Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Dancing on the Table

A few years ago I had the dubious pleasure of putting on a musical in Moscow, in fact I have already written a rather jaunty account of what turned out to be something of a debacle. There was one particular experience that, at the time, I left out of that account for no other reason that it was slightly out of kilter with the day to day absurdities of that production.

The musical in question was being promoted locally by a rather desperate character and things were fairly chaotic but we were fortunate in having most of our dealings with an experienced Muscovite production manager, Yuri, who spoke good English. However these qualities were not enough to protect us from the appalling workmanship of the local scenery contractors, the taciturn idleness of the local crew and the open hostility of the venue management. In the best Brit tradition we plodded stoically on and I did my best not to lose my temper, as day after day, scenery would fail to be delivered and even when it did arrive was of questionable quality.

One particular set, consisting of a pair of large gates flanked on either side by a length of crumbling wall, the whole stretching across the full width of the stage, gave me particular pause. In pure construction terms what had been delivered bore some resemblance to the drawings that we had supplied but the paint finish, a sunny ochre stucco, ideal for a ‘Figaro’ or ‘Barber of Seville’, was not remotely appropriate for the 21st century post-modern parable that we were engaged on. Grey concrete mottled with lichen and spattered with pigeon shit was what we were after, so I called over Yuri and explained what had to done and needless to say he shrugged and said that there was no time for a repaint. I suggested an overnighter and he turned to the painters who were standing nearby. There were three of them, the boss, Sergei, was tall and gloomy, there was a spotty youth whose name I never learnt and there was Irina. Irina was extremely fat, extremely old and mostly drunk but I had noticed in passing that while her work rate was nothing special she, of the three, was the only one with any real skill as a scenic artist. Yuri asked if they fancied the overtime call and was refused, then he demanded that they take the call and finally he pleaded with them to do it. The men walked away but Irina gave me a sarcastic smile and said “How I know what to do?” Yes, Irina spoke a certain amount of English.
“I’ll be here” I said “I’ll tell you what to do”
“All night?” she asked.
“OK I do it.” She said and gave me a drunken leer. At this point I started to have doubts about the wisdom of the enterprise because when I say that Irina was mostly drunk in fact she was always drunk. She was forever shuffling off into the wings and taking a swig from a bottle in her vast handbag. She wore a thick paint splashed skirt, layers of ragged pullovers and heavy work boots. If you stood close to her the smell of unwashed woman pickled in vodka was not unlike that of standing next to a bucket of paint stripper. In short I had just decided to spend all night working on stage with a bag-lady.

Before the normal evening shift finished I made sure that the set we needed to paint was pushed onto the centre of the stage, that the electricians left us sufficient light to work in and that we had the theatre’s one rickety step ladder handy. Irina and I had already worked out a division of labour, I was to knock the whole set in dark grey and she would follow on behind me splattering and glazing to give the appropriately weathered look. As the rest of the crew left to do whatever Muscovite stage crews do after hours we made a start. I began to slosh grey paint around with great abandon and Irina huffed and puffed around mixing colour washes and glazes. We started to talk, Irina’s English was not great but we managed to get by with the occasional use of the tiny Russian Dictionary in my briefcase. In the cause of clarity I have tidied up her English in order to make this account of our night together readable.

I was curious to know her age but was too gallant to ask. She could have been a raddled fifty year old ravaged by years of hard drinking or a surprising seventy year old, surviving despite years of hard drinking but as she told me a little about her life it appeared that even my high estimate was probably on the low side. She had painted backcloths for the legendary designer Fedorovsky at the Bolshoi in the sixties and had worked at Lyubimov’s Taganka Theatre in the eighties. In fact as she stumped around the stage she mentioned a couple of dozen other theatres or companies unknown to me and I started to suspect that in a country where jobs are often for life her speckled career path might have something to do with the amount that she drank. At about 2.00am she stopped talking about herself and asked.
“Hey. You want me to tell you something about this theatre?”
All I knew so far was that the theatre, the Estrada, had been built in the 1930s as part of an apartment complex that was designed to accommodate Party bigwigs from the Kremlin a mere Kalashnikov shot away.
“Stalin built this and all the apartments for his buddies” she waved a brush around her head liberally spattering the floor with yellow ochre. “They were the most luxurious apartments in Moscow at that time but I tell you something about these apartments. During the Terror not one of them escaped a visit from the NKVD or KGB.. They would come in the night. Sometimes, if they were lucky, the residents would end up in the Gulag, or they might just be killed in the corridors, their bodies left as a warning to others. The unlucky ones were taken to be tortured, to watch their family being tortured, to see their children hanging on meat hooks. I tell you Englishman you have no idea what went on here”. She had dropped her earlier bantering tone and was suddenly speaking with great intensity.
“I tell you something else about this theatre Englishman. The night they arrested the murderer Beria, you know who I mean, Beria, the monster who thought he would take over from Stalin?”
“Yes I know who Beria was.” I replied. He was almost beyond evil even by the high standards set by Stalin’s Russia.
“The night that Krushchev had Beria arrested he sent his men down here, they knew that a gang of Beria’s guys were in watching the show. They locked all the doors and dragged them out one by one and shot them in the Foyer, they say the blood was ankle deep”.
“Christ I didn’t know!” I said thinking of the chilly impersonal marble foyer that existed just beyond the doors at the back of the auditorium.
There was silence for a while then she said “I danced here then.”
“What here? On this stage?”
“Yes I was a dancer then. I was sixteen”
“I was sixteen. My father played the fiddle. He sat over there and played, I danced. We were what you call a special. Is special the right word?”
“Maybe you mean novelty. You were a novelty act” I said
“Yeah maybe a novelty act.” She sniffed and then wiped her nose on the sleeve of her jumper. After a moment she went upstage behind the set that we were painting. I carried on with the grey, making the most of her absence to grab the stepladder and get to some top bits of the wall. I saw her come back out of the corner of my eye. She walked straight downstage to where the light was brightest. I turned to look and nearly fell off the ladder. Apart from her boots and socks she was completely naked and it wasn’t the sagging flesh, the puckered thighs or the vast breasts that she wanted to show me, it was every inch of her body from neck to ankle that was special because every inch was tattooed and what tattoos! These days tattoos are fashionable, the stuff of coffee table books and Sunday supplement articles and I would guess not many between the ages of twenty and thirty don’t have one, but not tattoos like these. Whoever had worked on Irina was a true artist, there were Tartar princes, scimitar wielding warriors, unicorns, wolves, waterfalls, icy mountains, forests, sailing ships, giants and dwarves.
I stood on the step ladder with a brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other with my mouth open, not sure what to say. “My what nice tattoos you have.” didn’t seem right for the situation. Instead I said “Turn round.”
She did and a medieval army was marshalled at the base of her spine, an eagle clutching a bleeding serpent in its talons on one shoulder, a crescent moon rising over a silvery lake on the other, a princess was entwined with a dragon on her right thigh. The level of detail was extraordinary and the composition spectacular.
“It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful.” I said
“Yeah yeah OK” she dropped back into her normal ironic manner and she went back upstage, returning fully clothed a few minutes later.
“Who did the tattoos?” I asked.
“My uncle. He was the finest tattooist in the Caucasus, maybe in all Russia. We were a circus family from Georgia, my mother was a trapeze artist, her sister had an act with horses and my father was a musician. I was a disappointment to them, I didn’t have the knack for the trapeze and I hated horses so the family decided that I should become a tattooed lady.”
“Did you mind?”
“How could I mind? In my family everybody had to earn their keep, I had to do something, so, no, I didn’t mind”.
She reclaimed the ladder from me and starting glazing the wall.
“In those days there was a sort of unofficial cabaret circuit in Russia. Most city or district Party committees ran some sort of late night event. Maybe once a month. My father and I travelled all over Russia, we did OK, we were looked after. One day we got a message to come to Moscow, to this theatre. This was a big step up for us. We normally played tractor factory canteens and so on, so we were very nervous. The act was simple, my father played a jolly country tune on his accordion, I took my clothes off and then posed for a bit to show off the tattoos. That was all, the tattoos did it. Oh and I was a very pretty girl then.” She laughed and the stepladder rattled and squeaked as she did.
“After our third night two men came into our dressing room. They didn’t knock, they just walked in and said “Come with us”. I was only wearing a dressing gown and my father protested but they just grabbed us and took us down the stairs, out of the stage door and into a car. We passed people on the corridor as we went and they looked away, they knew that we were going to be killed. In the car they put hoods over our heads and told us to be quiet, even so I could hear my father muttering prayers and I had never heard a single religious word come out of his mouth until then. I just thought this is not fair, we’ve done nothing and I started to cry. One of the men told me to shut up but then said “Don’t worry everything’s OK” and I thought maybe they’re not going to kill us after all. We drove for a long time, maybe two hours, Eventually we stopped and there were conversations that we couldn’t quite make out but we could hear gates opening and then we could hear that we were on gravel . When the car finally stopped they whipped the hoods off and we could see that we were outside the front doors of a big house and that there were lights on in the hall. A tall man in a black suit came down the steps and poked his head in the window and he said ‘Good you’re here, better late than never. Come with me”. We got out of the car and followed him into the house and I noticed that one of the men that had brought us had taken my father’s fiddle out of the trunk of the car, then I knew that we weren’t going to be killed we were going to perform.

In the hall the tall man, who was a butler or something, looked at me and then turned to the man carrying the violin and said “You didn’t bring her clothes?” and when the man shook his head the butler raised his eyes to heaven and took me by the hand, through a door and down some stairs into the kitchens. He told the two women working there to bring a hair brush, a mirror and some make-up. “You have ten minutes so do the best you can” he said to me and patted my shoulder. When I was ready we went back upstairs and my father and I were ushered into a small sitting room, .in the corner was an old man with a blanket over his knees. The butler indicated a chair to my father and then using another chair he helped me get up on to a table in the middle of the room. I thought ‘Who is this old man and why are we performing here’ then I recognised him and I nearly fainted. You have already guessed I’m sure, but it was Stalin himself, his skin was yellow, his hair white and his moustache, that famous moustache, was wispy and thin”
“So you danced for Stalin?” I said. I was staggered.
“Yes.I was shocked because of course we were fed propaganda images of the Great Leader from ten years earlier, we were never shown this old man on our weekly newsreels. Anyway, I looked at my father, who was petrified, he obviously knew who we were playing for, and I gave him the signal to start. I did the best I could with just my dressing gown and was down to just the tattoos pretty quickly but it was OK,I could see the old man start to smile and tap his foot in time to the music, he was a Georgian too you know. At the end of the routine he beckoned me to come to him and examined my tattoos very closely, he made the butler bring one of the table lamps closer so that he could see better. He was amazed, he shook his head in wonderment, he didn’t touch me, but he traced some of the images with his finger just a millimetre or two from my skin. Then he waved us away and slumped back in the chair and it was all over. The butler helped me into my dressing gown and in a moment my father and I were back in the hall where everyone was happy, they were relieved that we had done well because, perhaps, their lives depended on it. The guys who had driven us from Moscow slapped us on the back as they led us back to the car and they were really apologetic when they put the hoods back on. We were about to drive away when we heard the butler come back and talk for a couple of minutes to our escorts. We couldn’t make out what he said but the mood suddenly became more serious.
They took us back to the apartment where we were staying and once the hoods were off the one who wasn’t driving turned to us and said that he had been instructed to tell us that under no circumstances were we to continue performing our routine or to exhibit my tattoos in any way. We would receive instructions on what we were to do in the next few days.
This was a catastrophe for us and we couldn’t believe it after our success with the Great Leader but then two days later my father got a letter informing him that he was to take a senior musical position with a Georgian folk dance troupe in Tblisi. On the same day I also received a letter instructing me to report to the scene painting department of the Bolshoi Theatre here in Moscow where I was to be an apprentice, a much sought after position, though I didn’t know that the time”.
“So the reason that you are here with me tonight is because Stalin arranged it” I said
“Yes, because I danced naked on a table for Josef Stalin. I could have been dancing for my life you know, in a way that’s what everyone in Russia did in those days, they danced for their lives naked on Stalin’s table. I was lucky and here I am with you Englishman, you and this fucking wall”.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Dear Uncle Ted

I have been in ‘show business’ for many years and have worked in most fields of this noble industry and I often receive correspondence from young people eager to make their way along the stardust trail that I have trod for more than forty years. I thought it might be a service to my younger readers to publish my advice to some of these supplicants.

Dear Uncle Ted

I have been trying to break into the theatre but as yet I have had very little success. My mother thinks it would be helpful if I were gay but I would find this life style change rather difficult as I already have a very active sex life with several girl friends, one of whom is carrying my unborn child. I am a very normal sort of chap, my hobbies are breeding pit bulls, cock fighting and I am a Millwall supporter. Do you think my mother is right?

Unsure of S. London.

Dear Unsure of S London

First let me reassure you that the theatre is refreshingly free from some of the prejudices that blight society as a whole, however your mother is right to a certain degree in that there are some specific areas of the industry where being gay may be an advantage. These areas are opera, ballet, drama, musicals, West End, provincial touring and rep, pantomime, summer seasons, direction, set, costume and lighting design, stage management, prop and costume making, stage door keeping and conjurers assistant. Theatre-in-Education is a field where a young man with your healthy out-doorsy interests can flourish. What can be more satisfying than driving a transit van load of props to a sink estate primary school in order to put on a two-handed version of Coriolanus to a room full of hostile ten year olds at nine-o-clock in the morning.

I wish you well in the future and good luck with your forthcoming happy event.

Dear Uncle Ted

I am a wardrobe mistress with several years experience in provincial theatre and have long yearned to get work on a West End musical. Recently I went to a party where I met a West End production manager. We both drank quite a lot and one thing led to another and we ended up in bed together. He has since made it clear to me that he would like to pursue this relationship and has implied that he could get me a job on a forthcoming production. He claims that this show, which is apparently based on a Haynes service manual, is a sure fire hit and that I could be in work for years. I have no morals whatsoever and I am keen to fast forward my career but frankly having sex with this man was so unpleasant that I may have to draw a line and head back up the M1. What shall I do?

Hesitant of Up North

Dear Hesitant of Up North

This kind of question comes up time after time and it’s never easy to get the balance right. Perhaps you should remember that the success of British theatre is based largely on the self-sacrifice of nice middle class girls like yourself and that you should just grin and bear it. That way you get the job and at least one of you has a good time in bed. I find that when I am engaged in an unpleasant sexual act concentrating on a beloved childhood pet sometimes helps.

PS: Be careful though, I know a bit about this ‘Haynes service manual’ musical and I am sure it is a solid gold turkey.

Dear Uncle Ted

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be a sound designer on musicals. When I was little I used to arrange our family hi-fi in the living room and make my Mum and Nan listen to ‘Godspell’ time after time. I plastered the walls of my bedroom with pictures of West End sound designers and their favourite mixing consoles. At school I set up the sound for every conceivable function and now I am about to go to college to do a Dip Ac/Dc MBD in Environmental Sound Theory. Last week by a lucky chance I was invited by an acquaintance to meet some West End sound crew. You can imagine my excitement. I made up my mind to keep very quiet and to just soak up as much wisdom as I could from these audio titans. We met in a pub, which was rather rough, and at once the conversation started to flow. At first I revelled in the acronyms, the numbers, the jargon, all the money that I had spent subscribing to ‘Audio Fittings Monthly’ seemed well spent but as the evening wore on the atmosphere changed and the talk moved on to other topics. There was a lot of discussion about something called ‘per diems’ and ‘half-day travel’ which I didn’t understand and towards the end of the evening they started to complain about the hotels they had been made to stay at. By the time we parted I had the niggling suspicion that these audio titans were perhaps rather shallow bitter people. Have I made a bad career choice? Please advise me.

Disillusioned of Chingford

Dear Disillusioned of Chingford

Thank heavens that you have contacted me in time and thank heavens that your acquaintance had the good sense to show you a sound crew in the raw. You seem to me to be a sensitive caring young man and I think that perhaps the theatre in general and sound design in particular may not be for you. Are you religious? If not perhaps something in animal husbandry would suit you better. You can fill the theatrical void in your soul by collecting West End musical soundtracks on CD and at least these will have some resale value at car boot sales in the future.

Dear Uncle Ted

I am so confused and so worried, I do so hope that you can help me. I am a widow, my beloved Hubert having passed on some years ago. It appeared that he had left me in comfortable circumstances but what with the credit crunch, the recession and so on I now find that I am starting to eat into my life savings. Recently I attended a play at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford starring Felicity Kendall and Penelope Keith. At the interval I was feeling a bit woozy with the niceness of it all and a charming gentleman helped me to a chair. Despite the fact that he had a slight Merseyside accent I rather took to him and we didn’t go back in for the second half, we just drank gin and chatted in the bar. After a while, the gin having had its way with my tongue, I confided my financial woes to him. It turned out that this man is in fact a theatrical producer and he told me that these days the West End is the safest place in the world in which to invest and that he could “let me in on the ground floor” of a production that he is about to put on, a musical apparently based on a motorcar service manual. It sounds rather exciting and I am tempted to take the plunge and invest my life savings with this man. Is this wise?

Mrs W of Godalming.

Dear Mrs W

Personal finance can be a worry these days, what with oily Canary Wharf hedge-funders and Colombian money-launderers, it’s hard to know what to do for the best but in this case I can give you some solid advice. I think that I know the man that you refer to and I know for a fact that he is honest as the day is long and that his word is truly his bond. He is also correct in saying that the West End is a safe bet for your life savings and from what I have heard of the ‘service manual’ based musical it sounds like a sure fire smash to me, so be sure not to miss this opportunity to join the Lloyd-Webers and Cameron Mackintosh’s of this world. Now is your chance to become a high-roller!

Dear Anonymous of Old Compton St

Contact me immediately! You must not proceed with this project. What the director is proposing for Act 1 is definitely illegal in all EU countries and I can assure you that the inappropriate use of agricultural equipment in Act 2 can only end in tears.

Friday, 14 May 2010

This Blog

As you already know the catchy heading of this blog is “Sex, Proust & Railway Modelling” and many of my readers have emailed me to say “Ted you have written absolutely nothing about Proust, very little about railway modelling and, please, let’s hear more about your opinions on sex in the 21st century” I will try and repair the damage.

Let’s deal with railway modelling. The first thing that I am going to say is “My name is Ted Irwin and I am a railway modeller”. There I’ve said it and I feel better already. For the last couple of years I have managed to restrain the destructive impulse to spend hours in the shed trying to create a life-like scale version an early German branch line station. I have stoically moved on to military modelling and have spent my spare time painting model soldiers which is the equivalent of a methadone course for railway modellers, but now I am back mainlining again, or branch-lining in my case. For the record those of you who read my last piece about the election will be happy to know that I got my heart’s desire a hung Parliament and several yards of track laid and ballasted in the shed. I did pop into the house to see how Kirsty Wark was getting on only to discover that the BBC had decided to dump her into the rhododendrons in Nick Clegg’s front garden rather than have her hosting witty banter with the great and good. Watch out Kirsty, I think they have a career move in mind for you, before you know it you will be hosting Celebrity Window Cleaning.

On a more serious note I am often approached by young people who, knowing of my addiction, ask me this. “Ted I am thinking about becoming a railway modeller but I have heard that in order to do so I will have to give up sex completely. Is this true?.” This is a common misconception and has no foundation in fact. However, if you are going to take up this hobby, I would strenuously urge you to make sure that you have a sexual partner, ideally on a legal footing, before you do as you are unlikely to attract a member of the opposite (or same) sex once you do.

Now let’s deal with Proust. As far as I know Marcel Proust never wrote a single word about model railways. Had he wished to, the source material was all around him, he was fortunate in living at the height of the railway age and in 1891 the German firm Marklin introduced the first train set, though of course toy trains had been around as long as the real thing. Earlier literary titans like Shakespeare and Chaucer would have struggled with the concept of railway modelling. Perhaps Leonardo is the only man of sufficient vision from pre-railway times to come up with the idea of railway modelling and perhaps, just perhaps, he might have made the big leap and realised that if his models were magnified by about 87 times (assuming that he was working in HO scale which seems likely considering that he was an Italian) they could carry real people and thus revolutionise Renaissance transport. But even an intellectual giant of Leonardo’s stature would not have come up with that apogee of the railway modeller’s art, an exact scale recreation of a Great Western Railway branch line terminus complete with the stationmaster’s kitchen garden, bean poles, cabbages and all.

How different Proust’s masterwork might have been had his young hero not spent his afternoons fussing about in the gardens on the Champs-Elysees waiting for Gilberte to turn up but had parked himself at the end of one of the platforms at the Gare du Nord with a packet of fishpaste sandwiches (lovingly prepared by Francoise), a bottle of Tizer and a notebook in which to record those vital loco numbers. One afternoon a grimy but kindly engine driver might say the dreamed of words ‘Hop up sonny and have a look in my cab’.

Or maybe he and his Dad, a rather authoritarian but sometimes indulgent figure, could have worked together on ‘le train set’ in a shed at the bottom of his grandparents garden in Combray. I use the phrase ‘le train set’ with some trepidation as it could well provoke a storm of correspondence from irate railway modellers pointing out that while children have ‘train sets’ they have ‘layouts’. But for the family in Combray there would be no more worrying whether to take the Meseglise way or the Guermantes way on those shower threatened afternoon walks because there’s always plenty to be getting on with when you have a model railway. I can imagine father saying to his son ‘Get your nose out of that book Marcel we have track to ballast’ or ‘Come on old chap there’s just time for a shunting session before tea’.

One character from ‘Swann’s Way’ who would certainly have enjoyed a shunting session before tea is Uncle Adolphe. Uncle Adolphe is the narrator’s grandfather’s brother and he has a study in the house at Combray which is used by the narrator as a quiet spot in which to read. Unfortunately this arrangement comes apart when young Marcel pays a visit to Uncle Adolphe’s Paris apartments while the latter is entertaining a courtesan. The young man doesn’t realise what the lady is and goes to some pains to try to impress her with his maturity and sophistication, much to the embarrassment of Uncle Adolphe. He even goes as far as to kiss the ladies hand, which as far as I am concerned is fine, I was always brought up to be courteous to everyone whether they are prostitutes or not. In fact since I was once rescued from a stone throwing mob by a prostitute I rather go out of my way to be polite to them. However when Marcel returns home to his parents and, despite being cautioned by Uncle Adolphe not to mention the afternoon’s events, tells them what went on, they are outraged and Uncle Adolphe is banished forever from Combray and his study locked up. How much healthier if Uncle Adolphe had spent his twilight years escorting young Marcel on tours of narrow gauge lines in Brittany or rack railways in the Swiss Alps rather than dallying with this sort of woman.

Sadly as a ‘boy’ young Marcel is a bit of a disappointment. Quite apart from his unmanly lack of interest in railways it appears that his pockets are not stuffed with penknives, string and conkers. I doubt that his knees are permanently grazed and scabby or that he could recite all the names of the Combray Athletique first team. Worst of all he likes playing with girls.

Mention of girls brings us to our final topic ‘sex’. I am of course more than qualified to pontificate on this fascinating and mysterious subject but perhaps another time.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Election 2010 - The Thrill of It All

“We should have an Election Night party” I announced at the supper table the other night.


“But we’ve got school the next day.”

“Who would we invite?”

“What’s an election?”

These were the rather dispiriting responses and I realised that a jolly evening with like-minded left of centre metropolitan folk, drinking beer and eating ‘Original Cool’ flavour tortilla chips while watching the results roll in from Billericay and beyond was not an option. “Who would we invite?” was the killer. In 1997 we still lived in London and had the Election night of a lifetime watching the Tory party crash and burn (and oh don’t we get moist when we remember Portillo going down), all courtesy of master strategist Peter Mandelson. Over the intervening years Mandy has had a truly appalling press and I dare say he is in many respects an appalling man but I for one would buy him a drink simply for putting the Conservatives out in the wilderness for 13 years. Basingstoke is different, apart from anything else it is a safe Conservative seat and there is the distinct possibility that anyone we invite might be a Conservative. Another problem is that I have a wife who is not English and she doesn’t ‘get’ the charm of the British electoral system. “why is it on a Thursday?” she asked the other night (every other western European state votes at the weekend) and I couldn’t come up with an answer. She also doesn’t think that it’s fun to sit up until dawn watching a lot of aldermen in full regalia reeling off the results in dingy civic halls in places that she’s never heard of. So what shall I do? Perhaps I will lock myself in my shed at the bottom of the garden and combine Radio 4’s Election Night Special with an all-night railway modelling session. I am currently embarking on a tinplate ‘O’ gauge layout which will be an outdoor affair with a terminus based on the veranda of the shed with branches running out into the garden. For those of you who are interested ‘O’ gauge is at a scale of 1:43.5. Why 1:43.5 I hear you ask. What a stupid question! It is exactly twice the size of OO which is 1:87.

You may think that I am being unduly frivolous about the fate of our great nation but if you think that for the last couple of years the default result for this election has been a Conservative win then anything less than total triumph for smarmy Etonian android Cameron will be worth celebrating. Should the Queen have to invite the Conservatives to form a government, perhaps this time in a whimsical moment, working on the basis that anyone who likes Charlie Parker can’t be all bad, she might invite Kenneth Clark to form a government rather than Cameron, in much the same way that she invited Alec Douglas-Home rather than R A Butler fifty years ago. Fat chance, but we can dream. A more realistic scenario is one in which the Conservatives don’t get an overall majority and that even after buying Sinn Fein lots of drinks they can’t form a government without the Lib-Dems, something that they will not do since the price would have to be the adoption of some system of proportional representation. Any system of proportional representation virtually guarantees that we would never have a Conservative majority in Parliament ever again and all the fringe groups who never get a look in now, Greens, BNP, Islamic, Sikh, Polish plumbers etc would get representation. “Oh my God! We could end up like Belgium or Italy” I hear you say. Well I’ve been to Belgium and to be honest it didn’t seem all that bad, their railways are a bit shabby but none of the Belgians that I met seemed particularly worn down by their endless elections. As for Italy! Well if this country could become like Italy who would complain. Not me. Great railways, a cabinet entirely made up of escort girls and great food.

The only downside of spending the night in the shed might be missing out on Kirsty Wark who will presumably be hosting some sort of TV Election night chatter. This woman bizarrely manages to combine being the worst dressed woman on television with being the sexiest and it’s a hard one to call, Kirsty or track laying? I suspect the iron road will win and if we end up with a ‘hung’ Parliament and I get a few metres of track laid and ballasted I will be a happy man.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Retreat from Warsaw

Opera has always been an international business, Mozart travelled all over Europe, Wagner was argumentative in Paris and just about everywhere else, Caruso was a global star and I have a fine postcard in my collection of Tetrazzini singing to a vast New Year’s Eve crowd in San Francisco in 1905. Twenty years ago opera companies toured around the world but these days they can barely afford to get to the sweetshop on the corner, instead we do co-productions. Several opera companies chip in to the initial budget, the originating house builds the set, props and costumes and ships them off to whoever’s turn it is to put on the production. So it was with David Alden’s excellent production of Katya Kabanova, which ENO has co-produced with the Polish National Opera in Warsaw and so it was that Justin Loader (the production’s show supervisor) and I flew to Poland 3 days after the catastrophic plane crash at Smolensk. Despite it being a week of national mourning and despite the Polish production team having done very little preparation all went surprisingly well and after two days on stage all was ready for the first stage and piano rehearsal on schedule.

Justin and I were due to fly back on Thursday night and therefore had the first part of that day to do a little light shopping in Warsaw. Our, or rather my, first target was a model railway shop a fair way from the theatre that I had researched on the internet. It was a lot further than a fair way from the theatre but it was a beautiful day and we were in an interesting city. I thought Justin was very understanding when we finally got there to discover that it had closed down. We headed for the west bank of the Vistula and were wandering back into town when my wife rang to tell me that due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland British airspace had been closed. Now I know that several million phone calls along the same lines were being made at around the same time but nevertheless it was still a remarkable phone call to receive. What to do? Our first stratagem was to drink beer and discuss how attractive Polish policewomen were. Our second was to go back to the theatre to discover that our flight had indeed been cancelled. What to do now? The train is the thing, so we rushed off to Warsaw’s grim central station to buy tickets on a sleeper to Berlin which puzzlingly went via Stettin on the Baltic coast. The ticket office couldn’t reserve us sleeping berths, we had to do that via the conductor on the train.

I have had some experience of Polish sleepers and knew exactly what to expect but Justin, despite my attempts to disillusion him, clung to a fantasy based on the train scenes in From Russia with Love. He was expecting someone to come and ask which sitting for dinner we would like to take or perhaps he was thinking of putting his shoes out in the corridor so that by the time we reached Monte Carlo or St Petersburg they would be nicely shined. The truth was about as far from that as possible. First the two conductors we consulted about getting sleeping berths put on a fine display of Polish customer service and shook their heads dismissively. We pressed the point and getting no conclusive answer we just got on the train and stood next to the conductor’s cubby-hole until he eventually ushered us into a sleeping compartment in which three of the six berths were occupied. The train had started out from Lublin, far away in the south east of Poland, and the overheated compartment already had a foetid lived in smell. Justin’s face, as his illusions of glamorous trans-European travel crumbled to dust, was a picture. I offered him a choice of top or middle bunk, he took top. As I settled onto the middle bunk I heard a voice in the corridor saying to no one in particular “Do they know that I’ve got a very tight connection in Stettin?” Leaving vulgar medical humour aside this seemed to me to be a splendidly English thing to say. The owner of the voice filled the sixth berth in our compartment. As I expected the 7 hour run to Stettin was uncomfortable, sleepless and behind schedule. As we arrived we saw the Berlin express leave, Mr ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’s’ connection to Rotterdam via Hamburg had long gone. So on a chilly Baltic morning the three of us plus two jolly Dutchmen in suits stood on the footbridge over the tracks wondering what to do. We saw a tiny ticket office and ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’, who was looking a bit flustered, and I went in to see what we could find out. The girl behind the glass had obviously graduated from the Josef Stalin Customer Services School with honours. She expressed not a shred of sympathy or interest in our predicament and eventually pointed vaguely in the direction of the door. We then realised that this was a far flung outpost of Stettin Station and that the main building was much further down the platform and there we found that if we took a small local train to a place called Pasewalk we could change onto a stopping train to Berlin. This we did and had a pleasant journey on one of those double-decker trains that they have in Germany. Justin did well I think to express polite interest as I pointed out 19th century Prussian water towers and other fascinating features of the railway landscape.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a brand new multi-tiered extravaganza of a railway station but we only got to see the ticket office queue which was long and almost stationary. Rumours flew around, “all the trains going west are full”, “the reservation system has been suspended and you can get on any train you like”, “Eurostar is booked solid for 2 weeks”, “only Portuguese speakers wearing red socks will be allowed to board the trains” and so on. Our plan at this point was to get to Ostend and cross as foot passengers to Ramsgate arriving at midnight. We had full back-up from the entire Coliseum administration, my wife and son in Basingstoke and our next door neighbour, all passing us data as we went along. Mr ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’ decided that his Warsaw to Rotterdam ticket was valid on any train so set off to try his luck. He was booked on a ferry from Rotterdam to Hull (12 hours) and then all he had to do was retrieve his car from the car park at Luton Airport and drive home to Northampton. I wonder if he got there, we shall never know. When we got to the front of the queue we were able to buy tickets for Ostend but were told that the only train between Cologne and Brussels was the Thalys (the Belgian version of the TGV) and that there were absolutely no seats available for at least four days. Justin and I decided to take our chances blagging our way onto the Thalys and set off in an ICE (Inter-City Express) for Cologne. What a great train!

Just short of Cologne my wife called to say that Ostend were not allowing foot-passengers. Then Terri-Jayne texted from the Coliseum to say that all the ferries were fully booked and there was no chance of getting on either the Paris or Brussels Eurostar. At Cologne Justin and I stood outside in the sunshine flanked on one side by the Gothic miracle that is the Cathedral and on the other by the (more impressive in my view) mighty three arched train shed of the station, without a clue as to what to do next. At this point Terri-Jayne texted “So what are you going to do now?” Not very helpful but then I had a good idea. I know Cologne well from the six weeks I spent putting ‘We Will Rock You’ into the Musical Dome and I often stayed at the Maritim Hotel and it’s one of my favourites. So with a little help from a local friend, who is an Alpaca breeder, I booked us in there for the night. We were just putting our bags into the back of a taxi when Terri-Jayne rang to say that they had two foot passenger tickets on the Dieppe-Newhaven ferry. All we had to do was get to Paris the next day in time to catch a train from the Gare St Lazaire at 13.50 to get to Dieppe. We checked into the hotel then returned to the station to join the ticket office queue. There was absolutely no way of getting to Paris by train we were told. The Thalys was full and so was the TGV between Brussels and Paris. What about local trains? None of them connect across the border and in any case wouldn’t get there in time. “Try the bus” the girl behind the desk suggested. The bus station is next door to the railway station and in a little shack we managed to buy tickets for 6.30 the next morning for Paris, arriving around 14.00 possibly in time for us to catch the 14.50 from St Lazaire which might just get us onto our ferry.

We took the night off from travelling and sat in a bar and watched the first half of FC Cologne v Bochum. The latter were rubbish and FC should have been 6-0 up at half time rather than just 1-0. Then we had a typical German protein-rush dinner at the hotel. At some point came the glorious news that Eleanor at ENO had come across some newly released Eurostar tickets and we were booked on the 20.43 from the Gare du Nord. The bus next morning left on the dot of 6.30 and all was well until we had just crossed into Belgium when there was a loud bang and the window next to me cracked into a thousand segments. Luckily coach windows are double glazed and only the outer layer was affected. Large chunks of window started to drop onto overtaking motorists and the driver pulled into a lay-by. Here I made the mistake of suggesting that perhaps an air rifle might be responsible partly because a similar thing had happened to me while travelling between Waterloo and Basingstoke. In that case it turned out that kids in a park near Surbiton were amusing themselves by taking pot shots at passing trains with an air rifle. In the lay-by the Polish driver called his boss in Gdansk who insisted that we wait for the police to turn up. Eventually two Belgian traffic cops arrived took details and witness statements by which time we had lost a precious hour. This hour was precious because Justin had never been to Paris and we were planning the ultimate speed-tour of the sights.

We were dumped by the bus on the eastern fringes of Paris at 15.40 and dived down the Metro to the Gare du Nord to check our tickets and to dump our bags in the lockers there. We fell at first hurdle when the ticket office told me that I had printed out the wrong part of the tickets and that what we had wasn’t valid and no they couldn’t print duplicates. Ten minutes later they printed the duplicates (for a fee), and we had only two more tasks to undertake: 1) take a picture of Justin in front of the Eiffel Tower. 2) Eat Steak and Frites in a Paris brasserie. We did both and crawled aboard the Eurostar. I got home 49 hours after boarding the Stettin sleeper in Warsaw.

Thanks to all who helped us home and particularly to Justin, who turned out to be an excellent travelling companion.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Interval Drinks

Last night I went to see 'Waiting for Godot'....


A: (Breathless) Sorry I’m late
B: I don’t think you are.
A: Oh that’s OK then. Do we need to collect the tickets?
B: No I’ve got them. We can go straight in. Let’s go and have a drink in the circle bar. Are you alright? (They go into the foyer)
A: Just let me get my breath back I ran up the escalator at Piccadilly.
Usher: Tickets please. Thank you. The bar is on your right at the top of the stairs.
A: The bloke from Star Wars is in this right?
B: Star Trek.
A: Ah yes of course. I’m looking forward to seeing him. I don’t suppose he’ll be wearing a bri-nylon jumper in this.
B: No he plays a tramp.
A: And the bloke who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings is in it too right?
B: Gandalf.
A: Ah that explains it because Gollum was entirely computer generated wasn’t he and I couldn’t work out how he could be in this.
B: No this is Ian McKellen. He plays a tramp too. What do you want to drink?
A: Have they got a Merlot? If not any old red will do.
B: (To barmaid) A glass of dry white and a glass of red please and the same for the interval.
A: So they both play tramps eh. This play is famous isn’t it? I mean I know it’s all about waiting. Er for Godot obviously but there must be more to it than that. Have you seen it before?
B: A long time ago when I was at university. It made a big impression on me at the time.
A: So what’s it really about? Just generally. I don’t want you to spoil the ending or anything.
B: I think it’s about the futility of human existence but I couldn’t be sure.
A: Hmm. The futility of human existence?
B: Yes it’s a comedy.
A: Ah! There are jokes.
B: Oh yes plenty of jokes.
A: Thank God for that. I was worried that I might be in for a bit of a heavy evening.
B: (hands A his drink) Here. Cheers
A: Cheers
B: How’s work?
A: Oh a bit grim really. I’m hanging on by my finger tips. I missed the last round of redundancies by a hairsbreadth and I don’t know what we’ll do if I do get the push. The payout won’t be much, I haven’t been there long enough and Audrey doesn’t earn enough to keep us. How about you? Have you and Gavin been affected by the credit crunch.
B: We’ve lost a couple of clients but nothing drastic.
A: And living together is working out. Are you still in that basement in Hackney?
B: Yeah it’s great. We’re great.
A: You should get married. You can do that these days can’t you?
(Bar bells are rung)
B: Maybe. We should go in. We’re Row G 7 & 8.
(They enter the auditorium)
A: Oh that’s a shame. Why do they do that?
B: Why do they do what?
A: Show you the set when you come in. Why don’t they have the curtain in? It spoils it.
B: It’s this row. You go in first. What does it spoil?
A: Well I remember when Mum used to take Derek and me to the theatre when we were kids, we used to sit in the stalls and look at the curtain, which was always red and gold, and just before the show started they would play some music, like an overture. It was exciting. And then the houselights would go out and the curtain would go up to reveal the set and the audience would go “Ooh!” and if they really liked it they would clap. These days you walk into the theatre and there it is for all to see. I bet set designers these days are really pissed off, they never get a round of applause.
B: I don’t think set designers worry too much about a round of applause. Anyway it’s an impressive set. Full of opportunities don’t you think?
A: It’s OK. It looks a bit like the place where Harry and his mates go skateboarding.
B: How is Harry getting on?
A: Not bad. GCSEs this year so he is getting a bit stressed.
B: And Molly?
A: Fine too. Still mad on ballet but we’ve managed to keep her away from horses.(Pause) Apart from the tree of course.
B: What?
A: There’s no tree at the skateboard park. It would be dangerous to have a tree in the middle of a skateboard park.
B: Of course. Oh here we go. They’re starting.
(Fade out to silence)


(Fade up to hear the applause at the end of Act 1)
B: Quick go through the side door. We’ll get to the bar first. What do you think of it so far?
A: A longish first act I would say. Is it longer than your normal first act? There seem to be a lot of pauses. It would be quicker if there were less pauses.
B: They’re what are known as dramatic pauses I think.
A: Even so. I mean are these two, Ian McKellen and the Star Trek bloke, are they pause specialists? I mean George Clooney doesn’t do pauses, Brad Pitt doesn’t do pauses. If George Clooney and Brad Pitt were doing it that act would have been at least ten minutes shorter. Do some actors do pauses and some not?
B: Erm….
A: Take Pulp Fiction. There are no pauses in that. The actors are going hell for leather the whole time either talking or shooting. Do actors have to able to do both, pauses or no pauses? Do they have to be adaptable? Anyway apart from the pauses it was OK I suppose. The mute one who suddenly spoke gibberish for twenty minutes was ….impressive.
B: Lucky.
A: No impressive
B: No. Lucky is the name of the character.
A: Oh right. Whatever. I presume Godot turns up in the second act to resolve things. It must be a bit dull for the actor that plays Godot having to sit around doing nothing in act one.
B: You’ll have to wait and see.
A: Absolutely! Don’t spoil it for me. Actually to be honest this is more Audrey’s kind of thing than mine. She likes arty foreign films. Personally I can’t be bothered with the subtitles and there are a lot of pauses in foreign films you know. She belongs to the local film society and sometimes she drags me along. A couple of months ago I had to sit through an interminable Russian epic which started with a speck in the distance, a rider galloping towards the camera, and bloody hell, you know what? I could have popped across the road had a pint, gone to the loo, washed my hands three times, come back and that rider would still have been a bloody mile from the camera.
B: Andrei Rublev
A: Bless you! Ha the best jokes are the old ones!
B: Very funny. Andrei Rublev is a masterpiece and you’re a philistine. Shall we go back in?
(Fade to silence)

Post Show

(Fade up final curtain call)

B: Extraordinary! Don’t you think?
A: Absolutely.
B: No really. Wasn’t that just extraordinary.
A: Absolutely.(pause) A shame in some ways that Godot didn’t come. Things would have been clearer.
B: I think the whole point is that things aren’t clear.
A: Aren’t they?
B: (exasperated) Oh for Christ’s sake! No of course they’re not.
A: Not what?
B: Clear. Nothing is clear.
A: Right. Which way are you going? I’m walking up to Piccadilly.
B: (irritably) Er. I’ll get a bus from Trafalgar Square.
A: I mean I sort of understand what you are on about but I think one should always look for clarity. Don’t you agree?
B: Well yes but…
A: I did think a bit more about this pause business in the second half, because there were probably even more pauses in Act 2 than Act 1 and it made me think about Jenkins in the office. Now he’s a decent bloke a bit dull but decent enough and to be honest there’s not much to do in the office these days so in the afternoon we sometimes have a conversation.
B: A conversation?
A: Yes and because we have so much time on our hands we sort of stretch the conversation out and during Act 2 it occurred to me that some of the pauses that Jenkins and I have in the afternoon are even longer than the pauses in the play. We stretch the conversation out to fill the available time. I mean you could drive a Panzer Division through some of the pauses that Jenkins and I have in the afternoons. We’re much better at pauses than these guys. It’s a case of art holding up a mirror to life. Am I right? Is the play about filling the time available?
B: Possibly.
A: Right. Excellent! We must do this again. Love to Gavin.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map