And so, on the Friday, after four virus-stricken days of what I can only assume was some sort of divine punishment for attempting to bore the arses off my readers, I finally showed up for work. It was then that I realised that this had been the first week in over six months where being off sick wouldn’t have caused huge deadline problems. What an impressively organised immune system I must have.
I leave the office at 16:00, and head straight for the railway station, where I hook up with K. A pleasant journey ensues, down in the “quiet zone” at the far end of the train (it’s always worth making the extra journey down to the end of Platform 5). Arriving at St. Pancras station, we are surprised to find ourselves in a brand new building which has been attached to the end of the original Victorian structure (now closed). All this unexpected newness is most disorientating. We jump into a taxi and head off for the newly opened Malmaison hotel in Farringdon (on Charterhouse Square, near Smithfield market). Yes, it’s another of those dreaded “boutique hotels”– but, well, look: we had recently stayed in the Birmingham Malmaison and enjoyed it a lot, and our “free bed in Brixton” mates were away for the weekend, and K had found a special weekend deal, and, and, and… So OK, we never learn. But please allow us our materialistic delusions; for they bring us great happiness. Nirvana through shallowness, remember?
Anyway, the hotel is suitably well-appointed (all low-lit clear surfaces in regulation dark brown), the staff are charming (at the reception desk, a sewing kit is procured within seconds) and the room is delightful (ooh, jasmine and geranium body wash!). We unpack and head straight out again, reaching the Royal Festival Hall in good time. Out of the office at four; sipping a G&T at the RFH by ten past seven. This is all going so smoothly! We should do this more often!
The support act is a guitarist and singer from Cadiz called Javier Ruibal, who performs with a second guitarist and a young percussionist. Together, they deliver a stunning set – full of energy, spirit and skill, and far in excess of anything which we might have imagined from a support act.
Another G&T later, and we are back in our seats (fifth row, dead centre, level with the stage) for Omara Portuondo, the 73-year old Cuban singer who achieved global recognition on the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club project. With the death last year of both Ruben Gonzales and Compay Segundo, only two of the film’s big names are still with us (the other being the incomparable Ibrahim Ferrer); we had therefore booked seats as soon as we found out about them, keen to experience at least one of the remaining performers while there was still a chance.
As Omara is helped onto the stage from the wings, her physical frailty is immediately evident. The moment that she reaches centre stage, spotlights upon her, all traces of that frailty disappear. The moment that she opens her mouth for the first song, both K and I burst into tears.
(Honestly, what are we like? A generation ago, we might just as easily have been swooning over Shirley Bassey or Dorothy Squires. “Shiz a fookin STAR, intshi? Shiz built erself up from NOOTHING, and NOOTHING can take that away from er now; NOOTHING!“)
Omara and her fifteen(?) piece Cuban band (containing such great musicians as the nattily togged Papa Oviedo, master of the “tres” guitar) proceed to thrill and delight us for the next hour and three quarters. During some of the better known dance numbers, various members of the audience spontaneously leap out of their seats and start dancing in front of the stage – prompting K to hiss in my ear: “They’ve obviously all been to their salsa classes on Friday nights, then.” As indeed they probably have; but oh, how wonderful it must be to be able to dance with the skill that the best of them are displaying. (My own skill levels begin with sweaty pogoing, end with hands-in-the-air raving, and are probably best confined to wedding discos and dodgy podiums in provincial gay clubs on school nights.)
During one of the massed dancing sessions, a member of the audience hands Omara a large bouquet of cut flowers. With all the excitable glee of a slightly gawky teenager, she waves the bouquet above her head, showing it off to the rest of us like a trophy, the years visibly slipping away. (Indeed, she waves it around so vigorously that she manages to knock her microphone off its stand, sending it tumbling to the floor.) Throughout the show, her effusive character adds a pleasing degree of mild chaos to the proceedings. At the end of some of her livelier numbers, after the band have finished playing, she will keep the chorus going, acapella style – then bringing the rest of us in, singing and clapping along, building us up in volume – then turning and motioning to her band to join in for a spontaneous reprise. At the end of the show, we can see her at the edge of the stage, almost in the wings, refusing to leave until she can bring the band back on for two more numbers. We see her remonstrating with officials, pleading, insisting, refusing to take no for an answer, and finally getting her own way. A world class act. Music just doesn’t get better than this.
After the show, I pick up a text from David. He’s at the Two Brewers (a gay pub in Clapham with a dancefloor and a late licence) and we’re welcome to join him there. I put the suggestion to K; he is not keen. “Going to the Two Brewers after Omara Portuondo would be like finishing a gourmet meal with a Cornetto“, he declares, not inaccurately. Instead, we head back to the hotel bar for a couple of quiet beers (and, in my case, a nice Cuban cigar; well, it only seems fitting). Tomorrow is Art Day; we need clear heads and a reasonably early start.
My mother arrives in the early evening, bearing belated birthday presents: a picture book of 1960s fashions, and photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning The Earth from the Air. I explain that I have spent the day on sick leave, lolling about on the sofa and feeling sorry for myself. “Being a typical man, in other words“, is her brisk retort. A resolutely practical, unsentimental woman, she has little patience for weakness.
The three of us smarten ourselves up a bit and head for World Service. This is our third choice of restaurant; the weather is no longer suitable for sitting outside at the Martin’s Arms at Colston Bassett, and – to our great surprise – Harts is fully booked, even on a Monday. My concerns that World Service might be a shade too Urban Flash for my mother are swiftly confirmed; with no more than a couple of wry, under-stated remarks, accompanied by her instantly recognisable “I don’t think much of this but I’m far too polite to say so” expression, she scythes through its pretensions in minutes.
She is quite right, of course; this is a place which strains all too visibly to achieve a “fine dining experience”, without ever quite hitting the mark which it has rather self-consciously set for itself. It is a place where the staff feel the need to introduce the butter, for crying out loud:
“Let me tell you about today’s butter; it’s from Normandy, and we’ve seasoned it with a little natural sea salt, to bring out the flavour.” Puh-leeze, Louise.
Still, for all that, the food is pretty damned good – my smoked salmon ravioli slips down a treat, as does my beautifully smooth pan-fried calves liver and my scrummy “trio of chocolate”. By the end of the evening, the alcohol (1 gin & tonic, 1 kir, 1 glass of white, 2 glasses of red) has, as ever, provided temporary relief for my flu symptoms. In fact, I am so restored that I even suggest skipping the taxi and walking home instead.
Tuesday morning finds me in a considerably deteriorated state of health. After K leaves for his meeting at around 9:45, I finally heave myself out of bed and stagger downstairs to keep my mother company. We spend the morning drinking tea, flicking through the papers, and chatting amiably.
Mother explains that she has started writing a detailed set of memoirs about her childhood and adolescence: drafted in longhand, and then laboriously typed up on an electric typewriter. I suggest that she might benefit from a word processor; she only registers polite, tangential interest, claiming that her spending priorities currently lie elsewhere. Knowing that it will get neither of us anywhere, I decide to avoid the standard Tech-savvy Son Browbeats Tech-phobic Parent stand-off. Instead, I ask when I might be able to read the memoir (expecting it to be intended for purely private purposes), and am told that I may read it any time I like. I am intrigued; while doubting that there will be much in the way of emotional revelation, I can safely anticipate a wealth of accurate and well-researched factual detail (one of my mother’s strongest suits).
I ask why the memoir stops at the age of seventeen. (Mother married less than two years later, and gave birth to me less than two years after that.)
“I suppose that after 17, it became an altogether very… different sort of life“, I prod, smiling conspiratorially. We both know what my father was like.
“You could say that.” The smile is returned. We are on the borders of well-established territory here. No more needs to be said.
Taking a different direction, I prod further. “So, I guess that’s where boyfriends came into the picture?”
“Actually, before your father came along, there weren’t really any other boyfriends.” The smile has fractionally tightened.
“Oh. I hadn’t realised that.” I make a conscious attempt to confine both my surprise and my sympathy to within acceptable proportions. Emotional demonstrativeness has never been our particular modus operandi. Such matters may safely be alluded to – but to express them would be fearfully bad form.
After mother leaves, I return to bed – and spend the rest of the day, and the day after that, and the day after that, languishing in the sort of pointless, unproductive, ill-tempered tedium which, were it to be described in detail, would strain the patience of even my most devoted readers.
Dinner over (roast chicken, roast potatoes, purple broccoli spears from OldEngland & NewEngland’s garden; Elisabeth‘s delicious rhubarb crumble, dark and sweet and unctuous; a good bottle of Montagny; the most recent Stereolab album), we settle down in front of the second episode of the BBC’s new Trollope adaptation, He Knew He Was Right – in which Anna Massey’s magnificent “maiden aunt” character truly comes into her own. You can’t beat a decently constructed bonnet or two on a Sunday night – to say nothing of the chignons, which were incomparable.
Never mind the pollen count; this “hay fever” is starting to feel more like a full-on viral infection. An early, but restless night follows: sleep is fitful, dreams are of the relentlessly frustrating kind (I have a particularly tough time trying to find my seat at a Madonna concert), and my body feels about twice its normal weight. By the time the alarm goes off at 7:30, I feel like an inert lump of aching phlegm. Despite the urgency of the hour, it still takes me ten minutes to get out of bed.
Indeed, we are both slow this morning, not managing to get away until 8:45 (our cut-off time for leaving the cottage is usually 8:30). I still feel dreadful. During the course of the drive back to Nottingham, I cancel today’s dental appointment, and call in sick to work. Today wasn’t going to be especially busy, anyway.
Back in Nottingham, K goes upstairs to work while I flop on the living room sofa with the newspaper and a bunch of music DVDs. The Cesaria Evora concert from April 2001 turns out to be the best choice, its easy, rolling bonhomie somehow chiming in well with my physical and mental fogginess, and lifting my spirits accordingly. A bunch of us will be going to see her in Leicester next month; she may not be the most obviously charismatic of performers, but her band sound fantastic and my anticipation steps up a notch.
K’s business partner S turns up mid-morning; they stay upstairs talking until around 13:30, after which K nips out for sandwiches. We have lunch while watching a recent BBC4 documentary about the competition to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Although the six shortlisted artworks are uniformly dismal, the show’s sharp, irreverent presenter is consistently entertaining, with a perceptive, direct manner, bordering on faux-naivete, which frequently wrong-foots his more smug, self-important interviewees. It also acts as a pleasing counterfoil to the irritatingly uniform (indeed, newly conventional) faux-naivete of many of the shortlisted artists; how bored I have become of their Being There style of monosyllabic vapidity.
As the afternoon wears on, malaise sets in; I’m tired of music, tired of reading, tired of telly, and start flicking disconsolately through the channels. A variant on Changing Rooms entitled Sixty Minute Makeover amuses for a while; at least it makes no mental demands, and the sight of other people stressing up under ludicrous deadlines is oddly relaxing, even if it has all been staged for the cameras. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby fail to deliver – some “screwball” comedies date better than others – and before too long I have bottomed out, surfing backwards and forwards through the music channels. The new Faithless single (Mass Destruction) is a trite disappointment, which tries too hard to be topical and merely ends up spouting easy platitudes; to think that six years ago, they were my favourite band. The awfulness of the current Number One, Eamon’s F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back) is surpassed only by the “answer record”, Frankee’s F.U.R.B. – F U Right Back. The aural equivalent of Trisha, marketed mainly at sniggering pubescents (“tee-hee, they said f**k“), these two records threaten to bring out the latent Daily Mail reader in me (has popular culture come to this?).
I reach for the Off button, heave myself off the sofa, and shuffle off to prune the geraniums in the conservatory before my mother gets here. A highly organised woman with an efficiently well-regulated lifestyle, my mother’s exacting standards can sometimes feel a little intimidating, her visits requiring all the preparation of a tour of inspection by a member of the royal family. Like the royals, she would never actually be so rude as to actually pass comment on our domestic shortcomings; her manners are never anything less than impeccable. However, the slight flicker in the corner of her eyes, and the slight downward twitching of her mouth, would tell us all we needed to know. To give us only a day’s notice of her arrival is most unlike her. This evening, she is simply going to have to take us as she finds us.
Of course, I know full well that this is a form of cosmic payback for the perfect weekend which has just passed. As the heavens open outside, I heave a heavy sigh and soothe myself with happy images of budding tulips in the PDMG. Be brave, my little angels! We’ll be back amongst you tomorrow evening!
Back in the garden with The Observer, my concentration repeatedly lapses, as I find myself gazing in wonder at the tulips. “Have you ever seen plants look so happy?” asks K skittishly; grubby and blackened, he has spent the past hour or so polishing his black Alfa Spider with T-Cut, and generally smartening it up for sale. Having an open-top weekend run-around has been fun at times, but now we have the garden and the cottage is furnished, we find ourselves spending much less time in the car than before. The clearest argument for sale is the car’s mileage: just 4300 miles in three years. Besides, we could do with the extra space in the garage. The Alfa is now sitting outside on the lane, looking gleaming, immaculate, and box-fresh. K admits to experiencing a mild twinge of regret, but it is a mild twinge only.
K puts on the Omara Portuondo CD (we’re seeing her at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday), and fixes us lunch: ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, with plenty of black pepper and some mayonnaise. He is unsure about the addition of the mayonnaise, and wonders whether it might have been a flavour too far; my reply is that it adds a pleasing degree of moisture and creaminess. Beer for him; a pineapple, mango & lime smoothie for me.
Slam has rung about the sofa & footstool which he is buying off us; we arrange for him to come over to Nottingham on Friday to pick it up. NewEngland rings next; there are dozens of vintage tractors parked outside the village pub, and we should come and take a look.
We stroll down to OldEngland and NewEngland’s place, and from there to the pub. All around the pub, around forty vintage tractors are parked up, while their owners have lunch inside. Starting out from Hartington this morning, they have been touring the local villages in convoy – Wetton, Ilam, Alstonefield – and will be returning to Hartington after lunch. The tractors look magnificent; K calls them “Thomas the Tank Engine” tractors, and they certainly do look as if they have emerged from the pages of a 1940s children’s story book. A good half of them are phone-box red, or of a reddish orange hue, with David Brown and Nuffield as easily the most popular manufacturers. As a former seller of Britains toy tractors myself (at Hamleys toy store on Regent Street, 24 years ago), I cast an interested eye over the details. Much smaller than today’s models, almost none have cabs attached; instead, the drivers straddle the central chassis, often placing their feet into metal stirrups.
As the convoy begins to set off, so the four of us, drinks in hand, scamper down to the village green for the best view of the procession. It is a spectacular sight, as the vehicles slowly snake past us, on towards the Spar shop, and out of the village on their way back up to the Buxton road. Who says nothing ever happens in villages?
We sit for a while longer on a low wall by the duck pond, finishing our drinks as we watch the ducks squabble, preen and mate. A passing rambler asks us the time; none of us are wearing watches and none are carrying mobiles, but OldEngland says that judging by the sun in the sky, it must be about twenty past three. The rambler looks mildly astonished, as we in turn feel like complete yokels, clearly having no need of such new-fangled instruments as time-pieces.
Down to the village shop, to return last night’s video (Lantana – serious, well-acted and worthy, but a bit lacking in action; K fell asleep, and I struggled to keep awake). We also pick up various ingredients for this evening’s rhubarb crumble. Sorting through a drawer yesterday, I had come across Elisabeth‘s hand-written recipe for “the best rhubarb crumble ever”, which she had inserted into our Xmas card. A couple of hours later, and without knowing anything about the recipe, OldEngland and NewEngland had then spontaneously offered us some of the rhubarb from the bottom of their garden; clearly, the time was right.
Returning to the cottage, we excitedly discover that another tulip had opened – the first of its particular batch. The long, slender, pointed bulb – originally a deep mauve on the outside – reveal unexpected bright reds and yellows within, sending us into another ecstatic swoon.
As K weeds, I apply wax polish to the statue, buffing it up and leaving it looking darker and shinier. As my duster reaches up the crack of her backside, K passes by with a cheeky holler: “Ooh, kind SIR!” The tits buff up nicely, too. Such uncommon intimacy with the female form, and in such a public place besides! Performing the same task six months earlier, K had felt decidedly self-conscious about this; I, on the other hand, feel positively brazen in my shamelessness.
A call from my Mother, who will be in Nottingham this week on a residential study course, staying in a hotel on the edge of the city. We arrange for her to come and stay tomorrow night, as it will be our only opportunity to meet.
As the Phoenix album (Alphabetical) and the new Prince album (Musicology) play, K makes the crumble as I tap into the laptop on the kitchen table, sneezing explosively every few minutes – the tree pollen is reported to be high today, and I have been steadily suffering as the day has progressed. Hay fever normally passes me by, so today’s levels must be exceptional. It is the only slight blight on what has otherwise been an idyllic day. Sometimes, I bloody love my life.
Up at 9:30, to a glorious morning: sunshine, warmth and birdsong. Today’s outfit: brown & yellow striped button-down Etro shirt (bought in Milan airport last December), Yohji Yamamoto belt (Pollyanna in Barnsley, the December before that), Diesel jeans (Boston, Spring 2001), stripey Paul Smith socks, slippers.
(Never you mind what pants I’m wearing; BdJ this ain’t.)
While K walks down to the village shop, I load up a tray and take it out to the PDMG; this will be our first al fresco breakfast of the year. The kitchen still whiffs a bit of chip fat from the night before, so I open all the windows on both floors, letting the freshness and the birdsong waft in.
· Preliminary Yakult (for those all-important “friendly bacteria”)
· Glass of Tropicana Sanguinello 100% Pure Squeezed Red Orange Juice (blood red; full, concentrated flavour)
· Cod liver oil capsule (for supple joints)
· Boiled egg
· Half a slice of buttered brown wholemeal toast, spread very thinly with Gentleman’s Relish (a habit picked up from my late maternal grandfather; the saltiness of the anchovy paste marries well with the taste of the egg)
· Half a slice of toast, spread with Tiptree Medium Cut Marmalade (our favourite, by some distance)
· The other half slice of toast is intended for Blue Witch‘s marvellous home-grown honey, but I have no more room; as breakfast time is the only time of day where I have next to no appetite, it would be unwise to force the issue.
· Two cups of Twinings English Breakfast tea.
· Cream-coloured Wedgewood “Queensware” crockery; slight seconds, bought dirt cheap from the factory shop when we moved into the cottage.
· The Observer’s Music Monthly magazine, which leaves me feeling rather more favourably disposed to the prospect of The Streets’ new album, despite the disappointment of the one-dimensional Fit But You Know It.
As breakfast is being prepared, K receives a text from Mark, one of the other interviewees in yesterday’s “gay marriage” piece in the Nottingham Evening Post:
If money is an issue we will go halves on the turtle doves with you! x
I suggest a reply:
And maybe we can negotiate a bulk discount on the white suits?
After breakfast, we move up to the bench at the top of the garden; sheltered in a corner by the wattle hurdles and the lilac tree, it’s a real sun trap, and noticeably hotter than the breakfast table. Some more of the deep red tulips have opened up overnight; it has been our first attempt at planting bulbs, so we are endlessly fascinated by the developing results. Some of the other tulips have been gradually opening themselves wider during breakfast, as the sunlight hits them; we are particularly pleased with the pale lilac bulbs which open right out to reveal a custard yellow inside. We have brought the digicam over to get some snaps, but the re-chargeable batteries have run down, and it is objecting to Duracells. No matter; we’ll be back on Tuesday evening, when things should be looking even better. This is the first weekend when the garden has truly come back into its own; plants are shooting up all over the place, and – aside from the odd misplanted bulb (the bulging geraniums already engulfing some of the tulips, for example) – everything is looking great.
Halfway up the wattle hurdles, K spots three snails, and quickly seizes them. We cannot understand why the snails seem so fond of climbing so high, away from anything which they might fancy eating. I speculate that they might be scoping out the landscape below, like birds of prey, ready to swoop and snatch. We laugh.
K chucks two of the snails into the middle of the road, but sets another one upside down on a stone slab in front of him. He wants to see whether the snail is able to flip itself back over again, or whether it will be left helplessly stuck, marooned on the slab until the birds find it and peck it to bits. I comment with amusement on the slightly ghoulish relish with which he is approaching the experiment. Two or three minutes later, the snail heroically flips itself back upright – at which point K snatches it up and hurls it out into the street to join the others. At this point, I actually feel genuine pangs of sympathy for the snail.
Down below, a car passes by; K waves cheerily at the driver, as is his wont. (He also does this while walking down the village street. A cheery wave here, and a cheery wave there. I have started calling him Noddy.) As it disappears, he wanders down and peers over the wall, playing up to his role of Evil Experimental Scientist. “Oh good; one of the snails has already been crushed.” I duly feign horror.
A soak in the bath; I have used Molton Brown’s Rejuvenating Arctic Birch for the foam, and am soaping myself down with their Vitalising Vitamin AB+C. As I stand up and apply the buff-puff to my bits, I can see, through the open skylight, two figures walking on the far hill, about half a mile away. If they had binoculars trained this way, they would be able to spy on me soaping my nether regions. Undeterred, I soap them some more, somewhat tickled by the exhibitionistic possibilities.