Tuesday 4 March 2008

The aniseed trail that ends in hara-kiri

14st 7lb; zero alcohol; 1,431; Nagasaki.

I’m feeling vastly better until I make the mistake of responding to yet another e-mail urging me to update the anti-virus protection on my computer. This results in a comprehensive crash which leads me to charge the same software to my credit card twice, then requires more re-starts than sports day at a school for the deaf and blind. In short, a morning completely and utterly wasted.

A simple journey to buy the newspapers is then impeded by various slow-moving and stationary cars obstructing the roads. These are driven (if you can call it that) by odd-looking, elderly people who apparently like to be known as “hunt followers”. The hounds themselves and their mounted escorts are rampaging picturesquely over the fields behind the local Roman Catholic church. It’s a funny thing, but if I didn’t know better I would think that they were actually trying to hunt real foxes, rather than following a trail laid by some Bloke with an aniseed-soaked rag. (Do dogs actually like aniseed, or is that just a tale put about by the DC Thomson comics of my childhood? I tried sharing a bottle of absinthe with my last Border terrier once, and he turned his nose up at it most ungraciously.)

After two days eating nothing but cold pork sandwiches, I’m really looking forward to an early supper at my aunt’s, since she has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent and inventive cook. Unfortunately she also has a slight tendency to over-cater. So, in the light of Sunday night’s disastrous diet setback, I had requested a “meagre” meal, anticipating a delicious salad or something of the sort. It’s typical of my luck that she interprets “meagre” as a ham sandwich. Though, as she points out, it could have been worse. And there is, when one comes to reflect upon it, a surprising amount of difference between the eating qualities of ham and pork.

Tonight I am privileged to take to the Theatre Royal two delightful ladies in their 80s and a third who is rather closer to my own age. The octogenarian who isn’t my aunt is almost beside herself with excitement, announcing that she hasn’t been out in the evening for 20 years. (I strongly suggest that she doesn’t try and leave it for so long until her next outing.) We also take her for her first ever ride on the Metro, which must have been commissioned about the time that she stopped leaving her flat.

When we get to the theatre, I wander along to the box office to try to buy tickets for something else in a few weeks’s time (the theatre’s phone lines having been jammed solid since a period of priority booking opened on Friday). I find myself in a queue headed by a fat Bloke in a three-piece suit with a watch chain and bow tie, who seems curiously familiar. Though that might just be from the mirror, since from time to time I have been known to dress in a similar style myself. I wonder whether I look as big a prat as he does, and begin to think sympathetically about the female friend last week who advised me to ditch my waistcoat and invest in something cool from Armani. At least I can say with confidence that I would never be such a total berk as to hold up the entire queue by turning round at the end of my transaction and starting to bray at the woman in line behind me, then noisily and lengthily introducing her to my wife. And not simply because I haven’t got a wife, either.

Opera North’s production of Madama Butterfly is simply terrific, with Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San sending shivers down my spine from the second that she first opens her mouth. The only distraction is a strange buzzing noise in the background of the dress circle which becomes evident around halfway through the first act and persists for the rest of the performance. It sounds like a very large moth trying to escape from a Tiffany lamp, or perhaps a Rampant Rabbit going off inside a lady’s handbag. If the latter is the case, she is clearly much too embarrassed to take it out and switch it off.

I walk out at the end in a state as close to bliss as I ever attain these days, and come face to face with the true face of Tyneside musical criticism; a hatchet faced old boot with a mouth like Captain Pugwash, informing her unfortunate husband “Aa’ve seen better”. I’m strongly tempted to press her for details, since I must have seen Madama Butterfly at least once a year for the last 30 years (indeed I saw it in London only last week) and have never been more moved by it. But I decide, as they say, to let it go.

After dropping off my ladies and stopping for a nice cup of tea at my aunt’s, I finally crawl gratefully into bed just after midnight. I turn on the Radio 4 news and catch the tail end of what seems to be Ian Paisley’s obituary, concluding with the statement that few would have expected his career to end like this. My God, how has he died? My imagination runs riot, and I end up with a vision of an orgy in a Roman Catholic girls’ boarding school, with the Mother Superior wielding a bull whip under the supervision of a gimp-suited figure who might or might not be the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh. It’s all a bit deflating when we finally get to the closing summary and I find that the old boy is still very much alive, and merely stepping down as first minister and head of his party. I console myself by reading the Telegraph obituary of a man of much the same age, but with quite different tastes and achievements. On the whole, I have to admit that the late Paul Raymond made a rather greater impact on my life.

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