Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Monday, 17 November 2008

How to Put on a Musical – Part 10 - Rehearsals

The first thing you need for rehearsals is a rehearsal room and for a musical the ideal rehearsal space should fill the following criteria:
Be within 400 yards of Leicester Square tube station
Comprise: 1 large space for the main production calls
1 smaller space for dance calls etc
1 room with mirror & piano for costume fittings and music calls
1 room with phone/internet as a company office
3. Be available 9.00am – 10.00pm
4. Have a sprung timber floor
5. Be well heated so that dancers don’t injure themselves
6. Be in a nice middle-class area with access to cappuccinos, ciabatta sandwiches, noodle bar, and a pub for the stage management to brood in at the end of the day.
How many rehearsal rooms fit these criteria? None. Most rehearsal rooms are in socially challenged areas where the local kids can strip the wheels off a BMW and leave it on bricks in less than 3 minutes. Most are inconveniently placed in quadrants of London not served by the underground and most are draughty and dank, too small to mark up the set plan on the floor, have limited access and provide a wide variety of cultural and sporting activities for the local community in the evenings requiring a complete clear up of the space at the end of rehearsals every day. The latter drawback is often viewed as a plus by some wily producers who realise that a full programme of table tennis, Brownies and Tae-Kwon-Do in the evenings will prevent the director from rehearsing after 6.00pm and thus save thousands of pounds of stage management overtime.

Project Model – Maintenance!
Due to the short notice of the deal with the Piccadilly Theatre the Maintenance! management have had to book rehearsal space at the last minute and have ended up with the Parish Hall of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance in East Ham. This is a sub-standard space by any reckoning. It is not big enough, it is badly lit and heated, it is a nightmare to access from central London and worst of all, the local priest is a musical theatre enthusiast who likes to pop in and discuss how things are going with the director.

The first day of rehearsals gets off to an inauspicious start when stage manager Rowena Pettifer and her team turn up at 9.30 to set up for the morning’s ‘Meet ‘n Greet’ session only to find the hall securely locked. After half an hours detective work they find caretaker Sid Stickler a few doors away. Sid, who, unlike his parish priest, believes that all musicals, with the possible exception of Bernadette, are the work of the devil and that the unhappy group of stage management on his doorstep are only one step removed from being Satanists, is not helpful. He declares that there was only a pencil booking, that nothing has been confirmed and that no advance payment has been made, furthermore he has no intention of opening the hall until he has a call from Doris Quill the parish secretary telling him that a cheque has been received. With that he departs for his allotment. Rowena hastily calls Kevin Whimper, who is already half way to East Ham and now has to turn round and return to the office to pick up a cheque for Mrs Quill. It is a miserable, drizzling February morning in East London and slowly the group of disgruntled actors, management and creative team huddled together by the locked doors of the hall grows larger. The Church of our Lady of Cheerful Countenance is marooned in an ocean of derelict industrial sites interspersed with the occasional decaying tower block or vandalised playground, there is not a Starbucks for miles and the only catering nearby is a petrol station where the pork pies have sell-by dates from the previous year. Director Kevin McHarrowing eventually cancels the morning call and tells everyone to return at 2.00pm. Producer Samuel J Bloodlust curses everyone within earshot including the Lady of Cheerful Countenance and sets off in his chauffeur driven BMW with his leading man and leading lady to buy doughnuts for everybody.

By lunchtime the cheque has finally reached Mrs Quill and the stage management retrieve Mr Stickler from his allotment (he is discovered in his shed reading a periodical entitled ‘Zips ‘n Buckles’). He grudgingly opens the hall and even more grudgingly turns on the heating. At 2.00 the company are finally assembled, seated in a semicircle in front of a table where the producers, Samuel J Bloodlust and Alvin Toxteth sit with director McHarrowing. Bloodlust gets up to speak.
“Welcome everyone. I am Samuel J Bloodlust and I and my partner Alvin, are the producers of Maintenance! Today is a proud day both for us and for the creative team on this project, today is not the beginning but is a vital staging post on a journey that began one night two years ago in the departure lounge of Berlin’s Tegel Airport. On that night these two guys”, he pauses to indicate composer Gunther Eisenkopf and book writer Dermot O’Dainty, “met at the bar and in an evening of creative inspiration wrote the basis of the show that we are about to put on”.
Eisenkopf and O’Dainty nod sagely knowing full well that they were both so drunk on that fateful evening that they had no idea that they had written a musical until the following morning when the airport police released them and with the personal possessions returned to them was a bundle of paper napkins on which they had laid down the basis of Maintenance!
“Dermot brought the project to us soon afterwards and I’m happy to say that we are now fully funded”, at this point his partner Alvin Toxteth looks distinctly shifty, “and as you all know we are scheduled to start previewing at the Piccadilly Theatre in 7 weeks time. We are very excited to have secured the Piccadilly with its superb location and long history of successful runs”. This last laughable assertion sets some of the company sniggering. “However I’m not going to take up any more time, I’m going to pass you over to Anthony your company manager who has some business stuff to get out of the way and then to Kevin who will lead us on the journey that is Maintenance!"
Anthony Fawning gets up. “OK everyone. Welcome and many apologies for this morning’s problems. Now if you haven’t been seen by our wardrobe department and been measured then you need to have done so before you leave the building. You also need to have handed me your starter forms before you leave. And finally I know some of you had trouble finding your way here today and I know that two of you ended up at Stanstead Airport, so can I recommend that you go to Stratford East by overland then get the 429 bus heading towards Barking and get off at Asda and get a 365 heading towards Woolwich which will drop you off at the top of the road. Any questions? No? OK it’s over to you Kevin”.
Director Kevin McHarrowing gets slowly to his feet and surveys the clay from which he hopes to mould a hit musical. He has never staged a West End musical before but he has absolute not to say psychotic confidence in his own abilities and has no doubt that given sufficient intellectual rigour he can transform the sentimental pap that is the current book into a socialist parable for our times, a parable that will bring hope and meaning to ordinary working people and not just the contemptible pleasure seekers who come to the theatre solely to have ‘a good night out’.
“Good afternoon everyone. Before I tell you something about Maintenance! I think we should all introduce ourselves and tell the room what we do. So Gavin would you like to start”.
“Gavin Shoestrap playing Barry”.
“Erica Fortinbras playing Sharon”
One by one the cast and staff announce their names and the part that they are playing or the job that they will be doing.
“Miranda Williams ensemble”
“Harry Hopkins playing Foreman, Pet Shop Owner and Registrar”
“Diane Wilkins ensemble & dance captain”
“Peter De Vriess ensemble.”
“David Casper, Foreman, Pet Shop Owner and Registrar”.
“Ah” says McHarrowing staring at David Casper who he fails to recognise. Alvin Toxteth quickly intercedes, realising that somewhere in his office something has gone horribly wrong and that somehow they have contracted two actors to play the same parts.
“David you and I need to get together on this”
“Do you mean I’m not playing the Foreman, Pet Shop owner and Registrar?” says the aggrieved actor.
“No, no, no. We just need to have a chat”. says a flustered Toxteth and gestures for the next actor to introduce themself. Finally all are done and the company look around with mixed feelings. The Company manager and stage management study the sea of faces trying to work out who will be the company nutter, the rest look around and compile a mental list of whom they would most like to sleep with and David Casper leaves the room to ring his agent.
McHarrowing starts his introductory address.

To be continued

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

How to Put on a Musical part 9 – The Staff

Stage Management

“Ted please tell why I need stage manager?” was the question asked on an almost daily basis by the Moscow promoter of We Will Rock You, Sergei Baranov. I would look across the table, take a deep breath and have another go at persuading him that the show needed someone to organise scene changes, to structure the rehearsals, to set props, to produce a prompt copy and above all write it all down so that we could do approximately the same show on the second night that we did on the first. After my explanation he would shake his head dismissively and leave the room. Eventually he was persuaded to employ a show caller so that at least we would have some coordination between departments. The lucky candidate was Julia, a recent graduate from an Arts/Business course, whose backstage experience was nil but she was very keen, had a few words of English and was very beautiful. In desperation we flew Tracy, stage manager from WWRY London to give emergency guidance, which she did with great charm and skill. Julia did come up trumps a couple of days into the tech rehearsals in responding to some criticism from our rather upmarket director (his day job was directing Chekhov) with a volley of abuse that translated roughly as “Don’t, you fucking well tell me what to do you fat bastard. I’m the bloody stage manager here I’ll have you know!”
As we started the Tech Rehearsal I realised that there was no one backstage who had a clue what was supposed to be happening and so, with a heavy heart, I put on a headset and got up on stage to get things going. After 10 minutes of shouting (Russians love shouting) I got someone to turn off the working lights and the stage went totally dark, completely and utterly dark, and at that point I realised that I hadn’t checked that ‘Act 1 Beginners’ were standing by onstage. I thought about getting the working lights back on but couldn’t face any more shouting so I decided to check by feel alone. Luckily the actors playing ‘Pop’ (long wig) and the 2 policemen (helmets) were easy to identify by touch but as I tugged at Pop’s wig I had one of those moments of clarity that we all have now and then and I thought “What the fuck am I doing here”. At the same time I decided that not having any stage management can put you in a very dark place both literally and metaphorically.

So you definitely need stage management even if they can be a bit anal and a bit irritating at times. For a musical you need at least four and probably more, you need a stage manager in charge, a Deputy who calls the show from the prompt corner and will probably have developed a large bottom from sitting on a prompt stool night after night. You also need assistants to run either side of the stage, props etc.

It is sometimes said that whether you were born in the stairwell of a Peckham tower block or in a four-poster in a stately home when you work in the theatre you immediately become an honorary member of the middle class. This is never truer than with stage management, they are the stuff of which the Empire was built. In days gone by your average stage manager would not have been unlocking a rehearsal room at 9.00am but would have been administering an area of Africa bigger than Surrey. Stage Management are willing to give their lives to ensure the show goes on and the nation needs more people like them.

The wardrobe mistress is a key figure in backstage life, apart from organising her department and washing lots of smelly clothes she is a clearing house for all company gossip, using the dressers to garner information with all the skill of a KGB spymaster. Should the Company Manager need to know anything about a member of the company, drug habits, drinking habits, sexual tastes, he goes straight to the wardrobe mistress. Traditionally they are large, motherly, drink gin and sleep with the master carpenter. If you happen to employ a wardrobe master they tend to be slim, excessively tidy, drink gin and sleep with the master carpenter.

If you have children who show no obvious talent for anything in particular then you might consider pushing them in the direction of wigs. As a production manager I find that putting together a wig department is extremely tiresome. There aren’t enough wig staff about, competent or otherwise, so Mrs Worthington put your daughter into wigs and she will never be out of work again.

Project Model – Maintenance!
Production Manager Stewart Cowless, Company Manager Anthony Fawning and Producer’s Assistant Kevin Whimper interviewed more than twenty would-be stage management for Maintenance and finally settled on Rowena Pettifer as stage manager, a well organised determined girl who is probably not tough enough for the job in hand but is the best of a bad bunch. As DSM they have hired the ballsy Sazz (Sarah) Muldoon an Irish girl with a backside the size of Gloucestershire, as ASM book cover Maggie Truelove a West End veteran and finally as ASM Justin Philpotts a charming young man from Brighton who was hired by Fawning and Whimper while Cowless was out of the room making a phone call. He enchanted them by declaring that his mother, herself an actress of sorts, had had a dream in which she saw him emerging from the stage door of the Palladium to be greeted by his adoring fans. He declared that he had come to fulfil his destiny. Thus begins the career of Justin Philpotts who by the year 2050 will be known by all and sundry as a ‘National Treasure’ and his Sunday night chat show Philpot’s Pals will attract vast audiences. Cowless was enraged to find that someone so utterly inexperienced had been employed without his say-so and accused Fawning and Whimper of going for the prettiest bum.

Angie Overlocker has been employed as wardrobe mistress and she lives up to the stereotype handsomely. She is large, jolly, motherly, but can be tigerish when negotiating quick change space in the wings or defending her position in the queue at the bar.

The Wig Mistress will be Natalie Tongs, who is delightful in every way other than that she has only ever been an assistant and has never run a department before. The main thing going for her is that she has spent nine months on The Rolf Harris Story at the Queens, dressing wigs for Maintenance!’s future leading lady Erica Fortinbras who is known to be difficult.

Casting Update

After the debacle in Andover (see blog of 25th May 2008) plans for the TV audition show Baby You Can Drive My Car are revised down to a more controlled, not to say ‘fixed’, enterprise in order to give the producers the cast they want. Unfortunately it turns out that Hampshire Gold TV, who were to produce the series, were sponsored by the city of Reykyavik (strap line “Where the fish come to party”) and their funds were cut overnight resulting in a total collapse. For a brief moment the producers toyed with the idea of a radio version but then went back to more traditional methods of casting. To play the leading role of Barry, Kevin McHarrowing has picked Gavin Shoestrap, a 3rd placed X Factor contestant, who has made a decent living over the past couple of years with soap opera parts and the occasional chart entry. He has promised to lose weight in rehearsal. The part of Barry’s girl friend Tracy has been given to Erica Fortinbras whose lack of anger management has landed her in court twice, once after an incident on the Jonathan Ross Show and once when she assaulted a dresser with a stiletto heeled shoe after chasing her out of the fire exit and across the roof of the Shaftesbury Theatre during rehearsals for Petra & I the Blue Peter musical. The voice of the Haynes Manual will be delivered from an offstage vocal booth by veteran soul singer Charlie ‘Duke’ Magee. The vital role of Morag the Mechanic is as yet uncast.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Mr Poulter’s Last Match – Part 2

By the time Mr Poulter and Hugh Fennimore had set up the stumps the rest of the team had arrived at the wicket and Jack was placing his field. Doug Billings was going to open the bowling from the By-Pass end and Sam Fletcher would bowl the second over from the Railway end. Neither team had non-playing umpires so the job was done by members of the batting side already out or yet to bat. Scoring was done by whoever was competent and had a pencil. The scoreboard was a warped sheet of plywood, which leaned against one of the beeches, with hooks which carried metal plates on which were numbers too small to be read from the middle. The Allied Breweries (Western Division) 3rd XI openers strode purposefully to the wicket, were greeted with polite applause from the Paragons, one of them prepared to face Doug, and the umpire, a tall dark haired man with grey sideboards who none of the Paragons had seen before, said ”Play”.

Dorothy looked up from the Tom Stoppard piece she had been reading (“Me and my Window Boxes”) and adjusted her position on the rug to be able to watch more comfortably. She genuinely loved cricket, she came from a cricket mad family and had the LBW laws by heart before she read her first Enid Blyton. She had a grandmother who kept a signed photo of Don Bradman on her mantelpiece, her father was a long time member at Surrey, and she had three cricket mad older brothers, two of whom still played club cricket. She had spent a substantial part of her girlhood retrieving ‘lost balls’ from under the rhododendrons. So these Sundays watching John and the Paragons were no chore though the Paragons’ fragile batting often made the afternoons shorter than planned.
She watched her man take his place in the slips, she loved this man. She had noticed him in the office lift on the same morning that he had noticed her and she had asked around as to who and what he was. She was told he was a departmental deputy who had been in the bank longer than anyone could remember and that he was dull, punctual, stuck in a rut, older than the rest of his department by a good 10 years. Did he have wandering hands? No he didn’t. Did he chase account clerks at the Christmas party? No he didn’t. Was he gay? No he wasn’t. Was he married? Yes he was. Dorothy had been married once, in her early twenties, to a man she had originally met at a business college in Kingston. It had not gone well and her husband took to ‘working late’ so often that she knew he was having an affair. What depressed her most was not that he was having an affair but the fact that she didn’t care. She moved out of their tiny rented flat into a tinier
bedsit. Two years later a decree arrived in the post telling her that she was single once more, something that she had known all along. She had been 32 by the time she joined USBB and that fateful eye contact in the lift occurred only a few weeks after she had started there. John Poulter was definitely good looking in a grey sort of way, Dorothy often thought that he could make a good living in TV commercials as an ‘honest’ man selling insurance or pension schemes. There was something reassuring about him and when he stuck his head round her door and proposed the trip to Arundel she hadn’t hesitated for a second. Their affair was now 12 years old, for 12 years she had been ‘the other woman’ and she really didn’t mind. She had watched TV documentaries about being a ‘mistress’ with interviews with bitter women who resented every moment that their lovers spent with their wives and families but she valued her independence and when their affair had started all three of John’s children had still been at school and leaving Nancy wasn’t an option. Dorothy had been made redundant by USBB two years after she first met Mr Poulter and after a string of short term jobs in the city she had finally set herself up selling vintage knitwear on ebay. This meant that she didn’t see Mr Poulter at work but her ‘sole trader’ existence meant that she could easily be free to accompany him to dreary European banking conferences to which he was despatched by the USBB as ‘a safe pair of hands’, He developed a technique of giving his business card to, and shaking hands with, every warm blooded creature in the conference centre before discreetly leaving by a fire exit and spending the rest of the time with Dorothy who found his hands very safe indeed. One weekend in Berlin, where there was no cricket to be had, they hadn’t left their swanky hotel room once and lived off room service with Dorothy never wearing more than a slinky1920’s black silk knit cardigan that she had bought in an antique market the week before. Once when Nancy went to stay with her brother in Canada for a couple of weeks they had managed to do ‘Cricket Week’ at Scarborough and occasionally they made it to Old Trafford or Headingley.

Doug Billings was a class act, he was quick, accurate and consistent, he took wickets year in year out and this afternoon was no exception and with his fifth ball he clipped the off stump of one of the AB openers. Their No 3 was their captain who in the past had played some dogged innings against the Paragons and he straight batted Doug while the other opener accumulated runs off Sam Fletcher. All went well for the AB’s until the tenth over when Jack took Sam Fletcher off and replaced him with Maltese Joe who tempted the opener into a wild drive which he mishit tamely to mid-off. The following over Doug had the AB skipper caught at slip and in the over after that Maltese Joe took a second wicket when the AB No 4 unluckily kicked the ball onto his stumps. At 40-4 things were looking up for the Paragons when the tall stranger with grey sideburns headed for the wicket.
“Oh look! Oh I hate that” said Jack.
“What?” said Mr Poulter
“He’s wearing some poncey school tie as a belt. Don’t you hate that?”
“Oh! Yes I do” said Mr Poulter grimacing “tell Doug to hurt him”.
“I will” said Jack and walked off to give his fast bowler the necessary instruction.
The stranger arrived at the crease and took guard with casual ease. Mr Poulter at mid-on noted the expensive cream flannels, the immaculate shirt, the man only needed a silk scarf round his neck to be a 1930s House-Party toff. He played the last ball of Maltese Joe’s over past Mr Poulter’s left hand for a single and prepared to face the first ball of Doug’s next over. Doug, following his captain’s instructions to the letter, bowled a lively bouncer, which the Toff planted effortlessly over the mid-wicket boundary. He then proceeded to score off every ball of the rest of the over. It was apparent to the Paragons that this man was in a different class to normal run of Sunday afternoon cricketers, Jack mouthed the word ‘ringer’ to Mr Poulter who nodded grimly. The Paragons only strategy was to get the rest of the ABs out before the Toff scored too many, but this was easier said than done as the Toff farmed the strike mercilessly and scored 80 odd in what seemed like no time at all. Jack rotated his bowlers desperately, even offering Mr Poulter, who had never claimed to be even an occasional bowler, a chance, but the flow of runs from the Toff continued while only two wickets fell at the other end. With the score at 170-6 Mr Poulter saw Jack in discussion with Jacek and after a few moments Jack tossed Jacek the ball. The young Pole then started walking towards the boundary at the bowler’s end and for a moment Mr Poulter thought that Jack had not asked him to bowl but had sent him on some errand to the pavilion but eventually the Pole stopped, scratched a mark in the turf and started to run in off what was the longest run-up that Mr Poulter had seen since the golden age of West Indian fast bowling. His first ball, which was as quick as any that Mr Poulter had seen that season, pitched on a good length but lifted enough to hit the Toff in the chest. He staggered back, surprised, and eyed the new bowler with suspicion. Jacek’s second ball was even faster and yorked the Toff, who played far too late, his batting partner at the other end mouthed the word ‘ringer’ and the Toff nodded grimly as he marched off.
The Krakow Dynamo, as Jacek was immediately christened, mopped up the last wickets in his next two overs and the ABs were all out for 176.

At tea the Paragons put a brave face on things despite the fact that the tea itself had been provided by Hugh Fennimore, who was an evangelical vegetarian, so not only did both teams have to suffer dull sandwiches but also endure a string of homilies on the perils of animal fats and bad Kharma. Several of the team smuggled in pork pies and Scotch eggs along with other decadences like ‘char-grilled steak’ flavoured crisps and Coca-Cola, some of the ABs vanished to return with Kentucky Fried Chicken from the retail park along the by-pass.
Catering aside the Paragons knew that on their crumbling end of season wicket and with a lunar surface of an outfield 176 was an enormous total particularly when they had no one with the talent of the Toff in their team. Jack interrogated Jacek, hoping that he might have batting skills equal to his bowling prowess but the Tatra Tornado shook his head and earnestly told his captain “No. I yem crep betsman, I go eleven pliss”.

Dorothy tended to avoid the rituals of the tea interval and brought along her own picnic which Mr Poulter came to share after tasting one of Hugh’s bean curd tartlets. Jack joined them to ask “Where do you want to bat today? Last time and all that, you can open if you like”. Mr Poulter refused this offer and Jack put him down at No 6 as normal and wandered off, filling in the batting line-up in the score book as he went. He found his two openers Harry Shah and Fat Barry padding up and gave them a pep talk not found in Mike Brearley’s ‘The Art of Captaincy’.
“Look realistically we’ve got no bloody chance of winning this but remember it’s not limited overs, it’s 20 overs from 6.30 and we could just hang on for the draw so dig in and waste as much time as you can. OK”. His openers nodded obligingly but neither had any intention of ‘digging in’, they were going out to play their natural game come what may. Fat Barry had a good eye and could hit the ball extremely hard and had every intention of doing so. Harry Shah, who ran a sporting goods shop in South Norwood and had once played for the Rawalpindi Colts, was the Paragons’ best batsman and he felt that his natural game was not unlike that of Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s, and he had every intention of living his dream.
The Paragons’ innings got off to a good if hectic start with both openers blazing away as if they were in a 20/20 game that had been cut by rain to 10/10. They took 22 off the first three overs before disaster struck, Harry Shah skied a short ball off a top edge to give an easy catch to the wicket keeper, almost immediately Fat Barry holed out in the deep and the Paragons were 24-2 with Jack Lascelles and Ron Haslam newly arrived at the crease.
“Come on Ron let’s give them a run for their money. Dig in” said Jack
“OK skip” said Ron who promptly hit his first ball for a straight six but was clean bowled by the next. 30-3
Jack was joined by Mark Philpotts, who had been to a decent public school, and could be relied on to follow instructions and bat sensibly but Jack at the non-strikers end called for a suicidal single to a ball that the wicket keeper fumbled and both batsmen ended up at the striker’s end with the ball back in the bowler’s hand. Mark did the decent thing and stepped out of the crease leaving Jack, who hadn’t been to a decent public school, cursing but still in. So at 30-4 Mr Poulter came in to play his final innings. Jack stopped swearing for long enough to give him more or less the same spiel that he had given to the openers but then relented and said “Oh just enjoy it John”.
Mr Poulter did just that, he felt both relaxed and confident, he started slowly but soon began to score freely and Jack was content to play second fiddle and once the first two AB quickies were rested the bowling held no terrors. Eventually the Toff was given a bowl and Mr Poulter’s heart sank, if he was only half as good a bowler as he was a batsman they were doomed but he turned out to be a ‘nothing special’ medium pacer and the Paragons revival continued until the score reached 83-4 at around the time that 20 overs were called at 6.30. Twenty overs to get 94 thought Mr Poulter, twenty overs to survive thought Jack. They met in the middle. “We could do this” said Mr Poulter.
“Bollocks!” said Jack “How often have we got more than 150?”
“True” said Mr Poulter.
Jack saw that his friend was looking across at Dorothy and said “You don’t think that Nancy will turn up do you? It being your last game”
“No” said Mr Poulter “I didn’t mention it to her”.
“Ah. Well I might have mentioned it in passing if you know what I mean” said Jack
“What! What do you mean ‘mentioned it in passing’”? said Mr Poulter incredulous.
“Oh. I think I may have said something when she answered the phone last week”
The umpire cleared his throat extravagantly and the two returned to their respective ends, Mr Poulter to face the ABs spinner. He was so distracted by Jack’s revelation that he failed to play a shot at the first ball and was lucky to escape an LBW decision.

Dorothy, enjoying the sun in halter top and shorts, was unaware of Mr Poulter’s emotional turmoil though she did notice the LBW incident and wondered what on earth he was thinking of, but otherwise there wasn’t a cloud on the horizon. But, and in life there are always ‘buts’, even in the clear blue sky of Dorothy’s existence, there were times when she wished that he was there in the morning when she woke up, that he was there on her birthday, that they were together at Christmas. When she wished these things, she remembered the bitter ‘mistresses’ in the TV documentaries and retracted her wishes hastily. In the meantime John was looking good for a fifty and she kept her fingers crossed on his behalf.

“She won’t come. She never comes. She doesn’t know where the ground is.” But the latter sentence wasn’t true, Nancy occasionally dropped him off here. Mr Poulter mentally calculated the odds for and against his wife turning up at the game. After a minute or two’s thought he came to the reassuring conclusion that not only would Nancy almost certainly not come but even if she did she wouldn’t recognise Dorothy, it was several years since they had last met. He had these thoughts while watching Jack ‘digging in’ at the other end and as he came to his final reassuring conclusion Jack dollied up a simple catch to short leg and the Paragons were 97-5 and Mr Poulter had scored 42. Hugh Fennimore came in and Mr Poulter went to meet him.
“Mark’s a bit upset about that run-out” said Hugh “he’s sulking in his car”.
“He’ll get over it” said Mr Poulter” it’s not the first time that Jack’s run him out. Now listen we need to dig in”.
“Absolutely” agreed Hugh and the words ‘dig in’ were music to his ears because while his batting was as dull as his bean curd tartlets, ‘digging in’ was what Hugh did best. Mr Poulter thought “I’m going to get 50” and that was a very pleasant thought. He had scored fifties for the Paragons in the past but not often and not recently and he got to 50 with two ‘4’s in the next over. He and Hugh attempted a high-five but failed to make contact.

At this point the ABs realised that the Paragons were not going to roll over and die so brought their opening bowlers back on, but Mr Poulter was both seeing and striking the ball well. Hugh Fennimore was not as alert to a quick single as he might have been and Mr Poulter found it hard to farm the strike but with 6 overs to play they had progressed to 147-5. “We should win this” thought Mr Poulter. Hugh Fennimore came over and said “Look we could win this. I’m going to stop ‘digging in’.”
“Oh right. If you think so” said Mr Poulter dubiously. And then the wheels came off. Hugh attempted an uncharacteristic sweep and was caught at square leg. Sam Fletcher came in and was given out LBW off his first ball by Fat Barry, who was umpiring, though as Sam said later “I was so far down the pitch I could smell the umpire’s halitosis”. Maltese Joe managed a few defensive prods before being caught behind and Doug Billings took a wild swing at a ball that both pitched on and removed his middle stump. From a match winning 147-5 the Paragons were at a terminal 151-9 with Mr Poulter on 79. Four overs left to get 26 runs with just the ‘Polish Pietersen’ to come. Mr Poulter intercepted Jacek on his way to the wicket and was about to give him some pointers but was momentarily distracted by the virulence of the young man’s acne. In that hiatus Jacek said determinedly “I stay, you hit. We win game. OK”
“OK” said Mr Poulter and went back to face the first ball of the next over. As he prepared to take guard the AB wicket keeper said “Is that blonde woman over there waving at you?”
Mr Poulter looked round and there was Nancy in beige slacks and turquoise top waving gaily. He waved back half-heartedly and was relieved to see Jack moving swiftly to intercept her. Fortunately Dorothy was further along the boundary than the rest of the team so there was a good chance that Jack could keep them apart. Dorothy didn’t seem to have noticed the presence of Nancy.
He managed 6 off that over but failed to get a single to get Jacek to the non-strikers end for the next. Nancy appeared to be in relaxed conversation with Jack and Mr Poulter stood back to see what the young Pole could do with the bat. An elaborate forward defensive was what he could do, and he did it again with his second ball. The AB bowler pitched the next one shorter to discourage him but the ball clipped the very top corner of the bat and flew over the keeper’s head for 4. Jacek kept out the next three balls and with the score at 161-9 Mr Poulter took guard with 16 required to win off two overs and it was at this moment that he realised that mathematically it was possible that he could get a century. He had never hit a century. Like anyone who has ever picked up a cricket bat he had fantasies, not just fantasies that involve women in interesting underwear, but fantasies that involve the crowd rising as you hold your bat aloft at Lords having scored a chanceless hundred against the Australians. Nancy in the meantime was progressing slowly along the boundary talking to other members of the team despite Jack’s efforts to distract her with the score book.
The first ball of the penultimate over was wide of his off stump and he failed to make contact, the second he played to deep mid-on and they were able to run 2 to a misfield, the third was dead straight and he could only defend, the fourth he smashed through midwicket for 4, the fifth came off an edge and they scrambled a single to third man. Jacek’s forward defensive proved equal to the last ball of the over. 9 required off six balls to win the match, 8 required for his century and his marriage quite possibly in ruins because Nancy, arms folded, was now talking to Dorothy. Jack was hopping anxiously from foot to foot trying to get Nancy to watch the game.
Mr Poulter couldn’t score off the first ball but managed 2 off a mishit slog to square leg. At this point raised voices could be heard from the boundary. As the bowler went back to his mark the AB wicket keeper came round from behind the stumps.
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight” he said “The blonde lady over there is your wife?”
“Yes” said Mr Poulter
“..and the dark haired lady is not your wife?”
“Yes that’s right”
“Hmm. I reckon you might have a problem there” said the wicket keeper.
The next ball was a yorker which Mr Poulter managed to dig out but failed to score off. 7 required off 3 balls. Mr Poulter tried to ignore the increasingly animated scene on the boundary, he must concentrate, he needed a boundary but the next ball was short, wide and should have been hammered for 4 but he missed it completely. 7 required off 2 balls.
The AB skipper despatched his fielders, including the wicket keeper to the boundary. Mr Poulter looked around and decided that his best chance of a 4 was back past the bowler. His plan would have worked perfectly if he had not hit the ball straight into the bowler’s hands who luckily was so surprised that he dropped the catch. 7 required off one ball, it was impossible.
“Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” he said
“Hard luck mate” said the wicket keeper
“Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” said Mr Poulter. All he could do was block the last ball to get the draw. The AB skipper brought the field up into a tight ring around the bat and went over to talk to his bowler. On the boundary Nancy was pointing an accusing finger at Dorothy, Jack tried step between the two women but Nancy slapped him hard across the face.
“Come on chaps let’s focus” shouted the AB captain. The bowler ran in and bowled a wide down the leg side, there was nothing marginal about this wide, it was very wide and in the circumstances it was unforgivable but in the bowler’s defence it must be said that he may have been distracted by the word ‘Slut!’ which carried clearly from the fracas on the boundary just as he reached his delivery stride. Another ball in which to hit a 6 to win the match and get his century. Mr Poulter took a deep breath and paused to survey the state of his marriage. Nancy was storming off towards the car park, Dorothy made to follow but was prevented by Jack. She slapped him hard across the face.
The AB captain caught the wild look in Mr Poulter’s eye and thought “This man is not going to play for a draw” and the fielders retreated to the boundary once more. Mr Poulter took guard and watched the bowler run in. If he was bowling he would be going for a Yorker and in that case he, Mr Poulter, should be going down the pitch, and yes, he guessed right, he middled the ball which flew high in the direction of long leg. The Toff loped elegantly round the boundary to take the catch above his head but as he did so he overbalanced carrying the ball with him over the line for 6.
“Lucky bugger!” said the wicket keeper.
The Paragons had won, he had scored his first century and he was seriously considering making a run for it over the Portsmouth-Waterloo mainline but Jacek in a fit of Slavonic emotion gave him a hug and led him in triumph towards his celebrating team mates.
“She said I could bloody well have you” shouted Dorothy at him as he and Jacek came in to the faltering applause of the other Paragons. She looked flushed and very angry.
“Well?” she demanded
“Well what?”
“Can I bloody well have you?”
“Yes you can”
“Will you marry me?” she demanded
“Yes I will”
“Well that’s alright then.” She paused. “Come on we should go to the pub. You have to buy lots of drinks for everybody.”
“Why did you hit Jack?” he asked
“He was being a pratt”
“Fair enough” he said and they went to the pub.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Mr Poulter’s Last Match – Part 1

Mr Poulter’s cricket bag was made of blue canvas and had leather handles. Written on it in flaking white paint were the words “St Ursula’s Convent”, he had bought it at a car boot sale some years before. In it were his bat, his batting gloves, his box, his boots (which were the traditional leather type with proper studs, not the glorified trainers that the younger members of the team wore), one stump, two bails, his sweater, an old pair of socks, one of those key thingummies used for screwing in studs, and last week’s Sunday Times Review and Sports sections (unread). He removed the Sunday supplements and replaced them with the ones that had come with the paper that he had bought from the newsagents that morning, he put in a clean shirt, flannels and pair of socks. As he did so his wife, on her way from the kitchen to the living room asked “Will you be late?”
He sighed as he zipped up the bag, Nancy asked this question every Sunday before he went out to play cricket.
“No I don’t think so” he replied, “I’ll only have one drink”.
“Oh OK but don’t worry about me, I went to the library yesterday and I have plenty of books to keep me company”.
Nancy didn’t like cricket. Early in their marriage he had taken her to the Saturday of a Lords Test against the Australians and she had been restless all day. She complained about her seat, the sun in her eyes, the rowdy drunks around her, the smelly toilets and the fact that she couldn’t sit in the pavilion.
Mr Poulter picked up his cricket bag, went out of the front door and put it in the boot of the Peugeot, he came back in and said “I’m off now”.
Nancy gave him a quick peck on the cheek “Have a good time. Love you!”
“Love you too” he replied automatically.
For a few moments he sat in the car and didn’t put the key in the ignition. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t mentioned to Nancy that not only was this was the last match of the season but it was also his last match for the New Malden Paragons. He was 52 and after running a couple of sharp singles needed a lie down, in the field he realised that the skipper expended a great deal of ingenuity in not exposing him to long chases to the boundary but most of all his knees hurt, his knees hurt most of the time. As a founder member of the team he knew that he could probably play until he needed a wheelchair and that no one would say a word, but he felt the time had come to hang up his boots. Why hadn’t he told Nancy? Was he worried that she would be irritatingly solicitous, that she would miss her quiet summer Sunday, that she would encourage him to take up bowls, or most likely, that she wouldn’t care.

He started the engine and drove off, the prospect of the day’s game against Allied Breweries (Western Division) 3rd XI banishing any such anxieties. This was a regular fixture for the Paragons and was usually a closely fought encounter. The link between the AB(WD) 3rds and the brewing giant had become increasingly tenuous over the years and now the team mostly consisted of blokes who drank in a pub called the Roebuck in Putney. The Paragons had been founded by Mr Poulter and his best friend Jack Lascelles nearly twenty years before at a time when they both worked for USBB (the United Singapore & Bankok Bank which Mr Poulter thought of as Usurers Shits & Bastards Bank in his darker moments). Jack had moved on and had done pretty well, Mr Poulter was still with the USBB which had changed hands several times and was currently called Winnipeg & North Klondike Securities. He was No 2 in the Foreign Offsets & Denials Department and he was a good No 2, serving at least a dozen bosses over the years with neutral efficiency. He had adroitly seen off attempts by several uppity 26 year olds to oust him, he was living proof that age and guile will always defeat youthful talent.

The West Nutley Recreation Ground was only 15 minutes drive from Mr Poulter’s home and as the car bumped along the pot-holed lane to the car park he gazed across the four pitches that surrounded the pavilion. It was a perfect day for cricket and despite being flanked on two sides by semi derelict industrial sites, and by the main Waterloo-Portsmouth mainline and the Kingston By-pass on the others Nutley Rec was a beautiful place. Mr Poulter was well aware that to any cricketer a cricket ground was a beautiful place but even so the arrangement of the pitches separated by rows of tall beeches and the rampart of brambles on the railway embankment gave the Rec a charming rural feel. By contrast the pavilion was now so vandalised and so graffitied that it could have been lifted bodily and dumped into the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern without an eyebrow being raised. In the car park he saw the familiar Fiat Uno of his mistress Dorothy who had the back open and was lifting out rugs & a picnic. He parked and walked over and she kissed him warmly on the lips.
“It’s a great day for the match John” she said
“Absolutely” he said and they kissed again and as they did so a bright yellow Audi Quattro parked alongside them.
“Steady you two, you’ll frighten the horses”. This was Jack Lascelles, who got out, gave Dorothy a hug, punched Mr Poulter on the shoulder, picked up his bag and set off for the Pavilion. Mr Poulter and Dorothy dumped the picnic under one of the beeches and started to stroll arm in arm around the boundary.

Dorothy had been working at USBB when they had first met twelve years before, not in his department but in the neighbouring Domestic Breakovers & Futilities. He first noticed her one morning in the lift and, having discovered where her office was, contrived most days to walk down her corridor and gaze through the glass partition into her office. He discovered that she had an interest in cricket when he came across her studying the Daily Mail cricket page in the canteen, they started to chat occasionally at the coffee machine or on the homeward walk to the Tube station. Mr Poulter had never been unfaithful to Nancy, he had never been tempted by any of the endless stream of underclad banking vamps who passed through his department but now he was disturbed by Dorothy. She loomed large in his thoughts, whatever he did he found himself wondering what Dorothy would think about it, what Dorothy would do if she was there. He was in his professional life a decisive man, he was never afraid to make a decision and stand by its consequences whether right or wrong, but in his personal life he had always taken the line of least resistance. Nancy had been a pretty and vivacious 24 year old when they got married and there had rarely been a cross word between them, except of course for that unsatisfactory trip to Lords when Mr Poulter had got rather testy on the train journey home. Their married life together had gone as smoothly as a Mediterranean cruise, temperate in climate and mood with the occasional dramatic landfall. But now he realised he was on the brink of danger, possibly disaster, but he would not pull back and so one day he tapped on the glass door of Dorothy’s office, poked his head in and said without any preamble “Er look I’m going to Arundel this weekend. For the cricket. Would you like to come?”
There was a moment of silence. Neither of them had any illusions about what this invitation meant or its consequences. Dorothy knew he was married indeed she had met Nancy at the bank’s Christmas do.
She smiled “Yes I’d like that very much”
“Oh right! Good! We should start fairly early. Can I pick you up at 9.00?”
“Make it 8.30, the traffic might be bad”. She was still smiling.
“Right. Excellent, 8.30 it is”. He turned to go back to his office but she followed him out into the corridor.
“Wait!” He turned and she put a scrap of paper into his hand with her address written on it.

Mr Poulter was very nervous the following Saturday morning, he had put Nancy on to a train to Manchester the previous evening, she was going to her mother’s for the weekend, and he had been pacing around the house ever since. He had set off far too early to pick up Dorothy and had been driving in circles round the Tooting area for three quarters of an hour before he pulled up outside the address she had given him. He was in an agony of doubt and guilt, it was only good manners that stopped him driving away, but when she appeared at the front door in a summer dress with her dark hair falling over her bare shoulders he was sure it was going to be alright. He took the small red suitcase and hamper that she was carrying and put them in the boot. They set off for Arundel on a glorious morning and it’s hard to say whether they fell in love before they crossed the M25, but they had certainly fallen in love by the time that the Duke of Norfolk’s XI declared at tea at 280-6 and put the Indians in. Mr Poulter had booked a room at an ivy clad hotel a few miles from the town, in fact he had booked two rooms just in case things hadn’t gone well, something that Dorothy guessed and as she sat up in bed the next morning, her breasts silhouetted against the early morning sunshine, she said “I bet you bloody well booked two rooms. You did, didn’t you?” Mr Poulter confessed and Dorothy hooted with laughter.

Hugh Fennimore the Paragons wicket keeper appeared in his whites wearing a blue rubber glove on one hand and carrying a plastic bag in the other. He started his habitual and obsessive search for dog turds on the square and outfield. When teased by his team mates, who incidentally were delighted that someone cleared up any hazards to diving stops in the deep, he would launch into an earnest lecture on the wide variety of parasites, bacteria and other toxins contained in dog shit. Mr Poulter realised that he was late and that he should go and change, he and Dorothy curtailed their walk and she went to read the papers under a tree. In the pavilion he changed in his customary place under the words ‘Blue Moon Girls’ written in broad silver marker above the changing room coat hooks. He had once asked the girls in his office whether the ‘The Blue Moon Girls’ were a pop group but they had denied all knowledge. He looked around to see who was playing that week, Jack, next to him was captain, he could see the two openers Fat Barry and Harry Shah. Maltese Joe, their lone spinner, Doug Billings, who normally opened the bowling with Sam Fletcher, were down by the washbasins. Ron Haslam and Mark Philpotts arrived together arguing about whether Samuel Beckett was dead or not. At the far end of the room sat a tall skinny young man with a mop of blonde hair and terrible acne.
“Who’s the kid at the end?” Mr Poulter asked his skipper.
“ Ah”, said Jack “he’s a new signing. His name is Yacek and he’s from Krakow”.
“Has he played before?”
“Oh yes I think so” said Jack airily.
“Where did you find him?” asked Mr Poulter.
“He came with the bloke who services my pool. He noticed my bat in the hall and said he liked cricket”.
“Does he bat or bowl?”
“Er not sure.” said Jack “Oh come on John you know how hard it is to get eleven to turn out at this time of the season, anyway he looks pretty fit”.
“What’s his surname?”
“Unpronounceable” said Jack. “Come on we should get out there”.
Mr Poulter sat while the rest of the team filed out. He had never thought about it before but he was fond of this room that smelled of socks and drains, he liked the clatter and scrape of studs, he liked the racket from the Surbiton Tamils in the room next door (whose games against the Surbiton Lankans were evidence that cricket can be genocide by other means) and the Paragons’ other neighbours the Weejans, who were all Jamaican, and normally played with a ghetto blaster at square leg.
He picked up his bag and joined the rest of the team on the boundary . Jack returned from the middle to announce that he had lost the toss and that the AB(WD) 3rds were going to bat.
“OK let’s get out there and throw some catches around” said Jack keenly. As always he was ignored by his team who mooched about under the beeches gossiping and discussing all the other and better ways that there are of spending a Sunday afternoon. Yacek stood by himself staring out across the field. Mr Poulter and Hugh Fennimore picked up stumps and bails and set off toward the wicket.

To be Continued

Monday, 25 August 2008

With Bob Dylan in the Passenger Seat

Firstly apologies for recent lack of product. A combination of holidays and increasing involvement on ENO's forthcoming Cav & Pag have cut down available time.

Bob Dylan’s first album, imaginatively titled Bob Dylan, came out in 1962. I was 13 then and for 9 months of the year was confined in a boarding school on the edge of the North Downs, a school where, in today’s social climate, many of the staff would be serving long sentences for a variety of offences ranging from child abuse, assault, criminal neglect, racism and not teaching anything relevant to modern life.
“Please sir, what’s a National Insurance Number”?
“Quiet Irwin Minor! See me later!”While I was struggling with Caesar’s Gallic Wars and algebra (the former has turned out to be much more useful than the latter in adult life) Robert Zimmerman was pottering along to the Supreme Court Building in New York to change his name to Robert Dylan. I don’t think that Bob’s first album registered much in the UK but I certainly remember his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of 1963. There was a House record player which we were allowed to listen to for a few minutes a day and fierce battles were fought for musical control but in that particular period an aggressive group of Lower Sixth formers usually held sway and we were treated to some surprisingly progressive stuff, Bo Diddley, Alexis Korner etc, this at a time when the Hit Parade was full of trash like Frank Ifield’s I Remember You and Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzalez. So Dylan’s nasal delivery and acoustic guitar accompanied songs with incomprehensible lyrics about murdered black people were a revelation. The album sleeve was fascinating too, it showed a skinny young Dylan, hunched against the cold, walking along the middle of a street with a strange alien creature hanging on his left arm. This alien being was what was known as a ‘girl’ and it took me a long time to get the hang of them, in fact there are those who would argue that I still haven’t got the hang of them. At the time I nursed a passion for Dusty Springfield who wasn’t a girl but was a goddess, but a goddess who soon came crashing down out of the heavens. I expect all of you reading this can remember where you were and what you were doing when you were told that Dusty was gay, I certainly do, a boy called Harry Flack dropped this emotional hand grenade in my lap one evening during First Prep. I was consoled by the arrival of the Rolling Stones and Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin (1964), the cover photo of which makes Dylan appear about 45 and to have had an accident with a sand-blasting machine. By 1965 I was in the Lower Biology Sixth busy dissecting things and Dylan went electric. What a hoo-hah! Remember the bloke at the back of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, who shouted “Judas” as Dylan started his electric set. Dylan reputedly turned to his backing group a few moments later and said irritably “Play it fucking loud”. What were those bearded, chunky sweatered, shit-for-brains folk fans on about? All closet Morris dancers I would say. His lyrics got better around this time, try singing along to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll as you blast down the autobahn of life, then try Subterranean Homesick Blues. No comparison. But what did all those lyrics mean? There were those who dedicated their lives to analysing them. One such was one of my best friends, who for now I will call Judas, Judas was an absolute terrier with those lyrics, endlessly obsessing about what Bob was trying to tell us. At about the time that Blonde on Blonde came out Judas put our relationship under some strain when he grassed me up when I returned drunk from the Natural History Society annual outing. After I had thanked the Headmaster for giving me 8 of the best (yes we really did have to say “Thank you sir” after a beating) he gravely told me he would be writing to my parents and my future Cambridge tutor to tell them of my wickedness. The tutor thought it was hilarious, my parents less so.

And so to what these days is called a Gap Year and in these enlightened times young people go and work on birth control schemes in Eritrea, then it was a time to mess about, travel a bit, try some drugs, and if at all possible lose one’s virginity. Dylan meanwhile amused himself by having a motorcycle accident and then disappearing from view leaving the Judas’s of this world high and dry. How did my ‘Messing about Year’ go? Not bad, work in a psychiatric hospital, the Orient Express to Istanbul, trapped in the middle of the 1967 Six Day War, nearly killed by a stone throwing mob, arrested, deported, hitched to Sweden, and yes, I did lose my virginity. Phew. Dylan resurfaced with John Wesley Harding at about the time that I went off to Cambridge to drink sherry before dinner with some of the finest minds in Europe. The fact that the words of All Along the Watchtower came from the book of Isaiah were a worry for us all but it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix making one of the best covers of all time. Unfortunately all I did do at Cambridge was drink sherry and a great deal more and it didn’t take the University authorities long to decide that I wasn’t making full use of the educational facilities that they had provided and I was politely asked to leave. I won’t dwell on the trauma that this caused, suffice it to say things at home were tense for a while.

Then I got lucky, incredibly lucky. Through a patient of my father’s, who was a an Assistant Film Director, I got a job on a movie, not a documentary, not an army training film, a real Hollywood movie with stars like George Peppard and Judy Geeson. Bob went ‘Country’ at this time and produced Nashville Skyline which included the single Lay Lady Lay. If ever a song was responsible for a lot of fucked up relationships this is the one. It’s potent ‘brass bed’ imagery and "..stay with your man awhile” lyrics must have led a lot of young men and women around then into romantic arrangements that they later regretted and while I won’t blame Bob Dylan for my first marriage I reckon he must have got a hefty back-hander from ‘The Brass Bed Manufacturers of America’. I learnt a lot from my first marriage, particularly from my wife’s mother who taught me two valuable things, how to make a Lobster Thermidor and that it does no harm to be silly sometimes. My family were not silly at all, buying a toothbrush was never a spur of the moment thing, it required a careful study of Which Magazine whereas my in-laws were silly on a grand and often catastrophic scale.

On the movie I met an actor called George Baker who offered me a job as an ASM in his touring company based at Bury St Edmunds and that’s how I started in the theatre where it has to be said we spend a fair amount of time being silly. I lost interest in Dylan, Blood on the Tracks was the last album of his that I bought. Over the next decades I may have bought the odd Dylan compilation album to keep myself awake on long drives but these were soon lost in hotel rooms and rental car sound systems and then one day last year when I was bored stiff in Toronto (a natural state of being in Toronto) I came across Modern Times which I had read somewhere was a late return to form by Dylan. I bought it and I like it, I play it in the car and the kids like it too.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Bourne Misunderstanding

The kids and I are great fans of the Bourne movies and the most recent. ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ is worth seeing if only for the sensational chase sequence on Waterloo Station.

Scene: The beating heart of Basingstoke, the Railway Station, Traveller’s Fare snack bar.
“The train now arriving at Platform 2 is the 09.35 for Exeter St David’s, calling at….”
Katya Grodzsinski leant on the cappuccino machine and studied the man on the stool by the window. He had been there for more than an hour, nursing the same cup of tea. He barely moved, gazing north towards the Reading branch, occasionally he spoke into his phone.
“Overton, Whitley, Andover, ,….”
Katya moved over to the magazine rack to get closer to him. She made a pretence of tidying the ‘Now’s, ‘Hello’s, ‘OK’s, and ‘Big Breasts Monthly‘s’. Two days worth of stubble did nothing to mar his good looks.
“Vould you like anuzzer cup of tea?” she said. He turned slowly to look at her, he said nothing and his eyes told her less. The Exeter train pulled in, his eyes flicked back to the window, a momentary flash of interest.
…passengers for Micheldever, Old Todger and Long Trousers should travel in the first five coaches of this 10 coach train due to short platforms at those stations”.

Scene: CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, USA. Covert Operations Room, an acre of flickering screens and earnest young Americans fighting for freedom the best way they know how.
“Chief! We gotta hit on ‘Fishpaste’. A cell phone in Europe”. The atmosphere suddenly crackled, screens jumped into life, coffee cups were pushed to one side as the room swung from an average CIA day at the office propping up murderous dictatorships to battle stations.
“Ok! Where is it? Location, location, location!”
“Basingstoke, England sir. The railroad station”.
Whose phone is it? C’mon people we’re losing time”.
“The phone is registered to a J. Bourne of 42 Elm Tree Rd, Solihull, Birmingham, England”.
The Chief exploded. “Jesus H Christ! Bourne’s alive! Bourne’s alive and he knows about the ‘Fishpaste’ programme”.
Younger operatives around the room glanced at one another in alarm, older hands mentally buckled up their seat belts and prepared for a bumpy ride.
“Listen up people, we are going to condition ‘Tangerine’, Jason Bourne is the most potent threat to National Security that we could possibly face. This is a code 5 Priority. Where is our nearest asset”?
“Er. Twenty minutes away Chief”
“OK. Activate the asset. Give him a no recall, green for go, shoot to kill directive”.

Scene: Wisteria Cottage, the Clampings, Hook, Hampshire, UK.
A middle aged couple are enjoying a late breakfast. The woman scanned the Daily Mail (headline “All Foreigners are Satanists Claim”) while eating her second piece of toast. Opposite her the man pondered the Telegraph crossword. The mobile phone on the table suddenly chirruped, the man read the text on the screen, put the crossword down and said “I have to go out for a while”
His wife looked at him for a long moment. “Oh, I see” she said.
He got up, went out to the hall and opened the cupboard under the stairs. He pushed aside the golf clubs, Christmas decorations and wellingtons, he took out a leather holdall labelled Hartley Witney Bowls Club. He headed for the front door, the elderly Labrador dozing in a basket in the corner lurched to his feet in hope of an unexpected walk but quickly sensed that what his master had to do he had to do alone and slumped back down again.

Scene: Basingstoke Station.
“Southwest Trains regret to announce that due to engineering works in the Basingstoke area this weekend and for the following 52 weekends…
The man got up from his stool and came to the counter. His eyes held Katya’s for a moment before he said, “Can I have a Scotch Egg please?”
Katya couldn’t place his accent. Was he English?
“Sure” she said, “anuzzer tea?”
He looked weary for a moment as if the acceptance of a cup of tea was a surrender to a human weakness he would rather not admit.
….there will be no train services to or from this station. Alternative bus services will be provided but frankly they are not much use and you would do better to stay at home, there is plenty to do in Basingstoke”

Scene: CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, USA.
The Chief paced the room angrily. “Where’s the fucking CCTV from Basingstoke? We can’t afford to lose this guy”.
“Online now Chief!”
The senior men clustered round a screen to watch a fuzzy grey image of Basingstoke Station, Platform 3. The camera panned slowly along the platform.
“Where is he? Where is he?” fumed the Chief.
Finally the camera panned across the window of the Traveller’s Fare snack bar. A shadowy figure sat on a stool by the magazine rack.
“OK hold it there. Increase the resolution.”
The shadowy figure came slowly into focus, the image fractured by reflections on the window.
“That’s him! That’s Bourne!” said the Chief
“You sure Chief”? said his deputy, who at that moment thought the image could be anyone from Joseph Stalin to Minnie Mouse.
“Jesus I’ve been hunting this guy for ten years. I know it’s him. Where’s the goddamn asset?

Scene: The A30 between Hook and Basingstoke.
The man from Wisteria Cottage drove the Rover with calm assurance, his mobile chirruped again on the seat beside him. An image of a young man appeared on the screen, he studied it for a few moments then snapped the phone shut and put it away.

Scene: Basingstoke Station.
“Customers are asked not to leave any unattended baggage….
The young man watched two men in dark blue anoraks come onto the platform from the subway, they didn’t look in his direction and strode purposefully to the north end of the platform where the sat down on a bench. He put the Scotch egg in his rucksack, left his tea, and followed them.
“Zank you. Come back soon” said Katya but she was talking to a closing door.
“…and if they do see anything unusual please point it out to a member of staff as they do have a very dull time here.”

Scene: CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, USA.
“He’s on the move people. Let’s not lose him. Shit! Who are those other two guys on the bench? Where’s the asset?”
“Asset in position now sir”.

Scene: Sainsbury’s Pay & Display Car Park, Basingstoke
The man from Wisteria Cottage parked the Rover on the deserted roof of the Sainsbury’s Multi-Storey Pay & Display. He paid for half an hour and carefully stuck the ticket to the inside of his windscreen. Then he carried the Hartley Witney Bowls Club holdall to the north parapet and assembled the Ptacynski P45 snipers rifle that it contained. He then clipped on the Hytner diometric telescopic day-sight, together they made the weapon of choice of assassins the world over. He slipped a single round into the chamber and started to hunt his prey. From his vantage point he had an excellent view of the full length of Platform 3.

Scene: Basingstoke Station.
The man came up to the two men on the bench and greeted them familiarly.
“Hi fellers. Anyone fancy a fishpaste sandwich?”
At that moment the man from Wisteria Cottage shot Jason Bourne of 42 Elm Tree Rd, Solihull, rail enthusiast and train spotter, better known to his mates as ‘Gobbler’, through his right eye.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

My Appearance on the Parkinson Show

Regular readers will know that I once had a career in stand-up comedy (see Blogs of the 11th & 18th May) and that I spent some months playing clubs up north billed as ‘Ted Irwin – The Irritating Git from Down South". It was during a week when I was third on the bill at the Accrington Odd Fellows & Job Seekers Club when I got a call from a researcher on the Michael Parkinson Show. Apparently Jimmy Tarbuck had pulled out at very short notice and she was desperate for someone to fill the gap that very night. Now I hear you saying to yourself “Surely the Parkinson Show could find someone more impressive than a comic who was third on the bill at the Accrington Odd Fellows & Job Seekers Club”. Apparently not and though I say it myself I had gained some local notoriety as a comedian whose sole purpose in life was to insult anyone born north of Watford whilst being pelted with rubbish by a hostile and drunk audience and I had attracted a lot of media interest in Manchester where the Parkinson show was recorded in those days. Needless to say I jumped at chance and as the show was recorded early evening it didn’t interfere with my club engagement.

The researcher Fiona met me at the studio mid-afternoon and we went through background details until Parky himself became available and he and I mapped out how things would go. It was agreed that since I was a relative unknown I would do a snippet of the act in my full rig of ankle length quilted riveters coat and orange cycle helmet, before sitting down for the chat bit.

Being the new boy in town I was on first (Meryl Streep and Noel Edmonds were my fellow guests) and then as now the entrance onto the Parkinson set was at the top of a curving staircase. I was on the point of vomiting from nerves and was by no means reassured by seeing Audrey, my mistress, Harry her husband and my boss with the rest of my cabaret co-workers in the audience, when I got a “3-2-1 Go” and a gentle shove from a floor manager and I tottered down the stairs.

Now before I go any further I will answer the question that has popped up in all your minds. “What is behind the entrance at the top of the Parkinson staircase?” Presumably you, like me, have always thought that there would be a lavishly appointed hospitality suite with agents, promoters, hustlers, high class hookers, recreational drugs and young men with metal briefcases full of money. Every so often one of these young men would open his case and say “Look what a lot of money I have in my briefcase” only to be put down by another young buck opening his case to reveal even more money. But no, the backstage area resembles nothing so much as a ‘Goods Inwards’ in a typical Slough industrial unit. The hospitality suite and dressing rooms are contained in two rather squalid portacabins and the only catering on site is a Turkish burger van on the far side of the car park. Parky spends most of his time, when not on set, playing cards with his chauffeur in the back of his car. Even more intriguing is the fact that the staircase just goes up to a temporary platform accessed by a rather steep ladder from offstage. Lounging around at the bottom of this ladder are two shaven headed Serbs dressed in combat trousers and rather soiled vests whose sole purpose in life is to assist any guests that might have trouble getting up the ladder. Apparently they really earned their money when Whoopi Goldberg was on the show.

I was on and I launched into my standard patter and as I did so the studio audience dutifully started rather feebly to chuck the odds and ends that the studio staff had provided, nothing more lethal than screwed up paper or soft fruit. Luckily my party had managed to smuggle in some bottles, glass ashtrays and a decent sized bag of King Edwards. In no time at all shards of glass were flying round the studio like shrapnel and Parky was ducking and diving down behind his chair. My routine ground to a standstill in very pleasing uproar and there was a lengthy pause while the studio staff swept up the debris and Parky picked all the shreds of potato out of his hair (Kevin Keegan style in those days). Then we sat down and I explained to the world at large how after a long, expensive and privileged education I had ended up standing on stage in a long coat and cycling helmet while the punters threw lethal objects at me. It was dull and predictable but would have done my career no harm at all had it not been terminated soon after. Then it was Noel followed by Meryl, afterwards we adjourned to the portacabins for a bottle of light ale and kebabs, which Meryl gamely fetched from the burger van. I thought Noel was a bit sniffy about the whole thing and sulked in the corner muttering that they always had Chicken in the Basket on Multi-Coloured Swapshop. Meryl and I got on famously, so famously that a few months later we had an incognito ‘weekend’ together in a B&B in Solihull. It wasn’t bad at all, en suite but with hard loo paper, nylon sheets and loud parrot in the hall. To be honest I thought that Meryl was a bit noisy too and I’m sure the landlady wonders to this day why her parrot was squawking “Aahfrika! Aahfrika!” on the morning that we left.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Basingstoke in Bloom

Regular readers will be aware that Basingstoke (civic motto “We’re walkin’ on sunshine”) won the coveted prize of “Hampshire’s Cultural Glory 2008” last year and this is my report from our front line in the war on barbarism.

First the bad news, our headline production of Berloz’s epic opera The Trojans was stillborn after an unfortunate accident during a rehearsal of the torchlit entrance of the Wooden Horse. Basingstoke Chief Executive, Paul Poltroon, said, when interviewed in front of the smouldering remains of the Brimshott Rd Scout Hut, “I don’t think Hector Berlioz would have done it differently and besides this is why we have insurance”.

As expected the ‘A Hundred years of the Sooty Show’ exhibition has attracted world wide interest with visitors coming from as far afield as Chile, Taiwan and a jumbo jet load from the ‘Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Bizzy Society’ of San Diego. The 10m high Sooty and Sweep inflatables that flanked the entrance to the exhibition have been retrieved from the field in Belgium whence they were blown in a May storm. More worrying has been the claim by a Professor Doppelganger that the show’s centrepiece, the original Sooty glove puppet made by Harry Corbett’s grandfather (see my blog of 9th March), is a fake. The Gulbenkian Glove Puppet Museum of Bratislava, the owners of this cultural treasure, were outraged but strangely reticent when DNA tests were suggested to prove that the artefact was indeed made from a wolf’s bladder and two acorns. The whole affair will be in the courts for some time yet and in any case the publicity has probably increased attendance.

The surprise package in this cultural fiesta has been Null Point!, the story of the Eurovision Song Contest from earliest times. What is ingenious about this ground breaking show, which might have been just a dull compilation of Euro winners in sub-standard performance, is that it almost entirely ignores the songs and concentrates on the presenters and the scoring. On Eurovision night anyone who values their mental health will do almost anything to avoid hearing the ghastly songs but will return from the pub or their ‘Conversational Portuguese’ classes in time for the epic ritual that is Euro scoring. The show is performed in its entirety by a pair of Finnish impressionists/quick change artists who rattle through the years of Euro drivel at breakneck speed. Their impression of UK presenter Katie Boyle (1960/63/68), who single-handedly managed things with an aplomb that latter day Estonian and Serb duos can only dream of, is absolutely bang on. They switch costumes and languages with equal ease, they deliver the wooden ‘spontaneous’ by-play between hosts that obviously loathe each other with great relish. Above all the joy is in the detail. In much the same way that we all remember where we were and who we were with when Michael Portillo got dumped by the voters of Enfield in the 1997 General Election, we all remember Jahn Teigen getting Null Point in Paris in 1978. But do you remember presenter Dottir Lundqvist (Gothenburg 1985) getting caught short just before the final scores were announced and having to run off stage to pee in a fire bucket, or the now forgotten lady who inadvertently exposed a large and enchanting breast while giving the votes of the Belgian jury in 1974. This show is a wild wild ride and has got rave reviews across the board. “ …very much of the zeitgeist……Terry Wogan and Ulricka Johnson with an existential twist” (Time Out). “It’s Gardener’s Question Time on acid!” (Rose Growers Monthly)
The 2007 UK entrants Scooch were invited to be the cabaret at the First Night party but were intercepted by the police at junction 6 of the M3 and turned back to London in the interests of ‘public order’.

The Literary Lunches at the War Memorial Park Roundabout Harvester got off to a shaky start when Eric Haynes (publisher of the legendary maintenance manuals) had to cancel after a breakdown on the M3 but Dermot O’Dainty certainly got the ball rolling re-enacting early moments from his career with a Mrs Baldock of Sherborne St John under the luncheon table.

There is much more to come in this cultural beano. Next month we have “Celebrity White Water Rafting” on the Basingstoke Canal. Can’t wait!

Sunday, 6 July 2008


A couple of weeks ago I was writing about the year 2025 and what I should tell my grandson Cowell, who would be ten in that year, about how life would be when he grew up. I rather failed in my grand-parental duties and lied, saying “It’ll be alright” when I definitely felt that it wouldn’t. Since then I have checked horoscopes, read the Scientific American, memorised tide-tables. plotted economic trends back to the 16th century and tossed a coin or two, and my conclusions have changed completely. Only two years after Cowell asked his question the state of the world would deteriorate markedly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had packed their sandwiches and were saddling up, we teetered on the abyss of global doom. Then a miracle occurred, a man named Jeremy Beadle (no relation), who worked for a small agro-chemical company just outside Cambridge announced the discovery of GOOP. What is GOOP? GOOP is ‘Genetically Optimised Organic Petroleum’. Beadle came to the obvious conclusion that the only way to harness solar power was nature’s way, photosynthesis. He took mono-cellular algae-like organisms and tinkered with their genetic make-up until he came up with something that both reproduced and photosynthesised at prodigious rates. All that was required was seawater, carbon dioxide, and human excrement (for it’s nitrogen and trace elements). Initial tests near Wisbech resulted in a significant proportion of Cambridgeshire being covered with GOOP, which looks very like the green scum you get on a garden pond. Beadle then took his product to the very nearly moribund motor manufacturing industry who, realising that their salvation was at hand, quickly adapted existing engine prototypes to run on GOOP. The nations of the world of the world stopped bickering over the few barrels of oil still under the ground because in effect the alchemists dream had come true, the manufacture of raw energy from components that were as commonplace as anything on earth. Of course there were doubters, environmentalists, embarrassingly still called ‘Greens’, who declared that GOOP would become a Frankenstein Monster among algae. US President Earl Dewberry declared that GOOP was the product of a plot by homosexual Jewish Communist bankers and the Boy Scout Movement to subvert the very being of the USA. His voters, realising that here, at last, was a chance to get their pick-up trucks out of the garage dumped him at the earliest opportunity and replaced him with President Clooney.
What made GOOP so revolutionary was that the technology required to produce it was minimal, a DIY GOOP starter kit cost little more than a barbecue. A suburban family could easily produce enough GOOP in a summer week to fuel the school run and a visit to Granny on Sunday. On a grander scale the UN and IMF embarked on a massive planet wide engineering programme and started by gouging out a mile wide canal from Dakar on the west African coast heading due east across the Sahara. The poorest countries on earth, Mali, Mauretania and Chad, with access to saltwater from the Atlantic and with limitless supplies of sunshine and shit, became the world’s leading GOOP producers and immediately constructed massive GOOP fuelled desalination plants to irrigate the desert. In a matter of years the Sahara became the market garden of the world and a new centre for narrow boat cruising. Similar schemes transformed Australia’s Northern Territory, Arizona, Nevada and the Gobi.
The greatest GOOP plus of all was the reversal of global warming. GOOP sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and temperatures are dropping again. Weather men predict that the Thames will freeze as it used to do 300 years ago. Bonnie Langford has promised to skate from Greenwich to Windsor to raise money for the Arlene Phillips Home for Dancers with Bad Knees when it does so.
The world’s leaders, with no scarce resources to squabble over, convened endless summit conferences, slapped each other on the back and disbanded their armed forces, pledging to spend the cash thus made available on the Arts in general and 18th century Italian opera in particular. The Four Horsemen unsaddled their horses and ate their sandwiches while watching reruns of The Midsomer Murders.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

How to Put on a Musical 8 – The Theatre

There aren’t enough theatres in London. It’s that simple. As you read this there are musicals circling the West End rather like jumbo jets over Heathrow, looking for somewhere to land. Some of them will never find a landing place, some of them will be forced off to a theatrical equivalent of Schipol or Manchester, some of them will simply crash and burn. Not only are there not enough theatres, most of the theatres that we do have are remarkably unsuitable for musicals being too small and designed as playhouses. They don’t have enough seats, their orchestra pits are a crush for a string quartet, and there is only one ladies toilet in the building.

The crucial thing to consider when deciding which theatre to go for is the ‘take’. How much money can you take in box office receipts per week. If this figure is less than what it costs to run the show then either the theatre is too small or the show is too big. Obvious, you would think, but producers don’t always get this basic arithmetic right. I know of at least one show where the theatre was sold out but the producers found that they were losing money and after a couple of weeks they put the notice up and closed the show. At a less drastic level there are plenty of shows that limp along just breaking even but needing to run for 80 years to recoup their investment.

So how does a producer choose a theatre? He doesn’t, he just takes what he can get unless of course he is Cameron Mackintosh or The Really Useful Group in which case he buys the theatre, renames it after a famous homosexual and puts on whatever he likes. Lesser mortals cast around desperately saying “location, location, location” to themselves and turn their noses up at the Piccadilly or the Shaftesbury. When they fail to secure their first, second, third or fourth choices of theatre they can be heard saying “a theatre is only as good as the show that is in it”.

Project Model – Maintenance!
Producers Alvin Toxteth and Samuel J Bloodlust enter the hunt for a theatre with some foreboding. They are aware that the show, which readers will remember is based on the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 1989 Skoda Favorit, has already acquired a reputation as the ‘Flop of the Year’ even before rehearsals have begun. In a curious way this may turn out to be to their advantage in that theatre owners may take the show as a short term filler, secure in the knowledge that, being a solid gold klunker, it will only run a few weeks and will pay their staff’s wages until something more durable turns up.
Toxteth and Bloodlust sift the rumours and counter-rumours that crackle through the synapses and ganglia (you can tell I’ve been watching too much House) of the West End.
Is business falling off on Happy as a Hapsburg? Has Shirley (the Shirley Bassey musical, with the underrated Bonnie Langford in the title role) shot it’s bolt? Will Lord of the Rings really transfer to the Criterion? Is that weather girl with the big lips going into Chicago? Is the New London going to be turned into a Chinese Cash & Carry?
They wheel, they deal, they are offered the Peacock (the one buried under an office block on Kingsway, which used to be called the Royalty) but decide they will only take up that offer when the Winter Olympics take place in Hell. As insurance Toxteth’s assistant, Kevin Whimper, is instructed to pencil book a pre-West End tour. There is strong possibility that Maintenance! will open in Sunderland……

Casting Update
After the Andover debacle, which has at least raised public interest in the show, the producers and Hampshire Gold TV have rescheduled Baby You Can Drive My Car, the TV audition show, and have discreetly selected two performers who they would like to cast in the leading roles and who they intend to feed into the show among the other hopefuls. A careful plan has been hatched to ensure that the judges, the public and the voting system are ruthlessly manipulated to ensure that Maintenance! gets the two leads the producers want.

Christopher Biggins has turned down the role of Max Sadistik, the vulpine Skoda production line foreman.

Monday, 16 June 2008

In the Year 2025

“Grandad. What will it be like when I’m grown-up?” asked my 10 year old grandson. A big question and not one easily answered as we threaded our way through the rickshaws and minibuses that thronged the forecourt of the Lords Go-Kart and Cricket Indoor Arena. This was my Boxing Day treat for young Cowell, the final match in the 5 match England v Moldova 20/20 Test series. I beat a path through the noodle and dim-sum sellers with my walking stick, pausing only to drop some change into the hat of a limbless veteran of the Afghan Wars. How could I predict anything, let alone something up-beat and optimistic, to the eager little boy by my side when the previous decades had been so tempestuous? Who could have foreseen twenty years ago that private cars would be banned, that mobile phones and computers could be installed in a rear molar, texts and images displayed directly onto the retina, that linguine with a light squid and garlic sauce would appear regularly on school dinner menus.

Who could have predicted that Earl Dewberry would have emerged from Louisiana at the head of the Righteousness and Apocalypse Party of America to sweep away the Republicans and Democrats at the 2016 elections to lead the US into an era of unparalleled isolationism, an era when would be visitors to the USA would have to answer 3 questions at immigration control while attached to a polygraph.
1. Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?
2. Do you believe that the world was created by the aforesaid Lord God Almighty on Tuesday 14th April 4326 BC at 2.00 in the afternoon?
3. Are you now or have you ever been a Canadian?
Anyone giggling when answering these questions is subject to a mandatory 7 day jail term. President Dewberry has moved the seat of government from Washington to Judgement Day, Montana (pop 403) and was only just dissuaded by his wife Charlene from nuking New York and Los Angeles declaring them to be the true Sodom & Gomorrah. Nato broke up after Dewberry’s allies found his habit of quoting large chunks of the Old Testament in summit meetings tiresome.
As unexpected was the entry of the Russian Federation into the EEC, as was the Russian army taking advantage of existing freedom of movement legislation to occupy all EEC capitals except London and Dublin over a Bank Holiday weekend in August 2017. A technical fault on Eurostar and a ferry strike prevented the Russians from crossing the channel and Prime Minister Johnson promptly took the UK out of the European Federation. European President Putin (elected with 98% of the vote, the 2% are currently in labour camps on an icy marsh near Archangel) declared Johnson to be “nothing more than a mad dog barking at the tree of progress”. In order to secure Chinese support for Britain’s tenuous position on the western fringe of a now hostile continent, Johnson has been forced to sell off most of the UK to Chinese developers. The sale of Leicestershire to the Shanghai & Kowloon Novelty Co was finalised a few weeks ago and only Clackmannanshire remains unsold, partly because no one knows how to spell it and partly because the Chinese can’t pronounce it. On the domestic front the ‘Arts’ have been “given back to the people” by Ministers of Art & Culture, Ant & Dec, who in their 2015 legislation made it a legal requirement for the ‘Big Four’ national companies (the National Theatre, RSC, ENO and the Royal Opera House) to fill all leading roles by TV audition. The public now vote regularly and have recently selected Ray Miggins, a Salford quantity surveyor to play King Lear at the National and Maureen Purvis, an Ealing traffic warden, to sing Brunnhilde at the ROH. The Post Office was closed down in 2012, “in order to give the consumer more choice” according to Prime Minister Johnson. The railways were tarmaced over in 2015. Commuters now hitch their bicycles to massive tow trucks capable of pulling up to 1000 cyclists to work. The economy survives solely by serving the needs of the luxury markets to the east. Cowell’s mother counts herself lucky to have a job as a supervisor in a cyber sweatshop churning out software for entertainment and brothel robots used in the Volga and South China Sea resorts.
As Prince Regent William said in his Christmas speech (with Mandarin subtitles) “these are challenging times but I feel sure that the indomitable spirit of the British people coupled with the technical expertise of the South China Moral Uplift Co will see us through”.
So what should I say to my grandson? Can I really put my hand on my heart and say it will all be OK. Of course I can. I say “It’ll be fine. It’ll be just fine. Would you like some noodles?"

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Strangers on a Train

This coming weekend I am off to Holland to visit Megacarta, billed as the ‘Biggest Dutch Postcard Fair Ever’ with more than 100 dealers. Not everyone’s idea of a racy weekend I’m sure but as we say in Basingstoke “It certainly rocks my ring road”. I could have gone on a cheapo flight to Schipol or Utrecht but I love trains, I love travelling on trains, I love dining on trains and I particularly love sleeping on trains. So on Friday (in fact by the time you read this I will have gone and come back) I am going by Eurostar, which has, inconveniently for me, shifted from Waterloo to St Pancras, to Brussels where I can visit the smattering of postcard and stamp dealers round the corner from the Gare du Midi, have a decent lunch and then catch the ‘Thalys’ (a Belgian version of the TGV) to Amsterdam and from there a commuter train to Utrecht and an uncongenial night in an Ibis hotel. After a long day buying stock to sell on ebay I will do the reverse and come back.
The thing about train travel apart from the trains themselves is the opportunity for random conversations to be had with total strangers and, yes, I am one of those people who irritatingly start off with “Turned out nice again” or “Going far?” and before I know it I am deep in conversation with a man who thinks that ‘Chip & Pin’ is a product of Satanism or with a woman worried about her mother who retired to the Isle of Wight and has never been heard of since.

Some years ago a dance company, who were planning a European tour, approached me to recce a handful of venues but were agonising over the cost of the flights. I stunned them by saying “No problem. I’ll go by train”. It also meant that I could visit my girl friend in Switzerland on the way. I bought the requisite rail-pass which in those days covered the whole of Europe and caught the boat train from Liverpool St to Harwich and after an overheated night’s sleep in a tiny cabin I was deposited at the Hook of Holland at 5.30 on a bitter February morning. This meant that I was at my first target venue in Utrecht before the cleaners, but after a quick measure up and a few photos I was on schedule to pick up the Copenhagen Express at Amersfoort. Whenever I go to Copenhagen I am always struck by how little traffic there is and I think “Damn I’ve arrived on a public holiday and everything will be shut” but no it’s just a very quiet place to visit. The Cannon theatre was a tin shed fringe venue and there was a rehearsal going on when I arrived. This being Denmark the rehearsal consisted of an entirely naked couple simulating sex to some rather nasty electronic music in a pool of light centre stage. The local technical manager said “This chap’s come from London. OK if he takes some measurements?” The couple cheerfully waved me on and I scuttled hastily around the stage with my tape measure feeling rather provincial.
There was time for dinner and a stroll round the city centre before catching an overnight sleeper (the Ostsee Express) to Berlin. In the buffet car I fell in with a bumptious young Englishman on a sales tour of Europe. He was based in Tokyo and was employed by a Japanese corporation, a position arranged by his father who had been at university with the corporation’s CEO. He was the very worst of British, talking fluent business bollocks, in the 21st century he would have found himself in Sir Alan Sugar’s Boardroom getting fired.
“How long have you been on the road?” I asked.
“Three months”. He replied and as he said it he blinked a couple of times and I saw his confidence falter.
“What are you selling?”
“This” and from his briefcase he pulled out samples of some very uninteresting plastic netting, the sort of thing that is used to clad scaffolding on building sites.
“Have you sold much?” I asked.
“No” he said looking rather pained “the problem is that with the current exchange rate it’s very expensive”. I could see his difficulty, at that point in the nineties the yen was sky high against any European currency. Suddenly it all became clear to me, this young man’s entire being was completely at odds with Japanese business life and his co-workers had gone to their boss and said “Either he goes or we go”. In the circumstances dismissal would have been out of the question and so he had been despatched on an impossible mission to Europe. The poor lad was like a latter day Flying Dutchman doomed to wander across Europe seeking salvation but unlike the Dutchman, who gained redemption from the love of a good woman, he just had to sell some of his absurdly expensive plastic netting. I wished him luck and went to bed.

At 7.30 am we arrived at Berlin Lichtenfels and I made a lighting change of train to the Budapest Express. I shared a compartment as far as Dresden with a jolly East German lady pensioner. She immediately insisted that I eat all her sandwiches and her banana and then told me that she had been touring West Germany by train. She explained that in the communist days in the east, pensioners had free rail passes. The Bonn authorities had agreed to honour these for the initial 6 months after unification and the West’s railways were awash with ex-communist OAPs seeing the sights. My companion had bought a postcard from every place that she had visited and she proudly flourished a wad of cards 4” thick. When I told her that my girl friend (now my wife) was Polish she promptly stood up and sang a well known number from an operetta the gist of which was that “Polish girls were the prettiest girls in all the world”.
As we approached Dresden she recounted her experiences during the great bombing raid and how she and her schoolmates had watched the tarmac boil outside the main station. Sadly she left the train at Dresden but her absence was made up for me by a sight at one of Dresden’s suburban stations where every platform was packed with thousands of Soviet soldiers. All dressed in khaki greatcoats with red shoulder flashes, black boots and grey fur hats, they looked magnificent. Apparently they were the last Russian troops in East Germany and they were waiting for trains to take them home. The rest of the run down to Budapest’s Nyugati station was uneventful though the station itself was vast and splendidly Hapsburg. After a night in a revolting hotel I found the Budapest venue, which was a pleasant hall in the middle of one of the city’s parks. The local crew were enthusiastic and particularly so when I described one of the key scenes in the show which involved a nude 65 year old woman getting trapped in a phone box which slowly fills up with water. After an afternoon admiring the bullet holes around the city that bear witness to the 1956 uprising I caught the night train to Zurich. At some point between Budapest and Vienna I was joined by a very drunk American back-packer called Simon who with 3 companions was on his way to Venice. He decided that we were the best of friends but this excess of affection led him to forget that the train divided at Vienna, the section we were in headed west towards Innsbruck while the section he had been sitting in, and where his friends were sitting, turned off south to Italy. As the train was divided it clanked and shuddered which alerted Simon to his danger and he hurtled off down the corridor towards his friends, luggage and passport. The train was already divided and the train staff had not yet closed the door between the two sections. Simon lurched towards the opening aiming to make a despairing leap for the vanishing Venice carriages. Luckily for him both I and the guard grabbed him by the belt and hauled him back to safety before he fell onto the tracks below. We dumped him in a compartment by himself and he passed out to wake up in Switzerland with a hangover and a lot of problems.
As we pulled out of Vienna it started to snow heavily and the train inched its way through the Alps. By dawn we had only got as far as Innsbruck but there the snow stopped and the sun rose on a pristine new world. I had what remained of the weekend to indulge in sensual pleasures in Bern. You may well say “Switzerland and sensual pleasures? Surely a contradiction in terms”, but let’s not dwell on it.

On Monday morning I took the direct TGV from Bern to Paris. At Pontarlier, the Swiss/French border, two French police or customs men, both with guns on their hip, boarded the train and started to question a young man sitting eight seats from me. As the train accelerated into France they searched his bags and after a while they took him away, perhaps to the Guard’s compartment to subject him to a more intimate search. After some time one of them came back with a screwdriver and started to prise fascias off the interior of the train near where the young man had been sitting. Presumably they never found what they were looking for and the young man, looking a little smug returned to his seat. I arrived in Paris in time to fit in a visit that day at our proposed venue which was tiny and staffed by incompetent and rude Frenchmen. Finally I made the boat-train and was back in London that night.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map