Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Come The Day

Saturday 29.3.14 : Same Sex Marriage Equality in the UK.

It's a lovely, bright slightly misty morning on the river and a moment to reflect on today's big gigs to celebrate Equal Marriage first at the Royal Festival Hall thence to a Channel 4 recording for broadcast Monday night. Too late for me? Possibly. Although I've as good as been-there-done-that with 12-year and 8-year relationships. If we'd had equal marriage in 1979 or 1992 when I met them, we'd have done it. Of course, by now one would be under the patio and I'd have driven the other into a mental institution … marriage is not for everyone. But if it's for you, be happy, be proud and be thankful for the generation who brought about the changes that made it happen today.

We gathered on the South Bank before 9am and rehearsed outside in the sunshine to the amusement of passers-by hanging off the balustrades.  We have a new choreographer this season, who was due to coach us in the more intricate movement, but he didn't make it.  It didn't matter because we were so collectively enthusiastic and eager to get it right.

Which we did.  This was not just one of the best-attended performances I've done in recent years, but also one where both singing and movement were accurate and, apart from one chap in the front row persistently wriggling and overselling it like a cheap stripper, together.

I had expected to be entertained by any event involving Sandi Toksvig, but I had not expected to be so moved.  The ceremony involved readings and an exchange of renewed vows between Sandi and her long-time partner Debbie, but was largely conducted by their children, from 8-year-old Mary to medical student Megan and with a massive degree of un-cocky self-confidence and charm.  When their son Theo spoke of his early experience of explaining his two mums to school friends, you could touch the warmth and pride in the auditorium.  

I thought fondly of my ferociously capable Manchester friend Helen Lawson who with her partner Sarah adopted two children who had not had such happy childhoods but who now have blossomed and grown into loving and trusting kids through the stability and support given by two intelligent and balanced parents. This weekend is also Mothers Day and the card they received from their son affirming they are the best mums in the 'intiya' world would make even the most rigorous spelling Nazi celebrate the triumph of enthusiasm over orthography. 

Lots of great and good in the audience, too.  Peter Tatchell, with whom I once skipped hand-in-hand down Oxford Street at Gay Pride in 1978 and doubt whether either of us anticipated this day would arrive, and Mary Portas who had to spend most of the ceremony outside because her small daughter couldn't stay still.  Christopher Biggins with whom I've shared - well, let's just say a 'friend'. 

And then parts of my life flashed before me.  We had not been told much of running order or guest participants in the event but I had some tenuous connection to each of them.  The event was introduced by Jude Kelly, director of the South Bank complex.  Thirty-seven years ago (sorry, Jude, you don't look old enough) when we both lived in Southampton and used to dance together in its one gay club, the Magnum, Jude was a struggling actress just setting up Solent People's Theatre, I was the youngest elected member of the City Council and my arts committee gave her her first ever grant.  

The first reading in the ceremony was delivered by Sheila Hancock, a long-time friend of the Toksvigs.  In 2008 Sheila and I were thrown together in the same weekend 'singles' holiday in Budapest. I'd bought it as a last-minute special offer (discounted by £100 because 'an actress' would be on board) and she was covering it for the Daily Mail.  Sharing a dislike of over-organised group tours we struck out on our own one afternoon for the celebrated Gellert spa baths complex.  It isn't very foreign-tourist-friendly but without a guide or much grasp of conversational Magyar we managed to buy our entrance tickets and through sign language indicated we'd like a massage.  When ushered in to a severe white tile room in the deepest recesses of the building and with what looked like a large mortuary slab it took an extra and urgent session of signing to explain we didn't actually want a 'couples massage' but sequential ones.  

Rick Wakeman played the Festival Hall organ for a couple of numbers including the wedding march in 'Get Me To The Church On Time'.  It reminded me that I was a hastily-recruited backing singer on his 2004 'comeback' album 'The Wizard and the Forest of All Dreams' when his usual group English Chamber Choir were momentarily short of tenors (as I then was).  We recorded it over one weekend in a studio in Wembley while Rick was upstairs writing it, and we got the pages warm from the printer and sight-read them straight onto the recording.

I have history with Sandi, too.  She compered the LGMC's Christmas concert in the Barbican in 2006 and in one of the most precarious last-minute things I've ever done, she and I and my friend Daron Oram co-wrote a comedy song in English and Danish during the afternoon rehearsal and sang it with her the same evening.

Our gig was brought to a fantastic climax by the glorious soul diva Sharon D Clarke who led us in 'River Deep, Mountain High'.  Apart from the fact I'm a huge fan of her musical theatre work from her more-raucous-than-Whoopi Oda Mae in 'Ghost' to 'The Amen Corner', she's my dear friend Helen Smith's sister-in-law.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Light Opera In The Piazza

A review of Do I Hear A Waltz at Park Theatre

I cannot in all conscience recommend DO I HEAR A WALTZ to any but the most forensic Sondheim fans.  It does contain a version of ‘We’re Gonna Be Alright’ but it’s the heavily cut and anodyne one where the couple actually may get along together rather than the acid picture of a disintegrating relationship when David Kernan and Millicent Martin delivered the sharper lyrics in Side by Side by Sondheim.

Not restoring this song gives a clue to Charles Court Opera’s production at the Park Theatre – it’s all about the singing, the staging feels very low-budget and the comedy isn’t given the free rein it should be to make the show more palatable.  

The story is curious – several American couples holiday in Venice but the plot revolves around maturing singleton Leona.  There are some good lines about getting by on one’s own, although she could use a song which reinforces that, but eventually she meets a Venetian shop owner who isn’t the handsomest of men, but she falls for him.  In a pleasantly un-saccharine ending he turns out to be in some ways false, but also accusing her for the way she treats him as a trophy to be acquired like a holiday souvenir.  If the music matched the modernity of the plot it would be better, but casting mostly opera singers makes many of the numbers sound forced.

As Leona, Rebecca Seale is the least operatically-trained member of the cast and after a shaky start is smart-mouthed and engaging; as her lover Renato, Philip Lee - a wonderfully starched Mr Snow opposite Sarah Tynan in Opera North’s gorgeous Carousel at the Barbican - is the best singer in the show but he knows it and his solos are over-posed and unbalanced. Although he sings the beautiful ballad ‘Take The Moment’ at the end of the first act perfectly and with passion, it lacks the delicate tenderness with which Mandy Patinkin infused it on his 2002 Sondheim album.

Rosie Strobel turns in a nice cameo as the voluptuous proprietress of the Pensione Fioria with Carolina Gregory as her non-English-speaking and very reluctant maid.

It's all a bit uneven but the original collaboration was something of a mess anyway: this was a Rogers and Hammerstein chamber musical where Sondheim was drafted in as lyricist after his friend and mentor Oscar Hammerstein’s death.  It borrows heavily from Noel Coward's four-years-earlier 'Sail Away', a vehicle for Elaine Stritch as the travelling singleton, and had been designed for Mary Martin to play Leona but by the time the show was ready in 1965, Martin was 51 and Rogers felt her too old for the romantic role. Franco Zeffirelli was engaged as director but Dick Rogers, who was drinking heavily at the time, fell asleep in their first meeting. Rogers later described Sondheim’s lyrics as “shit” which did little to cement their working relationship.

Bit of a wasted opportunity, they really could have done The Light In The Piazza.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Tipping Point

I think my love affair with New York may have reached a plateau.  It’s 35 years since I first visited and in that time, of course, we’ve both changed.  Maybe we should see other people.  It’s not you, it’s me.  But actually it is you.

I’ve stayed for weeks, weekends and when I worked here, a year; I’ve visited alone, with friends, with lovers, with every long-term partner I ever had, when the pound’s at par with the dollar and when it was two-for-one, and in every season from socked-in blizzard to volcanic ash cloud to hellish heat and humidity (like this Tuesday).

Anywhere you know that well should have a comforting familiarity but this time the familiarity is actually discomfiting: I’m seeing as ugly the polarization of the city into a privileged playground of Fifth Avenue shopping, luxury dining and ‘exclusive’ club-level premium-rate access to practically everything, contrasted with an almost slave-labouring underclass managing the humping, shifting, cleaning, driving and catering that underpins New York’s ability to function.  That the people who do this are ethnically, socially and linguistically divergent from the ones they serve is disturbing, as is the fact they all live far from the island of Manhattan and their daily journey to do these menial jobs is long and early and arduous.

Also cluttering the sidewalks and subways are the in-town-for-two-days tourists from States with square corners whose ignorance and taste afflicts the cultural life of the city to the extent that 90% of available entertainment has to be dumbed to their level.  At the ticket booth in Times Square you queue two hours for a jukebox musical, two minutes for a stage play.  I took a guided walk round Central Park – fountains, statues, a bit of history about Frederick Law Olmsted and the city fathers who let him reclaim the swamp.  At a statue of Columbus a woman in a golf visor with the projection of a shop awning shading a low-budget chemical peel and tuck asked “are you sure he was Italian, he doesn’t have a very Italian name”. 

Taking a guided walk wasn’t a new experience for me, but I’m having to try too hard to find things to do: on TripAdvisor’s list of ‘must sees’, I got to number 83 before I found something untried. The Rubin Museum of Art.  No, I’d never heard of it either.  But it has a Himalayan restaurant with 'Buddhist Chickpea and Paneer Salad' for $11.  How do they know the chickpeas were Buddhist?

The harmless faith of the chickpea aside, everything here seems expensive.  Even with the £ at $1.55, pretty generous to us Brits, it proved almost impossible to find a clean, decent hotel room under £300 a night: and since my shopping so far has been a couple of Brooks Brothers shirts and a dozen coffee mugs from Crate and Barrel on which I saved about £40 by not buying them my own side of the Atlantic, there’s not exactly a lot of offset.

Although as a critic I get London theatre tickets for free, I’m constantly concerned about evaluating shows from the viewpoint of the paying punter, whether it’s £12 in a room over a pub in Camden, or £70 in Shaftesbury Avenue.  The median for Broadway now seems to be $140, plus various taxes and charges rounding a typical spend up to £100 and that could be a seat three rows from the back of the Stalls in some of the gigantic theatres.  Sight lines are good, mostly better than the pillar-strewn West End.  You get a free ‘Playbill’ (programme) which saves you £4 on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s prices, but a woman in front of me bought two bottles of water and a modestly-sized bag of M&Ms, for $23. Plus tip.  Which comes with such intimidation techniques it can no longer be considered 'optional'.

Once when eating in an unimpressive hamburger joint on a previous visit, the service had been dismal: I left about ten percent and the waitress followed us outside ... my Upper East Side Jewish American Princess guest (who had been the one to complain loudly about the service) still laid on the guilt with a trowel:  "It's okay, don't think about it, I'll just never be able to come in here again."

I know there have been countless treatises on the convention of not paying employees serious salaries but expecting them to glean their income from voluntary service charges.  This time, I actually had a waiter deliver a bill with the Ukranian-Bronx accented message “a recommended gruh-too-i-tee of 18 to 20 puhssent is nyot inclyuded”.   Since waitering requires the same skills whether you’re in a restaurant that charges $25 for pizza or $150 for ‘fine dining’ and native Noo Yawkers habitually tip ‘double the tax’ or about 16%,  I’m surprised their unions don’t demand a more equitable regime of compensation.

When I was stuck here during the volcanic ash cloud, I did an interior design job for my involuntary host, a successful investment banker.  He was comparatively charming but it was hateful because the Sloane Ranger ‘project manager’ who’d lured me into it with champagne and blandishments in London was a woman we’d both worked with but who I suspected he’d also been shagging, and with whom I had to cohabit in Richard Gere’s recently-vacated and totally empty apartment for four unpleasant weeks till I could get a flight home.  

He took us out to dinner frequently to soften the blow of living in 8000 square feet of unheated Gere vacuity, once to an impossibly pretentious place in the West Village where five of us were ushered into the ‘club’ room and served indifferent food round what felt like an ironing board, for four thousand dollars, including a two thousand dollar bottle of immature Chateau Showoff on which he paid a $700 cash tip separately from the service charge.  So the waiter earned more from an hour and a half's fawning than I did for a whole day on the design project.

Whether it’s the inequities that are making me uncomfortable, or the oppressive heat and humidity, I've had enough and am off to Washington to cool down for my last couple of days.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thatcher's Child

It’s the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and in the past week since she died the press has been almost equally full of eulogy and inchoate rage, more or less divided between those who lived through her era, and those whose were too young to remember the 70s and whose caricatured impressions of her have been processed through the distorted filter of stand-up comedy.

I’ll save my story of meeting her for the end of this post, but it occurs to me I’m almost as much a child of Thatcher as I am of my own parents and certainly her actions have patterned my life. My parents even met through politics, they were both members of the ‘Junior Imperial League’, a forerunner of the Young Conservatives, just before the Second World War.

My mother, more or less her contemporary, was also a bright, industrious girl but had to leave school at fourteen and without a college education knew instead the values of hard work and self-improvement and instilled in me as best she could the same ethic. Or at least she belted me round the head often enough when I was slacking at school which amounts to the same thing.

Encouraged by educational competition I won a scholarship to public school, saving fees my parents probably couldn’t have afforded, and through that became the first child in my family to go to University, again without tuition costs. I bought my first home, on my 25th birthday. It was at the time Tory legislation was being passed to sell off the local authority housing stock and I had to rent it for £6 a week for eighteen months whilst it was sorted out, during which time the mortgage rate rose from 8 to 13.75% and the repayments when they started took my breath away, and I lived on beans for two years. 

When I moved to London I sold it for twice what I’d paid, and then bought and renovated  another and … well, any prosperity I might now enjoy stems from that initial lucky purchase, tax relief on mortgage payments which was only rescinded by Gordon Brown in 2000, and the housing boom of the 80s which followed Mrs T’s economic changes.  When I first went to work in Southampton, I hadn’t been able to find a flat to rent because the law made it all but impossible for private landlords to rent out empty properties without risking losing them to tenants who could claim they needed them more.  Once Thatcher had abolished the notorious Rent Act, renting became easier for both landlord and tenant and having been both, I appreciated it.

Through a ‘lonely hearts’ advert in the back of Gay News, then a sort of ‘parish magazine’ for the community, I met a young chap who was a Conservative candidate for the local council elections and he persuaded me also to apply on the grounds that the decision-making ladies of the Bargate ward would ‘love me’ – which they did.  So I was, for three years, the youngest elected member of Southampton City Council and only lost my seat in the higher Labour turnout of the 1979 election, which was also the day Mrs Thatcher came to power.

I’m ashamed to say I had adopted my parents’ political views fairly unquestioningly – it took  me till my thirties to develop and act on my natural liberal tendencies – and was a regional vice chair of the Federation of Conservative Students, where my happy little gang included Andrew Neil, David Davis, Tony Baldry and Neil Hamilton.  That I didn’t follow them into parliament I still regard as my lucky escape. 

We had a lot of residential courses heavily subsidised by the party, and I fondly remember the glorious converted castle at Swinton in North Yorkshire which was the Conservative College and where I learned to drink gin.  Some lectures were recorded but there were occasions when microphones were banned and we heard, for example, the outrageous Rhodes Boyson expound his immigration policy ideas of “give them a thousand pounds and tell them to bugger off”.  

Swinton Conservative College
On my last visit to review a show at Leicester’s very modern Curve Theatre, I took an hour to revisit its very ancient Grand Hotel where we had our annual conference every November, and sit in the dusty ballroom where I’d heard not just Mrs Thatcher, but a tentative and self-deprecating Ken Clarke make one of his first speeches as an MP.

At the Blackpool party conference of 1977, a squeaky schoolboy called William Hague made his debut and I sat next to Enoch Powell who squirmed a bit during the Leader’s speech, and stomped off when she finished. I went dancing in the Tower Ballroom.

But it was my first meeting with Mrs Thatcher that is so firmly etched in my memory: 19 February 1973, the day I lost my virginity.

The aforementioned Federation of Conservative Students had been asked to do a survey on student finances, because some Central Office think tank had come up with the idea that grants could be replaced with loans.  We’d touted the forms round Lancaster University without much take-up and when asked to submit the summaries, I’d simply multiplied all the numbers by five to make it look as though we’d got far more responses than we did.  A working party was asked to report to Mrs Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education, and they invited those who had, apparently, collated the most forms.  It was a rare visit to London for me, I’d only been twice before, and I slept on the floor of a friend at UCL.  He had lectures during the day and so I had to amuse myself, and though I’d try to find ‘gay life’ in the city.  I had no idea where to look – for some reason I’d confused hanging around Piccadilly Circus to pick up men with Marble Arch and spent a desultory hour at quite the wrong tube station although a few Edgware Road Arabic types did give me the eye.

We had some end-of-term ball coming up and the fashion those days was for velvet suits, so I went shopping along Oxford Street and was trying on the trousers in the fitting room of C&A when the assistant suddenly became extra helpful in smoothing the nap of the velvet, particularly in the crotch area.  Paul Attard, it said on his badge.  One thing led to another and I hope he managed to get the stains out before returning it to stock, but the other issue was that I was wearing paper disposable underpants – another 1973 fashion faux pas – and had to chuck them in a bin. 

So I went to my meeting with Margaret Thatcher, in her office at the House of Commons, without pants and smelling of sex.

still waiting for the blue plaque ...

Some good came of it: although she was fiercely well-prepared and questioned us rigorously she did come round to the idea of maintaining student grants, a policy not reversed till Tony Blair brought in tuition fees in 1998. 

We had a post-mortem in a pub in the Euston Road where I lent David Davis, later shadow Home Secretary, 10p for the condom machine in the gents.  He’s never paid me back.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A Tuesday in Panama

It’s a Tuesday in January and I’m watching a flock of pelicans dive for supper in the fish-rich gulf of Panama: the sun is so blinding I have to retreat into the air-conditioning of the cabin as it’s pushing 90 degrees on the balcony.  In England there’s up to a foot of snow and Heathrow allegedly resembles a casualty dressing station in the Crimea so I thought I should write a postcard home.

I’ve done it so often and you, tolerant gentle reader have heard it enough that I won’t burden you with the details of the journey except to say if you’re aiming for Florida, Tampa Airport is a million times better than Miami, the Disney and diaper hellhole of Orlando, or changing in JFK.  Apart from the fact you have to manhandle your baggage without the aid of a ‘cart’ which is helpfully not allowed outside the immediate customs area ‘for safety reasons’, it’s only a walk to the terminal and the car rental station where I’m allowed a free choice of Alamo’s finest and chunkiest SUVs.  Having wrangled the 46kg suitcases down five flights of stairs this morning at home when the lift was – for the third time in six days - out of order, I swing them like Indian clubs into the massive trunk area and head for the highway.

Although I’ve printed maps I find the hotel mostly by guesswork and immediately form the impression I am the only ‘independent’ customer in the place since everyone else seems to be attending the National Convention of Assholes or somesuch.  I’m hot and a bit irritable and after a few beers in the ‘executive’ lounge which has all the charm and polyester upholstery of a vasectomist’s waiting room wherein middle aged American men bullshit about sports to avoid the real purpose of their visit, I’m ready for bed.  Eavesdropping at breakfast I discover the conventioneers are all water treatment inspectors, so I was close.  All of them, even the women, look like Homer Simpson and under their uniformly oxford button-downs, it’s debatable who has the biggest boobs.

It is SO glorious driving down unfettered highways and over the long low bridges which hug the Reckitt-blue water of Tampa bay that I ask myself out loud why I don’t spend much more of the winter somewhere like this.  My first stop is the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg where my appreciation is boosted by seeing how broad was the range of his work – like Picasso, he was an excellent draughtsman, portraitist and landscape artist before developing his signature style, and it was a treat to have lunch in the company of Tom O’Shea, the architecture ‘docent’ and discover both that we had designer colleagues in common and that he shares my view that the brand new building’s striking features have been dulled by committee planners and a surrounding of death by local authority landscaping.

A very brief stop at Ellenton ‘Premium’ outlet malls for a wee and a headlong dash through Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers and I’m on the road again heading for Sarasota.  By early afternoon I’ve crossed the bridge onto the narrow spit of land which includes Longboat Key and am ticking off the retirement condominiums and golf resorts along Gulf of Mexico Drive to 1241 and my friends Marvin and Betty.  They are effortlessly charming and welcoming and  after a James Bond penthouse experience where the lift opens directly in to their apartment, it’s a pleasure to see them again after six months and enjoy their home filled with light, fine art and ceramics – there’s even a Dali sketch in the hallway.  We chat until sunset on their balcony when it’s time to shower and change for dinner at the Hawkins’ in another grandiose patch of Florida real estate: their two and a half-storey ‘great room’ reminds me of a Kenyan game lodge with its plantation shutters, palm-shaped fans and clubby upholstery, and I’m guessing that’s an 84-inch television. 

They’re generous hosts and pour three splendid Californian cabernets to accompany the steaks.  We’re having a lovely and relaxed time when Betty’s cell phone rings to announce the demise of her elder sister.  Whilst this is not unexpected, because she’d been ill and the doctors had anticipated it, the poise with which Betty handles it takes my breath away and fills me anew with appreciation of how my Jewish friends take such incidents in their stride, believing life is for the living.  With barely a beat, she confirms what happened and moves the conversation on.  We clink a respectful glass.  L’Chaim, to life.

Sleep comes easily and after breakfast I hit the road again for the longish drive from Gulf to Atlantic coast and through ‘Alligator Alley’ across the Everglades where there’s a major python cull in operation.  Needless to say, I don’t see one, or indeed much at all the traffic is so light but I do surf the radio stations and am alarmed how many phone-in shows seem to take calls from people whose sole preoccupation – in the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Connecticut - is ‘what about them tryin’ to take away our guns’. 

I hit Fort Lauderdale about 1pm and the Hyatt doesn’t have my room ready so I scoot off for ‘the best hamburger in South Florida’ and since there’s a ‘beauty parlor’ directly above it, get my hair cut by a funny and chatty platinum blonde called Delaine who sports stilettos, Capri pants and mascara applied with more enthusiasm than accuracy and is possibly ten years older than me.  No ageism in the great retirement State.  She does a very good job, and I also brave having my eyebrows threaded for the first time ever, which is an odd experience but not painful.   It is all also extremely cheap, certainly compared to London.

Back at the hotel I ascend to my thirteenth floor eyrie – some dodgy upgrade I seem to have finagled – and almost immediately find Curt, Rhea, David and Peggy having a late lunch at the pool.  We don’t have long to chat before changing again because we’re expected for dinner by Bazz and Moya, former cruise line entertainers, at their brand new bar and restaurant within the Hard Rock Casino complex.  Driving there takes us through the more depressing parts of Lauderdale until what rises from the strips of tyre depots and discount liquor stores is something like the Emerald City of Oz, with soaring fountains, coloured lights, massive hotels, valet parking and a little bit of Vegas.  We find their new bar ‘Piano’ sandwiched between a Hooters and a candy store and it’s an oasis of cool Savoy style sophistication surrounded by some pretty tacky neighbours. And Moya designed, built and painted it herself.

If it gets the footfall, it should do astoundingly well since there’s nothing nearly as classy for miles – except perhaps the wonderful restaurant where we have dinner and which specialises in grass-fed, long-matured dry-aged meat of the sort that cuts like butter and again makes me recall why I like visiting the USA, we just don’t get this in Europe, or if we do it’s at Goodmans where dinner costs more than my flight here.  Bazz selects, and we drink, copious bottles of Marques de Riscal Rioja which nourishes my European heart into thinking that the Yanks may have the best meat, but we have the wine that makes their meat sublime.  If that sounds like a double entendre, maybe it’s accurate too, but I was genuinely talking about food.

In a complicated game of you-take-me-here, I’ll-drop-you-there Curt and I shuttle our luggage to the dockside and our friends to the ship before ditching the hire cars and getting on board ahead of the crowd.  The Silver Shadow is larger than the line’s other ships we’ve sailed on and it’s several days before we find our way confidently about the decks.  It’s almost full with 490 passengers but fortunately not so totally booked that I couldn’t change cabins since mine had air conditioning which came directly from a smoking section of the crew accommodation.  I was offered an upgrade several floors above the category I’d booked but opt instead for one midships on deck 5 which is the closest to the sea where you can still have a balcony and not get wet.  It’s also about where the bow wave crashes so I get lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean, perfect for me.

Monday, 6 August 2012

A Monday in Mallorca

I’m visiting my friend Jo who’s teaching English in Mallorca.  We met one of her host families yesterday and they were kind enough to invite me on their day trip to Cala Mandraga which I couldn’t accept because (a) I went to a similar beach yesterday (b) knew it would rain and (c) it’s my day for moving hotels .

So a last morning in Soller, a town with which I’ve slightly fallen in love – a mile high in the Sierra de Tramuntana it represents a face of the island I’d not encountered before, the rugged mountainous north-west, but after three glorious hot days the clouds came to meet us and I’m driving down the hillside with big teary plashets of rain on the windscreen.

My destinations are Deia, allegedly the most beautiful town on the island, and the monastery at Valldemossa where Chopin romanced Georges Sand.  But first I pass the home of Robert Graves.  He might be a great poet and have written ‘I Claudius’ here but exhibited considerable lack of forethought in not purchasing a house with a level car and coach park and stables suitable for conversion into tea rooms.  The parking’s miles away and the rain’s threatening again so it’s a case of hello and ‘Goodbye to All That’ and I’m back on the road again.  I make a note that if I’m ever a famous writer, I’ll buy a more visitor-attraction-friendly house.

It brightens up by Deia, but the queue of traffic entering the small town with its pedestrian-filled narrow streets and morons who think it’s OK to unload a van on a corner where no-one else can pass, and I’m not feeling the love.  The traffic moves so slowly it’s possible to observe that almost the entire visiting population consists of defiantly L’Oreal-blonde middle-aged British women with no chin and a navy linen shirt each clutching the Rolexed hand of a golf-tanned hegefundista whose face you want to punch persistently till he acknowledges his part in the banking crisis.  There are so many craft shops, tearooms and English-branded estate agencies it’s like someone tore a strip off Weybridge and threw it angrily at a Mallorcan hillside.

It takes twenty minutes to crawl through the immaculately-restored town, and of course there’s nowhere to stop without wounding several passers-by (an option which felt not entirely unpleasant) or breaking a craft shop window - there are so many twee china, linen and ‘tasteful art’ shops, tearooms and English-branded estate agencies it’s like someone tore a strip off Weybridge and threw it angrily at a Mallorcan hillside.

Fortunately it’s not much further to Valldemossa where at least the streets are wide enough to breathe and I can dump the car (and have a wee behind a council recycling bin because I am absolutely desperate) and wander the sights.  There is only one real sight – the monastery and annexed palace where Frederic Chopin and this posh lady writer with a man’s name that no-one’s ever really heard of or read holed up for the winter in 1838.  He bashed out a couple of Nocturnes and she wrote a pretty unexceptional what-I-did-in-the-holidays essay called ‘A Winter in Mallorca’.  Let’s just say it wouldn’t make the Booker shortlist these days.  

They must have been slightly on their financial uppers if they needed to stay at a monastery, and you wonder what sort of a monastic order would actually encourage the cohabitation of a Polish pianist and his girlfriend with several of her children in tow.  But tourism makes much of a simple romance and they’re flogging it for all it’s worth with Chopin-themed shopping and even a passable piano concert in the quite lovely music room of the Palace, although on a highly-strung modern Yamaha that’s one piano-tuner’s keyturn short of a honky-tonk.

Valldemossa may once have been a place worth visiting, of pilgrimage even for the Chopin fans to whom it’s something of a shrine – but it nowadays concentrates on what motivates most European tourism: the ready availability of a ‘nice coffee’ and cake.  Every building seems to have been pressed into service as a cafĂ©, or souvenir shop, or both, and it soon palls.  But I’m glad I saw it – particularly the upper floor of the monastery which has a contemporary art collection including works by Picasso and Juli Ramis who I confess I hadn’t heard of but who seems to be from the same school and a bit of a master of colour.

So it’s back down the EU-funded highway to the Palma ring road and then the familiar MA-20 motorway north via Inca to Cala San Vicente, a quiet cove in the extreme north-west tip of the island, and the Hotel La Moraleja.  I should say that I’m staying in three different hotels, all of the classy and all of them normally quite expensive but thanks to several days on the internet and the almost astrological coincidence of an Expedia ‘sale’ and judicious juggling of their discount-availability dates, I got them all for the price of a Travelodge back home. 

La Moraleja is a hoot, it’s such an anachronism it should be in  a wax museum, as should several of the customers.  Formerly a private house owned by a Spanish eccentric with a passion for all things English – I’m picturing a well-starched nanny and a spanking fetish, but apparently I just missed him, he’s 93 and had popped in for lunch and to check no-one had stolen his art collection which covers all the available walls including the vaulted living room with its oh-so-Britsh chintz sofas, faded Persian carpet and vellum-shaded table lamps. You could do ‘The Mousetrap’ right here.  In fact, I might.

It’s like staying with your slightly dotty great aunt, if your great aunt was the Duchess of Devonshire.  Everything’s very old-fashioned: in some cases charmingly so, but nothing works.  I can’t get wi-fi despite the assistance of several members of staff, and I hear a lady complain that it’s impossible for her to operate the hot and cold taps together in such a way that she can have a shower which is more than an alternately boiling and freezing drizzle.  I haven’t tried yet, although my bathroom is enormous and I may instead leave the taps to fight it out between themselves for an hour or two which is probably how long it will take them to fill my enormous tub. 

A Germanic woman shows me round the property with its formal gardens and vine-crept pool terrace all of which is slightly dripping now but I am sure will be much lovelier in the sunshine.  My room is number 13, at the end of the corridor on the first floor but despite the fact I bought it as a ‘single’ is the same huge size as all the others, with a massive wooden headboard like a baroque altar-piece, a sitting room and a balcony with a squint of the sea but also clear sight (and sound) into the garden of a chav-occupied villa where the family’s main sport seems to be shouting at their children.  Adam is definitely the naughtiest, or maybe they scold them in alphabetical order, because his is the name I hear bawled ten or fifteen times in the three minutes before I close the balcony door and let the air-conditioning do its work.

Rather than have a siesta in splendid isolation, I make for the public rooms but the place is empty: occasionally someone will walk through the lobby, take a sighing look at the sky and retreat elsewhere.  I’ve only been here two hours and I would be suicidal if I’d booked for two weeks.  They showed me a menu for dinner should I decide to eat in, but the dining room is pretty formal and despite Harry Belafonte’s ‘Island in the Sun’ being muzaked on Andean pan pipes, somewhat cheerless.  I counted only six tables for two laid up which is too suggestive of a Terence Rattigan play and I think I’ll scope it and its customers out first before signing up to what seems to add up to a 60 Euro meal without wine.  As if a meal without wine were an option.

In the last few minutes – the rain’s not really easing off – some people have passed through but apart from one small and very polite boy who told me my laptop was getting wet, the best they can manage is a formal nod before they retreat to their crossword or novel.  It’s the kind of place that just makes you want to tell a dirty joke. 

About 8pm I set off for a stroll round Cala San Vicente proper.  It's quite a sad place - I think it once thought itself classier and more exclusive than nearby Pollensa but perhaps unable to attract the moneyed retirees who once graced its promenades it appears to have died on its arse with many hotels and bars mothballed.  A motherly Aberdonian woman who calls me 'hen' apologises for the lack of anything other than 'with chips' on her menu but explains that if it's not something that comes from the freezer, there isn't the turnover to keep fresh food on the menu.  I succumb to the hotel's restaurant - there really being virtually no alternative - and dine on the pool terrace on quite nice steak, and a messy jammy dessert which will send my blood sugar numbers into orbit.

My fellow guests vary between the disinterested and the downright miserable - although after 11 the terrace livens up with what is assuredly a man of about my age in white linen trousers and sub-Gucci loafers accompanied by what's almost certainly a tart, judging by the size and vulgarity of her handbag, and an otherwise handsome younger couple who've spent the entire evening texting on their respective mobile phones.  

The sky has cleared, there are stars.  Tomorrow it may be fine.

And so to bed.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Sunset, Limited

Bobby the cute biotech scientist drives me to the train station in Palm Springs which isn’t really in Palm Springs but set among the wind farms on its wilder northern edge. Amtrak says to check in at least 30 minutes early but not only is there no place to do this at the unstaffed station, there’s simply no one else around either. It’s just a platform and the rails turning copper in the late afternoon sun.

Two coyotes chase across the edge of the desert and deserted parking lot.

Thanks to a 1-800 automated information service we soon discover the Sunset Limited is already running 20 minutes late which means we’ve effectively an hour to kill but it passes very easily and actually we get to know each other better for it.

There’s a lot of freight. A LOT of freight trains, maybe seven or eight in the time we’re waiting, each with four big diesels hauling about a half-mile of wagons most of which are carrying a double deck quota of containers. Among the Mitsui, China Ocean, Tianjin and similar transpacific cargo companies are several units branded with the Tropicana juice name, suggesting that if they can haul it through deserts in steel containers it’s so chock full of preservative you probably don’t need to put it in the fridge. For years.

The passenger train arrives without fanfare and whilst there are only two or three people boarding here – I’m the only one up the sleeper end, it’s unhurried and a conductor points me towards roomette 11 in coach 230. There I meet steward Yvonne, one of those topheavy black women for whom stretch polyester uniforms were not really designed but she has the broadest of smiles and settles me into the little cabin explaining the light and air controls, and organizes me a reservation for dinner.

Now this isn’t the Orient Express and the tablecloths are paper but the cutlery’s real and there are fresh flowers on the tables. The menu is short but surprisingly varied – besides the American burgerish staples are crabmeat enchiladas, arctic char resting on a bed of orzo pasta and my choice, a tender and delicious piece of chipotle beef with baked potato (baked a while back it has to be said) and fresh vegetables. The ‘no added sugar’ cheesecake may have its peach topping slopped over it as from a bucket but it tastes as good as restaurant fare.

The dining car operates ‘open seating’ which means singles like me are encouraged to share tables for four which is fine. My companions opposite are a white woman from LA in her late twenties chaperoning a pretty but initially sullen six year old girl of a distinctly Amerindian cast. With her dark almond eyes and glossy hair she's a Disney Pocahontas who will grow up to be a stunner but at the moment she needs some coaxing to eat and sit properly. She warms up eventually – actually she eats a huge hot dog, some salad and half her mom’s chicken – and I learn that her name’s Esmeralda and they are traveling together to Tuscon so she can meet, for the first time, her father.

This is almost a Jerry Springer moment as I dare to ask why she hasn’t met him before now – and mom’s gaze is completely level as she tells me they split soon after the daughter was born and he “wasn’t ready till now, but now he’s in a much better place” which the cynical side of my brain interprets as ‘out of prison’.

We’re due into Tucson shortly before 2am and he’s meeting the train, in what promises to be the kind of middle of the night childhood trauma the extended analysis of which should in later years buy her therapist a Porsche.

Our merry foursome is completed by an unshaven gentleman who has arrived for dinner in a powder blue surgical scrub top with almost matching boxer shorts possibly not intended for street wear. He prefers train travel ‘for health reasons’ and ‘because of all that security stuff at airports’ so I mentally X-ray him for weapons (not much concealed in those shorts: definitely no loaded weapon but he may be packing a small slingshot with very loose elastic).

He’s conversationally acute as he describes his itinerary from Los Angeles to some burg beyond Portland, Maine, via a seven hour layover across New Year’s eve in San Antonio and another of five hours overnight in Chicago. He is traveling in a seat, not a sleeper, and won’t arrive home until January 4th having spent five consecutive nights on trains or in station waiting rooms. He is certifiably insane.

Shortly after dinner we skip forward a time zone and at 10pm it seems justifiable to make up the bed in the roomette. I thought at first the upper berth was a proper mattress and the lower one formed of sliding the two seats together but concealed in the upper fold-down is a complete set of mattress, sheets and blankets which make the lower option even more cushy. I like that word, it’s American but I don’t apologise for using it.

It’s certainly relaxing as I watch on my laptop the Christmas special of Downton Abbey whilst we barrel through the starlit mesas of Arizona in a surreal movie collision of the 3.10 to Yuma with the 4.50 from Paddington. I have to catch the conclusion in the morning and Matthew proposes to Mary in the snow with my eyes both squinting from the rising sun and, go on I admit it, misty. I seem to have got in touch with my emotions in the last couple of days.

Sensitive to the needs of passengers not to be disturbed till morning, the train conductor elaborated the rules for coach passengers disembarking before dawn: a coded series of coloured dockets is placed over their seats so they can be selectively awakened just before arrival. It’s all very well managed and I’m barely aware of the stops in the night, except perhaps surfacing momentarily at Tucson to silently wish Esmeralda luck for her first meeting with her daddy.

The rocking motion of the train is both restful and potentially conducive to masturbation but I resist. Got to save something for New Year’s Eve.