Monday, 26 December 2011

Palm Springs Modern

It’s that unholy hour between breakfast and the time the sun’s warmed the garden sufficiently for sitting out, which encourages either quiet reflection or a small sense of desperation, I’m not sure which.

I’m really enjoying the house and its facilities, in many ways it’s like being at home – everything I actually need is within reach, but the ticking of the clock is getting on my nerves. I mean the real ticking, of a cheap and rather ugly stainless steel wheel-spoke timepiece in the kitchen, not my life ebbing away. But that too.

I’m spending more time here than planned, mainly because of my own stupidity: my driving licence was due for renewal in early December. When I got the reminder I thought it was just a request to update the photograph and that the currency of the licence would continue normally while the vehicle agency received the picture and sent me a new card.

Evidently not, as the charming man at the Alamo car rental desk in the airport pointed out very gently once he’d deciphered the tiny numerals. Not even pretending there was an American/British differential in the way we recorded our date and month numbers saved me, American 3/12/11 being even earlier than ours. Fortunately Palm Springs is very walkable and nothing’s more than a short taxi ride away.

Ian’s rented a bike and has gone out to re-photograph whichever of the five hundred 1950s modernist buildings in Palm Springs have so far escaped his attention so I have the place to myself. I’m not complaining: travelling with a friend rather than a lover supplies just enough companionship to make it feel as though you’re not entirely alone, but our different circadian rhythms of sleep, eating and drinking mean the overlap is small.

He doesn’t like to compromise on those things, but then again why should he? It’s his holiday as much as mine and for once his preference for a 9.30pm bedtime actually suits this town which for nightlife at least is midway between sleepy and deceased.

So like all gay men with time on their hands, we turn to the internet for amusement. Oh, there is a Cable TV/DVD package in the property but we haven’t managed to turn it on, and the hosts thoughtfully didn’t provide any instructions how to use it: something else I’m not unduly distressed about because apart from anything else it’s meant I’ve learned how to download movies from iTunes.

Back to the internet. This being Palm Springs and me being something of a poster boy for the recentlly-developed category of ‘older gay men’ for which the town is somewhat notorious, I’ve been flattered by the attention.

What I’ve been less flattered by is the format in which the invitations to meet have been couched. They tend to be of the ‘Hot. I’ll be free at 4.45 for an hour if you care to come by’ rather than attended by flowers, dinner, kind or even polysyllabic words.

I am not such an old romantic or recycled Mama Cass as to assume that when love comes to me it will be with rockets, bells and poetry but I’d rather it wasn’t timetabled like a dental appointment and engendering the same amount of pleasure in its anticipation, despite the resemblance not only in the scheduling but also I suspect in the potential restriction of the dialogue to ‘open wide’ and ‘just a little prick’.

So, at least at the time of writing, I’ve resisted such temptations.

Almost everyone online here is trawling for sex outside their ‘committed relationship’, has come to Palm Springs on a sort of sexual tourism vacation to one of the clothing-optional gay ‘resorts’ in the desert (you get the feeling these resorts are automatically prefixed by ‘last’), or is somehow otherwise merely scratching the itch.

I’ve started reading ‘The Velvet Rage’ which is a book by American psychologist Alan Downs attempting to explain why gay men are so preternaturally angry and how our behaviour to each other in sexual and social interaction is so frequently brutal, but I haven’t got far enough into the chapters to reach the one about how to convert pruritic internet interest into actual affection and warmth.

That may need a sequel.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs

I’m not sure if I can pull all or any of this into a connected thread but three things happened recently to make me think about (my and others’) gay life.

Ken Clarke the Justice Secretary who I’m convinced moonlights as the Churchill Insurance nodding dog barked some stuff this week about thinking there ought to be different categories of rape – but seemed ignorant of the fact this crime can and does happen to men. The LGMC is currently rehearsing to sing in aid of the male rape crisis charity, Survivors UK.

On the excellent author Paul Burston’s facebook thread, there’s been massive chat about how ‘barebacking’ (unprotected anal sex) is becoming what you might call ‘fashionable’ again not just among older participants who consider that even if they got HIV it is unlikely to significantly shorten their span, but among teen and twentysomethings described as waving their arses in the air in clubs and saunas to invite the invasion of what we once called ‘all comers’ but meant it about boxing. A lot of socially conscientious gay men wrote to defend their right to do so.

A 27-year old guy messaged me online yesterday and recalled a day and night he’d spent at my flat, revisiting intricate details from the key rack in the hall, exactly what I cooked for him, the painting in my living room, the sex , several complex things about my work, hobbies and travel plans, the specifics of how we subsequently broke up, to an ancient anecdote I must have told him about an acquaintance visiting a bondage hustler in San Francisco when there was a fire alarm and the building was evacuated leaving him tied to a kitchen table.

Even prompted by a photograph, I cannot remember a thing about him or our encounter, and it’s barely seven years ago when I didn’t entertain so many hot twenty-year-olds that my memory should erase one so very easily.

Of course some water has flown under my bridge since then but I can’t believe that in the ten years I’ve lived in this flat, sex has become so throwaway, and, if you consider what’s happening in the clubs, life apparently so throwaway too.

It’s trite to blame the internet explosion: gay men were promiscuous long before gaydar, Grindr and their subspecies, but even the most enthusiastic slut would have had more work to do to find partners for anything other than a fumble in a public lavatory.

Throughout my twenties, there was only one place for ‘personal ads’ – the back pages of the fortnightly newspaper ‘Gay News’, dull as a parish magazine and devoid of nudity, it still attracted the attentions of Mrs Whitehouse and a private prosecution for blasphemy in which the editor narrowly escaped jail. But, with careful wording, you could advertise your preferences (no photos, no hanky codes, no reference to active/passive or specific sexual choices) and hope for a response – replies had to be sent to a box number, with a loose first-class stamp for each, and the paper forwarded them a week or so later.

I almost can’t tell you the excitement of receiving those letters. I lived in Southampton at the time and a package of a dozen or more responses meant contact, of a sort, with men in more major cities and a window on their lifestyles which was almost unknown to me. Of course they were all handwritten or individually typed – even photocopiers were pretty rare – and generally contained a fuzzy photo booth picture, since anything racier would have had to be taken to a specialist printer as Boots wouldn’t process shots of your bum or genitals. I went to one in Acton High Street once, and it cost a fortune.

If you liked any of your respondents, you again had to craft an engagingly-worded letter, wait for him to receive it and reply either by post, or phone if you were brave enough to give out your (traceable) landline number. And if you were in when he rang, I’m not sure even answerphones were hugely popular in the 70s and their fiddly cassettes often mangled your messages anyhow.

The point I’m making is not just that it took time to arrange to meet, whether for sex or a potential relationship, but that the back-and-forth of advert, wait, responses and reply made you think two or three times, whether in anticipation or anxiety, about the guys and certainly in my case meant I probably only got as far as actually meeting a very small percentage of my suitors.

It was through one such advert that I got courted to stand in the local elections, and for the Conservative Party, which was a bizarre by-product, but an entirely other story.

This is also in the days before the ‘gay cancer’ was identified, and our only condom-favouring anxiety was to avoid pregnancy, and curable STDs like gonorrhea and NSU. I don’t think I used a condom at all before I was thirty, with men or women except for Vivienne Segal, the University bike, but that was because you’d really have been safer with her to keep your coat on. Funnily enough, she became a genetics lecturer.

So is it better or worse that you can turn on your smartphone or computer and find a compatible sex partner in minutes? Or that you can see his dangly bits from every perspective other than that of his personality? I’d be a hypocrite to say I haven’t taken advantage of this, but in all honesty I do miss a bit of mystery, and romance, and perhaps the optimism of how we went about this back in the day.

As for the barebacking – to quote Joyce Grenfell ‘I am not easily shockable, but I am offendable’ and for a new generation to deliberately ignore the naked truth that barebacking can kill, and kill both parties, seems offensive folly - given the number of deaths and the vast back catalogue of campaigning on the subject by gay activists and health workers.

Maybe in his revision of the legislation, Clarke should be considering reclassifying virally-loaded unprotected sex as ‘assault with a deadly weapon’. Or at least statutory rape.

I think what most horrified me was that there’s a whole terminology for young men who deliberately seek to acquire HIV. They have parties at which HIV positive 'gift-givers' are incited to infect them. They call themselves ‘bugchasers’ which attributes a fake cuteness and taboo-breaking impishess to something that’s eventually fatal and ought to be criminal.

I feel dirty. I want a bath, and a cuddle.

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Tempest

It’s not often you can say ‘I woke screaming in the night’ but I do admit it. I’m not sure if it was the storm itself or the sound of my own terror that actually roused me, but at quarter to five this morning I was fairly sure the end of the world had come. The lightning, frequent to the point of being constant, so penetrated through curtains, mosquito net, sheet, blanket and tightly closed eyelids that I thought it was actually IN the room and was convinced my corneas were about to be seared.

The attendant thunderclaps matched exactly the intense flashes so the storm was obviously directly overhead and despite the wind and the lashing rain, didn’t sound to be moving in any direction as every blast physically shook my little beach cottage like bombing. I thought of getting under the bed like they did in air-raids but settled for covering myself as completely as possible with blankets and pillows in case of flying glass from the battered windows.

It was getting light by the time it moved out to sea.

I like thunderstorms. I can happily lie awake listening to torrential rain and the rumble of thunder for hours, but the power and intensity of this one, and the sense of immediate proximate violence really did scare me.

Midmorning and you almost wouldn’t know it had happened. Leaves and debris have been neatly swept up by the morning groundsmen, people are swimming, the loudest sound is the waterfall in the swimming pool. But still an occasional offshore rumble warns that the cyclone may not have done with us yet.

It’s the midpoint of my stay, and a chance to assess progress. I’ve dropped 10lbs and whilst I still have love handles at least they no longer look as though they’re attached to one of Emerald Cunard’s bulkier steamer trunks wedged in a companionway on the Queen Mary. How much of that is sweat and expelled alimentary detritus is hard to judge, as is whether it will all return with the first bacon sandwich, but my prime objective was to tackle the diabetic blood sugar levels by adopting the Ayurvedic diet, and any weight loss is a bonus.

They arranged blood tests this morning to check my sugar levels, and whilst the poor man found it hard to find a vein (I have no idea why mine are so deep seated, I don’t recall having been a heroin addict in my teens although I may have blocked it out) the results will be available in 24 hours instead of having to wait two weeks courtesy of the NHS. What I can also say is that whilst my GP takes two or three goes with my blood pressure to find a reading he’s willing to enter on the computer, usually settling for something like 135/85, here it’s been 110/70 five mornings in a row.

I also feel quite well. My mind has stopped racing. The aches and pains on raising or twisting my arm for which I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for a year now seem to have abated, as has the old cartilage problem in my knee, and as I’ve mentioned before the flexibility and freedom of movement in my head neck and shoulders has improved beyond measure with daily acupuncture. Well, not today because Malaka my favourite acupuncturist has gone to visit her parents in Colombo, but we may resume tomorrow. Her temporary replacement is the restaurant dietician who may be equally qualified or judging by the number of clients who have said 'it hurts' may just be an enthusiastic member of the hotel darts team.

I don’t seem to have any cravings, either. Not for favourite foods, or chocolate, and certainly not for alcohol: I saw a facebook photo of friends drinking outdoors in the unexpected English heatwave this week and felt almost nauseous at the thought of multiple pints of lager. Mind you, some of my friends can make you feel nauseous even without a drink in hand. I’ve certainly no intention of giving up but it’s nice to know you can survive a month without it.

If I have a food fantasy, it’s for a bacon and avocado sandwich. Not in itself a great calorific sin, at least not if you grill the bacon and drain it, and use wholemeal bread, low-fat mayonnaise and only eat them occasionally. Unlike the first two years I worked at Canary Wharf when I bought one nearly every day, almost certainly made with undrained streaky and fully-leaded Hellmans.

And the other thing I’d like is a tomato. Yes, that harmless, watery, vitamin-rich, low-fat, low-carb feature of many a Western diet plan is proscribed here, they don’t use them either cooked or cold. Apparently the cheeky little redskins unbalance your doshas. Who knew?


Cholesterol down from 4.8 to 3.4

Blood sugar down from 8.2 to 4.4, below the 'threshold' for diabetes at 7.0

All other blood tests in the 'normal' range

and one interesting phenomenon, I'm blood group O Negative, one of the rarest, less than 5% of the global population has it. So not much chance of a transfusion in an emergency ...

still, all in all, a day for celebration.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Vatha, Vatha everywhere ...

Last night was the wettest and stormiest night so far, and according to one of the doctors this morning officially a cyclone. It certainly began with one of those ground-shaking thunderstorms that drenches everything in the first five minutes, but fortunately always after dark. So far.

This morning has white skies with a strong breeze from the sea.

It’s apparently a good day for wrapping your head in a tight cloth bandage.

Which is what they’ve done to me following a treatment called Shirodhara – which I thought was one of the Japanese guards in Tenko – but turns out to be Ayurvedic for being poured on from a great height with warm herbal oil, it drizzles on to your forehead and is squelched into and out from your hair by a pair of masseurs before your greasy grey-green Limpopo-smelling locks are finally swathed in the cotton headgear and tightly knotted. Sic transit Gloria.

In my case the Gloria being Swanson except this fashion accessory isn’t quite the full Norma Desmond since it is more Russian peasant than Sunset Boulevard in style: I look like a cross between Mother Courage and the cook on the Battleship Potemkin.

It’s meant to be a revelatory experience, freeing your mind and encouraging deep relaxation although it might have been more stress-reducing if the two masseurs who administered it hadn’t chatted in whispers to each other throughout the procedure. I’ve slept a bit during the day but I can’t say it’s made me feel vastly different although I’m certainly relaxed, and I put that down more to yesterday’s double acupuncture when she inserted about sixteen needles into my neck and shoulders and I’ve never felt more fluid in that department. Sixteen more and I’ll be Linda Blair.

On Shirodhara days you’re meant to refrain from swimming, sunbathing or even washing and if you can’t just think beautiful thoughts it’s OK to do a little light reading. I’ve leafed through the ‘Hello’ I brought from the plane and now know twice as much about Kate Middleton and her make-up habits as I’ll ever find useful, as well as having an opportunity to wonder what is the legitimate earthly purpose of people like Peaches Geldof and Elizabeth Hurley or why cap-toothed Gurkha-crusading arctic-sledging Joanna Lumley has sold her soul as an ambassador for Wrigley’s chewing-gum.

I’ve also found my mind wandering and recalling people I’ve not thought about seriously for years, notably Robert Liederman – for a long time ‘the love of my life’ – an American I met in about 1976 and with whom I had tempestuous and romantic trysts in London, Amsterdam and New York – including the New Year’s Eve his boyfriend tried to kill me - until we lost contact back in the days before you could stalk someone successfully on the internet. Somewhere in a box I’ve still got his letters and I’m horribly afraid also the gushing gauche carbon copies of what I wrote to him.

Carbon copies, that dates me.

Some of my seventies flashback may have been prompted by reading Simon Doonan’s memoir ‘Beautiful People’ about growing up gay in a low-rent suburb of Reading and then escaping to London and the States. He’s now creative director of Barney’s in New York so I can’t say our lives are parallel but we’re contemporaries and much of his youthful experience in Reading is similar to mine in the North. I was quite tickled to realise that I knew his best friend Biddie as well as Biddie’s cabaret partner Eve Ferret, in fact I’d hired them to perform at a succession of office Christmas parties I organised at YRM.

Doonan’s life moved to LA and New York at the start of the ‘plague’ and he lost a lover to AIDS almost before the disease had been accurately named. As I said, I’d lost touch with Rob and heard nothing more about him until about ten years ago when I had dinner with a mutual friend whom I’d also not seen in the intervening time and who mentioned, as though I already knew it, that Rob had also died of AIDS in 1982.

You’d be surprised how devastating it can be to hear of a twenty-year-old death.

When I was in New York three weeks ago, I had brunch with Susan and Rhea at the Fairway supermarket on the Upper West Side and effectively just round the corner from Rob’s apartment, so took a nostalgic walk to find the address on West End Avenue, but too many of the buildings looked similar and I’m not so sure I pinpointed it.

Simon Doonan found fortune and happiness through moving from the English provinces to America at a time when such geographic flexibility was comparatively rare. I do think if I’d been brave enough to do the same then a great love might have blossomed. Then again, I might also have died in 1982.

It’s six o’clock and time for some more foul-smelling medication. The four o’clock libations have been changed and I now have to drink half a bottle of what tastes like the vinegar from the pickled onion jar. Which is a taste I’m familiar with because when I came home from University to critique my mother’s Sunday salad-making and tell her on good authority that smart people made salad with ‘oil and vinegar’ rather than Heinz Salad Cream she promptly dressed a bowlful of lettuce, cucumber and tomato with the juice from the pickle jar and a ladle of oil from the chip pan.

I’ll have been here a week tomorrow, and whilst I’ve lost some weight I don’t want to quote numbers or speculate about the outcome, partly because it’s difficult to assess what counts as sweat and ‘vitiated Vatha’ (which is what you produce on the loo) or to know whether I may yet break out to find beer, chips or chocolate in the nearby village ...

The Curious Incident Of The Drink In The Night-Time

temple is tended by very young trainee monks

Sunday was Full Moon day and at 5 in the afternoon they bussed us to the local temple, site of the biggest Buddha in Sri Lanka, a 60 metre modern man-mountain where we milled about with the locals making their offerings at the temple. However anti-religion you are it’s hard to dislike Buddhism because it seems to engender such kindness, and since it’s anti-violence doesn’t tend to wage wars or subterfuge against those who don’t subscribe.

It certainly produces smiling people who don’t push and shove their way to the front of a queue, even to do their devotions, and there seemed to be much sharing of fruit and flowers, including with us: overhearing Lesley and I debating whether we should have bought a garland at the gate, a charming family offered us two handfuls of their beautiful white blooms to scatter at the feet of the statue. Try pinching your neighbour’s chrysanths next Harvest Festival and see how far it gets you.

There were a few retail stalls around the temple, including an incongruous ‘Highland Ice Cream’ van on blocks under a sea-almond tree and a stall promoting an organic green tea ‘guaranteed to cure diabetes in three weeks’. I’ve paid nearly three grand for this trip to reduce my blood sugar and steady my diabetic development, I shall be exceedingly miffed if it could have been cured by a three hundred rupee packet of tea.

When I came back the room attendant was arranging the mosquito net and just as I was leaving for dinner I noticed a bloody great – well, 8cm long – cockroach basking in the netting, on the inside. I told him to get rid of it, completely forgetting that his Buddhist tendencies would mean he wasn’t allowed to kill anything and there then followed ten minutes of pantomime whilst he chased it around the room, up the curtains and under the wardrobe trying to coax it into a sanitary towel bag. Eventually I stunned it with the bug spray and he nudged it into the bag to take away and, I assume, release into the wild.

Like a cockroach Schwartzenegger, it will probably be back.

Another rainstorm broke during dinner and the pounding of the surf and thunder should have combined as a soothing sedative if it hadn’t been for some German banker twunt at dinner sounding off about how this was the sort of weather that made snakes seek refuge indoors and 80 of the 87 indigenous species were dangerous.

So I didn’t exactly drop off to dreamland in an instant, even having checked under the bed and in the shower drain for sheltering serpents, and after some fitful napping realised about midnight that I hadn’t taken my 9pm medicine – even though I’d mixed it with hot water and left it beside the bed. So I chugged it, and the disgusting residual taste meant I had to grab a bottle of water from the dressing table and wash it down with that.

It was only when I put the light on I saw that the bottle contained a milky liquid suspiciously like cleaning fluid that I realised it was probably something the room boy had left earlier.

Panic ensued, not just in me but in the two doctors who arrived within minutes and then later the receptionist, room attendant and cleaner who had all been summoned from their beds by management to give account of how this bottle could have been left in my room and what exactly were its contents. And a fair amount of ranting, largely from me, about how cleaning products should never be put into drinking water bottles and what sort of place were they running that didn’t have proper health and safety procedures to avoid such risks.

In return the doctors had an urgent debate about whether I should be taken to hospital for a stomach pump or just given a total purgative in the morning if I lived that long.

There was a lot of shaking the bottle, holding it up to the light and sniffing it, before anyone summoned up the courage to tip a drop into his palm and taste it – it looked like lemon barley water but had no scent, no flavour and certainly wasn’t corrosive, so we concluded that the balance of probability was that whatever it was wouldn’t kill me, at least not tonight, but the doctor made me drink a litre and a half of water just in case.

Obviously I survived otherwise I couldn’t be typing this now, but I did have considerable anxieties and a pretty bad night.

It was only the next afternoon, when I was taking my handful of ‘Western’ medicine which includes a daily soluble aspirin that I remembered a previous occasion back home when the aspirin once slipped back into the drinking vessel. And clouded the water ...

Friday, 15 April 2011

Sports Day


After a night of glorious thunderstorms I wake too late and have to combine my 6am and 8am medications with breakfast in order to make an 8.30 start on the treatments. It’s the same rituals as yesterday but fortunately the acupuncture’s at the end instead of the beginning and I’m fairly relaxed when it comes round.

The woman on the adjacent slab introduces herself as Lesley, one of the two other ‘English’ guests, although she actually lives in Holland. She’s outgoing and funny, and chatting to her takes my mind off the needling. At lunch she introduces me to the other one, Andrew, on first impression an unreconstructed old-colonial club type of stentorian voice who during the fifteen minutes he talks at me from the adjacent table doesn’t ask me a single question about myself. I must be a ‘good listener’ because at least I don’t allow my glazed expression to transmit to him, but for a man who’s lived in Borneo, Argentina and New York, not to mention travelled to places like North Korea and Mongolia, he’s surprisingly unforthcoming, although he did warm up on subsequent meetings and turned out to be amazingly well-connected.

In continuation of the new year holiday, this afternoon is the staff sports day and they gather, with their copious offspring, to play the sort of games which would have graced a summer fete in England in the sixties. Perhaps in rural villages it still does, but it’s rare and charming to see children queue willingly to be blindfolded to play ‘put the eye on the Elephant’ (work it out) whilst their fathers have an adult version where also blindfolded they have to hit with a big stick one of three crocks of coconut water suspended on a wire. At the edge of the sea they’ve rigged up a log on two cross timber supports and opponents sit astride it with a hand tied behind their back to swing a rag-filled bag at each other and see who’s knocked off first to loud cheering.

The kids compete to drink Fanta from a baby’s bottle, there’s a raucous three-team race to transfer water in cupped hands from a bucket to a bottle, musical chairs, a beauty contest and a fancy dress competition. Everyone joins in with such innocent good humour that in sharp contrast I’m reminded of ghastly hierarchical company picnics at Barclays, or terrifying office Christmas parties with dire food and gut-wrenching cheap wine and 63-year old Tina the Cleaner getting her tits out. Here, there’s no alcohol, or smoking, but a good time is definitely had by all.

My masseur brings his two small sons to shake hands, and makes them speak a few words of English which is brave of them and nice of him: the boys are carefully turned out in their ‘best’ shirts and pressed jeans and their mother has a sparkly sari swathing her ample frame. I’m reminded that in this culture to be larger and rounder is desirable for married ladies, they seem a happy family as the boys each hold dad’s hand and steer him to the next entertainment.

There’s a table laden with parcels wrapped in yellow paper and it seems ‘all have won and all must have prizes’ as Alice was told after the Caucus Race in Through the Looking Glass – again it’s a credit to this family business that not only all the children but all the adults receive something with which they seem to be pleased.
Either I’ve become acclimatised very quickly, or it’s much less humid today and typing this on the terrace of my little cottage (more about the accommodation tomorrow) just after sunset with the breeze from the pitch black ocean, it’s really not unpleasant.

Talking of which, it must be time for some more medicine.

Auspicious Start

My driver was quite insistent ‘you have come on the best day of the year’. Best in his view because there’s almost no traffic on the notoriously congested, not to say dangerous, stretch from Colombo airport to the coast resorts and what can take three and a half hours on a normal day is accomplished in just over 90 minutes of mild swerving and horn obbligato. We only almost get killed once. As he says, a good day.

Sri Lankans are big on ‘auspicious’ - apparently it’s Buddhist new year, which is why so much death is being kept off the Sri Lankan roads as most families take a day’s downtime of fasting and rest before a ceremony – at precisely 3.18pm to greet the new year with a meal of sweets which are taken facing North, your first taste of the new year should be something sweet as an augur of good things to come.

Our hotel has replicated the ceremony with what at first seems the ritual attendance of dumpy Germans at the Ceremony of the Removal of the Sacred Cling Film but when the hotel’s lady owner explains the rest of the significance, and invites us to swap a worthless coin for 20 rupees wrapped in a leaf and a small gift – mine’s a lovely handmade notebook with a cover featuring the image of a rather dark and moody elephant, how appropriate - the sense of generosity and inclusion is really rather sweet.

Later in the day I spot her own nephews and nieces come to make the same offering to her and her husband but their obeisance includes the youngsters kneeling to bow and kiss the avuncular feet, something they perhaps thought the Germans weren’t sufficiently telescopic to attempt.

It’s been a long day, preceded by a long night. I left home at 6.30 in the morning to fly on BA to Muscat via Abu Dhabi, itself relatively uneventful since it’s a journey I’ve done before, but then to change on to Oman Air for the ride down to Colombo, a sector I decided to endure in economy on the grounds that it’s only three and a bit hours, for £124 it was a bargain and they had spanking new A330 aircraft with generous 34” legroom, a four course meal (with four choices of mains) that was actually nicer than the bark and grit-filled tikka masala in BA Club World, free drink, hot towels, crew that weren’t bored or argumentative, and the most impressive array of movies and entertainment on a personal seat-back TV screen that was also possibly about the same size as my new laptop.

Of course the downside was that the cabin was mostly filled with migrant workers going home to Sri Lanka and the Maldives and not many of whose armpits had recently been on nodding acquaintance with a wash-cloth. Lest you think mine were two of them, I had a shower at Muscat in the oddest ‘executive lounge’ where the ‘napping cabins’, private cubicles with a relaxation couch in sticky vinyl one happy ending shy of a gay sauna, and a billowing voile ceiling were immediately adjacent to the also roofless and even at midnight rowdily noisy children’s play area. This seems a foolhardy juxtaposition when the airport shops also sell curved Arabic scimitars.

So thanks to the uncharacteristically empty roads, I arrive for breakfast but as my body clock thinks it’s 2.30 in the morning and after four airline meals it’s all I can do to eat a couple of pieces of fruit – I just want my bed. My delight that the room’s available at this early hour is punctured by the fact that, because of the festive occasion, the staff will be taking off early so my medical consultation and first treatments have to be done right away.

Dr Indaka is nice, early thirties and speaking perfect English he’s like an eager batsman in the cricket nets – every time I tell him a symptom he goes ‘anything else, give me another one’ but I run out of topics of medical concern and my over is soon, er, over. But he’s really assiduous and discusses the massages, herbal decoctions and treatments that can help lower my blood sugar, combat stress or increase my haemoglobin – something I didn’t actually tell him was an item of recent concern at my GP’s. I’m too tired and weak to resist when he asks ‘would you like acupuncture’ and actually alarmed when it turns out to be the first of my scheduled treatments and conducted in a slightly communal hall where we’re laid on adjacent slabs as in a mortuary.

The very pretty acupuncturist beguiles me with her turn of phrase, ‘I can needle you softly’ ... oh my dear, if I gave you a list of the people who’d done that over the years, we’d be here till Christmas. Apart from one in a little finger which I moved after it was inserted, it doesn’t actually hurt but I lie there wondering why I have quite so many pins in, or rather through my ears (diamonds if you’re thinking of buying) and in my stomach.


The ones in the ears are strange, I can sense ‘things’ rushing towards the locations of the needles, and my neurological pathways seem as busy at the roads were empty. I’m tense though and glad when she comes to take them out.

And so to massage, where I’m led by the (male) masseur, a man of about forty with only a casual handful of teeth but as we start with head massage it’s obvious that he knows what he’s doing and that this really is a therapeutic rather than a cosmetic exercise. For the four-handed full body massage, he’s joined by a mumsy co-worker but her hands aren’t as strong as his and I’m going to need them to swap sides if it’s the same team tomorrow to even out the pressure. I’ve no idea how long it lasted because I was asleep, waking only for an episode when they dab at your loins with hot poultices which smelt and felt like mushroom bhajis but turn out to be cloth pads filled with boiled herbs. It’s all quite culinary though, because the copious oil smells of cumin and turmeric and when I eventually get a chance to rinse out my underpants they’re bright yellow.

After that, it’s a bit of a blur – outside in a garden with running water and shady trees, someone applies poultices, hot or cold, to various joints and fatty areas, and gives me a facial with cucumber slices over my eyes before wrapping me in a gauze cloth. I’m fairly sure I’m now gigot of something on the restaurant menu but sleep claims me again. In the final phase, I have to shower whilst rubbing herbal paste into my loins before lying in a bath whilst a woman rinses me with what Lancastrians will recognise as a ‘lading can’ a lipless cylindrical metal jug holding about a litre of warm hibiscus water swished again and again and again down the lines of your haunches, flanks and rump. The last person to wash me like that was my granny, in her kitchen sink.

I’m done in, and sleep through lunch waking only just in time to collect my medicaments from the doc. Most of the liquids look like syrup of figs, or soy sauce in clear bottles, and the pills and powders come in twists of paper marked urgently with the time to be taken. I have eleven things to be taken with warm water at various times from 6am to 9pm, most swallowed in a single disgusted chug but there’s one of powdered shale that just won’t go down without rinsing the cup out with warm water again and again.

I think it’s lurking on the night table for my 8am feed too.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Forced Milk Wood

In the week they buried Elizabeth Taylor it seems appropriate to revisit Under Milk Wood, in which she appeared briefly as Rosie Probert at the height of her partnership with Richard Burton in the 1971 Technicolor version.

Even though playing a bit-part, Taylor was famously difficult, refusing to travel to Fishguard where the movie was being shot. Her scenes were filmed in London over the two days she had available before leaving England to avoid being collared for income tax, and the stills with a cameraman lying on the floor to get the only angle which flattered her low-slung figure and showed off the three Parisian nightdresses she’d demanded which cost half the costume budget.

Both Parisian nightdresses and Technicolor are absent from the Pentameters production. Colourlessness becomes a positive virtue in a play where the sounds are paramount, a day-in-the-life of a small Welsh fishing village seen through the eyes of a blind sea captain.

It starts well enough with a convincing blackout and a few minutes in which to let the imagery of the sleeping hamlet beside the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ unfold in your head. Even without Richard Burton’s impassioned baritone, it works. Unfortunately as the lights come up, the scene is an anticlimax: an all-purpose set comprising a badly painted door panel, the back of a piano and a cheap flat-pack Welsh dresser certainly not borrowed from any self-respecting neighbouring kitchen here in Hampstead.

There are two ways Under Milk Wood is successfully performed: with a vast and colourful cast recreating as authentically as possible in costumes and props a fishing village in the fifties, or on an almost bare stage returning to the piece’s heritage as ‘a play for voices’. This production falls uncomfortably between the two stools with the five actors straining – a lot of the vocals are shouted – to portray in snapshot 64 different characters and using the all-purpose Welsh dresser as everything from captain’s bunk to wild wooded hillside, but equally using all-purpose accents which, even to my one-sixteenth-Welsh ears, sounded occasionally English in their inflections and certainly more random than the quite specific lilt of Cardigan Bay where Dylan Thomas placed the village.

The play has been set to music, by director and onstage participant Tom Neill, but it’s the sort of self-consciously-worthy wheezing and whining compositions you might hear scraped out by a school orchestra and serves only as irritating punctuation while the actors clump on and off stage to their instruments. The music is massively better when the cast sing, finely in two- or four-part harmony for example in the first-act closer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ morning service in which Tom Neill and Thomas Heard counterpoint particularly well together.

Even when shared among only five pairs of hands, the material can shine, and the bickering of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard with her two deceased husbands, or Butcher Beynon’s taunting of his wife with the liver of her pet cat are quite nicely pointed.

It’s a heart-felt production: Pentameters founder Leonie Scott-Matthews introduced the evening with a personal memoir of Dylan Thomas’s daughter Aeronwy, who read and dedicated her own poems on this same stage, and Neill’s affection for the work is palpable. Sometimes the best that a fringe production can do is to indicate that a classy revival is overdue. Hopefully the National or the Donmar will hear this clarion call from Hampstead and give Under Milk Wood the production it deserves.

This review written for The Public Reviews

Friday, 25 March 2011

French Leave ... preferably in the interval

Sacre Bleu, Zut Alors, Quelle Horreur, and as for the choreography: Fosse septique … pick your own Francophone diatribes, this is vachement awful.

It’s a shame, because the hand on the Kneehigh Theatre tiller is Emma Rice who helmed their extraordinarily inventive Brief Encounter but to continue the boating metaphors it’s no coincidence that Cherbourg was the port from which the Titanic steered out into the Atlantic, you can’t wait for this leviathan to hit its own iceberg.

Reworked from the Jacques Demy movie which made Catherine Deneuve a star, it's a tenderly simple story of very young lovers parted by circumstance – he’s sent to fight in Algeria whilst she covers her pregnancy marrying a rich bore.  He returns, she’s gone, he marries the maid.  The central character of the girl’s mother is played here by the much undervalued Joanna Riding as a haughty harridan in a ginger Fanny Cradock wig and the lovers limply by recent Guildford graduate Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand for some unfathomable reason imported from the US to play Guy, despite the fact the West End is crawling with unemployed lightweight younger leading men: shout across the street from the Gielgud to The Yard bar and you’d find a dozen his equal.

‘Internationally renowned’ (although not so much in this country) cabaret artiste Meow Meow – actually a harmless Australian soubrette called Melissa Madden Gray who assumes her fantasy alter ego rather like Humphries does Edna - is contractually obliged to front the soiree in a split skirt, fishnets and black beehive.  She also has to hustle the reluctant audience participation so morphs Irma La Douce with Gladys from Hi-de-Hi in a performance which is more cliché than Clichy.  Mind you, in the echoing grove of yesterday’s second press night with three-quarters of the seats unsold, not even Ken Dodd could have warmed us up.  Her ‘straight’ entr’acte solo ‘Sans Toi‘ is delivered sans taste and with so much eye rolling, r’s trilling and lardoned pathos that the producers of ‘Allo ‘Allo would have cut it from embarrassment.

Veteran composer Michel Legrand reworked his orchestrations for the production – but using the sort of random, stunted, cul-de-sac riffs which make you realise some jazz is basically musical masturbation: enjoyable for the participants but ultimately not really a spectator sport.  And it’s through-sung which means banalities to music, and no interruption for some sharp dialogue or even a joke.  There’s only one recognizable theme tune (appropriately the made-for-lift-muzak If It Takes Forever I  Will Wait For You) which repeats on such an interminable loop the audience feels it’s being battered to death with an especially stale baguette.

There’s a highly mechanized set from Lez Brotherston with tricksy use of model buildings, artful neon and an unexpected skate ramp, colourful costumes, and a seductive lighting scheme by Malcolm Rippeth, but it’s all so much empty effort when the performance doesn’t engage with the audience.

London weather’s so unpredictable but I expect folded Umbrellas before Easter.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kitchen Sink for the Cornbelt

Although set in the remote boondocks of Northern Illinois, on a near-derelict farm, we are not in any new territory with Sam Shephard’s ‘Buried Child’.

The possibility that an outwardly-naturalistic family shelters a dark secret which through the arrival of a stranger is revealed to devastating effect over three drawn-out acts is a theatrical motif so well explored as to have lost its power to shock even by 1979 when ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – an accolade which, incidentally, Shepard said gave him less satisfaction than winning a roping contest in the local rodeo.

Shepard’s plays chart the decline of the American dream but more angrily than Miller or Albee, and more autobiographically too: Shepard’s father, a former WWII Air Force pilot, grew up on a broken-down farmstead and supported his mother and brothers from a very young age when the farm business collapsed but later succumbed to alcoholism, living a life that was endlessly disappointing and not able to find another path.

But Shepard is not easy to pigeonhole: his works combine attempts at satire, farce, and cynical verbal attack with images of the Old West, a mourning sense of nostalgia for a lost rural idyll, and a disconnection from familial and spiritual roots.

Possibly Shepard wanted to be a Beckett or a Pinter but merely acquired Pinter’s relentless verbosity and Becket’s obscurantism which makes the play hard to listen to since the dialogue is repetitive and disconnected. This isn’t helped by the variable accents of some of the cast and their propensity to turn upstage on important lines – Tala Gouveia is simply unintelligible a lot of the time.

The ramshackle farmhouse – the location is shown as ‘a squalid farm home’ in the programme - is excellently realised in Martin Thomas’s design, and Howard Hudson’s carefully graduated lighting scheme.

There are some good performances: the play starts well enough with a verbal sparring match between John Atterbury, totally convincing as the old-timer Dodge, arguing with his irritable wife shouting from offstage. His ‘slow’ son Tilde played by Math Sams and grandson Vince by Joe Jameson are also well-studied and persuasive performances of quite unengaging redneck characters.

In Timothy Trimingham-Lee’s lurching production, the actors are required to switch urgently from kitchen-sink drama to Ortonesque farce and back to horror when the parentage of the dead infant is revealed in the too-long-coming third act denouement.

It almost works, but last night’s audience was too readily entertained by the absurd to focus on the dramatic conclusion.

In fact towards the end it was a bit like 'What the Butler Saw' with Vince chasing Bradley round the stage with his prosthetic leg. But too hard to call, the audience was an odd mix of bemused blogcritics and over-volubly enthusiastic friends of the cast: it might have been better if we'd just had a fist-fight ourselves over it.

an edited version of this review appears on The Public Reviews

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Covent Garden markets

Tuesday morning 11am and one is royally chuffed to be invited with a clutch of bloggerati by the Covent Garden media/marketing team to put ones feet up in the Director’s box at Covent Garden for dress rehearsal of the David McVicar Aida which opens on Friday. 

Apart from the close-up view of the singers’ facial expressions and a position right over the pit where we can eyeball Fabio Luisi spurring the orchestra to a spanking pace, we're all captivated by brilliance of both staging and movement.

If you’ve seen Aida before, forget those legions of spear carriers and chorines in white nighties and gold halters, crapping camels or Zandra Rhodes’ pleated silk elephants making the Nile run turquoise with fashion accessories. In Jean-Marc Puissant’s design it’s more Dune than Pyramids, and his motifs are smeared blood, scimitar and samurai. We’re in a darkly exciting metallica world framing the stories of battle, sacrifice – literally, human sacrifice – and conflicted loyalties.

In a brief chat after the performance, associate director Leah Hausman points out that Verdi was writing a serious piece about war: the word ‘guerra’ appears a hundred times more often than ‘amore’ in the libretto, so this is a story of war in which love happens, rather than the other way round.

It looks like Coriolanus but feels suddenly relevant: Amneris condemns the priests as controllers of a rotten society, Radames as head of the army is called upon to save the nation for posterity amid popular chanting and a march of bloodied and butchered foot-soldiers.  It could be played out in Tahrir Square.

The grandiose set-pieces are so much more than parades: there’s a fantastic troupe of athletic bare-breasted women whose urgent runs and synchronized thrusting seem lifted from a Soviet spartakiade, there’s ritual disembowelling and corpses dangle from the rafters.  Their male counterparts stage Kendo-inspired sword and lance fights in a dance of death under David Greeves’ genius martial arts coaching.

It’s no-one’s fault but Verdi’s that Aida shoots its load in the first two acts and what remains after the interval is the afterglow of the doomed romance between Radames and Aida, and Amneris’s slow-burning disappointment. But this is where the production really delivers as the emotional triangle is explored in scenes of tender and realistic intimacy, due to the powerful collaboration of the three principals: Roberto Alagna, Olga Borodina and Micaela Carosi whose acting is every bit the equal of their sung performances.

It’s edgy casting: Alagna was booed at La Scala in the same role in 2006, Olga Borodina famously walked out of an earlier Covent Garden Aida in a disagreement with ROH music director Antonio Pappano, so it’s a miracle not just that they are both here but that they conspire with Carosi to create such chemistry.

We went backstage for the scene change and some gossip: Swan Lake has had a box office mega-surge due to the ‘Black Swan’ effect with phone calls asking when Natalie Portman would be ‘on’.  The box office has a sense of humour because they’re tempted to answer ‘every other night alternating with Billy Elliott’.  But the best news is that ROH is trying to reprise its sensational Anna Nicole in 2013, and working on available dates with Eva-Maria Westbroek.

a version of this article appears on Londonist

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


There’s a whiff of mothballs at Richmond, and it’s not all coming from the audience in this starry but stolid revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit

A glossy 2009 Broadway production showcased Angela Lansbury in cracking and crackpot form as clairvoyant Madam Arcati and Rupert Everett in a role he was born to play, the suave and languid author Charles Condomine.

At Richmond on the last leg of its 'immediately prior to West End' tour, a new British production heads for the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue next week and features Alison Steadman as the medium, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris reprising their Cold Feet pairing as the novelist and his wife, and Ruthie Henshall as the ghostly ex accidentally manifested during a séance.

From the same Triumph/Theatre Royal Bath production stable as the Kim Cattrall Private Lives and helmed by Thea Sharrock who directed the brilliant Daniel Radcliffe Equus, it has all the ingredients of a surefire hit, and yet it doesn’t quite come off.

Even the indulgent Richmond audience wasn’t lapping it up, although they seemed to appreciate the physical comedy better than the dialogue which is only partially explained by the ruckus at the desk in the foyer when several complained their hearing-impaired headsets weren’t working.

It’s smartly costumed with authentic late 1930s gowns, but both script and setting feel stale: a childless and fustian middle class marriage afloat on a wash of cocktails and coffee fetched by servants is all about to be swept away by the war, and whilst there’s no spectre of the coming realities in Coward’s script, this production doesn’t sustain a constant barrage of bright and brittle banter either.

Coward wrote (and Margaret Rutherford made flesh) Madame Arcati as a tweedy countrywoman with an almost professorial interest in the occult – Steadman makes her much more strident which might be effective if it weren’t all on one note, and misses both the charming battiness and the sensitive vulnerability of the character.  Perhaps she’s spent too long in easy sitcoms like Gavin and Stacey and Fat Friends but this isn’t her best work and doesn’t compare with the excellence of her last West End outing in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy.

Where Lansbury was balletic and hummed to herself as she danced about the stage, Steadman grunts and feints hand jives that look as though she’s pioneering hip-hop fifty years ahead of its time.

Norris is the most successful in the thankless role of Ruth, the domestically-rooted second wife, but she plays it with less petulance and more elegant authority than the part usually receives and so is more fairly matched with the impishness of Ruthie Henshall’s shoeless and footloose Elvira.

The set, by the usually laudable Hildegard Bechtler has predictable art deco touches but looks cheap with a tackily painted piano and centerpiece terrible green sofa with rigid polyurethane foam cushions which weren’t around till the 50’s.

This review written for Londonist

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Phone rings, door chimes, pretend you're out ...

Poor Steve Sondheim. During his 80th birthday year in 2010 his works were exhaustively produced and his dramatic entrails more pored over than in any autopsy. There’ll be less of a retrospective when he’s dead. In London, the revivals ranged from a lumpen ‘Follies’ atop a Walthamstow boozer to a puppyishly adoring all-star Albert Hall Prom which was the theatrical equivalent of humping the Great Man’s leg.

As the dustcart follows the Lord Mayor’s show, here comes Southwark Playhouse’s production. Company contains some of Sondheim’s best lyrics, is most autobiographically representative of his own views on relationships, but it’s not the best ‘book’ musical in the canon. Indeed, the script by George Furth is so inconsequential that the show works largely as a song cycle wherein married friends revolve round bachelor Bobby in a carousel of exhortation to find a wife. Updating it with iPhones and MacBooks robs it of a certain 70’s ‘Mad Men’ style and contemporaneous conventions about relationships, but does bring some fresh perspectives.

In his first fully-fledged directorship, Joe Fredericks allows too much unevenness: Siobhan McCarthy’s uncannily accurate impersonation of Bette Davis doing Margo Channing is funny but can undermine the power and pathos in her bravura rendition of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, Mark Curry’s archly dated portrayal of husband Larry clings more to Mr Clifford in Acorn Antiques than to Broadway, and for a musical so deeply rooted in Manhattan the accents wander widely and the singing projects some very English vowels.

Cassidy Janson as Amy scores highly for her comic timing and vocal precision in ‘Not Getting Married Today’ in which she’s partnered by the strong and charming voice of Greg Castiglioni as Paul. Two of Bobby’s single girlfriends also stand out: Katie Brayben as April the air hostess manages to find the comedy in the script, her dumb blonde resistance to Bobby’s chat-up lines were one of the few laugh-out-loud moments, and Michelle Bishop as spunky punk Marta takes command of ‘Another Hundred People’ with genuine panache.

Bobby is meant to be an enigma, often portrayed as a coolly suave playboy who degenerates into a self-pitying mess, but Rupert Young‘s performance showed less of an arc since his Bobby is a greasy sweaty cokehead from the outset, perpetually dishevelled and disoriented. It’s a more modern reading of the part and emotionally distanced from the audience, but improves in the second act when ‘Being Alive’ was thoughtfully phrased and strongly delivered.

The singing is mostly very fine indeed, but the production lacks pace - you could see the audience’s attention wander - entrances need more immediacy and less clunking over the underlit Bridge-of-Sighs-made-from-scaffolding set - and for the dialogue to crackle authentically, cues need to be picked up much more smartly.

This review written for

Friday, 7 January 2011

Her name was Lola ...

The temperature is now officially half-past fucking hot and the only way to enjoy the beach is for Rhea and I to take a very early morning walk – all the way to the headland between us and Ipanema, and a paddle in the extremely chilly Atlantic before the sun beats us indoors for breakfast. We’d been promised an endless parade of beautifully sculpted Brazilian bodies but what’s passing us either on the sand or the boardwalk is definitely not hot. It’s rather like Miami Beach, and if you’re thinking ‘Golden Girls’ think more the Sophia end of the spectrum than the Blanche.

It’s also an opportunity to assess Copacabana for what it is now and the faded showgirl from the Barry Manilow song is a useful metaphor. I’m struggling to remember the technical term for a once-glorious demi-monde that attracted people from all over the world to its glamorous nightlife and racy atmosphere but is now a shadow of its former self. Oh, right, I remember: shit-heap.

The high-rise narrow hotels which form a fourteen-storey terrace along the seafront remind me of Acapulco without the lush foliage, or perhaps Benidorm. This is not an exaggeration: one block from the front and you’re into decrepit old apartment buildings and tatty sidestreets of which even Brighton (all front and no knickers) would be ashamed.

We walked to the night market, a small parade of booths and stalls on the central reservation of the six-lane corniche selling every possible kind of lurid tourist tat except anything you’d actually want to buy, and it made me wonder if Copa is now aimed at tourists from other, poorer South American countries rather than Europeans or Americans. Although the hotel prices (well over $400 for a tiny room) don’t seem so low-budget.

For our ‘farewell dinner’ we were taken to a restaurant famed, if that’s what you’d call it, for its ‘eclectic’ decor. It’s not so eclectic for Pirates of the Caribbean to meet the Addams Family in an interior that looked as if it could have been installed overnight by a theatrical set-building team, but our group was in high spirits and the waiters in pirate headscarves and Goth boots brought excellent barbecued meats although the evening did feel a bit ‘manufactured’.

On the bus, Carla the tour director announces she is leaving early in the morning to return to her hillside pueblo in Costa Rica, despite the fact the tour doesn’t officially finish until 6pm. We’re in the hands of the local guide Will who’s actually smarter - being a university professor and veterinary surgeon as well as occasional tour guide. And gay. However quite a lot of the clients are annoyed Carla shipped out early since it means residual uncertainties over the checking of the sugar-loaf mountain of luggage they have collectively to transport to the airport.

After dinner, various clusters continue their evening drinking either in the hotel or in local bars but I have an assignation with Jorge and what we then do pressed up against the window overlooking the twinkling lights of Copacabana beach will stay in my memory rather longer than just another caipirinha.


I have to extend this piece by explaining that Copa is not Rio and Rio is not boring. It’s as much a collection of ‘villages’ as London and the residential areas of Copacabana, Lagoa, Ipanema, or Leblon have as little in common as Chelsea with Croydon. We take a short walk round the historical financial district where many buildings are already being gutted and reassembled for the World Cup and Olympic Games in 2014/16 and the scaffolding shrouds the many others getting their facades sandblasted in a masonic tribute to Rio’s face-lift industry.

We lunch at Confeteria Colombo, a turn-of-the-century landmark with ornate trilled mirrors and Thonet style furnishings but it’s now hedged in with messy shopping streets and many of us loll in the too-hot sun till departure time although Curt indulges in a bout of what can only be described as shirt-lifting with Will the gay local guide since they each return with a bag full of the things.

For the best and brightest views of the city, not to say the coolest and breeziest in a place where hot and still are the perpetual norm, we ascend variously to Sugar Loaf Mountain and to Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. I love the ‘Elevador’ funicular ride up Corcovado, it’s reminiscent of Madeira and Lisbon but others are vertiginously subdued.

Otakar, the Czech paterfamilias, and I discover our vertigos are directly similar but that these high balustrade terraces somehow don’t trigger it, so we’re more relaxed. Fellow-sufferer Curt wisely declines the higher platforms and gets time for coffee and to polish off the New York Times crossword. He didn’t miss much, a view is still a view even if you skip the last thousand feet.

As the group dissipates towards the end, we lunch with Bruce and Susan and have a final/farewell dinner with what I’ve rudely but affectionately been referring to as the ‘Jew Crew’ – the inseparable foursome of Wachts and Schechters, so lovely Robin, Rhona, Avi, Howie, Curt and I are booked for Aprazivel restaurant in the topmost suburb of Rio, Santa Teresa.

At first, most taxi drivers decline to take us claiming the route is dangerous, but a hotel car is braver and whilst we drive through a couple of slightly less genteel neighbourhoods on the lower slopes of the hill, as we continue up and up and up AND up, the streets become cobbled and the mansions grander until when we eventually think one more hairpin bend will mean oxygen masks fall from the roof of the car we arrive at a barely marked door in what is quite clearly an echelon above Rio de Janeiro in every sense.

Inside and down steep stairs, it's a delight with area after area of intimate and bucolic seating locations some at ground level and some actually perched in the trees - we were offered several choices and took a ledge overlooking the spectacular view which only improved with nightfall.

This is definitely a Cariocas' location - although there were some tourists, most of the guests speak Spanish or Portuguese and so do the waiters, although we find one fluent in English to help us through the interesting menu as well as with wine choices. Brazilian Gewurztraminer, anyone?

All our dishes were excellent, from the wood-roasted heart of palm - an absolute revelation to anyone who had, like me, only tasted the nasty canned stuff on buffet salads - and to which I am now a complete convert, and the excellent salt-water fish grilled and very lightly sauced with citrus, perfect medaillon of beef in an interesting jus and a wholly original souffle of spinach and banana on the side.

We shared a couple of desserts, my favourite being the tapioca ice cream – and if you’ve screamed the lunch room down as I have at being force-fed tapioca at school, I can promise you it’s completely different as a gelato – atop a delicious sludge of Acai berry. Yum.

And so with some reluctance we toast ourselves and the end of the trip.


Both Sides Now

Iguassu Falls from Argentina and from Brazil

What's New, Buenos Aires ?

New Year in Llao Llao

Llao Llao hotel, Bariloche

Sailing Through the Andes

And we’re off.

A not-too-early breakfast, bags left inside the bedroom which somehow mysteriously reappear again inside the hotel room at our next destination – this seamlessness is one of the reasons the tour costs what it does, and boy do we appreciate it as boarding passes are brought to us in our seats on the bus and we’re whisked through security to departure lounge without ever seeing a check-in queue. And if the collective baggage is overweight, the tour company pays the excess.

I wanted to put an exclamation mark there, but am editiing this in the transit lounge at Zurich airport where the keyboard doesn't seem to have one. What does that say about the Swiss character?

We’re on Chile’s Sky Airlines, whose fleet appears to be where 737s go to die. At over 30, ours is one of the oldest still flying but with comfortable seats and a tray meal – which has the Americans squeaking with excitement, used as they are to being thrown a bag of peanuts on even the longest US domestic flight – to arrive at Puerto Montt where again the formalities are minimal and we’re quickly on another coach moving towards our lunch destination in Puerto Varas.

The view on the ride down has been sensational – about thirty snow-capped volcanoes studding the cordillera of the Andean range, and now the scenery’s totally different as I’m reminded of the west of Scotland and islands like Arran or Skye where fingers of sea lochs push deep into the low hills of the landscape. There’s as much fishing here too, and apparently the locals will no longer eat salmon because they’re sick of fishing, farming and handling it for the export trade.

On the bus Carla passes round some ‘local’ scarves she’s bought which are allegedly made from Alpaca. When I see the 70/30 label (not to mention the one which says Made in Peru) I ask if we’ll spot any of the Acrylics with whom the Alpacas obviously mated to produce the fibre, but either she doesn’t understand or isn’t amused and her brightness suddenly seems a bit artificial.

Lunch is communal but convivial and there’s some good seafood to start as well as hot dishes we’d selected earlier to save time. It’s also quite Alpine both in the decor of the rustic chalet and the food: I hadn’t expected Wiener Schnitzel to be a Chilean favourites, but it is. Although I wish I’d had the grilled fish because it turns out to be lovely chunky blocks of hake. Wine’s pretty free-flowing so we’re all in a good mood for the afternoon spent around the shops and sights of Pto Varas where my 60 hours of beginner’s Spanish are sufficient for me to help several of the ladies acquire lapis lazuli jewellery in one of the shops.

Siesta, a walk along the seafront with two brilliant volcanoes outlined against the bluest of skies, cocktails, a reasonable dinner and a pleasant sleep in a climate I think of as my ‘own’ since we’re 52 degrees South and I live 52 degrees North.

Next day, the ‘Andean Crossing’ begins in earnest as for the next two full days we’re decanted from bus to dock to boat to bus to hydrofoil to catamaran to whatever in a sort of relay race which brings us across the mountain range and over the Argentine border to Bariloche.

I love it. Even when we’re in the midst of a swarm of ugly horseflies on disembarking at our overnight stop in Peulla, it feels like proper travelling – but with sherpas, since at every change our bags are carted or containerised behind the scenes. The views of the deep green or turquoise lakes and the conical mountains are glorious and we’re extremely lucky with the weather – this stretch can often be cold or rainy – but there are so many photo opportunities and chances to sit and admire the landscape, I never even open the book I brought.

Two long faced Long Island miseries – who fortunately leave us in Buenos Aires – almost spoil it with their moans that this is ‘boring’ but since their favourite holiday was Switzerland I can’t see what part of sparkling lakes, mountains, snow and sunshine is different from the alps: we even have a fondue in Bariloche, and get delicious hot chocolate on the Argentine boat ... perhaps they just liked the cuckoo clocks and watches.

Every tour needs a pair like this, it helps the rest to bond.