Friday 11 July 2008

The Rake's Progress to a false economy

14st 0lb; 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,304; Covent Garden.

The 7.19 from Morpeth to London was again bang on schedule this morning. The only thing I have found wrong with these trains of late is the lavatories, and if anyone from National Express is reading this, I can tell you what your problem is: you need to spend a few quid fixing the flushing mechanisms. As things stand, the first person to press the lever sets off an unstoppable cascade of water which continues until the carriage’s tank is exhausted. The lavatory bowl then becomes a sort of horrific archaeological site, with layer upon layer of paper concealing things that I would rather not think about, let alone discuss. Until some bright spark complains to a member of staff that “That toilet is absolutely disgusting”, perhaps hoping that they will do something about it. Which they do: locking the door and sticking an “Out of Order” notice on the outside. By the end of most of my recent journeys, almost every loo has been similarly treated and the corridors have been full of people trying to hop uneasily from foot to foot while keeping their knees tightly clenched together.

The other entertainment en route was provided by a hugely fat racehorse owner who left his coffee cup unsecured when he sensibly waddled off to the loo before the above-mentioned disaster struck. A lurch of the train duly sent it smashing onto the floor shortly afterwards, but luckily its contents went onto the adjacent carpet rather than all over me. Which was nice. Later two jolly old bats climbed on board at Grantham and ordered a bottle of champagne from the at-seat service, so that we were treated to the magical noise of a cork popping at 9.40 a.m. Always a sound effect to raise the spirits.

I had been invited to lunch in an old French restaurant in the City. I first visited the place in 1987 and must have returned to it more than once every week throughout my subsequent career. Given that I have hardly set foot in it during my regular visits to town since 2004, I was faintly embarrassed when the maitre d’ greeted me as an old friend, apologized profusely for the fact that my host had been allocated “about the worst table in the place” and offered me a glass of champagne on the house. Though naturally I accepted. It was pleasing to see my old haunt so busy. By the time I abandoned my full time job around the corner in 2004, I was encountering increasing resistance to my suggestions of lunching here as its old fashioned French cuisine was pronounced “too heavy”. I found that the proprietors had risen brilliantly to this challenge by substantially reducing the size of their portions, while simultaneously raising their prices, presumably to appeal to a luxury orientated clientele as well as to their bank manager. My host drank diet Coke but at least he was wearing a suit and tie (as were nearly all the other customers – the “dress down” vogue that prevailed when I left the City must have run its course). He also seemed pleasingly busy in these difficult times, and to have achieved a vast improvement in the quality of his client list since the days when he co-operated with the likes of me and my merry band of old school Northern industrialists.

Virgin Trains were back on form this afternoon when I went to Euston to meet the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, and I found the place seething with crowds angered (but totally unsurprised) by the cancellation of their trains owing to “overhead line problems in the Harrow area”. These were delaying the incoming services, too, but I am pleased to report that my very good friend turned up eventually. A man with a foreign accent was extremely rude to me when we arrived at my club, literally trying to elbow me out of the way so that he could grab my taxi before I had even paid the driver. I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, that I had given him a sharp old English punch on the nose. I recovered my sang froid over a nice pot of Earl Grey in the drawing room (so very Alan Bennett), where there was a joyous moment when a frightful old bore woke from a drunken slumber, stood up and flung open the full length windows behind him, then looked very much as though he was poised to overbalance and plunge head-first into the street below. It would have made my day, but sadly he staged an unexpected and frankly implausible recovery. If he could have contrived to land on top of a rude foreigner getting out of taxi outside, it would have been pure poetry.

We had a slightly fraught journey to the Royal Opera House in a taxi which we originally felt incredibly lucky to secure, given that it was raining at the time. But we then sat for an inordinate amount of time in a queue to enter Trafalgar Square. I don’t do patience very well at the best of times, and particularly when I can see a drinking opportunity slipping away from me. Shortly afterwards we were treated to a completely unnecessary detour caused by our driver’s failure to spot a “Road Closed” sign which would have been obvious to a mole wearing a blindfold. He then stopped some way from the Opera House, gestured through an alleyway and pointed out that we could walk from there. Well, we could have walked all the bloody way if we had wanted to get soaked, and it would probably have been quicker, too. Still, he did at least finally deliver us to our destination in time for a pre-performance drink, which was the main thing.

I think the LTCB was quite impressed with her first visit to the Royal Opera House. My own expectations of The Rake’s Progress had been successfully lowered by a lousy review in the Daily Telegraph, but I was much taken with the beautiful back projected imagery of Texas, where the Trulove family apparently lived (though Tom Rakewell still made his way from there to London, England, as the libretto demanded, stopping at a Wild West saloon en route). A later scene featuring a miniature house on the prairie was arresting, too. But directorial invention seemed to flag in the second half, particularly towards the end. Surprisingly, I diplomatically refrained from drawing any parallels between Baba the Turk and my companion. Unsurprisingly, I concluded that on the whole I preferred the Hockney designs for Glyndebourne, where my recollection was also that the music progressed at an altogether brisker pace.

We had a meal afterwards at a pasta place nearby, where the food was on the poor side of indifferent and I ordered a bottle of red from the upper end of the wine list which proved to be the roughest thing to have passed my lips since I traded up from Bull’s Blood in the mid-1970s. True, the bill was half what it would have been at The Ivy. But as it was about 99% less enjoyable, I think it must definitely go down in this record as a thoroughly false economy.

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