Troubled Diva’s Singles Of 2002.

Note that these have been chosen just as much for personal, sentimental, soundtrack-to-my-life reasons as they have been for objective, music-critic, landmarks-in-the-evolving-history-of-pop reasons. Because, at the end of the day, these are singles. That’s how they work.

1. the streets – weak become heroes
2. doves – there goes the fear
3. pet shop boys – home and dry
4. sugababes – freak like me
5. x-press 2 featuring david byrne – lazy
6. narcotic thrust – safe from harm
7. pink – family portrait
8. david bowie – everyone says ‘hi’
9. missy elliott – work it
10. db boulevard – point of view
11. truth hurts featuring rakim – addictive
12. shakira – wherever, whenever
13. angie stone – wish i didn’t miss you
14. queens of the stone age – no one knows
15. fischerspooner – emerge
16. doves – pounding
17. sugababes – round round
18. manic street preachers – there by the grace of god
19. frou frou – breathe in
20. tweet – oops (oh my)
21. belle lawrence – evergreen
22. ms. dynamite – dy-na-mi-tee
23. beyoncé – work it out
24. underworld –two months off
25. mull historical society – watching xanadu
26. aaliyah – more than a woman
27. brandy – what about us
28. bright eyes – lover i don’t have to love
29. the coral – goodbye
30. jakatta featuring seal – my vision
31. cornershop – lessons learned from rocky i to rocky iii
32. dj shadow – you can’t go home again
33. who da funk featuring jessica eve – shiny disco balls
34. layo & bushwacka! – love story
35. puretone – addicted to bass
36. chemical brothers – star guitar
37. badly drawn boy – silent sigh
38. the coral – dreaming of you
39. my computer – vulnerabilia
40. the bellrays – they glued your head on upside down

Bubbling under:
alizee – moi…lolita
the d4 – party
liberty x – just a little
justin timberlake – like i love you

Worst single of the year:
atomic kitten – the tide is high

Troubled Diva’s Gigs Of 2002.

Note that reviews of a lot of these gigs can be found by following the links from the we saw… (live reviews) section on my sidebar.

1. Le Tigre / Valerie
Attitudinous, shouty, colourful, eloquent, angry, groovy, cool, sussed, delirious, provocative, visual, inspirational, timeless/contemporary, femino-punk heaven. As perfect a gig as anyone could ever wish for. What’s more, Kathleen Hanna seemed to think the same way. We all struck it lucky that night.

2. Kevin Ayers
Some old heroes actually won’t let you down. More than made up for the disappointment of 22 years ago. Great guitarist he’s got with him these days.

3. Brian Wilson
Despite some early wobbles, this is a concert that – in my memory of it – has steadily grown in stature ever since. Always a good sign. And he played Pet Sounds in full, and I ask you: what could be better than that?

4. Neil Diamond
A masterclass in how to work an arena crowd. The most extraordinary synergy between performer and audience that I have ever seen.

5. Patti Smith
Age has not dimmed her. Incandescent, righteous stuff.

6. Groove Armada / Dirty Vegas
Groove Armada smash up the coffee table and get back to their dance roots. If only their new album had sounded half this good. Dirty Vegas: best received support act of the year.

7. The Bellrays / The D4
Rock. And. F***ing. Roll!!!

8. Doves / The Coral / Athlete
While the much anticipated Coral mostly disappointed, the previously dismissed Doves had me converted in a trice. Best set opening of the year (Pounding, There Goes The Fear). So good that I even moshed – and I do not mosh. Oh, and we liked Athlete. Nice boys.

9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
The Jesus And Mary Chain re-incarnated. Actually, I remember very few details from this gig. Which is sometimes the best indication.

10. Butterflies Of Love / Tompaulin / The Chemistry Experiment
And the same thing applies for the Butterflies. Soundtrack to a damned good piss-up, essentially.

11. Richard Ashcroft
First half: pleasant, competent, somewhat dull. Second half: just stunning. Best vocal performance of the year.

12. The Streets / Blackalicious
Mike Skinner makes it all look so deceptively easy. Much sharper than he likes to pretend he is.

13. Kylie Minogue
And she even reached all the right notes, bless her! Spectacle of the year. If only we had danced a bit more.

14. Oasis
This one was all about the crowd. Plus, Liam was born to sing My Generation. He may be a twat, but he still makes a damned good rock star.

15. The Libertines
Full on! An unstoppable force of nature. Shortest set of the year. Not a minute wasted.

16. Badly Drawn Boy
Surprisingly charming. Longest set of the year. Not a minute wasted.

17. Pulp
In Sherwood Forest, no less. Will we ever see their like again?

18. The Musical Box
Genesis tribute band! Oh yes! That Selling England By The Pound tour in full! Yougoddaproblemwiddatorsumpin?

19. Pet Shop Boys
Real instruments! Musicianly values! No dancers! The occasional faint glimpses of emotion! Whatever next?

20. Manic Street Preachers / Ian Brown
The Manics started brilliantly, sagged badly, then rallied just in time. Ian Brown is an arrogant, talentless wanker with no singing voice whatsoever, and turned in by far the worst performance of the year.

Honorary Mentions:

Damo Suzuki’s Network / The Telescopes
Hours and hours of densely improvised goobeldygook which trod a fine line between genius and tedium. And he hugged us! Each and every one!

Mudhoney / The Alchemysts / The Catheters
Skull-crushingly heavy. Not Really My Thing, but plenty of good reasons for being plenty of other people’s Thing.

J Mascis
Amazing guitar work and all that, BUT I COULDN’T BLOODY SEE ANYTHING!

Duds:

The Thrills
The next big thing? With the amount of money that is being spent on them, this is entirely possible, I’m afraid. Some undeniably great hooks, but minimal stage presence, communication or (most fatally of all) passion. Careerists through and through. Looked like they were quickly, grudgingly “paying their dues” before that all-important Glastonbury tea-time slot next summer (er, whoops!)

Beth Orton / Ed Harcourt
Suffocatingly one-dimensional niceness without end.

Bryan Ferry
Just another day at the office, was it?

Alicia Keys
Oh dear, she’s gone Pop. And stretched every number out to ten minutes plus. Woefully short on focus and…you know…Soul?

Working backwards (Friday/Saturday/Monday)

(Friday)

We hated Bodyworlds. Really, really hated it.

First of all, it was the cheap shoddiness that rankled. The plinths were made from ordinary house bricks, roughly shoved together. The signs were bits of folded paper, printed off from MS Word and shoved under perspex. Overhead fluorescent strip lighting. Potted houseplants plonked down to form dividers. Filthy, smelly toilets: flooded, missing their seats, and covered in obscene graffiti. For a tenner a ticket, you would have expected some degree of care and attention. As it was, there was absolutely no aesthetic sensibility at work whatsoever.

The further we went round the exhibition, the more we were struck by the underlying disingenuousness of its intentions. This was neither art, nor science, nor education – merely spectacle. A grotesque spectacle, which betrayed an arrogant disregard for the humanity of its “plastinates”. There was no back story on these corpses – not even the scantest of details on their backgrounds, their nationalities, or even the circumstances of their deaths. Instead, their plastinated body parts had been snipped, stretched, mangled and contorted into pieces of breathtakingly tasteless whimsy.

Here: a corpse riding a bicycle, a ludicrous pair of spectacles perched on its nose. There: a leering warlock on a broomstick, in a stupid hat. A “basketball player” – a “goalkeeper” – a “swimmer” – and most notably of all, a “pole vaulter”. The pole vaulter was suspended upside down on a steel pole, well above head height. His entire gut system had comically “fallen out” of its torso, and had slid down the pole to eye level. People were actually standing round and chuckling at the gag.

In another room, a plastinate was kneeling in front of a makeshift altar, its facial features arranged into a crude caricature of beseeching piety, holding up a human heart on a tacky velvet plinth. The accompanying sign said: “In Memory Of All Our Donors”. Anger and disgust rose up inside us like bile.

There was worse to come, in the form of a woman in the eighth month of pregnancy, her womb slit open to show the almost fully developed foetus still curled up inside her. Astonishingly – unforgiveably – she had been arranged in a semi-recumbent, coquettish pose: turned on her side towards the viewer, her head propped up on one elbow, her lips artificially reddened and pouting, her pale, rubbery nipples crudely stuck back onto her plastinated breasts. Tragedy reduced to burlesque.

She was the sole adult female plastinate in the entire exhibition. Adjacent to her were a series of deformed foetuses in specimen jars: cleft palates, misshapen skulls, conjoined at the hip. We hurried past them as quickly as we could.

Before leaving, we scanned the comments books. Apart from the occasional gripe about the state of the toilets, there was almost nothing but fulsome praise for the show. Fascinating…educational…an amazing experience…didn’t feel squeamish in the slightest…wish I had brought my family with me…cool!…awesome!…wicked! Baffled and incredulous, we flicked through page after page, searching in vain for a dissenting view.

God knows, I have no religious axe to grind here. Neither does the idea of placing a naked corpse on public display offend me per se, so long as the donor has given their full consent. But did these people really know that they would end up like this? As utterly dehumanised objects of curiosity in a highly profitable modern day freak show, carted around from city to city by an egocentric self-publicist with deluded pretensions to high-minded scholarship?

Sigh. Whatever. Four fantastic exhibtions and one dud, then…

(Friday)

…but at least this means we can grab a decent curry on Brick Lane, before catching the 19:55 back to Nottingham. They’re all unlicensed, so K nips to the offy for a couple of large bottles of Indian beer. He has never had the Brick Lane experience before, and is delighted with it. We spend a pleasant 45 minutes or so, noshing and critiquing. The day has gone awfully well. A perfect blend of pre-planning and spontaneity. We should do this much more often.

(Saturday)

I had never brokered a blind date before. But in my head, they seemed quite well matched. And A liked my photos of B. And B saw A’s profile, and recognised him. And I wasn’t on hand to effect a proper introduction – all those gigs, all that art. And so numbers were passed, and phone calls made, and a rendezvous arranged.

And now here they both are, a day and a night later, drinking tea in the cottage in front of the fire, beaming at us, beaming at each other, and I am feeling so benevolent, and just so goddammed pleased with myself.

(Monday)

Before breakfast, before a proper wash, before conversation, before the seven o’clock headlines…as dawn breaks over Carsington Water, DJ Shadow is just the ticket. Abstract, moody atmospherics for a freezing Monday morning. As we hurtle back to town to beat the traffic, I give thanks for heated seating, and begin to unclench a little.

(Monday)

So I was thinking about this site over the weekend, and what I wanted to do with it, and whether I had already achieved everything that could reasonably be done with it, and whether I was suffering from the blogging equivalent of Second Album Syndrome, and whether I should drop it down a notch, or gear it up a notch, and what was my motivation for it these days anyway, and hadn’t I become bored of the cutesy personality cult side of things, and wasn’t it time to turn another corner, and to become less inanely pseudo-conversational and more, I dunno, “literary”…and I eventually came to the conclusion that it was time to re-commit, to stop complacently surfing on the stats, to try a little bit harder, to get my “edge” back, to get the hunger and the necessity back, to push things forwards…

…and I came into work today and got the Urgent Briefing To All Employees e-mail about possible redundancies and imminent interviews with those who are most at risk, and decisions that haven’t yet been made but will be soon…

…and all that fresh air instantly slumped out of my sails.

 

Vietnam – Day 11.

Our extended boat trip in and around Nha Trang bay has been billed as a “day of pampering” – much needed after the bus-bound rigours of the past couple of days. However, our simple wooden boat has no sundeck, the bench seating is hard (especially after several hours afloat, especially when you have a nasty weeping sore on your backside), the waters are choppy (several of the group succumb to seasickness, while I grimly concentrate on the horizon line, thinking calming thoughts), and the scenery isn’t a patch on Halong Bay (by now, we have become thoroughly spoilt).

Nevertheless, we have fun availing ourselves of the services on offer from the crew: manicure, pedicure and “traditional Vietnamese massage”. My massage – firmly applied, but much gentler than the brutal pummelling I received in Turkey two years ago – is excellent therapy, leaving me tingling and re-energised. Well, okay, only for a while; I’m not operating at full strength today, physically or mentally.

There is a late afternoon visit to the house and studios of Long Thanh, a photographer of international repute. He is a gently charismatic man, with the confident yet laid-back air of someone who is entirely at ease with his talent and reputation. After much deliberation, we eventually walk away with a study of two elderly Nha Trang beggar ladies, their faces creased up in a kind of girlish laughter. We are strongly reminded of the two beggar ladies from the previous afternoon, on receiving their new coolie hats. As a representative image of Vietnam to stick on the wall back home, this is as good as we will find.

We have all been dreading our second overnight sleeper train. This time round, the air conditioning is working fine – so we won’t roast. However, our bedding is in a decidedly questionable state of hygiene. Our sheet sleeping bags are covered in long hairs, and exude an aroma of lightly laundered vomit. What’s more, they are all covered in dried lumps of a greeny-grey residue which looks suspiciously like snot. We elect to sleep on top, fully clothed, as best as we can.

Vietnam – Day 10.

After an extraordinary run in the first week of the tour, we are now in the middle of a comparative dip. For the second day running, most of our time is spent on the bus, where most of the group alternates between sleeping (Gabriel Byrne continues to astonish us in this area – but then, he is on his honeymoon), reading (will I ever finish White Teeth?) and gazing out of the window at endless lush plains of rice fields.

Presumably because they have all been planted at a slightly different time, each small field is coloured a slightly different shade of green. The landscape thus becomes a vast patchwork of differing shades of green – more greens than you ever thought possible – interspersed with water buffalos, workers in coolie hats, and the occasional herd of ducks. Sometimes, you will see several dozen ducks being herded across the road in a tight pack, as directed by their very own duck-herd. It is a vaguely comical sight.

We take lunch at a beach restaurant, watching the afternoon catch being dragged up the beach in huge nets, and observing the elegant wedding party who have stopped off for photos. The restaurant owner, a former social worker, gives us a couple of particularly finely made coolie hats and asks us to pass them on to anyone in Nha Trang (our destination) who we think looks particularly deserving of them.

In Nha Trang, at the bottom of the Cham Pongar temple complex (underwhelming, for by now we are all templed out), we spot the ideal recipients. The two aged, wizened, teeth-blackened beggar ladies are absolutely delighted with their smart new hats, trying them on and posing for each other with incongruously girlish, almost coquettish grins. The years roll back, as we catch brief glimpses of former lives.

We check in, and head off en masse for the mud spring baths. Here, we gleefully slosh about in communal pools of thick brown gloop, pouring it over ourselves with plastic pails and savouring the eucalyptus-like aroma, before washing it off under hot jets of salty spring water. This gives us a new toast (Here’s mud in your gusset!), which becomes our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

There is dining and dancing at the yacht club (not quite as grand as it sounds), where we end up lurching about to insipid Euro-trance with a bunch of pissed-up backpackers and enthusiastic Vietnamese hookers, or else sitting out on the beach front with lethal pina coladas, gazing on with wry amusement at the young couple shamelessly writhing on a beach lounger in the semi-darkness, to an audience of entranced onlookers.

Oh, look! Over there! It isn’t! It is! Fraulein Dings-Bums and party are in town. Cordial greetings are exchanged. Perhaps next time, we should break the ice and make proper conversation.

We never see them again.

Vietnam – Day 9.

As I’ve already explained, public expressions of strong emotion are generally not to be found in Vietnamese society; self-control is everything. This morning, however, when confronted with the durian that K has brought along for the journey, our coach driver’s face is a picture of horror, fear and disgust. There is no way that he’s going to allow that stinky fruit on board – not even in the suitcase hold down below. “But I thought we could all try some later on!”, wails K, as the rest of us sigh with relief and clamber on board.

It’s a tough day: twelve hours on the bus, with few stops along the way. Along with most of the group, I have finally learnt how to catnap (something which I have always loathed doing). In fact, Gabriel Byrne is practically never awake; the rest of us can only marvel at his seemingly infinite capacity for slumber.

Few tourists ever reach the site of the My Lai massacre; it’s too far away from anywhere else that might be of interest. Partly for this reason, there remains something raw, potent and real about the place, to which we are the morning’s only visitors. It has not been turned into a sanitised theme park, where slick guides recite the same old scripts, and your emotions are marshalled according to a pre-defined plan. There is a roughness, and there is a strange, unexpected beauty. At the front of the site, a traditional garden has been planted, with many plants and shrubs donated by US veterans’ associations. It helps to set the mood of contemplation and remembrance.

Our young guide is beautiful and elegant, standing there in the pelting rain in a full-length pale blue gown, with water pouring off her coolie hat. She is local, and lost many of her own extended family in the massacre which became the most notorious atrocity of the American War. She speaks quietly, eloquently (with perfect English), and with a controlled passion which occasionally seeps round the edges of her words, as she describes a particularly extreme horror. She probably doesn’t get to give this talk too often, and so her words remain entirely fresh and genuine.

Slowly, she leads us round the site where one of the villages used to stand. Here are the foundations of the houses, marked by plaques listing the names and ages of each of the murdered inhabitants – from the very youngest to the very oldest. Here is the long ditch, into which the US troops pushed dozens of villagers – men, women, children and babies – before opening their machine guns and slaughtering the whole lot of them in cold blood. Here is a large stone statue depicting the massacre, sculpted by the husband of one of the very few survivors. The area is deathly quiet, except for the sound of pelting rain and the soft voice of our guide, calmly and precisely detailing acts of barbaric savagery which still beggar the imagination. There is an earnestness and slight urgency to her strictly factual delivery; it still matters greatly that the simple, unadorned truth be told to all who come and visit. Let no-one try and deny what has taken place here.

I didn’t know how I was going to react to all of this. I thought I might completely lose it, and break down in tears. This does not happen, and I am thankful for it. Instead, our reaction, though no less powerful, is more considered. As we walk through the exhibition rooms (stark, haunting photos, taken while the massacre was actually happening), I ruminate on what circumstances could have led a bunch of ordinary kids (young, uneducated, bewildered, terrified, brutalised, brainwashed, drugged up, hopelessly lost) to commit such terrible crimes. In the whole platoon, there was only one dissenter, who shot himself in the foot rather than participate in the slaughter. In the same situation, would I have been the lone dissenter, or would I have been one of the killers? Do we all have this capacity for savagery buried deep within ourselves? These are awful questions to contemplate, and this is not the place for finding answers to them. This is a place for bearing witness, and for ensuring that some events are never forgotten about. Ultimately, and unexpectedly, it feels like a privilege to be here.

Vietnam – Day 8.

K rolls in late (around 4am) from the Tam Tam Bar, where he has been getting royally plastered with Leonardo De Caprio and Terry-Thomas. Something about his demeanour tells me to be vigilant for the next few hours. Sure enough: between 4am and 7am, he makes no less than four separate attempts to leave our room. Still asleep, you understand. It’s the old, familiar equation: large amounts of alcohol + unfamiliar surroundings = sleepwalking, out of the room and away into the night. This wouldn’t be so bad if he owned a pair of pyjamas, or slept in his boxers. Thankfully, I am able on each occasion to steer him away from the main door, thus saving him from the harsh glare of full public exposure.

Today is a quiet day in Hoi An; a chance for the group to recharge their batteries prior to the long days of travel to come. K and some of the others are booked in for a cookery lesson at the Hong Phuc restaurant; after an idle morning, I roll up around lunchtime and help them polish off the fruits of their labours. They have all been attentive and enthusiastic students, meaning that today’s lunch tastes almost as good as last night’s dinner in the same restaurant.

Hoi An is drenched in heavy rain today, but this has something of a beneficial effect, driving many of the tourists from the streets and allowing more of the natural charm of the old fishing port to emerge. You can get an idea of it on the pictures found on ReelChase about this fish market. Down at the waterfront, the covered market is looking particularly wonderful, especially the fish market. There don’t appear to be many insects in this country (we are even on the point of ditching the malaria tablets), which means that the raw cuts of meat and fish can sit out on open slabs, without getting covered in flies. Everything looks fresh and wholesome and succulent and delicious.

There are Internet cafés everywhere you go in this country. They are all full, with nearly all the screens seemingly opened to Hotmail. The Vietnamese love their Hotmail. Finally, and despite my best intentions, my will cracks. A few e-mails are sent home, and a quick message posted onto the Tag Board at Naked Blog. Blogger remains resolutely unopened, though – for that way madness lies.

Spotting a particularly facially hirsute backpacker, earnestly plodding down the rain-soaked streets in a hopeless quest for unspoilt authenticity, I mutter seditiously to K.

– See that? The ostentatious beard of the independent traveller. A classic example.
– That’s not a nice way to talk about Fraulein Dings-Bums’ lady friend, is it?

We collapse in giggles. Fraulein Dings-Bums and his partner are accompanied everywhere by a rather smart, well-groomed female companion, who never seems to say anything. Dear me; we can be nasty little madams at times. Especially when K has an almighty hangover, and I am coming down with some sort of mild stomach bug. In times of trial, it’s being nasty little madams that keeps us going…

In the evening, with the group left to its own devices for once, we have our first disappointing meal, consisting mainly of flavourless stodge floating in vast amounts of grease. As we have already become accustomed to tip-top cuisine at all times, this comes as a considerable disappointment. Luckily, my incipient stomach bug has already destroyed most of my appetite, which makes it easier for me to leave my food floating on its plate.

Hang on: who has just walked into the restaurant? Not…not…Fraulein Dings-Bums, transmitting the Secret Gay Signal with a significantly lesser degree of secrecy? Very well, then. K and I finally permit ourselves watery smiles and slightly raised hands, as Fraulein Dings-Bums, the partner and the “ostentatious beard” all swish upstairs. If things carry on like this, we may actually be talking to them by the time we reach Saigon…

Mudhoney / The Alchemysts / The Catheters, Nottingham Boat Club.

1. The Catheters. As they come from the same town (Seattle) and record for the same label (Sub Pop) as the headliners, The Catheters should be an ideal support act. We duly wander into the venue (and yes, it really is a boat club) to be confronted by some very intense shouty young men thrashing about the stage with copious amounts of gusto (and, indeed, brio). It’s all very Punk Rock. Ooh, this looks good, we think.

Unfortunately, The Catheters turn out to be playing their last number. A shame, but we’ve still got two more bands to watch. In any case, two bands are plenty; more than that, and one might start to suffer from cultural indigestion.

2. The Alchemysts. I am full of initial goodwill for The Alchemysts (tonight’s token English band). “Psychedelic garage pop”, the reviews had said, and I could do with some of that tonight.

Nope, sorry. What follows is stolid, stodgy and dull. Various classic rock licks are unimaginatively re-hashed and served up cold, like yesterday’s lumpy porridge. The chord changes are teeth-grindingly predictable. The fake New York / mid-70s / CBGB’s singing voices quickly start to grate. Influences remain resolutely un-transcended. The crowd’s reaction dips from encouraging through to polite. Along with a large chunk of the audience, we eventually drift back to the bar.

3. Mudhoney. The original godfathers of Seattle Grunge are back in the UK for just four nights (this being the first of them), with their first proper new album in four years to promote; accordingly, their initial reception is thunderous.

The band start fantastically well: the whole room is going barmy, the mosh pit’s a-moshing, the head-nodders at the back are a-nodding, and the whole vibe is “return of the conquering heroes”. I am almost entirely unfamiliar with their work (which is one of the reasons I’ve come along to investigate), and I find myself wishing I could join in with the air-punching “OhmygodtheyreplayingTHISone” reaction of ecstatic recognition which greets some of the tunes.

The front man (Mark Arm) has the face of someone who has been to Hell and back, and come up smiling – the sort of face you’ll only find in rock and roll bands. He’s in a good mood, and the whole atmosphere is all very celebratory, very “up”. There is precious little of the expected tortured angst on display. It’s not very Grunge at all. At least, not for the first twenty minutes or so…

None of the above, then, has prepared me for the long slow slide which follows, as Mudhoney grind inexorably on, and on, and on. They are skull-crushingly heavy. The songs are getting slower, more angst-ridden, and decidedly Grunge-like. I am soon reminded of why I let the movement largely pass me by in the early 90s. The mosh pit is no longer moshing (much). It has all become something of an endurance test.

Which makes the final encore (two songs) even more of a surprise. Whaddya know? Mudhoney are suddenly completely FANTASTIC all over again – right “out there” – going at it full throttle – blisteringly, intoxicatingly raw and riveting. The crowd are going apeshit, with even some of the head-nodders attempting some last minute mini-moshing of their own. The final tune is something which the band had recorded for a John Peel session the previous night. Apparently, it’s a cover of a song by an British band, which we are all supposed to recognise. The best guess we can come with is latter-day Primal Scream. Anyway, who cares, it’s FANTASTIC.

Our final consensus (all five of us): short sets can be GOOD things. Most of us are still nursing fond memories of The Libertines earlier in the year, who played for not much more than half an hour, and yet delivered a perfect performance. Keep it short, keep it snappy, keep it Punk Rock, and ditch that bloated mid-set sag!

Vietnam – Day 7.

It’s a long drive in the minibus from Hué to Hoi An. Luckily, the scenery is spectacular, as we trundle through the mountains, catching glimpses of the ocean. I’m still trying to plough through White Teeth, but there are too many competing distractions going on outside the window.

There are also plenty of stops along the way. At Danang, a museum full of mad Hindu stone sculptures: rampant dragons, elephant deities, multi-bosomed goddesses, and more phallic symbols than you could shake a stick at. At lunchtime, a quiet, vast, unspoilt beach (unfortunately, K and I are not Beach People, so we bury ourselves under a parasol and try not to snarl too obviously). Mid-afternoon, the Marble Mountains: a spectacular network of mist-laden caves, Buddhist temples and slippery tunnels.

The Marble Mountains are also home to the most aggressively persistent sellers of marble goods on the planet. As soon as we get off the bus, we are engulfed by a swarm of young women, one for each member of the group. “What’s your name?” “Marble, you want to buy?” “OK, maybe later! Maybe later!”

All the street sellers say this in Vietnam. Maybe later! Maybe later! Then, when they see you again (and they always see you again), the words are thrown back in your face. You said later! You promised! It’s all very playful, though – very good-natured, always with a smile on the face, and people will take No for an answer. Compared to the seriously irksome street hassles we endured in Egypt, it’s a breeze.

However, the Marble Ladies are a breed apart. As we exit the Marble Mountain complex, which is a good 20 minutes’ walk from the entrance, there they all are, waiting for us. Each one of them has remembered the name of their prey. Mike! Mike! Over here! You buy! You buy! You said Maybe Later! You promised! Again, we are surrounded. The Marble Ladies are grabbing and pulling at us, or slapping our arms (hard) for added emphasis. Keep smiling. Don’t get riled. It’s all a game.

It has been observed throughout the group that I consistently seem to be getting proportionally less street hassle than anyone else. People ask me to share the secret of my success. I pause to consider. Well – I never make prior eye contact with the vendor, and I never look at the goods for sale. If approached, I say “No thank you”, just once, politely but firmly. As I do so, I make direct eye contact with the vendor. At the same time, I give them my broadest, most open smile, while slowly shaking my head through about 90 degrees, and slowly raising my right hand in a kind of “stop the traffic” gesture. It seems to work, every time. I am asked to demonstrate my technique to the group. Maybe this will work for them – or maybe it’s just because the vendors all have excellent emotional intelligence, and have recognised me for the curmudgeonly, tight-fisted old git that I truly am.

Having said all this – of course I buy the occasional trinket, or set of postcards, along the way. You have to. People’s livelihoods depend on stuff like this. However, I’m a hopeless haggler. I just can’t play the game. People see through me in an instant. I resign myself to paying over the odds, and remind myself that this is still an outrageously low sum.

K and I have lucked out in Hoi An. While some of the group are consigned to cramped, noisy, airless basement cells, we languish in our very own mini-suite, with polished panelling and heavy traditional furniture, all in rich dark woods. Perhaps, in retrospect, we shouldn’t have mentioned this to the rest of the group…

Hoi An is the prettiest town in Vietnam, its well preserved 17th and 18th century buildings fairly dripping with old world charm. However, it is clearly changing fast. The main streets of the old town are largely given over to tourist shops and restaurants, and there are Australian backpackers everywhere. This hasn’t spoilt the intrinsic beauty of the town just yet – but I don’t have a particularly good feeling about the future.

In the evening, in a simple looking establishment on the waterfront, we enjoy our best meal of the entire trip. None of the meals we have eaten so far have been anything less than excellent, but this place scales new heights. Excuse me while I plug it: Hong Phuc, 86 Bach Dang St. Tel. 0510 862567. E-mail: hongphuc1990@yahoo.com.au. The tiny little scallops are particularly spectacular.

We round off the evening in Tam Tam, a wildly popular French-run backpacker bar which plays fabulous jazz-funk and French reggae. Oh look! Over there, in the corner! Fraulein Dings-Bums! Enchanté!

Vietnam – Day 6.

There’s a gay German couple in the hotel breakfast room. One of them clocks me and K, and immediately starts trying to transmit the Secret Gay Signal. At breakfast? I ask you. How wearing!

K and I have several comedy alter-egos. One of our favourites: the two jaded Northern queens.
– Just look at ‘er! Madam in the check shirt and glasses!
– She’s a one, int’ she? Radar Eyes, or what?
– She’s never off duty, is that one.
– Well, she’s not fookin gerrin’ any, that’s for sure.
– Too right she’s fookin not!
– Don’t look, you’ll only encourage her.

Around our group, the rice wine hangovers are kicking in, big time. None of us had factored in the sheer strength of the brew – although in retrospect, the fact that it was poured out from a plastic water bottle might have been some sort of clue.

As a result, we are not in the best condition for a lengthy morning tour of the Hué Citadel, with one of those earnest local guides who insist on giving you the precise facts and figures for everything. We are a shockingly reluctant and inattentive group, almost to the point of embarrassment (“Poor man! What must he think of us all!”).

Right in the middle of the Citadel complex, we come to the Forbidden City. Modelled on its Beijing equivalent, this sumptuous palace used to house the emperors of Vietnam. In what is known locally as “The American War”, 95% of the Forbidden City was destroyed by the US forces in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968. It is a shocking discovery.

The Citadel complex has now been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and there are plans to rebuild the Forbidden City in its entirety. In the meantime, rice and vegetables are being farmed on the waste ground. This sticks in my mind as one of the best metaphors for the character of the nation:
Tragedy. Beautiful, historic buildings are destroyed in a bloody conflict.
Stoicism. The Vietnamese shrug their shoulders, and set about rebuilding them from scratch.
Practicality. But in the meantime, as there’s no point in letting perfectly good land go to waste, they’ll grow rice and vegetables.

At the Tu Duc mausoleum, we spot the German couple again. The one in the glasses clocks us, and immediately recommences transmission.
– I’ve got a name for her now.
– What’s that then?
– It’s German for Miss Thing.
– What’s that then?
Fraulein Dings-Bums.
– Love it…

In the afternoon, my absolute highlight of the entire trip. Mr. Hoài has arranged a motorbike trip for the whole group, through the fields and villages surrounding Hué. I’ve never been on the back of a motorbike before, so there is an element of overcoming fear to be factored into the experience – this only serves to heighten the sense of exhilaration. Our drivers weave us in and out of the city traffic, and out into the villages, where kids line the roads, shouting Hello at us and high-fiving us as we scoot past. We are seeing Vietnamese life as it really is. I am ecstatic with delight.

Vietnam – Day 5.

The bloody awful Vietpop music starts blaring through the carriage at 6am, an hour and twenty minutes before we reach our destination. The music is so loud that it’s distorting through the speakers. There are very few things which I dislike about this country, but the local pop music is one of them (along with the humidity, and the lack of soft cushions). Actually, most of it isn’t even “local” – it’s all made by ex-pats living in L.A., and re-imported via the likes of MTV Asia. Without this set-up, and with the bootleg CD trade as big as it is, none of the artists would ever get paid.

K and J-Lo are in foul moods. J-Lo mentions that she hasn’t slept all night. I make a tactical error and confess to having had a few hours’ kip. J-Lo snaps back: “Oh, stop bragging about it, would you?” Brenda Blethyn pops a cheery head round the door: “Good morning!”. K glares back at her.“F**k off!” Strange as it may sound, these two exchanges actually seal our respective friendships for the rest of the trip.

We all feel like we’ve been slowly basting ourselves in our own chip fat. We all feel disgusting. The washing facilities on the train are, naturally, rudimentary in the extreme. We cannot wait to get to the hotel in Hué.

It turns out that there’s a great little pavement café next door to the hotel, which becomes our regular hang-out for the next couple of days. Excuse me while I plug it: Hoài Café, 35 Hai Bà Trung, Tel: 054.830860. The perpetually cheerful and solicitous owner, Mr. Hoài, becomes everybody’s new friend. Once showered and changed, we congregate around a long table and breakfast on rice noodle soup.

It’s only Day 5, but I have already become completely addicted to rice noodle soup at breakfast time. Up until now, I have always found it difficult to face food for the first hour of every day – but rice noodle soup has got through to me where all other breakfast foodstuffs have failed. I could feast on it every day. Here is a golden business opportunity just waiting to happen back home: a chain of Vietnamese breakfast bars, all doing rice noodle soup. Someone should do it. With the right marketing, it could catch on, big time.

We take off on a cyclo tour of Hué, which is our tour leader’s favourite city in Vietnam. Cyclos are like rickshaws: you recline comfortably in front, shaded by a canopy, while your driver pedals you along the streets on a three wheeler. It’s the best way to see the city when you’re still feeling weary, and it’s wonderful to be part of the mad flow of traffic, down at street level. There are almost no cars here: just two-wheelers and cyclos. Hué is a gentler, simpler, more relaxed place than Hanoi; it still bears the more conservative, traditional feel of the North.

Squeezed into one cyclo, a young family group passes by in the other direction: father, mother and baby. They have the same quiet serenity which I have observed time and again over the past few days. They make such a lovely family that I find I cannot help but beam as they go by. The mother spots this, and catches my eye, and beams straight back at me. For a second or so, there is a complete communion between us, as our respective states of contentment become momentarily enmeshed. A few seconds later, in the midst of the traffic, an elaborately decorated coffin passes by, sitting on a cycle cart, on its way to be delivered somewhere. Birth and death, both gone in a flash.

There’s an afternoon boat trip down the “Perfumed River”. The boat is staffed by a young married couple, with a cheeky toddler in tow. Between the ages of around three and five, most Vietnamese children have the most delightfully strong characters: playfully bold and impish, you can’t help but love them. This kid is a prime example; everyone is taking his photo, and he’s loving the attention. As the boat sets sail, his older sister waves him goodbye from the shore. He doesn’t want to leave her. He starts crying, as toddlers tend to do. It doesn’t last long. However, his parents’ reaction is interesting, brief as it is (and easily missed): they look visibly embarrassed. Overt public displays of emotion do not take place in Vietnamese society, as they are seen as “losing face” – and this even applies to toddlers, it would seem. This isn’t self-repression; it’s self-control; a subtle but important difference. Thus by the age of around six, the vast majority of Vietnamese children are calm, well-behaved creatures, with sensible heads on their shoulders, busily making themselves useful. There is no sentimentality attached to childhood here. Nor are children afforded any special protection; they are streetwise from the moment they can walk (which is OK, because the streets here are safe and crime-free). This particular kid is happily running round all parts of the boat, with no fear on his part or on his parents’ part. He is trusted from the outset.

As we pass under one of the main bridges, teeming with traffic in both directions, I notice that only two people are crossing it on foot. A European or American couple, they look every inch the “independent travellers”. No cyclos for them at “tourist rip-off” rates (around 60p or 70p a journey, in fact); they look doggedly determined to trudge the streets of Hué by foot alone, through the heat and humidity. The man is half a dozen paces in front of the woman. They both look thoroughly miserable. They both notice our colourfully painted vessel passing below, and visibly frown at the “false”, “touristy” frivolity on display.

The Thien Mu pagoda, and its accompanying Buddhist monastery, and its surrounding formal gardens, are all exquisitely beautiful, in a naturally harmonious and un-showy way. K and I are both utterly captivated by the atmosphere of calm. K has one of his periodic “I want to be a monk!” moments, and our usual well-rehearsed comic banter ensues. Back in London, The Hempel hotel had boasted of a “Zen garden”. Compared to the real thing in front of us now, its clueless pretentiousness now lies completely exposed. We also make amused comparisons with the suburban “Zen garden” makeovers which are so beloved of British television programmes. However, this still does not stop us from snapping loads of detailed “inspiration shots”, ready for when we get back to Nottingham (our long neglected yards are in need some drastic re-planning).

In the evening, a celebratory meal in honour of Gabriel Byrne’s birthday (and his honeymoon with Demi Moore). The best squid I have ever tasted, anywhere. We all get totally hammered on tiny amounts of the local rice wine, and stay up way past our bedtimes at the Hoài Café. This has been the best day yet, despite its inauspicious and painful start. I bloody love this country.

Vietnam – Day 4.

It’s a long drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay and back, but the boat trip proves to be well worth it. We slowly weave our way round countless rocky islands; they are tall and steep, lush and verdant, dramatic and other-worldly. Sizeable portions of the film Indochine were shot out here, particularly on Dau Go (“Dragon Island”).

The heavy rain has stopped just in time, and the sun makes one of its very rare showings (the two weeks are mostly spent underneath a cloudy sky, for which I am most grateful; I’m hot enough as it is, and have no wish to slather myself in protective gunk). We sit on the top deck and zone out, gazing into the middle distance with dippy smiles on our faces.

The two caves on Dau Go are cavernous and spectacular, with stalactites and stalagmites a-go-go. The first cave is illuminated with cheesy coloured lighting (which only I seem to like), and is packed with gawping boat trippers. The second cave is naturally lit, much emptier, every bit as dramatic, and much more atmospheric. Inside the second cave, K snaps away for all he’s worth; meanwhile, I have decided to leave my digicam in the suitcase until the last night. He creates “visual essays” on top quality slide film – I do cheerful point ‘n snap people shots, when we’ve all had a drink or two. I call this “complementary skills”.

The overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hué starts off as a giggle, and ends up as an ordeal. It’s a giggle while we’re drinking beer and playing cards; it’s an ordeal when we realise that the air conditioning in our compartment is malfunctioning. Through the night, the compartment grows progressively hotter and stickier. On the top bunks, where it’s marginally cooler, Brad Pitt and I manage to doze fitfully, after a fashion. On the lower bunks, where it’s roasting, K and Jennifer Lopez get no sleep whatsoever.

Vietnam – Day 3.

Leonardo de Caprio has researched, written up, copied and distributed a “suggested walk” round the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Town, so K and I give it a whirl. It’s a revelation – especially the street markets, which are so easy to miss otherwise. Everywhere you go, families are sitting on the pavement on those dinky little kindergarten chairs, tucking into the freshest looking, most exotic, most delicious food you’ve ever seen. It’s a nation of food lovers. It’s our kind of place.

Before the holiday, I read an article about Hanoi titled A Day in the Life of Hang Bo Street, which perfectly sums up the experience of walking through the Old Town. In particular, I am struck by the way that entire streets are given over to shops which all sell the same merchandise: paper lanterns, Chinese medicinal herbs, cooking implements, motorcycle seats. It must have been the same in medieval England.

For although the country now appears to be largely Communist in name only (they have had their own glasnost/perestroika), and although the spirit of free enterprise clearly prevails, there is still a strongly overriding spirit of co-operation to be found. No-one seems to have thought of opening a paper lantern shop on a different street, to corner the market in a new part of town. It just wouldn’t be fair play. What’s more: if a storekeeper has run out of a certain stock item, it is more than likely that a neighbouring storekeeper will lend him some of his own stock to sell, until the next delivery. How strange and wonderful is that to a Western sensibility?

Vietnam is also a country of artists. There are art galleries everywhere we go. To our surprise, most of the paintings are heavily influenced by the old French school – Gauguin, Chagall, the Impressionists. The period of French colonial rule has clearly left an impact – and of course, a French street scene must seem as exotic to a Vietnamese sensibility as the Far East does to the likes of us. However, these influences are generally a little too heavy-handed for our liking (although we do eventually start to “get our eye in”).

Therefore, we seize upon the works of Le Thiet Cuong (hanging in a chic little galley on To Tich street) with particular delight. He is part of a new generation of Vietnamese artists, who are at last finding their own visual voice (if you, er, see what I’m saying). True, there is a marked Paul Klee influence, but there is also something identifiably Vietnamese about Cuong’s work (this becomes more apparent as the trip progresses). We buy a canvas, which is taken off its frame and stretcher, and securely rolled up for us, as well as his monograph.

In the afternoon, a long coach drive up to Halong Bay, and our first real experience of Vietnamese road etiquette. Of which more later, but suffice it to say for now that, if you have ever been in a car in Malawi, then nothing that Vietnamese traffic can throw at you can make you so much as flinch. While the rest of our group gasp and cover their eyes at each fresh potential “incident”, we sit there stoically, keeping faith.

I am going to have to learn how to eat fresh crab better than this. Meat is flying everywhere, except into my mouth. My fingers are stinging with the juices, and from repeated jabs from stray fragments of claw. I am getting stressed out with the effort, while next to me, K is doing a superbly professional job. Smug bastard!

I also appear to be back on the cigs. Oh well, it’s a holiday. Over here, Marlboro Lights are anything but light. In fact, they’re delicious. Long, stong and pure, with none of that horrible rancid chemical aftertaste. Could this have anything to do with the multinational tobacco firms seeking to penetrate new markets by first getting them all hooked on the decent stuff, before downgrading it to the shit that the rest of the world smokes? I really couldn’t say.

Vietnam – Day 2.

Conceptually, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is very much like the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. You stand in line for ages, and eventually you’ll get to file reverentially past a recumbent waxwork, in 30 seconds flat. Except that the Lenin mausoleum looks like a mere Portakabin compared to Uncle Ho’s vast edifice. I guess this means that – when it comes – Fidel Castro’s will be the size of a football stadium. Gotta keep up, boys!

Actually, I shouldn’t be too sneery. Filing past the body of the spiritual father of modern day Vietnam was a surprisingly moving experience. I definitely felt some sort of ocular pricking sensation, as I thought to myself, “Well, Ho old boy – you did it, didn’t you? You saw off Uncle Sam! Respect!”

This serves me right for never researching stuff in advance (I like the thrill of surprises too much, you see – nothing to do with congenital intellectual laziness at all, honest). As I later found out, Uncle Ho actually popped his clogs in 1969 – well before the routing of Uncle Sam in the mid-1970s. So the ocular pricking was a tad misplaced after all. Ah well, plenty more chances for that sort of thing later in the trip.

As for Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh museum: never before have I visited a museum that was quite so stark, staring bonkers, albeit in a wholly endearing way. They had clearly given some Vietnamese Stephen Bayley type complete conceptual and artistic freedom to do whatever he wanted, and the result was…bizarre. Instead of a boring old chronological biography of the great man’s life and times, various attempts had been made at “symbolic representations” of the preoccupations of his era. There was a lot of badly reproduced Dada/Surrealism – giant fish, that sort of thing – on account of Ho’s early years in Paris. Unfortunately, it all looked like a poorly executed GCSE art project. There was a giant bowl of artificial fruit, resting on a wonky table, to represent “the spirit of the youth of Vietnam”, or some such. No, me neither. Great fun, anyway.

In the evening, we sit on tiny plastic kindergarten chairs on the pavement (these are ubiquitous, throughout the entire country), and witness our only street brawl of the trip. Predictably, it involves a drunken Englishman watching the football on TV (English soccer is big in Vietnam). No police arrive, and the brawl soon sorts itself out. We never really see many police. The country is so peaceful, and so crime-free, that they don’t seem to be needed much.

Vietnam – Day 1.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which opened just 4 years ago, is quiet, spotlessly clean, and the most beautiful airport building I have ever been to. The architectural design is dramatic and harmonious, and I feel like I’m in a Wallpaper* magazine spread.

In Hanoi, the members of our tour group introduce themselves to each other. This is our fourth trip with Explore Worldwide, and it becomes immediately apparent that this is the best group yet. We gel almost instantly. If there is any animosity between any of the group members over the next two weeks – which I doubt – then it is kept very well hidden.

During the second week, we all cast ourselves in the film version of the holiday – a classic murder mystery, with group members disappearing one by one in grisly circumstances. The cast list reads as follows.

Leonardo De Caprio (tour leader). Best tour leader we’ve ever had, by miles and miles. Handsome (very), friendly, easy-going, personable, sensitive to the needs of the group, committed, organised, efficient, knowledgeable, and did I mention handsome?

Brad Pitt (pop music TV producer) and Jennifer Lopez (teacher). Pop music celebrity gossip ahoy! Actually, I was admirably (and uncharacteristically) restrained in this area (sorry, Chig). I did find out this much, though. More friendly, genuine and down to earth than you’d ever expect them to be: Victoria Beckham, Steps. Demanding prima donna bitch from hell: Suzanne from Hear’say. Worst case of acne you’ve ever seen in your life: Ricky Martin.

Steve McQueen (architect) and Nicole Kidman (teacher). We bonded over art and design type things.

Gabriel Byrne (cattle farmer) and Demi Moore (GP turned public health policy maker). From Western Ireland, and on their honeymoon with 11 complete strangers.

Brenda Blethyn (teacher) and her colleague Bette Davis (teacher). Living in North West London, Jewish, gregarious, hilarious and razor-sharp, Brenda reminded me so strongly of a certain London blogger that I actually had to drop the blogger’s name into the conversation, just to check whether they knew each other (they didn’t). Bette Davis came down with a nasty eye infection halfway through the trip, and had to spend the second week wearing dark glasses at all times; this gave her an appealing “woman of mystery” allure.

Terry-Thomas (army major). Took him a while to twig that K and I were a couple. Don’t think he’d spent much time in the company of gay blokes before. Didn’t make a scrap of difference in the long run – the three of us remained firm drinking buddies throughout the entire trip, usually the last to bed most evenings.

Jeanne Moreau (former Bolivian revolutionary, now a schoolmistress at a top girls’ boarding school). One of our most consistently fascinating and well-informed conversationalists.

Ralph Fiennes (systems developer) and Richard E. Grant (company director). Two drunken poofs who liked their food.

Leonardo De Caprio takes us outside, onto the busy street, and shows us how to cross the road. This is basically a triumph of faith over instinct. As there are never any gaps in the traffic, you simply have to step out into the road and keep walking at a steady pace. Miraculously, the traffic will somehow weave round you. It’s counter-intuitive, and initially fairly terrifying – but it works.

The Hempel, then.

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Well, let’s make it official: we have now completely had it with so-called “boutique hotels”. From now on, give me comfort and service over style, every time. For although The Hempel was undeniably stylish to look at – in the main lobby, jaw-droppingly so – there was very little of any substance behind any of this. The staff were good on smiles and sartorial smartness, but fairly hopeless at actually doing what was required of them. And at these prices, I feel fully entitled to be pernickity…

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Item: Part of the deal on our room meant that we would be greeted with a complementary glass of champagne in the so-called “Zen garden”. This was never offered. Eventually, after several requests and a long wait, we finally managed to secure a couple of glasses of indifferent fizz in the bar. Unfortunately, banging on about a couple of poxy free glasses of champagne in a “boutique hotel” is not a good look, and we should have been spared the humiliation.

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Item: After half an hour or so in our room, we received a courtesy phone call asking if everything was all right, and whether there was anything we needed. All very impressive, except we made the mistake of actually asking for something. Firstly, where were our free glasses of champagne? Oh, you’d have to ask reception about that. Secondly, could we have an iron and ironing board (our finery needed a good zhooshing)? Yes, of course. Half an hour later, still no iron. Another phone call to housekeeping – would it be much longer? Twenty minutes later, a very un-Zen like iron and ironing board are delivered – both battered to buggery, and coated in black gunk. We leave the iron and board outside in the corridor when we’re finished. The next morning, fourteen hours later, they’re still sitting there, completely destroying the whole minimalist design shtick.

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Item: The small hotel bar is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever visited, and filled with the sort of shrill nincompoops that I would normally go to great lengths to avoid. It is almost impossible to get served. I ask for the hotel’s speciality cocktail: the Sakepolitan. The barman has never heard of it. Later, it is completely impossible to settle the bill, so K sorts it out at reception and we leave for dinner downstairs, already half an hour late. The barman catches up with us in the lobby, flustered and breathless with the exertion, to extract payment – even though we had already given him our room number when securing the glasses of cheap fizz earlier on.

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The hotel restaurant is Italian/Thai fusion, if you please. It’s dark, uncomfortable and quite loud, with an annoyingly harsh acoustic. The service is big on smiles, but low on polish – our initial order for mineral water is completely bungled. The food is imaginatively and immaculately presented, but so rich that I am unable to finish my main course, and end up suffering from indigestion during the night. Credit where it’s due, though: the wine turns out to be excellent, and surprisingly good value.

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And to be fair: the room itself is absolutely gorgeous (despite K’s initial plaintive wail: “I’m sure there are better rooms than this!”). In particular, the bed linen is a masterpiece of artful fabric folding, and the bed itself is one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in. However, the trouble with High Minimalism is this: it is also High Maintenance. If you’re not prepared to rigorously keep up that pristine appearance, then the ensuing scuff marks, chips and cracks are sadly all too obvious. Having said that, we actually quite liked the slightly faded, battered appearance. There was something a bit Raddled Seventies Glamourpuss about it, which seemed rather appropriate (all we needed was the suspended wicker basket chair). The bathroom was fairly grim, though. The shower was poky and claustrophobic, with one of those annoyingly over-friendly shower curtains which sticks to your skin, and the loo wouldn’t flush properly – at least, not without sustained and vigorous tugging.

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In one of the cupboards, there are oxygen canisters. For sale. At twenty quid a pop. Fine, if you’re Michael Jackson. You can also avail yourself of the Hempel’s special “treatments” – aromatherapy, reflexology and the like – for eighty-five quid an hour. We are not tempted.

In summary? Superficial, pretentious, over-priced, and very slightly past its peak. But having said all that, quite good fun. I’m glad we had the experience, but we won’t be back.

“Daddy, what’s sex?”

A cute story from Sasha about her childhood sex education reminds me of this little episode.

Late 1960s. Having successfully spearheaded a campaign to save the Chesterfield Canal from closure, my father is now chairman of the Retford and Worksop Boat Club. This weekend, at the club’s headquarters (the White Swan at Drakeholes), we are playing host to the Wolverhampton Boat Club, who are on an official visit. Their boats have been arriving over the past week, and are now all moored up in the basin, in readiness for the visit. On the Saturday morning, my father goes round them all on a tour of inspection, his young son Michael in tow.

In the cabin of one of the visiting boats, a joke eye-chart is hanging up:

T O


O M U C


H S E X I S


B A D F O R Y O


U R E Y E S I G H T

There it is again. That word! It’s such a short word, and yet I still don’t know what it means. I love words. I’m an avid reader, devouring books which are really meant for children older than me, and I’m not used to being stumped by something so easy. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

Later that same morning, the official coach from Wolverhampton pulls up, and the deputation disembarks. My father steps forward from our group to welcome them. There is one of those slightly awkward silences which is characteristic of such occasions.

At this precise moment, I run forward and pipe up.

“Daddy, what’s sex?”

The awkward silence is intensified. In the late 1960s, this situation doesn’t yet play very well as comedy. We are, after all, English. My father is forced to reply in front of the entire assembled throng.

“Not now, Michael. I’ll tell you later.”

The day progresses satisfactorily, and it is now time for our visitors to depart. Once again, we are all standing by the coach, waiting for my father to make the official farewell address. Once again, there is one of those slightly awkward silences. Once again – at this precise moment – young Michael runs forward and pipes up.

“It’s all right, Daddy! There’s no need to tell me now! This little girl from Wolverhampton has told me all about it!”


Ten years later, I am a gawky, self-conscious adolescent, living his life in an almost constant state of embarrassment. For the second time, we are due an official visit from the Wolverhampton Boat Club. The weekend before, my father tells me this story – clearly, he has decided that I am old enough to hear it at last. It’s undeniably funny – but frankly, it sounds just a little bit too cute to be true. Maybe he has embellished it for effect? In any case, I plead with him not to mention the story to anyone from Wolverhampton the following weekend.

In the club house (now relocated to Clayworth), my father makes a welcoming speech to the assembled throng. I am sitting right at the back of the room, in my customary chocolate brown polo neck sweater, head bowed. These are my father’s opening words:

“Well, as my son is in the room, I won’t remind you all of what happened on your last visit…”

A cheerful Brummie voice immediately pipes up.

“Something about sex and a little girl from Wolverhampton, wasn’t it?”

The entire room convulses in uproarious laughter and applause, as heads turn to locate me. My face is scarlet, and bowing ever lower. I will never forgive him. Never, do you hear! Never!

Neil Diamond – Nottingham Arena – July 23 2002.

So, still reeling from the shock that I would be seeing him tonight, I swing by Virgin on the way home to pick up some revision material. There’s a new TV-advertised compilation doing the rounds, but I go for something called The Greatest Hits 1966-1992. It’s in the sale, and the track listing is almost identical.

At home, I stick the CDs on while doing the ironing. The unfamiliar early 1960s hits sound good, but I’m looking forward to his early 1970s material the most.

Uh-oh. What’s this? Halfway through the first of the two CDs, the collection mutates into a live album. There is a ropey version of Red Red Wine which sounds like a cover of the UB40 cover. Then, one by one, his biggest hits are systematically murdered. The gravely, growling voice is shot to bits, the performances are hokey, the ad-libs too frequent, and the constant crowd noises irritating. Halfway through the second CD, we revert to studio versions, but the damage is done. Just what have I let myself in for?


He emerges onto the stage on a slowly ascending platform, clad in a sequinned midnight blue jerkin and Simon Cowell trousers. The hair is definitely all his own – in the middle of the third row, we are close enough to check. At certain angles, he has started to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bob Monkhouse. Still, he’s looking pretty good for his age (61). There’s a seventeen piece band behind him – string section, brass section, the works – nearly all of whom have been with him since the 1970s. Now there’s loyalty for you. It’s the first clue.

We are surrounded by the diehards. There are a lot of respectable looking middle aged ladies, beaming from ear to ear, who already know the exact drill for a Diamond show. When to stand up, when to sit down, when to flex, when to point, when to sway sideways, when to sing along, when to add backing vocals, when to applaud a particular line in the middle of a song – even when to make synchronised rowing motions. Seasoned, polished professionals. The ladies in front of us have already seen Diamond five times on his current tour. We take our cue from them for the rest of the show, flexing and pointing with the best of them. Hey, when you’re in Diamond Country, you have to honour its customs…

However, the audience is far more mixed than I was expecting. There is a teenage boy on the front row who knows all the words. There are loads of people in their twenties and thirties. The gender mix is maybe 40% male to 60% female, and the men are throwing themselves into the show with just as much enthusiasm as the women. We’re not dealing with a Barry Manilow situation here.

Diamond performs for two and a half hours solid, remaining on stage throughout, with only the briefest of disappearances before the encore. He sits down only twice, and takes very occasional sips from a single glass of water. His face trickles with thin lines of sweat, which are never wiped. I don’t even think he is aware of them. He is totally and utterly concentrated on his performance at all times.

The voice is in remarkable shape. It never deteriorates into the “gravel gargling” that I was expecting, and which I heard on the CD. Close your eyes, and it could be 1978. Maybe he’s looking after himself better these days. He may not have the widest of expressive ranges, but technically he’s flawless, as are his band. The sound quality is absolutely perfect, banishing bad memories of a muffled Roxy Music at the same venue last year.

This isn’t my kind of music, and beyond a certain nostalgic value, these aren’t really my kind of songs. Despite this, Diamond delivers one of the most flabbergasting, truly awesome shows I have ever seen. You don’t survive this long in show business without learning a thing or two about stage technique, and Diamond is a masterful performer. His secret lies in the extraordinary way with which he connects with his audience. This isn’t showbiz flash on his part, and it isn’t a Pavlovian response on his audience’s part. The reciprocation between performer and spectator is tangible, and real, and astonishing. Diamond feeds off his audience reaction. It fuels his entire performance. He is not satisfied with anything less than total absorption and enjoyment, from every single individual present. He positively demands it – but not in a preening, narcissistic, “You must love me!” Madonna style. He seeks to earn it anew, night after night. The more the audience gives, the more he gives back. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.

He works every inch of the stage, delivering – if necessary – whole songs to specific sections of the arena, until he gets the reaction he seeks. I can only resort to cliché: he has us eating out of the palm of his hand. There is a strange kind of mutual respect at work here. The gaily bopping Pats, Jeans and Margarets aren’t abasing themselves in idol worship. Instead, they seem oddly empowered. They are also having the absolute times of their lives, letting go without letting it all hang out. It is a delight to behold.

Diamond’s songs deal largely in stock sentiments, but the thing about stock sentiments is this: when properly expressed, they are universal. That is one of the true powers of popular music, and it should not be dismissed lightly. There is a fine line between populism and schlock. This line comes perilously close to being crossed during the perhaps inevitable September 11 tribute, with its dedication to the police officers, fire fighters and service personnel involved. I feel myself beginning to wince, as each group is applauded in turn. As the crowd applauds “those brave servicemen who risk their lives, every day”, the nice lady next to me notices my half hearted clapping and nudges me. “That’s us lot he’s talking about”, she says, smiling, and motions towards my hands. I don’t suppose she gets thanked very often by her heroes. She’s probably more used to the poorly concealed wincing. Anyway, we’re not applauding the institutions here – we’re applauding the individuals. The tribute song turns out to be He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I get the message.

Sweet Caroline is pure end-of-the-pier pantomime. It has become a raucous audience participation piece, which goes like this. Audience parts in capitals.

Sweet Caroline (WOH WOH WOH!)
Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)
I’ve been inclined (WOH WOH WOH!)
To believe they never would…

I fully expect either the Hermes House Band or DJ Otzi to pick up on this, and to release an annoying Europop Benidorm Anthem cover version any month now. Maybe they already have, and I just don’t move in the right circles.

However, it is Forever In Blue Jeans which is the one for me. Memories of the golden Summer of 79 come flooding back – of the boy I adored, who loved this song, meaning that I loved it too. We’re all on our feet, right to the back of the arena, giving it up for Neil.

He plays everything. You name it, it’s there – except for Song Sung Blue, the first song of his that I remember. Other than that, they’re all present and correct, and not buggered around with either. Even Red Red Wine and I’m A Believer, which were hits for other acts. The show seems never ending, and yet none of us (we compare notes later) can take our eyes off Neil at any point. I scarcely register the presence of most of the other band members. Compelling, charismatic, spellbinding. He could take us any place he wanted.

Towards the very end, he almost does just that. The platform at the front of the stage rises up like a pulpit, as Neil suddenly comes on like a crazed tub-thumping preacher man, delivering a bizarre sermon which starts off tongue-in-cheek, and ends up largely sincere. There is something about raising your hands if you truly believe in the Lord above. Hands are shooting up everywhere, without hesitation. Yikes. I am surrounded. It’s a little bit scary, and I have no trouble resisting this time. It’s the one time when the manipulation becomes overt, and the individuality of the crowd is submerged in hysteria. I don’t care for it much.

There was a cartoon in a recent Private Eye showing an ageing star sitting in an office, with a brash young man behind the desk. The young man is saying “Basically, you’ve got two choices. You can retire, or you can become ironic.” Neil Diamond has elected to do neither. 40 years in the business, and he’s still at the top of his game. I would love to know how many of today’s young pop pups will be able to do likewise.