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.

3471 miles

Whilst watching YouTube last week, and gurgling appreciation at a Broadway display of a brilliant tap dancing spectacle, the same thought comes into my head as it always does.  The New Yorkers do it better.  They do shows better, they do service better, they do professionalism better, they do confidence better.  They have the musical theatre gene in a way the British don’t.  It’s difficult to quantify but its true.  Especially the section of a show I was watching – which was so quintessentially American that it may as well have been waving a Stars and Stripes flag – a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square about a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square.  It’s only right that they should be better than us at that sort of thing.  They invented it.  Along with jazz, it’s one of the comparatively few purely American art forms.

In the last ten years or so – since the beginning of the last cycle of economic boom – it has been acceptable for London and New York to wrestle for the title of hippest, or best, or most perfect city.  This tells you how far London has come.  Twenty five years ago comparing the restaurants, style, financial innovation and downright coolness of New York with London wouldn’t have been considered.  New York was always, always cooler.  New York was just it. It had the edge, the swagger, the sophistication, the cool, it’s wonderful provocative swagger and a gritty glamour that never had to battle with London’s gloomy low skies.  But then something extraordinary happened and London, like the heavy, bullish city it is, rapidly started the close the gap.  New Yorkers used to fear coming to London, as there was never any edible food for them when they got here.  Now London boasts 43 Michelin-starred restaurants to New York’s 39.  London’s City Square Mile became one of the most powerful square miles on earth, more powerful than Wall Street.   London fashion reached an almost 1960s Carnaby Street-esque supremacy, we merged our pretty little city and created a monolith called NyLon, and who would have thought that by March 2007, New York magazine would state “If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century and New York of the twentieth, London is shaping up to be the capital of the 21st.”  (New York magazine, Mar 18, 2007)?

Our supremacy with restaurants and our ridiculously high quality of dining really seems to bother them.  It’s one crown New York never wanted to relinquish.  New Yorkers thought the awfulness of London restaurants were part of our national heritage.  Check out this surprised article on London here entitled Has the Food Over There Really Become Edible?  New York had to work in a different way to develop European sophistication in its restaurant culture.  For sophisticated restaurants; read Europe.  Us Londoners are, on the other hand, so close to Europe that we absorb its influences rapidly and heartily.  In London, European way of life, culture, language and form is the norm.  European sophistication is a thing of reverence in New York – it’s foreign, distinctly unAmerican in its style and cultivation and self-consciously mutates into an art form.   Americans in the main eat too early to be true Europeans anyway.  Londoners take it easily; it’s more natural for us to be Europeans, because we actually are Europeans.

But this week, ever since those tap tap tapping toes bled into my mind on Friday, I have been preoccupied with trying to work it out.  Which is the better City?  Is there such a thing as a better City?  Are we different places?  Are New York and London basically in the same place?  Are we NyLon or , well,  cotton?  Are we all Europeans now, or all Americans?  We’re both damn fine, cool, sexy places my friends.  If the same cliches ring true – in London we have no ventilation or heating on the underground, it is also nigh impossible to get a meal past 11pm on a weekday, unless you happen to be in Frith Street, it rains here but no one ever seems to work out they should put a hat on etc etc – how much have we really changed?   Sitting in Bar Italia yesterday afternoon, in bright, unapologetic sunshine of late September, it did feel like an American autumn, or that silly thing they call it – FALL – as if everything falls down or something.  In England, Autumn smells of bonfires, sausages and Guy Fawkes and rainy Oxford Street on Saturday afternoons.  In New York, autumn smells decisively of tree.  In Bar Italia I was in a urban, Italian space.  Not English.  Not American.  Could be New York.  Could be London.  Could be Abyssinia, before the Italians gave it back.  Could be any lovely city in the world.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s an urban experience in an English speaking country, admittedly one where I don’t have an obligation to tip.  After all, earlier in the day, didn’t I – in a classic New York moment – bump randomly into my sister in law in Regent Street and have a quick lunch, in a scene that could be straight out of a Woody Allen film?  All that was missing was the plaintive black and white film and a trad jazz soundtrack.  Then later in the afternoon I bothered my brother at his West End office, grabbing a coffee and sitting patiently at the pavement table whilst he spent 20 minutes shouting into a phone in the street which – again – is a City experience, as New York as it is London because he talks into his mobile phone all over the planet, it seems.

Of course I went through the inevitable “I’m 22 and I’m going to move to New York!” stage.  Everyone who has ever fallen in love with London and then gone to New York does.  I got it.  I went over at 22, had the piquant experience of sharing a hotel room with my mother and my brother (don’t try it), shopped at Macy’s, saw Christian Slater in a Broadway play, got my face done by MAC at Bloomingdale’s (very late 1990s) and ended up in the East Village at a peculiar club with a load of other Londoners, who told me that the East Village was “a bit like Islington but with Camden market in the middle of it”.  Aha, I thought.  This is the place for me!  I want some of that.    So, the next year I went back.  For two weeks.  And discovered one of the most distressing experiences of New York : a heatwave.

At first I thought I had got on a flight to Singapore, and rounded up in a City atmostphere so cloying I thought someone had melted my kidneys and removed them.  Someone had forgotten to pour the oxygen in.  Why were the natives taking this shimmering, smug smog with shoulder shrugging nonchalance?  How can they stand it?  I realised I had been naive about why the subway was ventilated; it wasn’t because everyone was American and valued excellent customer service.  It was because if it hadn’t been ventilated everyone would basically be dead.  I loped and schlepped along Broadway, diving regularly into department stores, blinking the sweat out of my eyes, purely for the whoooosh! of their air conditionning.  At night in the apartment me and a friend were using on E. 36th Street, I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t sleep because of the sound of the air conditionning unit, which was like sleeping in a one room apartment with an industrial catering size fridge.  It was too noisy to sleep with it on, and too hot to sleep with it off, as we were doused in a pool of humidity.  I couldn’t breathe or think; I hadn’t known heat like this, not in Watford.  The smog stank.  Everything sweated, even the lampposts. No one warned me that when you order a drink in New York, you don’t get our measures.  You get a Gin and Tonic that is half rubbing alcohol and half water.  Ever been drunk in a heatwave on your birthday and have to crawl up six flights of stairs to your apartment weeping with dehydration because the lift is broken?  I have, my friends, and it wasn’t pleasant.    The next time I went to New York it was January, and that was fucking horrible too.  I went for 96 hours, but had forgotten my moisturizer.  By the time I returned my face was falling off.  I am not kidding.  The windtraps of the long New York streets had flaked my skin into dry strips.  For five days after I came back I couldn’t break a smile, lest my cheeks would fall out.   The force of the wind had been so strong that for two days we could not walk. It was what I imagine the Arctic Circle would be like.  In winter.    You could only speak if you were walking uptown; if you were walking downtown the icy wind would blow your face into a fleshy balloon and your eyes would water until they hurt.  I thought “Bugger this for a game of tiddlywinks, I’m going back to West Hampstead.”  And that’s exactly what I did.  The truth is, although London closes at early at night, New York shuts down for the whole of frigging January.   Greenwich Village was a ghost town.  Have a nice day.

And if the East Village, is a “bit like Islington with Camden Market in the middle of it”, then why don’t we just go back to London? Why would anyone on earth travel 3471 miles to get to Camden?  I know it can feel like that on the Northern Line sometimes but it is actually much, much closer.  If you look for the shortcomings, then, there are many.  New York taxi drivers don’t know where they are going.  New York has no National Theatre.  Their buses aren’t smart and red like ours are.  New Yorkers are never, ever laid back.  Manhattan is frequently grid locked (the centre of London actually hardly ever is)  Their Sunday newspapers are a bitter disappointment after ours; the general quality of broadsheet newspaper journalism cannot touch the UK’s. Buying a book in New York will cost you twice as much as buying one in London.  There’s never much to watch on TV.  On my return from my New York State of Mind, I never again complained about London rain.  It amused me – look how gentle it is! Observe the lack of brain-crushing, 112 mile an hour winds! Drizzle!  Drizzle!  How pleasant.  London is temperate.  New York is on the edge of some kind of Atlantic wind chill / heatwave / seaboard / mad zone.   London is of brick and dust; New York is a thing of steel and compounds, metal and perfunctory grids.  In London you walk where the Romans walked.  I now think our hip zones are decidedly hipper than their New York counterparts.  Visitors say their is a heaviness to London; it’s the worst characteristic, as the deep clouds and lack of light pulls you down on dark days, but it is still composed of gentler stuff, and our evolution into our cityscape has been an entirely organic one.  In New York you have a man made grid city of glass, emerging brilliantly from the tiniest slither of island.  Of course it’s magical.  It’s brilliant.  It’s a wonderful city, and there’s no place like it.  But there’s another place there’s nowhere like, 3,471 miles away from it – home.

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

Italy / England or Italia / Inghilterra?

Pardon me, but I’m culturally confused.  On Sunday I wound up at the final day of the South Bank’s glittering homage to all things Festival of Britain – the Museum of ’51.  The Museum of ’51 is a tribute to the paraphenalia, exhibits, souvenirs and sense of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for which most of our monstrous South Bank was constructed and which was a centennial nod to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The 1951 exhibition ran all summer at the South Bank, where it dovetailed nicely into the three day Vintage Fest at the back end of July and also explained the cuter-than-cute artist-designed beach huts by the Thames, surrounded by some lovely sand for the Urban Beach.  As if we needed any further reminder after the slashing winds and frightening rain of the last week – our summer is most certainly over. Yesterday they took London’s little Urban Beach sand away.  Boohoo.

The Museum of ’51 is a bit of a misnomer to be mentioned here, as by the time you read this, the exhibition will have closed.  All the red, pale, grey and blue badges, epaulettes and fetching ladies’ headscarves will be packed up into the box marked Post-War Fashion Errors and shelved away for another 50 years.  They will be forgotten, and only brought out again at moments of feverish nationalist fervour.  The Museum of ’51 ended up not being a museum about Britain or its Festival, but it was about the British.  The pedestrian nature of what were the most exciting elements of the Festival of Britain in 1951 have become the most touching today : the “cafeteria” beside an imitation lake, serving a range of hearty, English fayre was probably the most exciting destination of all after seven years of rationing.  The various “world zones” and “outer space” sections look like NASA let loose in the Blue Peter props department.  Britain in 1951, let me remind my dearest readers, was solidly poor.  The Festival was a morale -booster, an eye-opener, and something to look forward to.   Children were taken on school outings to view it.  Many young adults thought it slightly naff (particularly the lunar-esque structure which imitated a spaceship named The Dome) but took advantage of its eating and drinking venues despite this.

The exhibition I saw on Sunday was a riot of themed ashtrays, architectural designs, valuable video footage of excited children and early 1950s memorabilia.  It was particularly touching to view the comments board, where visitors were encouraged to share their memories of the original exhibits, and their feelings on returning to the South Bank and seeing the displays today.  But the Festival of Britain was designed to be of the moment, and yet future-looking.   It cleared ravaged slums to build what we now know of The South Bank (only The Royal Festival Hall remains).  The architectural design was intended to meet expectations of what new urban towns of the 1950s would look like.  But the 1950s has rapidly shifted into near-hysterical vintage in the cultural British mindset.  It is hard to think of a more historically ploughed decade for vintage dresses, furniture and cocktail cabinets than the 1950s.  An exhibition that was about positivity and the age of The New Elizabethans becomes a retro-chic event, not about the future but about the hopes and aspirations of the past.

Was I confused?  Yes.  But I did enjoy the vintage ashtrays.  And as for the 1950s living room, well, I would have moved in immediately.  But they would have stopped me, obviously, as it’s not allowed.  The modernist living room of the 1950s is my dream home of the future.   Of course, I had just come from an arresting and surreal exhibition of Tate Modern, so that’s why my view of 1951 London was so unreal.    The 1960s had it’s massive cultural movement – I think – in terms of renaissance  – in the 1990s in Britain.  There was a rash of Mod-ery, a plethora of guitar-heavy bands from the Northwest, and a slightly nauseating Rule Britannia nonsense that took the Union Jack flag, sewed it onto the seat of a pair of jeans, and slapped that pair of jeans on to a Gallagher’s behind.   But the 1950s is most certainly having its moment.  Personally I blame Mad Men.  The more observational amongst you will realise that I actually never left the 1950s in the first place.

The 1950s was also the decade (at the end of the decade) when the English discovered Italy and went sort of nuts for it.  All right, then, 1960 was La Dolce Vita but you get my drift.  All those cappucinos! coo!  All those Roman streets with ladies on motorcycles behind passionate looking, short, Italian men!  How exciting must that have been to the British?  The interesting thing is that whilst gender politics and social advancements in Britain have progressed with much aplomb, in Italy it is still acceptable for a man to drive around the street, park up, slap ladies bottoms, get back in the car and go home for dinner with Mummy.  In that ways, perhaps, the gender politics of the post-war era are still astonishingly intact.  So, that’s where you go for your genuine 1950s cultural experience.   This season has brought the return of who I think of as the Coolest Man on the Telly, Francesco da Mosto, to BBC4.  For those of you not familiar with Sig. da Mosto, he is a Venetian nobleman who can trace his family in Venice back to 600AD and who is also a hip architect who drives around Italy in his red Alfa Romeo Spider looking like you would expect The Coolest Man on the Telly to look.  His manner is the only thing cooler than his swathe of collar-length wavy grey hair.  “Eeetaliii”, he says, as he drives his car through windy, mountainous roads.  “EEE-tal-ieee”, he says, illegally parking in a medieval campo in Umbria, where his shrugging-shoulder charm gets the better of the traffic police.  “EEE-tal-ieee” he remonstrates – again “is what you Bree-tish warrrnnnnnt.  You want to mooooove ‘ere.  You want to become expirt on wine and eat goot food.  You Bree-tish warnt zis!”  In his series Italy Top To Toe fabulous Francesco points out that it is the Roman / Florentine EEtaliiieee that the British are enamoured with.  Sicily is too spicy.  Naples too southern, and dirty.  But Florence?  Umbria?  Rome?  Very New Labour friendly.  I ask you : can you move in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence in the height of spring?  No.  Why?  Because some over-bearing, brutally intense middle class parent is shouting “Timothy!  Don’t be long for gelato!  We have to view the Uffizi before your pottery lesson!”  whilst hordes of middle-aged men in Marks and Spencers boat shoes try to remember the Italian for psoraisis in the local farmacia.

Francesco da Mosto’s programme on Florence ended up with him heroically attempting a game of football on the banks of the Arno, stopping only to cough up last night’s cigarettes, and wearing a very short, camp and somewhat unflattering pair of shorts with the brio that only an Italian aristocrat can.  Usually once a programme, Francesco’s youthful, pretty children and glamorous wife appear.  He jumps out of his sports car and they ruffle his grey hair lovingly.  Then he gets back in to the car again to show us some more Roman fabulousness.   His programmes are a delight; mainly because they sell us not just Italy but the kind of Italian life a thirteenth generation Venetian nobleman has.  It doesn’t make you want to move to Italy.  It makes you want to have Francesco da Mosto’s life; which seems to involve a laidback enjoyment of all things edible and drinkable, a complete lack of pretension and a habit of standing in the vineyards of other Italian noblemen, gaily picking grapes in their Chianti vineyards and waving to them up in the castle windows.  In short, nothing could be further from England.  You can’t imagine Francesco da Mosto driving up the M1 and then announcing lovingly :  “Nottinghammm…” or “Ashton under Lyme is one of the murrst beoootiful places in Engerland…”  can you?   Perhaps, no matter how lovingly we admired Roman and Tuscan elegant nonchalance, we are doomed to be a nation forever in naff headscarves looking either to the future or the south for design inspiration?  God only knows what the Italians must think when they visit England.  One thing is for sure – one thing we in England have that the Italians do not : we have the hope of better design inspiration, whereas I would imagine the whole world looks ugly if you’ve been brought up in Venice.  Looking south, the view is lovelier from here.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday (Ermm…. tutti i giovedi.  Grazie).

“In 112 miles, turn left.”

By the time you read this, readers, I shall be far far away.  Well, not that far.  I’m just being dramatic.  But a bit far.  Like 100 miles – see? There – there! There I am! – crying in a layby on the edge of a road I thought was the A30 but was actually the A303.  There I am again, needing a wee on the B391 and feeling too scared to go into the nearby hostelry.  I am plunging into the southwest.  We townies hugely look forward to leaving London sometimes, especially when the city’s residents are bent on smashing everything to smithereens.  I love motoring, and am determined to make my trips to the southwest as pleasant as possible.  I do them bi-annually and it almost always ends in – if not tears – then me staring quizzically at a elderly pig in a field, which my SatNav has directed me to, thinking : and this is my destination?  It never quite works out.  The map begins as my friend and ends as my nemesis.  Illusions of stopping in a 16th century tea room for scones and cream on the way, or pulling in for a frothy pewter full of beer halfway down a swerving, sunny West Country B-road slip away, and suddenly  the reality is this : we’re lost on a main road in Wiltshire in the fog and rain, we’ve argued about the route, fallen out, I’ve told my husband that if he knows everything about maps then he can walk back to London, and we are very out of sorts indeed.  On arrival, we look like dogs who have been left out in the rain; unkempt, askew, wet, unloved, hungry.

Other members of my family do this routine journey without breaking a sweat, and look aghast at me when I say I got horribly lost, as if I was a simpleton.  Which I probably am.  It is true of the road and it is true of life – off the A roads, without my proper boundaries, wheeling through tumultuous country lanes and seeing nothing but green fields, I unravel.   Perspective is lost, and you cannot live on your senses navigating in a car through complicated rural hamlets.  You just cannot.  It’s that terribly hollow feeling of absolutely, undoubtedly knowing you are utterly powerless and haven’t the tiniest idea of where you are.  My thoughts, usually overwhelmingly sunny, turn melancholy.  That thought process is in this order:

1. What what would happen if someone tried to kill me?  No one would hear me scream, nor hear the scrape of Gap denim against wet mud when my body is pulled into its shallow grave.  I doubt the elderly pig would be much use. How easy it would be to bury me here, where I would be dug up in 400 years when someone jabs into my make up bag whilst digging for gold, and exhibits me homo sapiens, West Hampsteadius  in some appalling museum.  I could die here, couldn’t I?  I COULD DIE HERE.

2.  Why is there no decent radio in the countryside?  Must I listen to “kill-me-now” tragic music on Radio 3?   I have spent the last 50 miles having conversations with myself and singing the entire score of “Annie” the Musical.  Must I continue to do this?

3.  Sixpenny Handley.  Gussage St Michael.  Ebbesborne Wake. Why do English villages sound like 18th century novels?

4.  I could die here.

My destination (which I shall not tell you, lest you all turn up and mock my navigation skills) is in a valley where mobile phones are rendered powerless, where SatNavs go spastic and where GPS doesn’t work.  It’s like a 1970s horror film.  The elements rule, night falls, there are no lights and you dread breaking down.  The deep orange lights of the nearby satellite town are like seeing an oasis in a desert.   But if you end up there you’re going in totally the wrong direction.  The Romans built roads ludicrously straight.  The English didn’t really do this.  The roads wiggle and bend, and steer and trudge and ripple,  for no apparent reason.  This is because the English are naturally perverted.  Strangely, it is simple to leave this place, veer onto an A road and leap onto the M3 back to London.  It is difficult to get into, but easy to get out.

On my worst attempt, it was four hours.  On my last attempt, in the depths of winter, my car got a little agitated on single track, rural icy lanes.  “Someone’s following us!” said Mr Bluebird, in the way that people not used to the countryside do, steadfast in the belief that the fear of being killed in the middle of nowhere is about to become hideous reality, as an estate car jiggled along on the road behind us flashing its lights.

“AAAAAARGH!!!” I shrieked, calmly.   The skies seemed to close in and our wiggly lane seemed to get smaller.

I still pottered on, shoving my exhausted, ancient four wheel drive into second gear.  It protested forthwith, and responded by sliding slowly, and most unhelpfully, into a hedge.

“‘What are you doing?”  asked Mr Bluebird.

Trying to drive on ice, was the answer I ought to have given.  “Trying to not be killed,” was the answer that came out.  Still the car behind me is flashing it’s insolent little lights, its inhabitants probably laughing at how filthy our car was whilst preparing for murder and sharpening their axes.  It’s going to end here.  We’re going to be hacked to death by a Somerset madman.  It has come to this.  I thought of all that wasted life – the journeys untravelled, the books unread, that half chewed bar of Galaxy in the fridge that I would certainly have eaten had I realised I was going to die, and the embarrassment of being found dead – in 400 years – in mismatched undies.  Like the degenerate townies we were, we froze in fear of impending horrible-ness.  We slid, ungracefully, through a village called Butterbean Huddersfield (or similar) with our hearts hammering and the bile rising in our throats.

Sanctuary was offered by the miraculous recovery of one bar on my mobile phone reception.  “Please help – we’re lost,” I blubbered to our hosts who – with the calm and a tone of voice that suggested “You’re not lost AGAIN,” read through the remainder of our journey ; through the village whose name sounds like a type of cheese, onward, not left at the fork, no, right at the next fork…..Within moments, it seemed, the house loomed out of nothingness into a welcome blaze of light, and warmth and strong tea.  Once inside, of course, with the dark outer world seemingly a universe away, oh how we laughed about our 130 mile journey from London which ought to have been 110.   How we guffawed when we reminded ourselves how futile and close to tears we had felt lodged in that fat layby 50 miles from anywhere an hour before.    It was lovely to be deep in the countryside, once we had found it.

Before supper someone thrashed me at table tennis and I went to retire into a hot bath.  Over dinner we eat hot lamb and drink some dessert wine my brother collected from a supermarket 30 miles away which tastes of vanilla cake.  Exhausted, I flop onto the settee and adjust to the blacker-than-black skies, the sound of….well, nothing actually, and the dream of turning into a peaceful country bed.  My brother maintains that I would have found the right house sooner, or later, after all, despite our screaming.  Screaming?  Yes, he said, unless it was just me singing again – he thought he heard shouts, when he was following us and flashing headlights at us from his car directly behind us, offering to help us to our destination.

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

Don’t Frighten The Horses

Mingling with the aristos is something I am not usually allowed to do.  Inevitably, they sniff me out by my high street collar and throw me back in the room labelled “Serfs / nouveau / Waifs /  Middle Class Other”.  But this has done nothing to stop my delusions of aristocratic grandeur.  I was basically born to be noblesse oblige.   The fact that I am not yet a Duchess is a woefully sad one, but when that funny chap from Debretts told me the way to be one was to marry that Duke with one eyebrow, half an immune system and a penchant for being whipped on a Tuesday while he whimpered “Oh Nanny! I shall be better – I shall be good!”  I couldn’t be bothered.  For a start, the nanny uniform chaffed horribly and our aristocrats are just going to have to be a bit more human, if they want to encourage us to dive into the murky depths of a gene pool where husband and wife have been first cousins since 1689.

The other difficulty is that the current aristocrats seem to lack grandeur and glamour.  It was those feral, feckless lunatic aristos of the 18th century who really knew how to roll.  The aristos of the Georgian era were basically out on the lash between 1760 and 1789, with only regular 15 minute breaks for peasant-drowning, chamber-pot-visiting and racing.  By the time the early 1800s rolled into Regency splendour a party wasn’t a party without sessions of  gambling in which wives and wigs would be burnt, estates would be lost and dowager Empresses were found weeping under St James’s card tables because they’d accidentally got preggers via the third underFootman.

For the Edwardians – just add actresses, Winston Churchill, ladies with fifteen inch waisted corsets and King Edward in the corner in a pair of belle epoque tights.

But I worry that the aristocracy of today know how to behave themselves.

They do, though. They’re all poor for a start – and high class ladies to “walk out with” do cost something these days, you know.  I mean, at the rates I used to charge I’ve probably bankrupted several county seats.  Now they open up their hallowed halls, befriend the ghastly National Trust, make jam and have gardening programmes.  They’re basically just a load of poor people with good tailors.  Their days of wine and roses are more cava and crysanthemums now.  Occasionally though – and it is a rare and deluded thing – a chink of light shows through the dour greyness of economic necessity and the clock seems to turn back. It doesn’t actually turn back of course, but the illusions steadies itself for a moment and we are made to believe a system  has remained unchanged for four hundred years.  There are about five places in England where you can sit and pretend we still have an Empire.  These are:

1  The entrance hall of Blenheim Palace

2.  Anywhere else in Blenheim Palace

3.  Centre Court at Wimbledon on a balmy Men’s Singles Final day

4.  At Eton on June 4th.

5.  At the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot

I am braving the Berkshire fields and going to Ascot today for Ladies Day.  I’m not allowed in the Royal Enclosure, not since that time I knocked Prince Andrew out with a shuttlecock in the Windsor & Slough County Badminton Fair.  But I am the next tier down with my friends, the Grandstand.  Firstly, I have to drive to Berkshire and don’t know where that is, and secondly, I have to try to understand the betting odds system.  Early, devout followers of this column may remember my ecstatic reaction to not losing £50 on a horse in the Grand National of 2010, and – in fact – gaining £60 fine English Sterling pounds.  That’s money for nothing.  I was astonished to make money on the horse, but am not naive enough to believe that it set a precedent.  It was nothing more than a caffeine-riddled, manic examination of the Daily Mirror on the morning of the 4.15 at Aintree.  Just like a stopped clock is right twice a day, so twice a year do my random betting habits win through.  By the time you read this, I will have my shoe heels yielding to the Berkshire mire, whilst I holler at a thin chap from Cork riding on a steaming Dobbin with twenty pounds of mine on its back.

It’s another language, the odds, accumulators, evens, each-way, to win, on the nose, up the – yes, quite.  I had a grandfather who sort of did this type of thing.  He must have been very good at gambling and making squillions on doggies and horsies because he spent so much time on it that he never did anything else – like get a job or talk to his wife.  He was at the White City dog track more than he was in his own home.  But unfortunately, he can’t have been very canny at gambling after all because when he died all he left behind was a large collection of safety razors and plastic bags full of those little blue biros you get free at William Hill.   And you can’t buy an Ascot hat with that.   So, surely, through some dreadful sort of genetic osmosis, I ought to know things that have dripped down in some rancid way from my grandfather.  Well, I don’t.  I don’t think I could bear to throw money away on betting about something without knowing about it, so I have been cramming on firm ground and furlongs, two year olds and jockey names, fillies and accumulators.

I have been keeping a Word Doc, and it is a running view of the competitors due to race at the 1550 Gold Cup this afternoon.  I don’t know what the bloody hell is going on, because the nags keep dropping out, the odds are like me trying to read Arabic, and the silly names drive me round the bend.  Why are horses never called John, or Chris?  Or Nigel?  Why things like “Riverdrop my Ankle”, or “Crumpled Sheet”?   I can’t follow my own word document, and the more odds get released, the more I think I want to cry.  There are other things happening on Thursday which I was looking forward to, because I read there would be steaks.  Apparently there won’t be – they are stakes.  And they’re some kind of race named after the wettest counties in England – The Norfolk Stakes, the Northumberland Stakes – or they are named after unpleasant, dead people – George V Stakes.

The most confusing advice from the royal la la we are royal, don’t you know,, is that informal picnics are allowed in the carparks, but “formal entertaining will be stopped”.  What do they propose to do?  Run me over with a horse if I arrive with my own sommelier or six piece dining suite and pitch it up in the coach parking area?  I am just going to turn up with my own Tijuana brass band, butler and just go for it.  It’s dreadfully common not to travel without one’s butler.  Also, must we negotiate the sheer horror of the “Traditional sing-a-long” that occurs after each day’s last race, and in which we are joined by the brass band?  Doesn’t it all smack of school assembly (with added crowned heads and horses)?  “Free song books are provided” the website tells me.  However, I’m going to put a request in for “Smack My Bitch Up”.  Is there any phrase in the English language more vomit-inducing than “traditional knees-up”?  Why would I want to pull my knees up, sing “Land of Hope and Glory” and show my drawers to a load of Lords and Marquis’s like some Edwardian actress out on the pull?   I don’t know what a “Traditional” sing-a-long means anyway.  According to what tradition?  One of this isle’s peculiar, outdated, French-hating, single mother damning, badly-dressed English traditions, no doubt.  I don’t know the words to “We Don’t Trust the Foreigners, Audrey, No We Don’t”. Or “Roll Out the Barrel : We’re Old Etonians Having a Right Laugh”.

Sports attire is strictly forbidden in The Grandstand seating area, but those bastard jockeys still  get in.  Perhaps it’s because they are too small to be seen by the naked human eye – the Ascotoids who police the arena and not aware of them brazenly flaunting clothing rules.  But I shall be there, throwing money towards the bookmakers (was there every a more dangerous combination than the items “race course” and “cashpoint” in close proximity?  My survey tells me that Ascot has five cashpoints.  I just hope they aren’t all for Coutts).   No doubt after five hours under the crumbling, grumbling skies of Ascot I shall be feeling either woozily warm about the tradition of race meets, or I shall be riddled with indignation at the prospect of another heady dream of aristocratic longing destroyed.   Shall I be victor or loser? Will I get to share a crumpet with the Duke of Devonshire?   Shall I be imprisoned for brandishing a fish knife in the face of formal dining?  I might come home with less money than I left the house with, all hidden under my enormous hat.  But I wouldn’t bet money on it.

Do return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  

Town Mouse and Country Mouse

I woke up in Hampshire last week and didn’t know where I was – or who I was – or when I was.  There was a bus outside the window and unusual sights beyond (trees! open spaces! thatched roofs! Splendid wee pubs filled with dart boards and friendly, ruddy faced landladies!) Was I in an H E Bates novel? No, but I was in a village a short drive from Petersfield visiting a particularly splendid branch of my family, complete with a lovely, vivacious eight month old who made three robust attempts to remove my earrings by dragging them out through the earlobe.  I felt a bit like Paul McGann’s character in Withnail and I – not that I had “gone on holiday by mistake….” but that I carried the city with me, dressed differently, had unkempt hair, and would be suspicious when viewed through the bi-focals of the local farmer’s wife in my quest for wood and milk.

Clusters of my family have landed towards Hampshire and Dorset and soon I will be calling the A3 my second home.  “Farewell!” they say.  Drop, drop, drop, off the London suburban perch.  “Hello!” they bellow from Hampshire down the phone.  I can hear the mud.  I can see the new, rural layer of skin on their faces that has been pleasantly revealing itself now the London urban grime has sloughed away.  “You must visit!” The line drops.  Suburban London is a little emptier.  It’s rare that I get out to the country; or rather it’s rare that the country will have me, but when I do the bucolic cosiness of the south and south west tends to strike me somewhere within and I feel distinctly enriched.  Having arrived in Hampshire at tea time on Tuesday, we had not been able to see it, which made waking up on Wednesday morning particularly surreal.  Getting back to Lahndahn on the 0948 to Waterloo was disturbing of course, but then it always is; Kenco coffee; raddled old copies of Metro, counting down the Surrey towns and the south London slurry sites and finally lurching into Waterloo, the Bakerloo Line, the office…. 18 hours was enough of the countryside to remember what it looked like, to receive a giddy shrug from it, and to allow it’s prettiness to seep in, only to have to turn around and head back to Lahndahn just at the moment you might actually be enjoying yourself.

What I meant about returning to Lahndahn was that I was returning to my reality. As I have mentioned on these pages before, I am a bit of a hybrid of Town Mouse and Country Mouse, which means that topographically I am schizo. My mouse whiskers have been bristled as much by urban stench and street awareness as they have by Chiltern breezes.  I like and relate to urbanity, but my formative years were spent sitting in a vegetable garden looking at the five berries our barren strawberry patch had birthed that year and wondering whether we just ought to turn it over to turnips.   Trips to London were intoxicating, ludicrously exciting and uncommon, which explains my grateful bemusement at actually living in the city, a bemusement which remains solid and undimmed after sixteen years. So, I am unsure whether, when I actually go the country, I am so deeply ensconced in urban fantasies of rural beauty that I can’t see its reality at all, or whether I am simply regressing to the person I was in 1986?  Is the stillness of village life lurking in me somewhere, ready to bowl me over during menopause when I can retire to a Wiltshire shed with a potter’s wheel?  The countryside changes you – but then is it being away from the city that makes us feel different, or is it being away from the real, everyday commitments and work of city life?  We are all different on holiday.   It may not be the hedgerows of the home counties, but the smack of liberation which is so pleasant.   How far can it really be felt if it isn’t your reality? In Town Mouse and Country Mouse – a story whose foundations go back to classical times – each mouse spends the story convincing the other of the merits of its life. The urban mouse is a bit superior regarding the country mouse’s simplicity and the country mouse thinks – basically – that the town mouse is mad. It is satirical and untimately town life comes off worse. Well, we know that the town is dirty, filthy, drug-infested, rude, expensive, drunken, anxiety-making and fearful but that’s why we like it. ( We love a bit of drunken anxiety late at night) but it’s an age old mice debate that no one can win.

Human beings are, it turns out, no more capable of viewing life from another’s perspective than the two mice.  What people love is leisure.  What they hate is labour. It is the intoxication of escaping from your reality that seduces, irrespective of whether you are a town mouse delighting in the spaces and clean smells of the country, or whether you are a teenager from Suffolk who heads up to London on the train, desperate for a slice of yer genuine city decadence, and to return the next morning bleary-eyed, hungover, coke-raddled and broke.  Despite the obvious differences between town life and country life they are very similar in the nature in which they are experienced:  The world, whichever you are, looks lovelier from the outside, and is sweeter for the visitor.

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

Passing by

I had an argument with my engine oil cap before my journey out to the Chilterns last Sunday.   I was only going 37 miles but for a Londoner who doesn’t get out much it’s enough to make me want to pack thermos, sandwiches, check RAC card and pack a sleeping bag.  I was only going to Aylesbury. There was me, sensible, prepared, checking the water (which plastic-y looking barrel in the engine is THAT?), doing things to check the dipstick (how do I get the lid off?  What do I do?  Is that cooking oil in there?) and acting as if I was about to drive 600 miles to Inverness.  Continue reading