it I managed to knock it all over the bar instead. Reminds me of the guy with the drink problem in Airplane who kept missing his mouth. I quite often have that problem when I'm nervous.

We ended up with a director, 5 camera operators, and 5 sound men, which was a pretty impressive crew considering they were all doing it for love (and I did give everybody a thank-you bottle of wine as well). We'd spent the afternoon in the wilds of darkest Stratford, hiring the cameras and monitors from an arts venue cunningly located in the centre of Stratford's busiest road junction. This meant that as well as bass, bass amp, guitar, effects pedals and guitar amp, plus gown and make-up bags, our longsuffering little Micra also had two camera bags, two massive tripods, three monitors and a battery pack rammed into the back of it, and the equally longsuffering Beloved had to lug it all in and out of the car as well. As someone pointed out (I think it was Dan, who came along to operate one of the cameras) music and filmmaking are possibly the two most equipment heavy occupations it is possible to find, and combining the two on one night was bound to be a killer.

In a way, all that running around was quite a useful distraction to stop me angsting about my actual performance. In the end I just about had time to stick on my false eyelashes and make a few warm up siren noises (which annoyed Honey no end). The siren noises are great - it's all about making as much noise as possible without worrying about sounding pretty, or even whether or not you're hitting the note (because siren wails don't have notes). Doing siren noises as loud as possible gives me flashbacks to my childhood and my mum barking "Give up yorping" at me. Now I'm a grown-up I can yorp with impunity. Hooray. Richard my singing teacher wants me to do my siren noises every morning, but Beloved is mysteriously not keen.

So the gig itself went by in a blur, as they generally do, but I think I remember enjoying it. The matching pink ukeleles were a big hit - although mine just looked pretty and wasn't actually making any sound through the PA (which was probably lucky, since I only started learning a few weeks ago and I'm still a bit more hit and miss on it than Honey). I found out a couple of days after the gig that Bobby Fresh had been sitting at his drumkit reading the paper behind me while I was pouring my heart and soul into my ballad "Well I didn't want you anyway" - which I thought was admirably cheeky behaviour for the drummer of a "cheeky Jazz" band. I don't think he was the cheekiest of the night though, that award probably goes to the 5th camera operator who did a runner without paying his tab. Although come to think of it when I offered him his thank you bottle of wine he did mutter something about having had two glasses at his table: perhaps I wasn't perceptive enough to realise he was asking me to pick up his tab.

It'll probably be a while before the video is finished - poor Phil the editor has got 10 hours of footage to trawl through before he even begins putting anything together - but I'm so taken by the added glamour that a load of cameras lend to an evening that I might set them up at all our future gigs from now on. There wouldn't be any film in them, they'd be purely for decoration.

Next day, I was wandering through Soho after coming out of a meeting about the day job (writing stuff) when I bumped into Burlesque starlet Roxy Velvet, who was exuding vintage glamour in red lipstick, fabulous sunglasses, a tweed pencil skirt and red patent heels. We decided to go for coffee, but on the way Roxy popped into a newsagents to buy 20 Vogue menthols. I was thrilled - a cigarette named after me? They shouldn't have. No, they really shouldn't have, because of course I had to buy a packet. Every single long slender white cigarette has my signature on it. It's uncanny. Seriously, check it out. Here's a picture of the packet:

and here's my signature:

Now of course this didn't help my battle to resist the lure of tobacco at all. The only advantage was that the cigarettes looked and tasted so fabulous that everyone else was nicking them off me all week, and they were gone by the weekend.
Next stop for me and Roxy on our way to coffee was a haberdashers selling the most enormous feather boas I'd ever seen in my life. Roxy tried the turquoise one on for size and decided that £130 was very reasonable for such a piece of exquisite frippery - but she didn't have the cash on her just at the moment. I find it reassuring to think that as soon as I have a spare £130 burning a hole in my pocket I'll know where to go.

And then we bought a couple of lattes and Roxy told me all sorts of colourful tales about her past which were just as sensational (in every sense) as you'd expect, but which of course discretion prevents me from sharing with you.

On Thursday I was back on stage again, in a former chapel on the Isle of Dogs, with a grand piano, but without a microphone. It was the opposite extreme to Tuesday's gig's embarrassment of audio and visual gadgetry... I had nothing but my own lungs to create enough sound to fill a room. Luckily I also had my gowns to provide enough visual spectacle to get me through my 20 minute set, but to my relief I did succeed in making enough noise to be heard, which is thanks in no small part to the encouragement and tutelage of Richard Link, my singing teacher. While drinking in the bar afterwards, Jamie Anderson the host and Jo Jolly one of the other performers on the bill both admitted that they'd been as neurotic as I'd been about having no mic to sing through (whilst helping me get through my packet of Vogue Menthols). Andrew Pepper even brought along a microphone stand to use as a prop for his performance. His particularly colourful use of the stand during his number about auto-erotica was one of the most memorable moments of the evening.

Thursday was a wonderful experience, but I was very glad to have a mic back in my hand again on Friday for The End of the World variety show, when I polished off most of the rest of my Vogue Menthols, with a bit of help from Janet, the venue manager. The rest of them fell out of their packet into the bottom of my bag, but Sophie, the leader of the showgirls troupe The Lady Greys, saved them from a total mashing by suggesting I tip the contents of my bag onto the floor and rescue them that way.

When I went for my singing lesson yesterday, Richard commented that my voice was much lower and much less "present" than usual - perhaps, he wondered, I was tired after my 3-gig week... or had I, perhaps, been smoking? I confessed that I had, and it was obvious to me even without Richard pointing it out what a negative effect it had had on my poor dessicated vocal chords.

So no more Vogue menthols for me. No really. I mean it.

I'd brought along the sheet music to "What are you doing the rest of your life" - a song I recently fell in love with after finding a track of Dusty Springfield performing it with what is possibly the most beautiful vocal I have ever heard: it glides along the mad scales of the song like a river of pure honey. Richard not only knew the song well, he also lent me a whole book of the composer, Michel Legrand's songs -which include "The Windmills of your Mind" (my dad's favourite song), and "I will wait for you", the theme tune to a beautiful French film called Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, which is a delicious visual and aural confection entirely in song from beginning to end (even the mundane moments where people ask their neighbour if they'd like a cup of tea, or discuss whether their car needs a new clutch). Richard played a song of Michel Legrand's called "You must Believe in Spring" which I sight read over his shoulder, and which made me burst into tears, it was so poignant and lovely. I want it sung at my funeral.

I realised today how totally absorbed I'd become in the world of music for the last week when I was wandering along Stoke Newington High street and saw a sign for "Fresh Bass". For a moment I wondered how a musical instrument could be described as "fresh" until I realised I was actually walking past a fishmongers.



Thursday, May 03, 2007

Soft Pedal Peg

Connie Vanderlay has come up with an intriguing invention to combat un-neighbourly noise.

After a rather fraught rehearsal a month or two back, when our rumbustuous rendition of Honeysuckle Rose was interrupted at every bar by angry banging on the ceiling (lighten up mate, it wasn't even ten o'clock...), Connie has gone to inventive new lengths to avoid more aggressive complaints from her neighbours.

Last night she pulled off the front of her piano to show us her ingenious invention. She had attached a clothes peg to the rod of her soft pedal, which held the hammers nearer to the strings when the soft pedal was depressed, making the piano even quieter.

Of course I completely undid all her good work by demonstrating exactly how loud I could sing top A (or whatever it was, feel free to correct me, Connie) at 10.15pm. It was a very childish thing to do, and quite unpleasant for Connie and Honey, who were both within two feet of me at the time, let alone the neighbours. I don't know what came over me - the only possible explanation I can offer is that I'd been having a singing lesson just the day before at which the lovely Richard had been encouraging me to make as much noise as I could. He even lets me make siren noises, it's brilliant.

I'm not sure if Richard is aware that by encouraging me to shake off my inhibitions and sing at full operatic volume in a built up area, he has unleashed a monster...

still, as forms of rebellion go, I suppose it's relatively benign being a human noise pollutant.

Maybe I could get a peg for my throat...