Friday 20 June 2008

Monumental thighs and a prize-winning ass

The club where I stayed last night has one of those old fashioned weighing machines outside the library. The sort that take the form of a leather chair counterbalanced by chunky brass weights. However, I thought it would raise eyebrows if I plonked myself on it naked, as I normally do with the bathroom scales at home each morning, so we’ll have to leave the daily weight record blank. Probably just as well as I seem to have got through 14.0 units of alcohol yesterday. There are 1,324 days to go, and if it’s Friday it must be the South Downs.

I caught the 12.47 train from Victoria to Lewes, having bought a first class ticket in the hope of securing a table on which I could write, space for my suitcase and a bit of peace and quiet. The compartment at the very front of the train to which I made the effort of walking proved less than satisfactory on two levels. First, because it had no door segregating it from the common herd in cattle class. And, secondly and more significantly, because the other table in it was already occupied by a red-headed youth of 19 or so, with a bum fluff beard, who was noisily consuming a foul smelling McDonald’s meal while his filthy trainers rested provocatively on the seats opposite. How I itched to point out that this was a first class seating area, and looked forward to the ticket collector slinging him out. Imagine my surprise when an inspector finally passed by and the lad whipped out not the expected kitchen knife but a bona fide first class season ticket. Presumably either borrowed from his dad, or purchased with the proceeds of his business. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on appearances.

On the other hand, sometimes you can. I met someone at Glyndebourne this evening who I thought was a prize berk on first encounter, and still did so when we parted at the end of the evening. He had one of those voices which are so overpoweringly posh that you wish that someone could provide surtitling into English. It reminded me powerfully of the time I went to visit a client which theoretically had its headquarters in Leeds, but whose directors all based themselves at another office in Liverpool. On my first visit there I asked my favourite question: “”Why?” And received the less than helpful answer, “Isn’t it obvious? Wall skycers!” Some time elapsed before I worked out that the last short sentence meant “We are all Scousers.”

Having said that, all of said Scousers were men of the utmost charm, and I had so many good laughs with them over lunch at their fine old gentlemen’s club that I even joined it myself. As a country member, giving them the opportunity to crack that old “Of course we remember” joke on the very rare occasions when I go back.

Tonight’s specimen had no such redeeming features. He kicked off by making a tortured, rather high pitched noise which I finally interpreted as, “Oh, I say, we’re Geordies too!” Only his family had got lucky with coal mines and lead smelters and the like, donchaknow, and a brother and various cousins were now scattered around on landed estates throughout the county. Did I know them? No. But then you must know so-and-so of such-and-such? No. He clearly began to doubt that I came from Northumberland at all and asked me to repeat my surname, which I did, spelling it out for his benefit. I added that we were also a very old Northumbrian family but at the opposite end of the social spectrum, comprising generations of agricultural labourers. He guffawed as though this was the funniest joke he had ever heard, and said that he was sure that could not possibly be true. So in other words the whole concept of social mobility was clearly completely alien to him. I finally began to understand why Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the like had such a penchant for eliminating people of his sort.

Things deteriorated further when he volunteered the opinion that Newcastle had improved out of all recognition – “it was SUCH a dump 20 years ago” – a point on which I disagreed most profoundly. He then repeated that tired old lie about how warm and friendly everyone is in the North East. Completely and utterly untrue, in my experience, and impossible to believe of anyone making the tortured noise that passed for speech in his case. Frankly I’d have thought he’d be lucky to start a conversation in a Newcastle pub and make it out of the door alive. I said something reasonably polite along those lines but he just continued to assert that Geordies were the nicest people in the world, “not like the South East where everyone sneers at you”. Well, perhaps with good reason, chum.

On the plus side, everyone else I encountered in the course of the evening was very nice indeed. And my hosts had had the presence of mind to turn up incredibly early and bag a picnic table on the upper terrace of the opera house, which is a pretty handy place to be when you were planning to eat al fresco and the weather has other ideas. The food was utterly delicious, the wine was excellent and, as for the opera, well, it was remarkably similar to the performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea on which I reported on 1 June. With the difference that it was viewed from the entirely different perspective of the very front of the stalls. This proximity had the perhaps beneficial effect of making me less admiring of Poppea’s physique than I have been up to now. I became aware of a certain monumentality in the thigh department of which I had previously been blissfully unconscious. No doubt it derives from all the dancing with which she so often enlivens her performances, or from other strenuous activity of a physical nature. On the other hand, I found myself becoming less sniffy about her voice than I have been in the past, which can only be a good thing as the voice was surely always likely to age rather better than the thighs in any case. And it’s just as well I’m warming to it, since the fact that its owner is now the official other half of Glyndebourne’s presiding Christie doubtless means that I shall be offered many opportunities to hear more of it in the years ahead.

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