Friday, March 1, 2013


(This wee story was the basis for my first radio play. I hope you enjoy it x)                                         


People with a love of music should never teach recorder.

A vertical flute with a whistle mouthpiece, the recorder became popular during the 17th and 18th centuries for its sweet and gentle sound.  Neither of which is heard when played by a class of 12 year olds. 

“Gentle,” I say,  “Don’t be so hard on your instrument.”

A group of boys at the back snigger.
Music: the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time.   

I always wanted to be part of an orchestra.

It was a perfectly ordinary Monday morning. 
It was raining, as normal. 
The Fiat coughed at start up, as normal. 
There were road-works along the Elmbank estate, as normal.
And I arrived at the school at seven minutes to nine. 
(Precisely eight minutes later than I planned to arrive, as normal.)

“Morning Elspeth,” said Betty Jackson from Physics.  “Morning,” I said. 

Betty Jackson was a round woman with skinny ankles.  She wore a red jacket and a tartan skirt and reminded me of the bagpipes

“I almost didn’t come in today, after my Friday meeting with you-know-who.”

She meant Mr. Swithins. 

“School Principal,” she piped,  “Principal idiot more like.” 

Mr. Swithins was new to the school. He wore casual suits in autumnal colors, and drove a bottom of the range BMW. His nostrils were full and round and made many people think him arrogant.  I, however, was convinced he should play the nose flute. 

“Arrogant oaf.” Betty puffed. 

A BMW drove into the car park and the “arrogant oaf” himself got out. 

“Scheduled for eleven this morning Elspeth?” 

“Yes Mr. Swithins,” I said. 

My first love was the piano. The sounds so clear.  So ordered.  The keys like a big white smile. 
Then double bass, cello, harpsichord, zither… so many different incredible instruments as my ears opened up to the world of sound. 

If you care to look -or rather listen- there’s music in everything:  The horn of a car.  The buzz of a florescent light.  In a shout. Or a cry. Or a thank you. Or a yes.  Music in the road works on the overpass. 
I became a music teacher.  It seemed to make sense. 

Eleven am,  and the bell for the interval rang in a flat G.
I headed to the Principal’s office for my meeting with Mr. Swithins. 

“Please sit down, Elspeth ” he said, "I'll come straight to the point, if I may."

And I really was trying to listen, but the sun had come out and its rays bounced through the windows of his office. 
And there was a bubble of water in the radiators.
And a fly buzzed behind me (key of F.) 
And Mr. Swithins’ secretary tap tap tapped on a computer keyboard, next door. 
On the floor above someone was being reprimanded, for running in the corridor. 
And a breeze blew through the trees outside, shaking the leaves like a slow tambourine
And the music of the world was so clear.  So loud.

Mr. Swithins was talking. And his nostrils were so round. And full. And crying out. 

 “Mr. Swithins,” I said, “With those nostrils you have to learn the nose flute.” 

And the music of the world stopped. 
There was just the lone tick-tock of his battery wall clock.

Mr Swithins muttered that I probably had a class to go to. And I said, yes I did.

Tuesday started ordinarily enough, though Betty was already in the car park with Rena Johnson from Homecraft, when I arrived. 
If Betty’s the bagpipes, Rena’s the piccolo

“His secretary said,” Rena giggled, “Play the Nose Flute. Hilarious!” 
“Arrogant oaf,” Betty puffed. 

First class on Tuesday, is “Music Appreciation”. 
Normally it’s almost empty, because 15-year-olds “required” to take “music appreciation”, seem to prefer “loitering outside McDonalds” instead.
That Tuesday morning, however, the classroom was almost full. 

“Did you tell Swithins he was a pig?” said a pupil I hadn’t seen for a while. 
“Uhm…” I said, trying to remember Audrey’s name (It really had been a while) “Let’s get on with Music Appreciation” 

“Alright Miss.  But let’s appreciate our kinda music, and not your classical crap.” 
In the interests of harmony, I conceded her point.

A lot of heavy thumping, too much bass and some American gentleman discussing his homeys and hoes... 
(Apparently he has several.)
“Well that's very....interesting... Audrey,” I said. 

“Heard you gave Swithins ‘what for’,” said Tony Holloway, the Assistant Principal, in the Staff Room at lunchtime. 

“Oh, you mean the nose flute?” I said. 

The room erupted with laughter. 

“His secretary said he was floored,” chirped someone from the English Department. 

“Arrogant oaf,” piped Betty Jackson.  

It rained Wednesday morning. And the Fiat didn’t start straight away. And there were still road works. And I arrived at school much earlier than usual, because I hadn’t slept at all well the night before. 

I’d never meant to give Mr. Swithins’ “what for”. 
I’d been listening to music, that’s all.

I often listen to music.  I've done it since I was a child. 
When Mum died I listened to music. 
When Dad would shout, I listened to music. 
When they said I didn’t have the dexterity to be a pianist, I listened to music. 

To the sounds inside my own body. Then the sounds in my bedroom.  Then in the house. And the street. And the sky above. And the sounds of the world open up, and I am part of music. Of the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time.
And I am not alone. 

First class on Wednesday I teach, ‘Music History”. 

A tiny class - only three pupils - but entirely wonderful. 
We discuss Beethoven or Handel or Bartok or Stravinsky.  We play clarinet or piano or flute. And teaching is a joy and I am glad. 

Second class: more pupils “learning” recorder. 
“Alright everybody, get your instruments out.” 
A group of boys at the back giggle. 

Half way through the systematic slaughtering of a 17th century woodwind instrument, there’s a knock on the door. 
“Might I sit in?” 
“Certainly, Mr. Swithins,” I said. 
“The class are just about to treat me to another rendition of Blue Moon.” 

“Elspeth,” he said.  “I need to ask you a favor.”  

I set off an hour earlier on Thursday and though the Fiat coughed, and I was temporarily delayed by road works, I was bang on time for meeting Mr. Swithins. 

I was on automatic pilot during the morning classes before rushing back to the Principal’s office. 
After break, Music Appreciation. 
Audrey had appeared again. She wanted to 'appreciate' more of her music.  

Lunchtime I spent with Mr. Swithins, then in the afternoon, “Music History”. 
We talked about Edgar Watson Howe who said, “When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had and never will have.” 

Last class of the day -  Recorder. “Blue Moon”, they played. 

On Friday, my heart pounded as I got into the Fiat.  As I passed the road works and even still when I arrived at the school at seven minutes to nine.

“The man is mad,” piped Betty as I locked the Fiat.  “A whole school assembly and him and his nasal cavities a laughing stock.” 

The assembly room was packed.  Mr. Swithins sat on the stage at the top of the room alongside Tony Holloway the Assistant Principal. 
Pupils giggled and whispered. 
The occasional expletive broke out between two dueling 16 year olds. 
The sound of people gathered for an execution. 

Mr. Swithins stood up.  “Check that schnozz,” yelled a 15 year old to nobody in particular. 

People collapsed in laughter.  Teachers professionally outraged looked for the culprit.  Tony Holloway looked smug.  But Mr. Swithins said nothing.  Instead, he fumbled in his jacket, pulled out a nose flute and began to play. 

16-year-old boys cackled. 15-year-old girls tutted unimpressed. 14 year olds elbowed eachother. 13 year olds giggled and hid their faces behind their bags. 12 year olds sat bewildered.
But on Mr. Swithins played. . 

Blue Moon, you knewjust what I was there for.  You saw me saying a prayer for… 

“What’s he doing?” squeaked Rena the piccolo. 
“Lost it,” puffed Betty the bagpipe.
“Oh dear”, smirked Tony Holloway.
And still Mr. Swithins played. 

Then some of the 13 year olds pulled out their recorders and joined in.  Two rows back from them, the grade above began to stamp their feet. 
Then one by one, more recorders emerged from school bags. 
The higher grades - taking this as a sign to make as much noise as possible -stomped and sang along. 
Yet still Mr. Swithins played. 

Some teachers laughed.  Some clapped.  Some feigned disinterest and looked at their watches.  Tony Holloway gulped.
And recorders were screeching and feet were stamping and hands were clapping and the whole assembly room was alive with banging and whistling and singing and clapping and Mr. Swithins’ nose flute. 

It was the worst version of 'Blue Moon' I have ever heard, and the best at the same time. And I found myself laughing out loud. 

When it came to an end, the room fell silent.  
Mr. Swithins spoke.
“This week I learned I should play the nose flute.  I thought I’d give you my first tune.” 

There was a cheer. 

“Thank you. Until recently, I’d no idea I had such exceptional nostrils.” 

“You’re Dumbo ‘cept with a trunk,” shouted someone.

The room erupted. 

And Mr. Swithins laughed, then said: 
"My point is education is not always easy.  Some lessons are tough to learn. But often, those things that make you feel vulnerable, stupid and alone, are often really just talents in waiting.   Not knowing is not weakness.  Not not-knowing is weakness.”

Mary from the English Department clapped.  As did several other teachers.  I found that I did too. 

“Uh, what did he say?” said the girl sitting next to Audrey. 
“Dunno. That being crap at everything’s actually a talent…I think” said Audrey. 
“Oh?” said the girl, and joined in the clapping. 

“Let’s make this school a place for us all to learn.  No matter how difficult the lesson. All of us listening, talking, cooperating, myself included.  No excuses, no 'can’t dos".  Only can’t do yets.”

Then it happened.  
My stomach rumbled.
And my watch was ticking steadily on my wrist.  Above me a faulty bulb flickered and buzzed.  And 400 people breathing.
Outside, the traffic hummed on the ring road. Further off, a pneumatic drill. And somewhere high above, an airplane jetted off to distant climbs. 

“Miss Harvey!” 

And 400 faces turned to look at me. 400 faces - and not a sound in the world.

"Yes, Mr Swithins?"

“Thank you.” he said.

And right then - as the traffic hummed on the ring road, and the wind blew the leaves through the trees, and the water bubbled in the radiators, and a fly buzzed (key of F) and the sound of my breathing,  joined the same wondrous chorus of everyone's breathing in the rest of the room -  my whole heart sang.

I always wanted to be part of an orchestra.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cold hard talk

Bloody hell it's cold here in LA. And don't bother asking me the temperature because I'm very very confused - partly due to the cold and partly due to the fact that when I learned about measuring temperature at school it was all done in Celsius,  so I know that freezing is 0 degrees Celsius and  boiling water is 100 degrees Celsius,  but over here with its Fahrenheit and whatever,  I have no idea. I just know it's cold.

I've considered that it might just be because I'm coming down with something, or maybe because I'm getting older and then it's dawned on me,  I have become a complete and utter woos.

On a weekday morning, some little gadget that Mark put up in the kitchen tells me it's 50 degrees of something outside and I go through some sort of bizarre grammar lesson with my kids.
"Boys, get a jacket are you warm enough?"
"Is he warm enough?"
"Does he look warm enough to you?"
"Are you going to be warm enough?"
"Is it warm enough outside?"
"Do you think they'll be warm enough?"

EVERY morning. I even annoy myself.

And the worst of it is, I grew up in Scotland, where at times it was freezing.
My brother and I would walk the mile to school in all weathers, wearing the worst type of weather clothing in the world.
Every year, going back to school after summer would be marked by the arrival of a new- or often, as I was the youngest, in my case, a handed down duffle-coat.
Part of me believes the duffle-coat might have been invented by Dick Cheney. A great big heavy lump of a garment that restricted your arm movements and nipped at your fingers with the toggles. No matter what the weather, you were guaranteed discomfort.

In Autumn - or Fall as it's called over here - sure it might keep off the wind, but walk more that a couple of yards in it and the sweat begins. Open the duffle-coat and it catches in the wind like a giant heavy sail, so closed it stays, wrapped around you like your own personal sauna.
Are you warm enough in there?
Frankly, I'm bloody melting.

In Winter when it snows, you better hope there's not a snowball fight, because you'll be done and dusted before you've ever managed to manoever a gloved hand to the ground to scoop up some snow And as for throwing, forget it. There's no way your arms are gonna launch anything.
But worst of all the rain. And in Scotland, rain can make an appearance in any season.

A wet duffle-coat is one of the least pleasant feelings in the world, for the water soaks into the wool rather than running off,  and the coat takes on twice the weight and smells a little like the sheep that so kindly offered up its fleece in the first place.
And there's no way out without battling through the leather and wood toggle trap.
I sometimes wonder if they called depression "the wet duffle-coat"  more people would be understanding as to what it was.

I know my schooldays were 30 years ago and I am certain the duffle-coat has evolved enormously since then, but some memories stick. I'm sorry makers of duffle-coats, whoever they may be, but there'll be no future custom from this house. Just put it down to sins of the fathers.

In the mornings, when I am barking out my "warm enough" grammatical exercise  my 10 year old says to me, "Calm down Mom, there are worse things than being a little bit cold."
And I think to myself, he is wise beyond his years.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Birthday!

I've noticed my blogs have been a little melancholic of late, so I’m aiming for one with a practical tone. 

Just over a year ago, Mark and I had an idea. (we'd had ideas before, don't get me wrong, but it was one of those ideas that wouldn't go away.)
Over a glass of wine, I was complaining about how workwise, everyone seemed to want a "half hour" of scripted comedy, and that unless you were driven by some great idea, it was pointless writing yet another half hour to be added to the pile.
 “If I have to write a half hour, ” I said, “I’ll write 30 individual little minutes”
“How would that work?” Mark asked, pouring me another glass.
“Easy,” I said, “Like the Google Doodles. You know, something based on this day in history, but delivered as a joke. A different minute every day, delivered by a different performer.”

The next day, he set about building a green screen studio in the room above the garage,  and despite the fact that till we moved to LA,  Mark had been Mr Suit and Tie Ministry of Defence (or stateside 'defense') Consultant,  set about learning how to light, shoot and upload video.

We shot five vids, just with me talking to camera - and even though they were pretty rough, bizarrely and magnificently, we managed to rope in an amazing line up of performers such as Alfred Molina, Bradley WalshGina Yashere and John Thomson literally in our first two weeks of shooting.

Less than 4 days of shooting and we had well over out 30 minutes. A brilliant designer friend came on board. We had an identity.
And the performers kept coming:  Cold Case star Jeremy Ratchford and Disney star, Brian Stepanek, movie actress Kathy Baker and novelist Colette Freedman, actor and presenter Ross King. All good friends.

Soon, Mark and I acknowledged we were going to go for the whole calendar year and that we’d shoot, edit and upload a video every day until it was done - a ridiculous decision as the urban legend that viral videos make people millionaires on YouTube is really just a legend.
True, some people do make millions, but just like not every software programmer turns out to be Mark Zuckerberg, not every YouTube video goes Gangnam style. We battened down the hatches, tightened belts and forged ahead.

Mark decided we needed a teleprompter and promptly set about building one out of wood, (don't ask).

I took my first shot at show running: scheduling, assigning and emailing dates, writing, and collecting scripts, arranging shoots.
We explained to everyone involved that we weren't paying anything. That technically, really there was nothing in it for them other than us taking up their time, but everyone came and did it anyway, sometimes even in the middle of a vacation like Stephen K AmosJack Docherty and Moray Hunter and Greg Hemphill.

The past 12 and a half months have been kind of mind blowing.

We’ve had writers from pretty much all continents emailing me jokes for no more thanks than an end credit, logos and titles and corporate identities designed for nothing more than a thank you, all manner of great, clever and talented people have been gracing our little studio in the room above the garage,  performing little stories about what happened on this day in history for completely no money -  and merely the off-chance of a bowl of homemade soup, or maybe a bit of quiche if they're lucky – even our two kids have even taken to it, performing possibly my favorite tribute to Elvis Presley ever.

But we set out to do 30 minutes and then a year and now we’ve pretty much covered what we set out to do….except…

We’ve had such a brilliant time, we’re going to continue. Not uploading every day any more – the videos are becoming longer and too complex to do that.
Aside from that Mr. Tweddle has a hankering for a job outside the green screen studio, (maybe even wearing a suit and tie like the old days, or maybe not)
And me?  I’ve had this notion for a scripted half hour….

So we're going to make the move from being calendar bound, to character bound.
Instead of 7 uploads a week, maybe just two or three.
Astronomy will still be sexy. Kurtwood Smith will still be the "Bing Crosby of comedy". Kathy Baker will still be as wise as the sphinx. Meanwhile Alfred Molina is introducing a new character to go alongside Fabio the Italian dentist and Nigel in the Laundromat, and our great assortment of just bloody brilliant and bizarre performers, will still be turning up to shoot in the room above the garage somewhere in North Hollywood.

And though I promised this would be a practical blog, just typing it, I find myself getting pretty sentimental.

I’ve learned a lot this year, about video production and the world of online and a mountain of trivia about what happened on certain days in history.

Mostly, I’ve learned though that there are some people who will do amazing things for a bowl of soup or a slice of quiche or a thank you and that to those people I will always be indebted.

Thank you all, you mad old bunch.