Friday 7 December 2007

A day of lasts (but luckily not James)

My last trip to London by GNER, on the 7.20 from Morpeth. It is on time, the WiFi service works faultlessly and my coffee cup is refilled whenever I empty it. It has not always been so, but they have undoubtedly been the best by far of the privatized train operators, and I shall miss them. I feel the makings of a lump in my throat as we pull into King’s Cross and see the line-up of blue trains, all with a white stripe down their sides where the GNER insignia has already been stripped off. All these old-fashioned crests and shit are “irrelevant”, according to new operators National Express, who are committed to giving their “customers” something more “contemporary”. But where railways are concerned, give me nostalgia every time. Surely there must be room on the line for a rival service featuring table lamps, crested antimacassars, proper afternoon teas and additional heating from the hot coals hurled in through the carriage windows? With genuine open cattle trucks for the third class passengers, offering all the fun of Alton Towers without the queues or the tiresome Elfin Safety regulations.

I’m not sure whether I can write about my Fat Boys’ Lunch without having my tongue cut out and buried at high water mark. Oh no, that’s the Masons, isn’t it? (Amusingly enough, my maternal grandfather and uncles were all imperial grand wizards or something in the Masons, yet neither I nor my cousins were ever invited to join. At least, I think it was the Masons. Though I’ve never heard of another Lodge where they wear long, flowing white robes and burn crosses.)

Anyway, it was the annual Christmas lunch of the Saints and Sinners Club, and my last chance to have a meal at The Savoy before it closes for refurbishment. It’s many years since I attended an all-male gathering of this nature. I felt an interloper, not because I was concealing a vagina about my person (though I do have a reasonably sized pair of breasts) but because everyone else on my table turned out to be from Yorkshire. This was brought home to me at the end of the main course (roast turkey with all the trimmings) when the Bloke to my right leaned over and said to his other neighbour, “Excuse me, you’re not leaving that, are you?” just before spearing a couple of bacon-wrapped chipolatas and a big slice of turkey breast off his plate. I hadn’t heard that line since I went to Mole’s fish restaurant in Seahouses with my friend Fat Ted in 1971, and he got his eye on the half dozen battered fish skins reposing on the plates of the family at the next table. (“That’s the best bit, that is.”) I remember it very clearly, because it was the point in my life at which I learned that very useful word “mortified”.

Then I asked the Bloke to my left, who is a bit of an opera buff, if he had been to see the production of Aida for which I had tickets that evening. He confirmed that he had, so I asked him what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, “some Egyptian blokes come on towards the end of the first half and it really picks up from there.” This would be a true masterpiece of Yorkshire understatement for almost any performance of Verdi’s great triumphal march. It was particularly brilliant as a description of this evening’s production, which went over the top like a drug-crazed battalion on the Somme. The cast of hundreds included numerous on-stage trumpeters, a troupe of Ethiopians cunningly disguised as Australian Aborigines, an elephant (admittedly not a real one) and some surprisingly chunky lesbian tumblers, all strikingly clad by Zandra Rhodes.

In short, the only traditional Yorkshire line I did not hear was “How much???” when they came round with the drinks bill. But then my host is renowned as a man of extraordinary generosity.

There were lots of showbiz stars at the lunch, many of whom I had wrongly believed to be long dead (and some of whom I am still far from sure about). Some of them serenaded us with allegedly comic carols over the coffee and mince pies. Then we all went away.

The opera was better than the reviewers had led me to believe, and being with a Bloke I did not need to spend all evening worrying about whether I was saying or doing the right thing. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred him to dress a little less like an ageing gay rock star, but at least we fitted in a treat in the Exclusive Restaurant afterwards. Not being in the least bit hungry, I just had the pink champagne, half a dozen oysters, chicken masala, bottle of New Zealand sauvignon, apple and blackberry pie with custard, mint tea and two ports. As they used to say in ancient Egypt: Mummy, I think I’m going to be sick.

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