The Trip – Part Two

On the first evening we walk up to the small, local square which is three minutes away and where old stone walls give way to a hugely impressive ululating valley. The local hotel supper is ok, not brilliant, but we are too tired and hungry to complain. An inquisitive looking bloodhound and his equally inquisitive owner arrive, the latter chomping on a cigar during his evening passeggiata, the former sniffing in distaste at the large citronella candles that sit on the top of the wall overlooking the twinkling lights of the valley. One glass of the local Sangiovese finishes us off. My legs become incredibly heavy and we can barely walk home. The great disappointment of dinner was the anti-climactic local cheese, Fosso, which seems to sit drily in the pasta. By ten o clock we are both asleep, dozing amidst the hum of the air con.

I’m awake at 7am the next morning, which is usual for me, desperate for coffee. Just a slight turn of the head on the pillow grants me a spectacular view of Emilia Romagna countryside. It is weepingly beautiful in the early mornings and evenings here but the harsh daytime sun reduces you to a bright red, sweating madman within half an hour. There is still nothing in the apartment and on Thursday afternoon the concierge had to spend about an hour explaining to us how the hob worked. All we have is a small saucepan and some stolen tea bags from the cafe round the corner. There is nothing in the living room except the vast plastic covers we had ripped off the new mattresses in a fit of tiredness the previous evening, and we head out for breakfast at the local trattoria, which I am assured by Mother Bluebird, does splendid suppers, and I have a perfect cappuccino and local bread, jam and cheese. This morning we have to venture forth in search of food and a bank, and we are both nervous about locating either.

The car is perfect for these hills and swift corners – a small, manual Fiat. But the air con doesn’t seem to want to pump out cold air at all and instead it feels like a very hot hair dryer is being blasted into your face in a branch of Toni & Guy. Eventually we give up and open the windows. Our search for the fruit and fish market in a particular town yields nothing so we drive on and on until we find a grocery store where we fall upon the plastic bottles of water, cheese, milk and prosciutto supplies. We buy six delicious peaches from an ancient lady for 3 Euro, and then head back down the same road toward the apartment, then veer off in the opposite direction so Mother Bluebird can visit her new Italian bank in a small town called Calcinelli.

Like all small Italian towns, Calcinelli has five things : 2 shoe shops, both selling slingbacks at exorbitant prices, a grubby bar so dark that you can see nothing upon entering as the Adriatic sun has temporarily blinded you, at least 9 hairdressers per resident, an old shapeless lady shopping with a string bag and a pharmacy which for reasons that are not clear, sells Mars bars. We find the bank only after asking directions. Italians tend not to describe directions using road names, but instead sharply and quickly tell you “3rd road in the right, turn left at 4th crossroads, then 500 metres to the right….” Eventually we find the bank, and everyone who works there is wearing shorts. It’s terribly European, you know. Last time my mother was here a woman ran in screaming. Mum, assuming she was in the middle of a hold-up, dived for cover. The other customers, mainly comprised of long distance lorry drivers in flip flops, took no notice. It turns out the woman was going nuts because someone had taken her car parking space outside the pet shop.

Proud of ourselves for successfully locating the bank and depositing money, we repair to the main street in Calcinelli where I treat myself to a double espresso so gloriously strong my eyelashes start twitching and I am rendered extremely excitable for the remainder of the afternoon. We think about London, as it gears up for its huge spectacle, and then retire to the apartment where we gorge ourselves on stolen restaurant grissini sticks and local honey and toast the 30th Olympic games with a cup of English Breakfast tea, made by slowly boiling a small saucepan of water on the confusing stovetop.

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The Trip – Part One

A 5.50am the early morning alarm call was a welcome diversion from the fact we had hardly slept at all during the sultry and overheated London night. Also, my mother lives slap bang in the middle of town. This means that throughout the night the noise is constant – bottles being emptied into those massive trucks and smashed into a million pieces, drunk men having a boisterous conversation outside in the street at 2am, people sneezing, people screaming, motorbikes squealing up towards Piccadilly Circus, dogs yelping and -I think – the sound of Marco Pierre White coughing that month’s Benson & Hedges up from outside his restaurant downstairs which no one ever seems to eat in. Who’d have thought it would have been a relief to get to Stansted to catch a Horrid Air flight?

Outside, the Olympic lanes are already in use at 6.30am, long BMW estate cars coloured pink and white, and half of London gears up for 12 day gridlock. I feel that I don’t need to describe Stansted to you, dear reader, as you are a distinguished, worldly, travelling sort of lovely person, but suffice to say, 1pm found us baking in 35 degree heat at the tiny Ancona airport which is stationed so close to the dreamy blue Adriatic that for a moment I thought we were going to land in the sea. The best thing about Italy is the smell on landing here in the summer; it’s a dry, Deisel-infused smell. The worst thing is trying to calm a lady down who is driving a manual car for the first time since 1972 on the Italian autostrada in a vehicle where the air con doesn’t work. We drive northbound, following the route of the Adriatic, for 30km or so, before turning off for Fano, being disturbed by the nature of the roundabouts and then slipping up to the left for a 5km, hair-raising hillside drive so steep our ears popped. At the top, as if from a Merchant Ivory film set in turn of the century Italy, is a set of grey gates giving access to the breezy apartment complex, which is a good thing as Mother Bluebird is a nervous wreck and yours truly is dehydrated and her cheeks are hollow and sucked in like a dry corpse.

Hot, dry and humid, we wake up the concierge, who finally arrives at the door of his room, blinking, his wiry hair only partly concealing the table full of empty beer bottles behind him. Friendly and helpful, he suddenly explains everything in quick, brutal Italian which I have no hope of understanding. He whisks us through to show us the garage (where the key does not work) and we turn up through terracotta pathways lined with rosemary and lavender, up 41 stairs to the converted house which is divided into 3 flats. “La cucina c’e!” he says celebrating, as we open the door to the flat and find the kitchen is in. Phew. We have made it. The floor is cool, the air con is ramped up and we can hear nothing beyond the countryside around us, save the constant crowing of a bird and the distant clip clip of the flip flops of the two elderly lesbians from the apartment downstairs walking back from the pool. Only then do we realise that there is nothing in the apartment whatsoever, especially not any toilet paper, which we both need. The drive down the hill and the necessary 7km trek to the town can’t be faced. Instead we plan a walk three minutes up the hillside to the local B&B where we plan to beg for water, wine and hope to use some English words and be understood.

It is 35 degrees. “The hot weather comes tomorrow!” the concierge says, obligingly. Perhaps we shall all be melted away over the weekend. We open the doors onto the narrow terrace, amazed by the splendid view and basking in the strong hot sun like two happy cats…

Bring on the sheep

They’re bringing on the sheep amidst a scene of pastoral spectacle and creating a cricket match.  It’s going to rain from fake clouds.  And then Boris is going to appear, fresh from his newly-minted role as the constant voiceover artist on London’s transport network telling us to plan ahead, dressed as an 18th century gallant Tory grandee and lead us all in a round of “Land of Hope and Glory”.  Or not.  Or maybe there will be turkeys from Norfolk (another rumour) or pigs from Lincolnshire.  Either way, if the Stratford stadium isn’t covered in 23 different kinds of animal excrement by 9.30pm I’ll eat my 2012 sunhat.

I am bereft to announce that, despite my role as city observer, chronicler and writer, I will be absent from Britain for the opening ceremony.  I have to go to Italy and see what Mother Bluebird has purchased in way of an apartment in a hillside town.  I am being asked to do the driving, which will be interesting because the last time I did any driving I smashed up my car on the A1 during a disagreement with a bollard. I will be sipping regional vino rosso in the hateful, hateful, horrid pink-skied evening sun.  I will be travelling to and from Perugia’s answer to IKEA in thirty seven degree heat.  I will be forced to eat proscuitto, formaggio, great hunks of rustic bread dipped in local olive oil.  It’s going to be hell, darlings.  Mr Bluebird is under instruction to record the opening ceremony for my dramatic criticism and for posterity.  I don’t doubt that it will be impossible to find a television that works in rural Italy and even if it did work I would have to gaze at Blighty whilst being sandwiched between a short, fat, grandmother and a hairy armpit of a construction worker with flatulence problems in a tinny bar last painted in the 1950s.

We are delighted about the kitchen.  There wasn’t one in the Italian apartment until yesterday but there is one today.  This is progress.  What isn’t progress is the fact that I haven’t managed to book liposuction to prepare for my first performance in a bikini in three years, but I’m hoping the locals will feel generous and resist the temptation to point at my cellulite.  My plan this week is to update regularly (if I can find Wifi) and tell you all about the region and our experiences within it, if that is, I recover from the 6am wake up call to fly Horrid Air from London Stansted.  Sorry to be missing London’s party this week – I depend on my spies and my readers to tell me how it is.  I’m off to Bar Italia to brush up on my future tense with the waiters.  Meanwhile, I shall be telephoning Danny Boyle to oversee the delivery of livestock to E15 first thing tomorrow morning. 

For those of you who read the last entries in “The Italian Job” (see topic list opposite) you’ll know what to expect : I list all the foodstuffs I eat, explain my attempts to speak Italian to the locals, tell you about the sites I see and attempt to post ice cream home.  I usually get lost down dark, winding city streets and drink enough Montepulciano to see me through for the next year.  I usually drive haphazardly through Umbrian plains in manual cinquecentos.   There is always fun to be had.  Please stay tuned for updates throughout the week. 

Arrevederci!

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is usually updated every Thursday but due to travels this week I will be updating regularly, if, that is I can locate Wifi in the Ancona region.  Thank you!

Fifty Shades of Beige

This morning I sat next to a woman who looked like she lived in Fraggle Rock, and who was reading Fifty Shades of Grey on her Kindle.  I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor am I one of the astonished husbands who have felt the physical benefits of it, but as far as I can see it’s very badly written porn.  It’s full of phrases that usually only Barbara Cartland at her doziest and pinkest would have attempted.  People “stagger round in disbelief” rather than “stagger round in a state of disbelief”, which makes Disbelief sound like a town.  Then they sort of take a pill and have “large swigs of gin” (haven’t we all?). The poor female protoganist, who appears to be addicted to various forms of sodomy and humiliation experiences as couple of biological impossibilities ; “My heart skipped a couple of beats” she says.  Really?  Then aren’t you dead?  If you’re not dead yet, surely the next sentence will finish you off, when you write that “inside I melted” at the hands of Christian Grey.  Melting insides isn’t good, especially for the kidneys.

Apparently a virgin, having discovered there is nothing on the telly that night, decides to sign up for a long series of sexual humiliations instead.  Then again, it is set in Seattle, which is probably the most boring place on the planet after Morecambe, so it doesn’t take a violent leap of the imagination to think that being tied up and denied an orgasm is a pleasant way to spend a Tuesday evening in these godforsaken places.  There is also, as other ladies have told me, a vast amount of copy and paste going on with the text : “and then he took my bra off and then he said lie down and pretend to be a gerbil and then I said okay because I’m addicted to cruel men who have thorns instead of personalities…” tends to appear at least five times.  And then there’s sequels : Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades In the Kitchen, Fifty Shades in Bridlington on Sea, Fifty Shades in the Hammock etc etc.  That’s two hundred shades already, and still it shows no signs of slowing down. 

Isn’t it time for a more appropriate Fifty Shades with London 2012 approaching and the Underground being festooned with hot pink signs telling everyone where to go?  Perhaps a plot where the female protagonist is tied up and forced to watch the 1000 metre hurdle, or where she only gets to play with his grey tie if and when she has observed the synchronised swimming.  Then he forces her to watch tennis (gasp!) whilst Boris Johnson’s mesmerizing voice plays in the background advising her of travel delays in the Waterloo area.  It seems that this Fifty Shades of Oy Vey is particularly interested in the Waterloo area.  Many female friends have been unable to leave their Waterloo area alone since they took up reading it and I’m not talking about the Bakerloo Line.  I watch really old ugly people reading Fifty Shades of Griege and I worry about their pacemakers.  I’ve seen a lot of very ugly, old people reading it and it puts me off.  I am waiting to see my first nun reading a copy in a train carriage.  I worry about the effect it has on monks.  But then I suppose I just worry about monks full stop. 

For every woman who adores the book, there is another woman to whom this book is depressing.  It’s not only incredibly poorly written but mildly unsavoury, they report.  Never mind claims of sexual shock, it’s worse than that, it’s a really badly written book.   Those concerned with the equality status of a woman in a man’s world find this book depressing, worryingly.   When is it going to  be the woman’s turn to hold the whip for a change?  The generation reared on Nancy Friday compilations of the 1980s and 1990s  find this book a mite pale and repetitive.  That’s because these women over 40 are far harder to shock with salacious literature than those under 40.  This is a book which is polarizing opinions amongst women, and for that it is interesting.  Mainly people are reading it to see what the fuss is about simply because the rest of the herd is reading it too.  Men are, in the main, frightened by it.  As with most forms of escapism, the benefits mean different things to different people.  But the levels of obsession certain women obtain with the male character is astounding.  One woman I know had become so involved with the utterly made up Christian Grey that she was dreading going on holiday with her own husband, and going back to the real world.  Perhaps Christian Grey is nothing more than the provincial-friendly, naked sex equivalent of Donny Osmond.  There’s something very banal about the total domination of this book in the markets.  Must it be bland in order to be popular with all?  Accordingly, something’s gotta give.  Must it be, Fifty Shades of Beige rather than Fifty Shades of Grey in order to be so popular?  Aren’t human beings essentially into different sorts of sexual fantasy?   I’m not sure the infrastructure of the country can take the strain.  I think the first thing to go will be the bedsprings of Britain, currently weeping for mercy under the strain of Fifty Shades of Grey inspired shagging.  You mark my words, dearest readers.  The only business that will provide a profit growth for this quarter in our recession will be John Lewis, as thousands of exhausted and confused husbands are forced to buy new mattresses.  That and the sachets you buy at the chemist which contain cranberry extract for bladder infections.

What’s astonishing about this trilogy isn’t the revelation that filth sells.  We knew that.  We knew that twenty years ago when it explained the popularity of “Noel’s House Party” in the early 1990s.  It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone, as Mr Thomas Jones reminded us.  In the absence of somebody who is – hell, I don’t know, three dimensional – perhaps Christian Grey is a suitable, imaginary lover.  Many forms of escapism are met and …er…appreciated with vigour by reading folk in this country.  Plus, many of those who read this book don’t read.  People I know who haven’t picked up a book in twenty years are reading it.   Therefore, being woefully under-read they are easily impressed.  Some of them would, of course, be equally impressed if you’d shown them a copy of “Noddy Goes to Toytown” or be just as likely to be excited to orgasm by reading “Delia Smith’s Cookery Course” :  “Turn the page! TURN THE PAGE! I want to know what happens to the Apple Crumble AFTER you bake it at 180 degrees for 25 minutes!  This is a great book! Where is the CUSTARD!  Oh YES CUSTARD!!!!”  A little reading, or indeed a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing.  But you can’t stop stupid people making bad reading choices.  I tried, and although I have fond memories of that afternoon spent with David Cameron helping him read through my Snoopy Annual 1982 to help with his reading, he went straight out and bought a copy of “The World According to Clarkson” afterwards.  You just can’t help some people.

Of course I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Shite – what do you take me for?  A complete wanker?  Not likely.  I vastly consume improving books that don’t involve nipple clamps.  There’s nothing that  a touch of Nancy Friday wouldn’t cure.  Anyway, I don’t see a problem with reviewing a book you haven’t read.  My father did it on the Booker panel once (don’t tell A S Byatt).  Enough Fifty Shades of Dross.  I am going back to do some serious early 20th century classic reading.  Now, where did I put that copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Of course, if you’re too busy enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey you won’t be reading (or indeed getting out bed) for a fortnight, in which case you might get bedsores.  It’s your own fault.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  TUNE IN NEXT THURSDAY FOR A NEW CHAPTER ON ANOTHER ITALIAN ADVENTURE AS THE LONDON BLUEBIRD WILL BE REPORTING TO YOU FROM PERUGIA.

Death by Theatre

I still have to remind myself that this story is true.  I sometimes tell people this story, and with every passing year and with each re-telling it becomes more and more surreal.  Every word of this is true. I suppose I could call this piece Death by Bathroom Towel, or Death by Radio Four. But no, it was theatre really. Theatre did it. An industry long suspected to be toxic was in fact once proved to be utterly fatal.

I was nineteen and home for the summer holidays, earning paltry amounts of fags and beer money selling programmes for my mother’s theatrical production company. Every year, actors would gather in the house and rehearse avidly for two weeks before a small local tour. This was unsettling. If I wanted to pop into the television room to catch up on the Wimbledon highlights, I’d be confronted with a red-faced elderly thespian telling Muriel that he simply couldn’t agree to marrying Beryl and that he must go to the scullery to “polish his maasster’s booots”. Our kitchen became a hot bed of malevolent, actorly competition, as they all scrambled for the smoked salmon that my mother generously served at lunch, and desperately tried to out-anecdote each other:

“Did I tell you, darling, about that time me and little Dickie Attenborough managed to get the barmaid at the Cottlesloe to arrange a lock in? We were there until nearly half past ten!”

“Yes, dear, do you know – it’s the funniest thing – it reminds me of that time me and sweet little Chris Cazenove stole the fireman’s helmet from the station in Woking. That was a brilliant evening – my reviews were, well they said “the best Falstaff seen this side of Berkshire” but then they didn’t see Chris’s….”

And on and on. The air thickened with desperation as each of them tried to outwit the other. Most of the actors were over 50. The two principal males were called Gareth and Alan. Gareth usually wore red kimonos around the house and we were all rather surprised to discover there was a Mrs Gareth. Alan was a bearded, avuncular chap in his late 60s who, when I asked where he lived said “In the triangle that is created by Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush and Chiswick”.  Brook Green, then. Gareth had very smooth hair and a very smooth, friendly face. He was naturally amenable and helpful – the first to the sink to do  the washing up.   Alan was out of the front door with his glass of red and a cigarette as soon as supper was over. The actors would basically live with us for two weeks of rehearsal, plus odd nights during local performances, which meant we were sharing the house with virtual strangers.

Once my father locked Alan out of the house as he hasn’t realised that Alan, spectacularly drunk, was still outside urinating into the rose bushes with a Benson & Hedges clamped between his teeth. Another time I couldn’t get into the bathroom as Gareth was in there, listening to the Archers and chuckling. Once in, I found the enamel of the bath was tracked with the fine, shortish hairs left behind after a leg-shaving session. Gareth gave the impression of being somehow child-like and utterly hairless, with the exception of the famed, high-lighted, slightly coiffed hairdo he favoured. Alan, on the other hand, was not liked among the other actors. They found him pugnacious, insistent and prone to niggling over tiny aspects of the scenes he was in. The only person in the cast under 30 was a black-vested tap dancing teacher who was forced to play an 1890s property speculator in the play, and who had to be restrained from hop-tap-stepping his way into the funeral scene, was intent on treating Alan as an object of ridicule.

The first night of the play was held at a converted watermill that some bright spark in Watford had turned into the draughtiest theatre in South Hertfordshire. Despite fears that most of the casts’ memory recall had not been what it once was in 1958, it went off without a hitch. The audience was about 70% capacity, which was considered a success, no words had been forgotten and no one had bumped into the furniture. After the technical staff (myself and my brother) had packed up the set we returned to the house, where most of the set had come from anyway. We took the chairs out of the van and put them back in the drawing room so we would all have something to sit on and Alan and Gareth continued to regale us with the racy stories of their years in rep, most of which involved drinking port and someone dressing up as Audrey Hepburn, or something. Gareth was in very fine form that evening, ripping through a selection of theatrical stories, stopping only to smooth down his John Frieda-ed head. Perhaps as an act of forgiveness for weeing on most of the garden, Alan agreed to be up with the lark the following morning to drive my father to the station to catch the 0834 to Euston. There was a sense of a job if not well done, then a well-done job got underway. The tap-dancing teacher drove home, but the rest of us stayed. Eventually, we tottered off to bed; Gareth in his sublime evening wear, myself after a crafty fag and Alan, last heard laughing at something on Radio 4, which he was sitting in bed listening to in the “baby” room, aka the nursery, which was the only spare place to put him.

The next morning, things happened in segments, like a picture undoing its pixellation and finally making itself visible. First, I heard angry feet pacing down the gravel drive, then slippered feet racing up and down the corridor, then mumbled voices of a distressed sort. Then a flapping sound, followed by an experienced actor clearing his throat. Then someone saying :

“We can’t get him to answer.”

“Alan! ALAN!” It was Gareth’s voice and his swift rabbit-type footsteps were followed by my mother’s footsteps. She was in a dressing gown which she had stylishly accessorized with a wide fuchsia pink belt. Gareth knocked loudly on the bathroom door, his LAMDA trained voice booming out across three counties : “Can you heeeaarr me?”

I woke up now, sitting on the end of my bed, the room next door to where this palaver was going on. Bang bang bang, on the bathroom door. MY bathroom door. Gareth had been in The Sweeney once on telly in the 1970s, and now he seemed to revert back to that character, dropping his aitches and going a bit tough copper.

“We’ll ‘ave to try to break the door dahn,” he said to my mother. Suddenly self-conscious about his drastic change of personality, he briskly added : “darling.”

My mother was a cluster of twitters, a bunch of withering exclamations, saying “oh dear, oh dear, the door is Georgian oh dear I’m going to call the fire brigade dear.”

Off she went to call 999. Whilst she was away Gareth continued his campaign to get a response from Alan in my bathroom. When she returned from calling the fire brigade, Gareth flexed his waxed thigh from the bottom edge of his kimono and gave a mighty shove and the bathroom door was heard suddenly bursting from its hinges.

“Oh.”

“Good Lord,”

“OH.” My mother shouted at me to stay where I was and not come out of my bedroom because, dearest readers, if I had come out of my bedroom I would have seen Alan lying naked and dead on the bathroom floor on top of my hot pink bath towel. Radio 4’s Thought For The Day droned from the small transistor radio on the shelf above the sink.

My Thought For The Day was Fuck. So was Gareth’s and my mothers. I had to see what was going on, despite being told to stay in my room.

“He always loved the radio ” said Gareth. Now his character had changed once more, morphing into a high Anglican vicar from a Miss Marple adaptation. “Yes. What a shame.”  He begun to give an immediate eulogy.  “He was a wonderful actor, a marvellous technician of the stage.  Dear Alan –  we shall never forget your Shaw – oh look, do you know I think he’s stained the carpet!  Shall we move him?”

“No! Oh dear. Poor Alan. Poor Alan.”

There he was, lying on one side, as naked as the day when he had been born, within that triangle made up by Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush and Chiswick. Gareth was covering him with the hot pink towel now, making Alan look like the campest shroud ever.

“He must have just got out of the bath and keeled over,” said my mother. The doorbell rang. She shrieked.

It was the fire brigade. They acted very nonchalantly after they discovered there wasn’t a door to destroy. Their heavy black boots appeared to leave dust behind them everywhere they went.  One of them, a young lady with a fringe that was very heavy and constantly in her eyes, therefore no use in the event of tackling fires, dealing with exploding chip pans, getting cats out of trees etc, spoke to me for 20 minutes about the “fantastic ” day she’d had on the Eastenders set the day before and how that man who played Phil Mitchell was “nice in real life.”. She didn’t look at Alan’s corpse once. It was the only time in his career in the theatre that Alan had corpsed, and even then he wasn’t able to pull focus.

The fire brigade told us to call the police and Alan’s doctor. We didn’t know Alan’s doctor. But my mother would have to tell his wife.

She rang his wife who said, without missing a beat, that she was so glad he died in our house and not theirs, and when would it be convenient to collect the car?  Businesslike and abrupt, Alan’s wife gave us the doctor’s telephone number, and he was shortly on his way from West London.

Now I had a chance to piece together what had happened.  Apparently, at about ten to eight that morning, Dad had gone looking for Alan, taking up his promise of a lift to the station.  But he wasn’t in his bedroom and he couldn’t see him anywhere in the house.  He wondered whether Alan was outside having a cigarette but noticed his shoes were still in his bedroom (all those years of reading Sherlock Holmes stories clearly didn’t go to waste, did they?)  Eventually, having become a bit exasperated he decided to walk the mile to the station, one of his least favourite pastimes.  These had been the feet I’d heard walking off over the gravel drive.  Walking to the station had made his mood cross and his tread heavy.  Unfortunately, he had been too slow and had missed the train, which meant he had to walk all the way back again which really annoyed him because he didn’t like walking anywhere, unless it was round and round the Euston Road telling his children where he used to push bikes, buy sweets and annoy shopkeepers.

So, when he returned, opening the front door and casually saying “Hello, who are you?” to a fireman he had no idea what had gone on.  Without any sense of alarm or surprise, he strolled through the hall oblivious to the fact that half of the village fire station was having tea in his kitchen.  “Hi,” he said.  Suddenly, a blur of velvet dressing gown whisked through the room and his wife of thirty something years came hurtling towards him like a canon out of a rocket.

“Oh, he’s dead, he’s dead, ALAN’s dead,” she said hysterically.

“Who’s Alan?”

“Oh, you KNOW.  Alan, the actor? With the beard?  In the baby room? He was going to give you a lift.”

“Oh, yeah.  Oh Fuck,” said Dad. “So how am I expected to get to work now?”

The play’s run was due to continue that evening. Only now one of the cast was dead.  My mother had the role of telephoning each cast member individually to tell them about Dead Alan.  Unfortunately, most of them thought this was a joke.

“I’m afraid Alan’s dead,” she told the tap dancing teacher, down the line to North Finchley, where the tap dancing teacher was lounging around in bed with one of his lithe, ripple-torsoed students.

“AHAHAA.  Oh, Tone, you can tell ’em, darling!  Corpsed did he, AHAHAHA!”

“No,  he is really.  He had a heart attack on the bathroom carpet.”

“AHAHAHAHA!  OH you are AWFUL!”

After some time, during which she threw around words like “constabulary”, “firemen” and “death certificate” he eventually got the gist.  The doctor turned up, looking straight from central casting – tweed suit, harried expression, a touch of excema around the neck – and announced that Alan had had a dicky ticker.  We didn’t know much about this, because he hadn’t mentioned his heart condition.  Gareth was dressed by now, in a yellow cravat and peach V-neck jumper, very much channelling Danny La Rue does Agatha Christie.   He was delighted to get a chance to open the door to the police and said “Good morning, constable!”  They walked in as Dad was walking out, on his second attempt at walking to the station.

The police began to interview my mother in the kitchen.  This was quite alarming for her because up to now our contact with the local police was summed up as PC Griffiths bicycling up the drive once a fortnight because he knew a trip to our house ensured a slice of chocolate fudge cake in the kitchen.  Once I saw him standing up and eating a slice of it in the hall, and another time was surprised to find him scoffing it in the garden.  Now, however, my mother was being asked questions to which she knew no answers.

Who was Alan?  What was his address?  What was medical past?  We had no idea.  It didn’t look good.  Here was a man,   dead on the floor, staying in someone’s house to rehearse a PLAY, for God’s sake, who was living here.  Was he paying rent?  No.  Was he a friend, then?  No.  None of us knew anything about him.  Did he have a suicidal state of mind?  Probably, most actors do, don’t they? They were utterly bemused.  Bloody actors, they thought, and went upstairs to search the baby room where Alan had been sleeping, emerging victorious ten minutes later.

“KNIFE!  I’ve found a knife, sarge….” said one policeman, who was twelve.

“Bag it, Steven, bag it!” said his superior.

No one ever knew what Alan was doing with a knife in the room, but fortunately it was clear no one had stabbed him so we weren’t hauled off for questionning, but they still took it as evidence, as well as taking a bunch of letters he had been writing.

“Might be a suicide note!”  said the sergeant gleefully.  “Now,” he flipped over his little ringbound notebook, which was like a journalist’s notebook and filled with biro scribblings.  “One more question.”

“Yes,” said my mother.

“You’re an actor – did you ever meet Eric Sykes?”

The doctor was preparing Alan’s corpse for removal, stretchering him up and arranging to take him to a morgue somewhere in Ravenscourt Park.  My mother, still highly emotional, had been slightly blind-sided by the sudden arrival of the tap dancing teacher, who must have hopped into his Fiat Panda and bombed it up the M1 as soon as he’d got off the phone.

“Hi, darlin’,” he said, parking up, wearing his RayBans as a mark of respect.  “Shame, isn’t it?  Bless.”  He had become suddenly demure and was doing some “sad” acting, the attempt at funereal reverence only marred slightly by his hot pink, lycra cycling shorts.

“I mean, what are the odds, darling?  You go to sleep, in a -” his manicured hand stretched out and he did a sort of plie in the general direction of the house – “beautiful house like this, and the next thing you know, you’d dead on the bathroom floor covered in your own shit.  He didn’t believe in God, did he?”

“Um….I don’t know,” said my mother. “He liked Vera Lynn though.”

He nodded, as if some grave and vital information about the human condition had been imparted.

“We’re going to put some Vera Lynn in the tape player, and play it.   You know, when he leaves our house for the last time.”

“What?” The RayBans were brought down slightly, resting until the bridge of his nose, as the tap dancers eyes stared, terrified at her. “You mean – you mean he’s still in the house?”

“Yes, the doctor’s just bringing him out in a minute.” And she was off in search of the tape recorder.

The tap dancer stayed on the drive and refused to come in, as if death was catching, and Alan made his last and most theatrical exit from our house, although it was odd to hear “We’ll Meet Again” being mangled through a tinny tape player in the hall when it was perfectly transparent that Alan would never in fact meet anybody ever again.  The stretchered body was lifted by the doctor at one end and Gareth, luxuriating in his role, at the other.  “Farewell!” shouted Gareth, as the doctor shoved Alan into the back of his Volvo Estate.

Gareth immediately went up to the bathroom and had a bath.  “I wanted to be the first to – break the spell.  Now we can all feel comfortable about being in there,” he said, over tea.  What he meant was he wanted to be first in the bathroom to continue his ridiculous grooming regime.  That evening, another actor friend bravely stood in for the performance, walking through the play with a script in his hand, the director telling an astonished audience prior to the performance the reason why this would be.

That night the tap dancer got drunk after the performance in a long series of guilt-driven toasts to Alan.

The lock on the bathroom door remained busted until we sold the house four years later, as a constant reminder of Gareth’s breaking of the door.

I still never worked out why Alan had to die on my hot pink bath towel.  My Dad took to booking taxis to the station, believing it to be more reliable.

No one really mentioned this ever again.

Each summer the play rehearsals did continue, with the same two weeks worth of rehearsals taking place in our house.  Oddly though, no one was ever offered accommodation.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Game, set, match

I suppose I’d never have got to see Nadal play if I hadn’t been doing the hoovering in my underwear.  It is probably the only time that housework resulted in something thrilling in my whole life, but, there I was, one drowsy afternoon in the dog days of June doing battle with the dustballs under the sofa.  I had some random afternoon telly bleating in the background and a cup of tea on the go, cursing at the stupid unhelpness of “Henry” the hoover.  The telly droned on in that depressingly mediocre way mid-afternoon telly does and I am surprised I actually heard “You can win 2 Centre Court tickets to Wimbledon by entering into this quiz!” because I was busy hitting the hoover whilst shouting at it. 

“All you have to do is enter this quiz!” some buck-toothed, third rate sofa presenter gawped.  “It’s multiple choice,” she announced soberly, as if telling us we were all going to sit an A Level Latin paper.   “Now, has Tim Henman won Wimbledon a) 6 times.  b) never, or c) 26 times.”  Then a premium mobile number popped up in pastel colours on the screen featuring eye-watering call prices.   I couldn’t believe my ears – 26 times?!  Can people in this country be so stupid?  (On second thoughts, don’t answer that).  Can there be anyone who actually believes that Tim Henman has been winning Wimbledon every year since he was five?  Perhaps it was my indignance at proving I wasn’t one of the stupid people, but I actually entered the competition by text.  I never enter competitions by text, but tennis is one of the five things I know about – the others being cheese sandwiches, eyeliner, musicals and nail polish. 

“The answer is B – Never.” I texted back.  Well, I can only imagine that no one else entered the competition or something, because about twenty seconds later I got a telephone call from an effusive-sounding production assistant called Katie who told me I’d won two seats for Centre Court for the second week of Wimbledon.  “Well done!  Congratulations,” she said, clearly over-excited.  “They are Debenture seats!”  she said, further increasing my mood of general confusion, because I had no idea what that meant.  Anyway, I was delighted, and kept saying “Really?  Really? IS THIS A JOKE?”  and when I realised that it was not I thought it called for me to go and put some clothes on.

The tickets were for Thursday week, which meant I had to call round all my tennis enthusiast friends to see who could book a day off work and sally forth to SW19.  Eventually, My Very Good Friend the Doctor rallied and shoved a locum in to her NHS practice for the day so she could join me.  The tickets were posted to my office, still with this “Debenture” bit on it, which I hadn’t quite worked out, but it sounded like benches.  Yes, I would be made to sit on a bench.  Probably next to Greg Rusedski and his rapidly disappearing hairline.  Yes,  I thought, that was it.  On the day I was lucky – it was blissful sunshine.  This was before the days of the slow-closing roof on Centre Court, so the weather was a massive plus.  I wasn’t entirely sure what to do re food, so packed a bag full of bagels and cream cheese and set off with my panama on the Silverlink from West Hampstead.

Wimbledon ought not to have a London postcode.  I really think something ought to be done about it.  SW20 is Surrey, and on getting off the final stop of the overground train, you are submerged into a piece of unLondon-like little England.   Around me there is the closest thing the middle-classes can get to a thuggish crowd.  They push at the barriers, John Lewis hangbags akimbo, thrusting forward in Wallis and Jaeger to get the best seats on the All England Club Bus, Marks & Spencers wicker hampers bashing aggressively against boarding school shins that have been rendered brutal by hockey. It was a glut of Hyacinth Bouquets, a mesh of the kind of English gentlewomen who, with their matronly bustles and their tidy home counties hair dos, puts the fear of God into every Englishman.  I pushed until I arrived at the queue for the All England Club bus, which arrives every 20 minutes, dropping off all and sundry for the tennis.  The coupons you buy for £1.50 have to be kept for your return journey.  The bus smells of room freshener with an undertone of Pimms.  It’s open top and now everyone has got their seats they are in a friendly mood.  Disgustingly, as the bus pulls away from the kerb and journeys through Wimbledon’s pretty, twee streets, Cliff Richard music starts piping through the speakers. 

The All England Club is vast – 19 tournament grass courts and a host of car parks around the edges.  Once within the grounds, I am lost.  I eventually locate My Very Good Friend the Doctor, both of us surprised that our tickets said 11.30am.  Why, when play hardly gets going before 12.45pm?  Our tickets and the competition that funded them were a gift from Robinsons, so I can only imagine we will be forced to drink Lemon Barley Water for the next 75 minutes. It is all I have ever dreamed of.  However, we follow the directions to a building where we have been asked to meet the other competition winners.  In the blazing heat we cross over what seems like two enormous Surrey fields, before arriving at a clubhouse of sorts, where the oak-panelled hall is lined with impressive medals and shiny things and pictures of award winning tennis players doing marvellous things with their little balls (The observing eye will notice no black players appearing before 1951, because Wimbledon wouldn’t let them play there until then.  Jews were allowed to play after 1952.  It isn’t all croquet, you know.  Sometimes it’s just good old fashioned racism to go with your strawberries and cream).  We follow the signs and go up perspex stairs into what looks like a really smart gastropub with delusions of grandeur.

“Welcome to the Clubhouse!”  Oh my goodness, it’s Katie.  She’s just how I imagined.  She’s all teeth and flicky hair.  She looks like she’s never had a toothache, or a hangover.  “These are all the competition winners!  You’ll have lunch here and then off to Centre for a 12.50pm start for the tennis, okay?  I’m here if you want me, and in the meantime have a wonderful day!”

I turn to face the other competition winners.  They have the faces of death.   They are a motley crue – a man dressed in a brass-buttoned navy jacket with yellow teeth, a woman chewing gum loudly with a hat three sizes too big for her, and a really dour looking couple, the wife with a dark brown, fierce bob and a husband who looks like he’s never been laid properly in his life.  The first too are smiling in a deranged, friendly sort of way.  The latter two are scowling.  “Hello!”  we say.  

It is at this point I realise what Debenture means.  Debenture means being forced to eat a four course lunch at 11.30 in the morning.  Debenture then haul you back for a full cream tea at 4.30pm.  Debenture means sitting at a large table with as much alcohol you can drink with professional competition winners.  Debenture was the worst hour and a half of my life.  The woman with the Big Hat announces she has just won £10,000 in a competition, having entered 250 competitions a week.  She is now giving up her day job to “focus on winning competitions full time”.  It is only now I notice her lazy eye.  Her voice is shrill, like a telephone that has got something wrong with it’s mechanics.  From the starter (excellent smoked salmon) to the dessert (strawberries and cream, what else?) her husband lists off everything they have ever won in a riotous history of freeloading.  They got Waitrose free shopping for a year, they won a car, they had a day’s “golfing in Scotland”, refusing to be hampered by the fact that neither of them had ever played, or ever wanted to play, golf, they got free home insurance, they won £100 in Argos vouchers, they entered a competition with Sainsbury’s and won a crate of wine.  They do this by spending their entire day going through email offers, postal offers, and logging into competition sites.   As soon as they realised that we were not full-time, insane competition junkies with equally soul-less money obsessions they had nothing to say to us.

After they had eaten their lunch in a way that suggested they would never eat again, and the scowling lady with the bobbed hair had shoved the bread rolls into her handbag and walked out with a bottle of champagne, we headed to Centre Court.  Our seats were half way back but the view – and the tennis – was glorious.  The dark green colouring of the top half of Centre Court makes you feel like you are in a vast, underwater cavern, delightfully cool on this hot day.   I saw Julien Benneteau in the first hour,  Amelie Mauresmo was next up (I forget against who), and the atmostphere was blinding, although the play got off to a dodgy start.  No sooner had we sat down and a linesman passed out and was neatly lying face down on the court.  Someone asked if there was a doctor in the house.  “You go – you!” I nudged My Very Good Friend the Doctor.  “You’ll get to go back there and grab Nadal’s balls, or whatever it is you want to do.”  But eventually the linesman stood up of his own accord, so Nadal remained sexually unmolested.

For my friend is one of those people who find Nadal sexually captivating.  I do not.  Any man who fiddles with his bottom that much is not going to be attractive to me, but as Nadal arrived on court, at 3pm on a muggy, warm, airless day, the whole court seemed to sense something thrilling was going on.   “Nadal…” she kept whispering, as if trying to summon him, as he vaulted a couple of dynamic practice shots in the general direction of the Duke of Kent.   “NADAL….” she said again, as he tucked his hair behind his ears and shoved his bottom out on the base line.   “He shaves his legs,” was all I could say.  “Shut up,” she said.

This was back in 2006, when Nadal still had a pair of fully working knees.   This was the first year that the buzz of Nadal really seemed to reach fever pitch.  By this year, Federer and Nadal were truly the only male players to be watching.  He played the most brilliantly that day,in his strange shorts that reached the (shaved) knee,  beating Kendrick, a day only punctuated by the repetitive thwack of tennis ball against net, of polite clapping, of the occasional sound of ice tinkling in glasses as a player was about to serve.  It was heaven. 

Not so for yellow-teeth, brass jacketed man.  He settled down for the first match with Julien Benneteau but then was off down the stairs again, out of the door and back across the fields to the clubhouse.  He eventually returned half way through Amelie Mauresmo’s match, clutching a tray with a light snack of cakes, scones, bisuits, jam and a tower of sandwiches, with a bottle of white plonk tucked under one arm.  Mauresmo’s last set (victorious for her, she took the Ladies Singles title that year) was punctuated by his wife saying “You forgot the sugar, Alan,” and him saying, “I can’t be expected to do everything Marion!”

I never saw the brutal looking woman with the bobbed hair or her husband.  None of them were interested in tennis, and they probably spent the whole day making the most of the free food and drink in the clubhouse, eating as if they were storing up beef wellingtons for the winter. 

Nadal’s match lasted the longest against Kendrick, stretching out to a long five sets before his Majorcan bottom fluttered off stage and the centre court prepared for Murray.  “Time for tea!” said yellow teeth man, clearing a bit peckish having not hoovered up enough free grub.  He left, dangling an empty bottle under his arm.  I never saw him again.  The light was fading by 7.30pm, and many people had sloped off after Nadal.  From 5.30pm Centre Court tickets that have been returned can all be sold again – for £5 each, with all proceeds going to fund tennis facilities in underprivileged schools.  Despite the fact that everyone knew Murray was on next, the place emptied out by about 60% and a new crowd of spectators came in.  My Very Good Friend the Doctor was aghast at having to leave before Murray but she had tickets to go and do something, which she now very much regretted.  I stayed and watched, having not moved since 12pm, powered by the bag of wilting bagels and cream cheese at my feet.  Murray, then a slip of a boy, was at his first Wimbledon.  I cannot remember who he played, only that his play was charismatic and one had the sense of the whole of Centre Court behind him. The game was inconclusive, as even he began staring up at the sky at about 8.40 and by 8.50pm they announced the end of what had been an awesome nine hours of live tennis.

We started our sweltering journey back to the Cliff Richard buses, in a wave of wilting perms and flat lemonade bottles.  I felt wonderfully lucky to have seen world class tennis, but strangely curious about the kind of greedy competition winner I met.  Why would you enter to go to something you have no interest in going to?  Because it’s free.  Why on earth would you enter into a competition to play golf in Scotland, or watch tennis at Wimbledon, if you have no interest?  Because it’s free.  I wonder how the lady in the big hat’s career went as a full-time competition whore.  I can only hope she is currently sunning herself on some exotic island, complaining at Alan for forgetting the sun lotion, drinking and having a thoroughly boring time on a holiday she didn’t want to take in the first place.  It was, for them, truly magnificent to not have to pay for something.  But it wasn’t magnificent for the rest of us to spend the day with them. Nothing on its own has any value, unless of course is it free.  The freeloading justifies the means.  They were those kind of people – if they had free tickets for the Olympics opening ceremony they’d have left in disgust if someone tried to charge them for chips.  Wimbledon was my first and last lucky stroke.  I may have had a fantastic opening match in the great game, set and match of competitions but since that day I haven’t wanted to enter into any others.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.