Monthly Archives: September 2013


Don Black, 75, has written the lyrics to more than 2,000 songs, including the Oscar-winning Born Free and the classic James Bond themes such as Diamonds are Forever and Thunderball, as well as for many theatre shows. He is currently working with Andrew Lloyd Weber on the musical Stephen Ward. A concert featuring his songs, Lyrics by Don Black, with the BBC Concert Orchestra and guest vocalists, is at the Royal Festival Hall on October 3 ( He also has a Sunday morning show on Radio 2. Married with two grown-up children, he lives in London with his wife, Shirley. Here he talks to me about his travels.
But first watch David McAlmont/David Arnold’s brilliant version of Diamonds are Forever. Dame Shirley who?

DON BLACK: “I used to manage Matt Munro and we went round the world together. Everywhere, from Sao Paolo to Sydney. Didn’t see any of it. I’d say, Matt, Ipanema beach is out there, let’s go. He’d say: “Relax, it’s just sand, have a drink”. Or in New York, it’d be: Let’s go shopping up 5th Avenue and he’d reply: “Don, it’s Crown Court today and they’re giving the verdict. I’ve got to find a TV.” Hopeless. It was ironic he used to open his act with ‘Around the World.’ Like he’d know anything about it. I’m all for combining work and travel, but you have to get the balance right. Matt’s wasn’t.
I’ve just got back from Barbados, working with Andrew Lloyd Weber, who has a place there, and the balance was about right. I lie by the pool all day, scribbling a few ideas once in a while. Then Andrew sits at the piano and plays something and says: what do you think of this? And we’ll work on that for a bit. Perfect.
We used to go to Barbados every year when the children were young. We’d stay at Treasure Beach, which is right next to Sandy Lane, and it was always fun to watch my neighbor Michael Winner hold court on the beach, deciding who he would deign to talk to or not. The kids loved it, but one thing I have instilled in my children is the love of a good deli. No, really, what can beat a good corned beef sandwich with pickle? So we were in Barbados one year and the weather was awful and we were miserable. Then, a nest of some sort fell out of a tree and hit Shirley on the head. That was the last straw., I said: how about we go to Miami? The kids said – is the weather better there? I don’t know, I said, but they’ve got great delis in Miami. That was good enough, off we went for corned beef and pickle.
Mind you, Miami hasn’t got much else going for it. It’s nice, sure. I once stayed at the Delano, Madonna’s favourite, and I’ve never felt so old in my life. Miami’s OK if you are young, but beyond the party scene there’s no ‘there there’, as Gertrude Stein once said.
New York, though, is my favourite city in the world. You know you are alive – I love the energy and optimism. You can walk forever and never get lost, as long as you can count. And the Rodgers and Hart song sums it all up: ‘I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too..’ Just going through the song is magic.
I know a lot of the appeal is nostalgia, but it gets me every time. I used to love the Waldorf Astoria, for instance, but I’m sure that was partly because it has Cole Porter’s piano.
I also had some the very best times of my life in Las Vegas, although it’s changed. When I went I saw Sammy Davies Jr and Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Incredible entertainers. Now it’s all shows like Cirque du Soleil and fancy illusionists, which isn’t quite the same. And I suppose I should mention Los Angeles. We used to live there but I went back recently for a James Bond 50th anniversary tribute. Stayed at the Four Seasons, had dinner with the Broccolis – a little work mixed with pleasure, very nice. But LA is the capital of showbusiness – it’s great to visit if you are in the business, not so much if you aren’t. As someone said, it’s the only city where you can die of encouragement, because there is no such thing as a bad meeting. There is a shallowness to it – but on the other hand you’ve got places like Route One to Big Sur and great weather. It’s hard to hate, really. I always look forward to going back.
Growing up in Hackney, we didn’t do holidays. A day trip to Southend was about it. I didn’t go abroad until I started work at the New Musical Express in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street – two hundred yards of hokum, as someone called it – meeting stars like Frankie Vaughan and Frankie Lane – old fashioned now, but the Robbie Williams of their day. Paris was my first trip out of the country and my first flight and I thought it was wonderful. Taking off and coming down over a necklace of twinkling lights. After that I became a stand-up comic for a bit and most of my travelling was to die in places like Bradford and Glasgow. I always say I wrote my first song while waiting for a laugh in Darlington.
I know this sounds terrible, but there aren’t many wonders of the world that would tempt me away, just to visit. Sightseeing doesn’t interest me and the thought of three weeks on a perfect beach would drive me mad. Besides, Shirley doesn’t swim. Shallow end in pools, only. The places I want to go to are towns like Sag Harbor, where Hemingway went to write. I’d like to copy that. And New England. I read a lot of poets like Edna St Vincent Millay, who was born in Maine, and Robert Lowell, who was from Boston, a city I would love to visit. I get this world of diners and liquor stores from them and, although it might have gone now, I’d really enjoy trying to find it.”


You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum, near Smithfield Market in London, but you might have to do some detective work to get inside it. Because, like Scotland Yard’s famous Black Museum, this repository of the weird, the wonderful and the medically morbid (which does have a connection to Holmes, of which more in a later blog) is not usually open to the public, unless you attend one of its regular evening seminars, which begin their new season on Wednesday, September 25th with Sarah Tobias talking about “Death & Mourning in Victorian England”.
However, no matter who is talking about what, the actual venue is a constant star of the show. Grade II listed, it dates from 1879 and is a stunningly dramatic Victorian room, an open space with three galleries or mezzanine levels, topped off with a vaulted glass roof. On the shelves that line this hall are endless jars of specimens, some five thousand in all, dating back to the 18th century, of everything from a ravaged scrotum (a cancer known as chimney sweep’s disease) to various foreign bodies pulled out of people (you’ll have to find out where the artillery shell was found and what it was doing there for yourself).
The museum’s original purpose was as a teaching aid for training doctors in the various pathologies of the human body, but as more hands-on techniques for training became fashionable, the collection fell into disrepair. It is now being re-catalogued and conserved by Carla Valentine, the Technical Assistant Curator, who has advised on TV shows such as Silent Witness and films like Resident Evil and is prone to utterances such as: ‘I’ve always been interested in death’ and ‘I’ve wanted a job in pathology since I was ten.’ Whatever her motives, the collection is looking decidedly healthy – if that’s not a strange term to apply – these days.
Here she picks some of her favourites from the collection:

I have been asked to give a talk about Watson and his medical career on 13th November, alongside a new short, silent film featuring the world’s most famous sidekick. So if you want to see the soaring inside of the building and those endlessly fascinating specimens, book in to one of the events, especially October 23rd when Carla Valentine herself with be discussing some of the stories behind the specimens that line the shelves. Who knows, she might even mention that artillery shell.

* St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum, 3rd Floor,
Robin Brook Centre,
West Smithfield,
EC1A 7BE. Not open to the public except for its seminars (tickets from £5.95, including glass of wine) and various workshops. Details on:

Filming and recording by Bella and Gina Ryan; edit by Bella Ryan.

Dead Man’s Land with Alison Balsom

Alison Balsom (above, picture by Maker) won the Gramophone Artist of the Year this week – a hugely prestigious prize, made all the more special by her being the first female recipient. There has been some odd press about her and her marketing (‘trumpet crumpet’ is the cliche most often trotted out) in the past few months, most of which misses the point that she plays like a dream. Anyone who saw and heard her tackling the tricky natural trumpet in Gabriel at the Globe this summer won’t need convincing of that. Anyway, more of Alison will follow in this blog, but for the moment below is a sneak preview of a trailer for Dead Man’s Land (to be released on The Dark Pages,, next month), which features her beautifully toned trumpet, recorded at Abbey Road. Thanks to Alison, Vicki Corley-Smith, Bella Ryan, Guy Barker and Warner Classics for this.

Risky Business in Miami

The Freehand Miami is perhaps the most unlikely of fashionable hangouts in South Beach. For a start it’s a hostel, not a hotel. You won’t find a Kardashian or a Beckham within miles. It is also pretty far north of the Collins Ave/17th nexus of beautiful people and snooty doormen. However, this boho enclave – the garden/pool/games area is a prime hipster hangout – does have a secret weapon: The Broken Shaker.

When the former Indian Creek Hotel was being transformed into the Freehand, the restaurant packed up and left, leaving an empty space and three months’ free lease. So a group of young local mixers and cocktail consultants decided to open a pop-up bar. The bar, The Broken Shaker, became so popular, it’s still there almost a year later and thriving. Cocktails cost about £9-10 – about the same as in the bars on Collins and Ocean Drive, but are far more inventive, with lots of homemade syrups and extracts. The spirits are off-the-beaten-bottle, too: I came away with a new affection for Latin American rum from Guatemala and Nicaragua. The cocktail list changes every two weeks.  Below is Gui Joroschy, bar manager, creating a Risky Business. When the piece I wrote on new Miami hotels runs in the Sunday Times, we hope to bring you his take on a Tiki dark rum cocktail.

I travelled to Miami as a guest of British Airways (0844 493 0758, and Starwood Hotels ( The Freehand Miami is at 2727 Indian Creek Drive (001 305 531 2727,


This is the first of several short trailers put together for Dead Man’s Land, the novel about Dr Watson’s medical career in WW1. Best played on full screen. The images are from Great War Photos (, used with permission. It was put together by Bella Ryan (relation). The paperback of Dead Man’s Land is out at the end of October, hardback available now.

Where Watson Met Holmes

I spent yesterday morning at Bart’s Pathology Museum, making a couple of short films with Technical Assistant Curator Carla Valentine, one of which will eventually make its way to this site. In discussing the relationship between Holmes and Barts (it is where Watson and Holmes encounter each other in a Study in Scarlet and where Benedict Cumberbatch plunged from the roof in BBC’s Sherlock) she mentioned the plaque below:


This was once to be found on the wall in her office, where ACD is rumoured to have penned a number of Holmes stories, but was moved to the main Bart’s Museum, so it could be seen by the general public. The phrase ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive’ happens to be the official greeting of the new John H Watson Society ( which was founded earlier this year. More on the museum follows later.


A combination of factors – the unearthly hour, an inability to read small print, the herding of cats that constitutes trying to get the family in the car at dawn – meant that I was cutting it very fine on a recent trip to France. Unable to locate my pre-booked parking spot (yes, tempers did fray), I ended up trying Long Term at Terminal 5. Full. They did give me an upgrade to Business, which promised to be expensive, but not as eye-wateringly so as the daily rack rate. However, it did give me a chance to try the Heathrow Pod, a personal transport system that, a few years ago, you might have considered a prop out of Minority Report. Basically they are individual, driverless little metal cylinder, like a miniature light railway, which take you from the Business area right to T5. Which means no waiting around for transfer buses and a positive wow for the kids.
They were even looking forward to the return trip on the way back all the way through the holiday. It was, I have to say, the most expensive little rollercoaster I have ever been on, but if you can stretch to Business, it’s the best transfer, walking apart, I have ever experienced. The normal rate is about £31 a day, but you can save on that with Holiday Extras (0800-083 8754), which has Business T5 for a three-day weekend for £50; a week is £115.