Friday 7 March 2008

Borne away on streams of musical joy and ... urgh

14st 6lb; 2.0 units of alcohol; 1,428; Quayside.

Today I decided to embark on a little experiment and dug out a new bow tie in the striped colours of my old college, which I must have bought in Cambridge years ago. By wearing it with a three-piece suit and a watch chain, I wanted to discover whether it made me look as big a prat as the Fat Bloke from the theatre earlier in the week. It is my equivalent of those bold journalistic experiments in which people smoke skunk cannabis or live for a month on nothing but McDonald’s Super Meals.

The first test came when a leading PR man kindly took me for lunch at Newcastle’s very own version of The Ivy. He had made the mistake of also inviting a leading journalist, so we were kept waiting for 45 minutes while the hack made his way from some mysterious hospital appointment. He denied that it was at Ward 34, but then it became clear that neither of them had the foggiest idea of the significance of “Ward 34”, which was the euphemism favoured for Newcastle’s clap clinic. It made me feel very old, particularly as I am sure that it remained a staple of Viz cartoons until quite recently. They’ll be telling me next that there isn’t a special ward in the General Hospital devoted exclusively to Brown Ale drinkers.

It was typical of my luck that I’d driven to this assignation, and was therefore unable to use the time profitably by getting completely palatick, as they once used to say on Tyneside.

The food, when we finally got to order, was very good. But I discovered that the effect of wearing my bow tie was to render me completely invisible. After our fishcakes, I sat for some time waving at two waitresses, one of whom had moved on from the classic technique of avoiding eye contact to making eye contact and then tossing her head aside contemptuously. True, attracting their attention should have been our host’s job, not mine, but as luck would have it he had positioned himself with his back to them. Eventually the top journalist rose to his feet, walked across the restaurant and stood 18 inches away from the less rude of them, asking in his best Sergeant Wilson style if she’d mind awfully popping across and taking our order for puddings and coffee, which she then did.

I think my inability to attract attention it must be a personal thing rather than the effect of the bow tie. If it were down to that, how did the Fat Bloke ever get to be so fat? Still, if it really does make me invisible, might it be worth trying a further experiment in the changing room of a netball team? My companions dissuade me from trying it.

My host offered the implausible excuse that the staff were a little distracted because we were lunching in the presence of local royalty: the centre forward of Newcastle United and Sir Bobby Robson. I’ve vaguely heard of Sir Bobby, but have no idea who the footballer is. Indeed, it came as surprise to me to learn that they still employed anyone as old-fashioned as a “centre forward”, which sounded to me like a curiously 1950s concept. Maybe that is indeed the secret of their lack of success.

Still, at least it made a pleasant change to have some company. Normally our regular lunchtime visits to Newcastle’s top restaurants are distinguished by the fact that we are their only customers. Inviting the question why they choose to open in the middle of the day at all.

In the evening I went for my third dose of opera this week: The Adventures of Pinocchio, with music by Jonathan Dove. It would be fair to say that I went more out of curiosity than in anticipation of a good night out, but the latter is what it proved to be. They hadn’t sold as many seats as they deserved to, but quite a lot of them were occupied by the children at whom the opera was aimed. The Theatre Royal had even thoughtfully provided tailor-made green booster cushions for their seats. It was touching to watch a solicitous parent or guardian making sure that his pretty blonde charge was seated comfortably nearby, even if it was a bit unsettling that he bore such a striking resemblance to the classic tabloid photofit of a paedophile monster.

If I had one bit of advice to offer Opera North, it would be not to schedule a performance of a child-friendly opera at 7.15p.m. on a schoolday. To which I would add the strong recommendation to avoid an unexplained delay of a quarter of an hour before the curtain actually goes up. That sort of thing makes the kiddies fractious, and has a remarkably similar effect on the late-middle-aged, too. True, all parties soon quietened down and behaved remarkably well. But in the case of the children, on the evidence of those closest to me, this was mainly because they were fast asleep. A shame, because they missed some fabulous sets, wonderful special effects and very fine singing.

Only two things marred a most enjoyable evening. First, the Fat Bloke was not there so I could not stand next to him in the bar at the interval to perform a definitive “Who Looks the Biggest Prat?” test. Secondly, the Metro back to West Jesmond had streams of urine running down the carriage and, as we mounted Jesmond Bank, I feared that we might be about to be swept away in an evil-smelling tidal wave. All very Hogarthian, no doubt, but I wondered whether it was the sort of thing that might just have influenced the selectors of the European City of Culture 2008?

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