An email from Luxembourg

Map of Europe highlighting location of Luxembourg
Map of Europe highlighting (in red) the location of Luxembourg

Last night I received an email from Luxembourg. I had to look up on Google Maps to remind me where Luxembourg is. It’s in Europe (I knew that), near France (I knew that too), and next to Belgium and Germany (that’s the bit that I’d forgotten).

The email was inviting me to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in April to a dual celebration: the baptism/christening of Georgina and the 40th birthday of her father, my dear (and sensible) friend Jonny Grocock.

Danny Curtis, Gareth Saunders and Jonny Grocock sitting on a car in 1993
Danny Curtis, Gareth Saunders and Jonny Grocock sitting on a car in 1993

I first met Jonny in December 1988 at St Elphin’s School, Darley Dale on my first National Youth Choir of Great Britain (NYC) course. That was the night the water pipes broke and we were all evacuated to the library at around 3:00 am.

The burst pipes had nothing to do with NYC.

Nope. Nothing. Nothing at all. Well…maybe just a little bit.

But not me: I was asleep. Being sensible.

That’s what I was like in those days. It was my first NYC course and I woke around 2:30 am to the sound of running water. I just assumed that this was an NYC tradition: showers in the middle of the night of the first night of a course.

It could happen!

Jonny, Danny Curtis and me all became Social Secretaries in NYC in 1993, after the first World Tour.  They are two of my best friends in all the world. And perhaps even further afield.

I’m going to do my very best to get to Luxembourg to see him. You just watch me!

NYCGB 25th anniversary weekend

Rehearsals in the Birmingham Symphony Hall

It’s been a crazy week since I got back from Birmingham that I’m only now getting around to writing about it. But what a superb weekend, packed with great friends, good food and much laughter.

Jane and I drove down on Friday, arriving in the city of a thousand trades in a little over seven hours, to be greeted almost at the door by a couple of friends sitting in the bar.

Gimme credit!

Credit cards

Checking-in took a little longer than anticipated. When I handed over my credit card it flagged up a warning which required the hotelier to call the bank for an authorization code. “I’m so sorry about this,” he apologised.

“That’s okay,” I said. “That happens every now and again, just to make sure that it really is me spending £300 about 350 miles from home. I’m quite glad they’re paranoid.”

It turned out to be more than that.

Seemingly my credit card number had been compromised on an online store (not sure which) and was being used to make fraudulent payments. First £1.00 to Oxfam, then £10 to O2 pay as you go, and £30 to Vodaphone pay as you talk. It would appear that this is what they do: make small payments that could easily get overlooked. Were it not for the fact that my cautious bank look out for exactly this sort of thing.

So within twenty minutes of arriving at the hotel I was now sans credit card: it had been cancelled. It’s now cut up into little pieces and I’m awaiting a replacement card.


Matthew Owens

Rehearsals began on Saturday morning at 11:00 … ish. They were conducted by Matthew Owens (aka Smiggins) and went really well. Warm ups were hilarious and I wish I’d taken more video footage of it. It would certainly rival any so-called celebrity fitness video for entertainment value.

So there we were, back in our places in the choir. I was transported back to Beaconsfield #1 in 1989, with the same rogue’s gallery on the back row, much banter and deep laughter. It was great, great to be back, great to be back singing. I love my NYC friends with all my heart.

I was initially a little disappointed with the music choice. There was a lot of new music, which is fine, and a few of us felt that we’d rather have had more of a “NYCGB Greatest Hits”. But we got to sing Shenandoah (arr. Erb), which we toured the world singing in 1992 which was great.

But, you know, at the end of the day it wasn’t about us. It was about celebrating NYCGB in all its fullness and looking ahead to the next 25 years (not back to the halcion days of 1987-1994!!) and that was certainly done with style. I’d sing a whole concert of nursery rhymes if it could be with NYC!

Anniversary dinner

Mark Powell, Carl Browning and Danny Curtis

In the evening we retired to the Copthorne Hotel for the anniversary dinner where there was more fun and laughter and a guest appearance by master magician Kockov from the former Soviet Republic of Monrokvia who entertained us with close card tricks and then a 20-30 minutes set, including a quick game of Russian roulette!

This is my favourite photo from the evening (above). As far as Mark (left) and Carl (right) were concerned I was taking a photograph of them. It was only after I’d taken it and was reviewing the picture that I noticed what Danny (foreground) was doing. That had me crying with laughter. Mark and Danny used to be choir administrators; Carl founded the National Youth Choir in 1983.


Concert in the Birmingham Symphony Hall

Sunday morning was a relaxed affair with rehearsals beginning in the Adrian Boult Hall around midday for an hour. We took lunch and reconvened in the Birmingham Symphony Hall around 14:15.

We made the mistake of eating in at All Bar One, a hop, skip and jump from the Symphony Hall. The food took an age to arrive, and when it did some of it wasn’t even cooked. As Danny pointed out, it should have been called All Bar Food!

The concert began at 19:00 and ended nearly four hours later at 22:45. A gala concert indeed. Perhaps a little late for some of the younger choir members, and indeed our choir members who were needing to drive home to get to work the following morning.

I left the post-concert party back at the hotel just as Big Robbie Patterson was demanding that the bar be reopened. Again. It was nearly 02:00.

All in all, an absolutely brilliant weekend, with some of the loveliest and funniest people that I know.

You can see all my photos from the 25th anniversary celebrations on Flickr.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Silhouette of Edinburgh skyline

It’s going to be weird not being in Edinburgh for the Festival this year. And not having our house overrun with friends and lodgers for four weeks. I’m sure Jane is secretly relieved, as in previous years I’d say things like:

Oh yeah, I meant to say, we have seven people sleeping over tomorrow night.

For three weeks.

There is a buzz in Edinburgh during August; there is life and energy and creativity. My fondest memories of Edinburgh during the Festival are in the company of Danny Wallace and his Joinees, many of whom have now become firm friends. Sitting in the Pear Tree House garden, of an evening, laughing and marvelling at the tricks of Magic Eric. Or the truly surreal experience of attending a lecture on Creationism at Carrubbers on the High Street in the company of comedian Dave Gorman.

And how could I ever forget my experience last year with Steve Lawson and Cath staying for the duration of Steve’s solo bass show? The loveliest, and noisiest, midnight mice we’ve ever had. But who are now two friends that I love very dearly indeed.

So this year, we’ll have to make purposeful forages into the city to absorb some of that buzz, and fun and excitement. Here are two not-to-miss shows.

Julie McKee/Steve Lawson – The New Standard

Steve Lawson and Julie McKee

Sunday 6 – Saturday 12 August (not 7th), 23:00 at The Lot. Book tickets.

A musical match made in heaven, divine jazz-influenced vocalist McKee and acclaimed solo bassist Lawson give a fresh spin to the pop canon, from Sondheim to Soundgarden. Unmissable.

I’ve heard some of the demos that Steve recorded while rehearsing with Julie for this, and this promises to be a fantastic gig. You can check out a few of the tracks on their MySpace site at

Kockov’s Free Mind Show


Saturday 12 – Friday 18 August, 12 noon, at the Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde. Book tickets.

Mullet-haired Monrokvian magician, ‘Kockov’, is ‘a deranged Derren brown-style’ mentalist. His comical show displays amazing mental powers. Real magic, real powers, real funny. Unmissable – free entry. Adult only.

This is a show by my National Youth Choir of GB friend Jasper Blakeley, one of the funniest human beings I know on the face of this planet. And for all that I know, the face of any planet.

Edinburgh Food Festival


Check out the first Edinburgh Food Festival being organised by another exNYC friend of mine, Andy Williamson.

It’s time that good food was up there with jazz, comedy, film, literature and all the other fine arts that we call culture and CELEBRATED with its own festival. What better place to do it than in Edinburgh, the festival capital of the world, and what better time than August, when the city is full to bursting with hedonists and culture lovers from all over the world? We’re not limiting ourselves to two senses, however! As well as the fabulous tastes and appetising smells from freshly cooked delicious food, we’ve got great live music, a daily market, a resident poet to stimulate your brain cells and we’re organising conversations and demonstrations that you can just drop into.

Those are the shows that I’ll be catching. What about you?

Please pray for Andy

Andy Williamson leaning over a bannister at Darley Dale School, Derbyshire
Andy Williamson leaning over a bannister at Darley Dale School, Derbyshire, December 1988.

Yesterday I got an email from my good friend Steve alerting me to the blog post of another friend from National Youth Choir days, Andy Williamson, where he revealed that he had suddenly discovered that he has Polycystic Kidney Disease.

This is the same condition that I have, although Andy’s is in a much more serious state of advance than my incarnation of the disease. Andy’s blood test showed

a Creatinine level of 916 (normal is 80-122), and Urea of 36.1 ([normal is] 2.5-7.5)

Over the last few years my Creatinine levels have hovered between 100 and 122, and Urea between 5.9 and 6.6, which, while at the higher end of normal, shows that my kidneys are still in a fairly healthy state. And, as I’ve stated on this blog previously, if I manage to lose some weight that can only be a good thing for my overall health too. Andy’s readings, as you can see, were astronomically high.

I met Andy at my first NYC course at Darley Dale School in Derbyshire in December 1988. It was the same December as the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster over Lockerbie; there was a member of NYC on that flight, Helga Mosey. Although I didn’t know her, I too cried, alongside with my new friends.

Anyway, that event coloured much of that course, and in some strange way actually might have helped people grow closer together, and have helped new members to be accepted quicker than they might otherwise have been; I don’t know. But what I do remember is how kind so many long-established members of the choir were to this, new, 17 year old Bass 2. And one of those was Andy.

Andy lived in Darlington (I think) in those days, and so chummed me back on the GNER train north from our concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

We met up again last August during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as Andy was playing saxophone at about a million different gigs, including with the Big Buzzard big band in the famous Spiegeltent in George Square.

Anyway, please do pray for Andy. He began kidney dialysis today.