Thursday 1 May 2008

A date with a living legend

Gently expanding, I fear; 9.0 units of alcohol yesterday, which probably accounts for it; 1,373; the M62 and Alnwick.

Another lousy night’s sleep, though at least not for exactly the same reason. And when I went down for breakfast, feeling that I deserved the full Christiaan Barnard Memorial Pig-Based Sizzler, whatever my aunt might say, there was only one inoffensive American businessman in the whole restaurant. So of course they sat me right next to him, though at least they didn’t ask us to share the same table to economize on cleaning.

When I came to check out, they asked if everything had been to my entire satisfaction, no doubt anticipating an ape-like grunt of assent. But I began, “Well, it’s funny you should ask, because …” The poor cashier stopped the flow somehow and steered me into an office with a Guest Relations Manager whose cut glass accent made me uncomfortably conscious of my own lower middle class origins. She apologized for the apparently unruly behaviour of her “conference delegates”, which is apparently now the official terminology for a bunch of reps on the piss. By way of recompense, she offered me a free upgrade to a guaranteed ultra-quiet suite on my next visit, which was a fairly safe bet from their point of view as pigs might …

The hotel manager later confirmed this offer in writing, adding the key words “subject to availability”. Marvellous.

Driving home, I reflected on how rarely I ever stayed in five star hotels, and how odd it was that one should apparently get classier company in a Travelodge nowadays. Then I remembered some of the misery I must have inflicted on other poor sods during my days as a PR man, when I would organize analysts’ visits that always seemed to end up in all-night drinking sessions. Not that I ever participated in them, unfailingly heading for my bed by midnight. And not that anyone ever dared to wake me up with loud music at 3 a.m. Added to which, I think we almost always arranged to take the whole hotel to avoid collateral damage. Phew. For a minute or two there I was beginning to think I had been a bit unfair, but within five miles I had reverted to thinking that my recent hosts were a bunch of ****s.

Though talking of common people, I did chuckle to myself as I recalled the allegedly true story of the housebuilders’ conference held at the Gleneagles Hotel some years ago. Exiting his bedroom the morning after a heavy night, one chief executive of fairly advanced years was plodding towards the spa wrapped only in a towel, when he encountered a retired colonel type and his lady, and the colonel bellowed, “My God, what on earth is this place coming to! People walking around the corridors in towels!”

To which the builder replied, “I’m terribly sorry, I had no idea it was against the rules,” removed the towel and continued on his way bollock naked.


But if it’s not a true story, then it jolly well ought to be.

After a slightly frustrating trudge around the shops in Newcastle, aiming to replace the electronic diary which ceased to function when I dropped it a gentle two feet onto my hotel’s lush bedroom carpet, I was joyously reunited with the dog and took him home for dinner. To give him his dinner, that is, not to eat him for mine. After which I drove into Alnwick to rendezvous with my aunt for a show she had particularly wanted to see: Nicholas Parsons presenting How Pleasant To Know Mr Lear.

Now, I have never particularly liked The Owl and the Pussycat, and have always failed to see the point of all those limericks which perform the not particularly funny trick of making the last line pretty much identical to the first. I’ve tried to picture Victorian ladies and gentlemen splitting their corsets or wiping tears of mirth from their whiskered cheeks as they heard them being recited for the first time, but I’m afraid I’ve never been able to manage it. So I really went for two reasons: first, because my aunt was so keen; and, second, because Nicholas Parsons is a Living Legend. And, at 84, the odds must be that he will transform himself into a Dead Legend before too long, and I thought it would be a good idea to see him while I still could.

I thought the appearance of a National Treasure would bring the good people of Alnwick out in force – particularly as a theatre full of them had turned out last month for Michael Portillo, a man chiefly famed for the universal national rejoicing that broke out when he went down to (and I am carefully using the word “to” not “on” there) Stephen Twigg at the 1997 General Election. But the complete lack of need to use my elbows to access the bar told its own story. When we finally went in, the theatre was little more than a quarter full. Poor Parsons was obviously crestfallen, remarking that he had played to a full house when he was last in Alnwick, to record Just A Minute. I refrained from making the obvious point that they must have come to see the panel rather than the quizmaster.

Then he tried to encourage all of us to move together in the centre block of the theatre to create a more intimate atmosphere. But we were having none of that, because we are Northumbrians and had carefully chosen our favourite seats on the basis of such important criteria as leg room, proximity to the exit or distance from some other bastard who might well smell of sheep dip or cattle dung.

So he just stood there, wearing a rather silly striped blazer and daringly light trousers for a man of his age (I’m with Ken Dodd, who has ruled that no man over 55 should wear light grey flannels) and started reciting utter nonsense at us. The whole performance only lasted 75 minutes, but frankly I felt like I’d sat through shorter Wagner operas. I had to admire it as a feat of memory, particularly for a man in his mid-80s, and he recited the dreadful poetry with real clarity and unfeigned enthusiasm. But never answered my fundamental question: why? His lovable genius remained, for me, an utterly crashing bore. The Lear letters he read out made this blog look like a masterpiece, in my opinion. The spoof recipes all ended in the suggestion that you should now throw the resulting mess away. Oh, stop it! If I laugh any more I’ll rupture myself!

Living Legend he may be, and his performance was a tour de force by any standards, but perhaps the good folk of Alnwick were not so daft when they decided to stay away in droves. Auntie loved it though, explaining that she had been brought up with her mother reading her Edward Lear’s nonsense verse each night. And there was perhaps another factor. As she put it before the show started, “He [Nicholas Parsons] was awfully handsome when he was younger”. Meaning, I guessed, “I fancied the pants off him”. She went up on stage at the end, with a lot of other elderly ladies, to give him her address so that he could post her his £10 CD of the performance. Perhaps she added her phone number. All I can tell you is that she came skipping out of that theatre like a schoolgirl, looking rather flushed.

1 comment:

Drayton Bird said...

Good to know he really is as boring an old twat as he was a dreary middle aged one, but you have to admire his persistence.