One of the most evocative attractions for me to move to Provence when the opportunity arose some 12 years ago was the food. A healthy Mediterranean diet, all that olive oil, fresh vegetables, salads in the outdoors and although not by any means the only lure, it was certainly amongst them. So what was I doing in a Fish And Chip shop in Valbonne?
Like when some climber was asked why he was tackling Everest, I did it because in was there. Valbonne is already very Anglicised, a fact that I personally like because it has the best of both worlds, all the French stuff that attracts us Brits, the sun, the quality and quantity of restaurants, the ancient unspoiled village with a sun dappled square, the architecture, the sea within 20 minutes drive but you can get away without speaking French, there is even an Indian restaurant (how British is that! – very British; it is the most popular food of the nation), and now we have a Fish And Chip shop, so I felt compelled to try it and quite decent it is too.
When I discovered last week that it was about to open I was intrigued, but when it became clear that it was being run by a French family I groaned with disappointment. It is a bit like how a Frenchman might view the idea of escargots or frogs legs being served in an English pub, but they nearly got it right. Hake or cod very nicely cooked without too much batter, mushy peas, and as you can see from my picture today even supplying HP Sauce and Heinz Gherkin Relish, but the let down was the chips. However, overall a very good effort, except for the price. 16 euros for cod and chips? That’s about £13.80 at today’s excellent Currencies Direct exchange rates – it would have been half that amount the Arundel chippy, but I guess you don’t get to sit down and have a generous glass of wine with it there. If you did you might get beaten up for being gay.
I know I have not been very active with this column recently but life is still going on down here. The regular Gentlemen’s lunches have followed Friday morning tennis as night follows day. As is customary, the Wingco and I thrashed Master Mariner Mundell and Blind Lemon Milsted in two sets of blinding tennis last Friday (blinding due to the position of the sun and my judicious use of the lob), but I don’t recall what happened the week before. For new readers of this column the venue for lunch is always the Auberge St Donat which has a fixed 4 course menu including 1/4 wine for 16 euros. The operative phrase here is “including wine”. Should there be three of you dining and collectively you want red, white and rose wine (a tricolour the Wingco calls it) they bring you a bottle each. Once consumed one looks around the restaurant to see if others have left any and then careful wine minesweeping (winesweeping?) is enacted. Because of the slight nautical connotation to the word minesweeping you will not be surprised to find out that the Master Mariner Mundell is particular adept in this department. In fact I may hereafter refer to him as the Master Minesweeper Mundell.
Banter is at the centre of discussion and this collection of mostly public schoolboys generally take kindly to my presence even if it mostly so they can extract some humour at my expense . I like to think I give as good as I get, which is usually signalled by comments aimed at me such as “well he didn’t go to a proper school” or “whilst we were being educated he was out nicking cars”. This is often after discussions about spanking or having a fag (this is a particular area of deliberate misunderstanding on my part. Having a fag when I was young was about sloping out to the cycle sheds for a crafty No 6 tipped, whereas for the public schoolboys there is a very different interpretation).
As they might say “toodle pip for now, see you after the next exeat”.
What better on a Sunday than to attend an “organised” walk followed by a communal lunch in the hills behind Gourdon in pleasant autumnal Provençale sunshine? Very little in my opinion and it would have been a very nice experience had it been err… organised, if lunch had been booked and if I had been invited.
The A.R.A (who knows what it stands for? – perhaps A Rabble Arrive?) was, I think, the brainchild some years ago of renowned Provençal art and history Svengali and renowned smoothie Anthony “Dock Of The” Bay who, having initiated the event, failed to appear on the walk at all.
The ARA has a President For Lift (he would have been President For Life but for an unfortunate typo a few years back) Dancing Greg Harris from Cote D’Azur Villa Rentals and Currencies Direct affiliate had inadvertently leaked details to me at the gentleman’s post-tennis lunch at the Auberge St Donat on Friday, marked by a distinct lack of tennis due to inclement weather. I have previously been denied membership of this Rabble, despite never applying for it, I think because I didn’t go to the right school or I am a successful author or something (there are just a few hard copies of The Valbonne Monologues left, although it is also available on Kindle) which of course made me more than determined to turn up. “Meet at 10 in the square at Cipieres for coffee” a beautiful old village in the hills beneath Greoliere, said the invitation and by 10 past 10 the Rabble had swelled to close to 20. It might have been a bonus for the gathering group to have had the ability to purchase said coffee but such was the organisational ability of the President For Lift (who had still not appeared) nowhere was open.
Some 45 minutes later, minus the thin grey bum fluff of a beard of which he was so proud and that had caused so much merriment for the Friday lunchers, and squirming embarrassment for our esteemed leader, the now clean shaven Dancing Greg arrived with scarcely an apology and then proceeded to take another 20 minutes to park his car. This was now becoming a worry because clearly the real reason for an outing of this nature is for what Peter Mayle, author of A Year In Provence, when asked to describe living in the South of France in one word replied “lunch”. I think it was about two miles into the walk and about 300 yards higher up the mountain when I asked the President For Lift about the luncheon arrangements. It was at this moment he pushed the metaphorical button which said “going down”.
“Err… Nowhere local could take 20 for lunch” he said casually and strode away from me up the hill and I could sense my life blood leaving me. Here I was with That Nice Lady Decorator and the irritating mutt Banjo, plus local luminaries such as The Master Mariner Mundell, Dangerous Jackie Lawless, Blind Lemon Milsted, and Nick “Falling Off His” Pearch on the side of a mountain at midday on a Sunday with no luncheon arrangements in place. Catastrophe!
I think I was in shock. Turning back immediately I was told by our President that the ARA did not like quitters (he seems to forget that I am not a member) when I said that I urgently needed to reach the ground floor. Suffice to say that a small select group descended the hill at a much quicker pace than we had ascended and after a swift dash to Greoliere the thirstiest and most determined walkers found solace and lunch at Le Relais. I can laugh about it now as I have forgotten the blind panic that had gripped me earlier. As to the rest of the group? They may still be on the mountain for all I know… I suspect the President For Lift is still out of order.
The words “surreal” and “Otway” have forever been linked in my little world. Having paid
for the first ever recording by John Otway in 1972, and having never managed to make any money from him for the provision of countless services, money and help I have happily and excitedly provided over the some 45 years, I thought perhaps this week would provide me with some solace.
He had this ridiculous plan. Just as ridiculous as the dozens of stupid but entertaining schemes he has hatched over the years. His idea was to crowd fund and record his first new album in a decade, but in Montserrat at the private studio at Sir George Martins house. The last people to record on the island were The Rolling Stones. Such is the value to tourism his visit has generated that he has already received a visit and endorsement from the Prime Minister of the island and the Governor is staging a reception at The Governors Official Residence.
I have always enjoyed being involved with the great scams and the entertainment working with him provides, but the opportunity to go to Montserrat to “help” him record his first new album of songs in over 10 years, and to rightfully claim it as a business expense (Currencies Direct customers are all over the world) seemed just one more absurd rung on the Otway ladder to Otexcess, his own vision of success Otway style.
Once the decision on the venue had been made, a decision on when to go was next. “When is the cheapest time to visit? asked Otway. The answer was during the hurricane season. “Perfect” he said, “Let’s go!” The website advice for fans wishing to join him and his band for this trip to this Caribbean gem suggested bringing an umbrella and a hard hat.
There is a very inauspicious date on Montserrat. On 17th September 1965 a Pan Am jet crashed into a hillside on the island killing 33 people. On the same date in 1989 a hurricane hit the island destroying many of the buildings including the famous Air Studios owned by Sir George Martin and in 1995, Once again in September, The Soufriere Hills volcano erupted with such force it all but destroyed the capital, Plymouth. The 17th was a particularly bad day. Pyroclastic flows of over 600 degrees centigrade swept down the mountainside at 100 miles and hour and still it is deserted and entry allowed only under police escort.
As it turned out, the 17th September 2016 was the date set for The Governors Reception for the Otway followers (about 50) who had made it to the island. Set at Government House, an idyllic building nestling by the sea, everything started so well, but then the swarm of flying ants sent most people in from the pool (yes, of course The Governors House has a pool overlooking the ocean) and then the lightning started….
It was at a performance of the Alan Bennett play “The History Boys” at the Priory Theatre in Arundel that I made what was arguably my worst faux pas of the summer. It was a warm evening and That Nice Lady Decorator and I were on the top tier of the seating in this cute and pretty venue. With no air conditioning and despite all the available windows being open it was unbearably hot, whilst the play was anything but. A dreary history laden tale (which I accept might be the kind of comment some of my better educated peers might level at my writing, but at least I try to inject some humour) droned on for over an hour before, mercifully there was a break and a chance to skedaddle to the bar for a few scoops as Peachy Butterfield might have put it.
I decided to tell the amiable decorating operative that, having seen several of the Drip Action plays (a series of left field plays staged by enthusiastic but mostly amateur actors in different venues over Arundel Festival week) I felt I had overdone the culture and was not going in for the second half and sat nursing my drink in the bar. The 2 minute warning bell sounded indicating that the play was about to recommence and the bar emptied except for me. “I am not going back in” I said to the rather imposing woman who came over to say that the play was about to start. “Why ever not? ” she asked, pointedly. “Well, it’s a bit slow and wooden and it’s hot in there… there was barely a pause; “You cannot tell the director of the play that it is slow and wooden!!!” She exclaimed. Anxious to show that I had a rounded attitude to the theatre in general and was not a Philistine (or is that someone who collects stamps?) and without instantly recognising the level of insult that was about to tumble from my mouth, I said that as I spent some time attending some of the Drip Action plays, I felt many of these were superior to this evenings offering.
You know what they say; if you are in a hole, stop digging. Inevitably, she retorted “So after insulting my production, you are now comparing my work unfavourably with …DRIP ACTION?.. The last two words were loudly drawn out, disdainfully and dramatically emphasised. (I sub consciously thought that if she had managed to get that amount of drama onto the stage and into her play I might have stayed for the second half but by now, metaphorically, I had put down my shovel). She flounced off in a imperious manner (more drama gone to waste) and I was left with the sniggering bar staff.It has been a wonderful summer in Arundel, enlivened by the Brexit vote which offered wonderful opportunities for my many happy customers for the services of Currencies Direct to exchange euros or dollars for pounds (I thank you all from the bottom of my heart) but now I am back in the bosom of Valbonne for a few days before venturing off to Montserrat to witness the recording of the first John Otway album in decades at the newly refurbished Sir George Martin studio on the Caribbean island. The last artists to record there before the studio was destroyed in a hurricane in 1989 were The Rolling Stones. It was thoughtful of John to provide me with a perfect business reason to visit the West Indies, and very poignant of him to do this during the hurricane season. Mind you, people who know me realise that the subject of wind is close to my heart…
In the week after the suspected bombing of that Russian airliner, watching Death On The Nile the night before flying to Egypt was perhaps not the best preparation. Checking in for the flight on line and discovering that we had been allocated seats in Row 13 was another interesting reminder of ones potential impending mortality. As if this was insufficient portent, we decided to take breakfast at Jamie Oliver’s Bar And Restaurant at Gatwick Airport where the waitress, upon asking us where we were bound, said without a trace of irony “don’t worry, it’s all been blown up out of all proportion”.
Arriving at Luxor safely and after having been transported to our luxury Nile Cruise boat the MS Minerva, there was just time for a sundowner on the drinks deck before dinner. I mentioned to That Nice Lady Decorator playfully that the plural of Sphinx was Sphincter but as she slightly less than politely pointed out, I was wrong. It is in fact the title of the new James Bond film.
The Decorating Operative has always been fascinated by ancient Egyptian history, hence this trip. I however am slightly less enamoured with old relics but when this cropped up in conversation she said she loved them and that’s why she was with me.
When in Rome, one has to do as the Egyptians do, so as the cruise floated up the Nile to Aswan in search of ancient temples, I found out about Cataracts, a splendid Victorian Hotel – where Agatha Christie stayed for some time – which was a sight for sore eyes.
I think it was inevitable on this visit that at some stage I would be reminded of the song “Walk like an Egyptian”. It came during a visit to the absolutely stunning Abu Simbel temple. Imbibing freely the evening before the visit, I had thought the departure time of 3.30 would be in the afternoon. Plenty of time for a late breakfast, a nice lunch and restorative gin and tonic of the sundeck before the off. To say that I was ill prepared for a 02.45am alarm call is to understate the word alarm.
Dragged from my pit, where I was once again dreaming of the excellent Currencies Direct exchange rates, I was dragged into a tiny car and driven for 4 hours through the desert in a convey guarded by armed police. This was not the best preparation for such a wonderful construction, and of course, With that amount of time elapsing, eventually the call of nature must be answered. Aboard the boat, or on a visit to a more accessible temple, one has the option of avoiding ethnic Egytian toilets, but on this occasion, there was no alternative. Dear reader, I will not go into detail here, but anyone who has ever attended Glastonbury will know the feeling of that moment when you need to roll up your trouser legs (please don’t ask why) and so it came to pass. A little touch of what I refer to euphemistically as “Billy Browntail” ensued and within a short time I was doing exactly what the song says on the tin. Walking required the kind of rolling gait where one attempts to keeps ones buttock cheeks as far apart as possible.
So, Egypt has been done. There was just the small oversight that our tour did not involve seeing any pyramids. On the first morning, I asked our tour guide and Egyptologist which day we would be seeing them, only to be told that there were two hundreds miles to the north at Giza. As I said I am not the Egyptian expert on the family). A short pit stop in Arundel for a week and now we are heading back to La Belle France.
He had not realised the potential importance, or perhaps I should say the implications of booking “The Out Hotel” for his stay in New York. We were visiting this sexually enlightened city as the result of the hubris of rather too many bottles of wine at another epic boys lunch at the Auberge St Donat. “Steely Dan are playing some theatre shows in New York. We should go” said The Wingco.
To my surprise, he did not forget and suddenly flights were booked and hotels sought. I would like to have said that this was when the trouble started, but actually it started at the airport, however I am not permitted to go into details, save to say beware of pre booking valet parking.
The enormity of his hotel booking disaster only became clear to him after several strange experiences. Firstly, he had noted that there seemed to be no women (other than his wife) staying at this very chic Boutique Hotel. Then a couple of episodes aroused his suspicions. He was enjoying a jacuzzi when he espied two chaps kissing. Very shortly after that he came across (can I say that?) a very well endowed and clearly gay chap, who was looking at him strangely and was having trouble keeping his towel securely in place over his semi. It was at this stage that it occurred to The Wingco that The Out Hotel may in fact be a haven for the gay fraternity. Indeed a simple Trip Advisor search would have elicited this review; “an ultra-hip and gay centric boutique hotel…”
I had elected to stay at The Marriott Marquis on Times Square as I had stayed there in the past and had been fascinated by the revolving restaurant and wanted That Nice Lady Decorator to see it on her first ever visit to New York. I was reasonably certain that much of its clientele would be heterosexual.
After arriving at this wonderfully crass American slice of excess, and having secured a Times Square view room on the 25th floor, from where I took today’s picture, we went to have what the Australians call a “Sticky Beak”, a look around. And that was where the Decorating Operative made arguably her most important discovery of the trip; a bar offering a jalapeño margarita for $5 (just over £3 at today’s wonderful Currencies Direct exchange rates). It was later in the evening when The Wingco revealed how his booking had turned err… “Out”.
He is an accomplished musician but like many muso’s has this peculiar penchant for that most irritating genre of music, Jazz. Indeed several evenings were set aside for visits to famous New York Jazz clubs, but as it transpired, we never managed to get into either of his “must visit” choices for the simple reason that he is always late. The Blue Note was the first catastrophe. He had wanted to see some crusty old jazz legend called John Scofield and had booked a table, however we were denied entry after getting tangled up with rather too many gins and tonic at our hotel. No matter he said, we will go to the Village Vanguard. Again, too late to be allowed in and thus the first two gigs of the tour ended in catastrophe. Whilst secretly delighted that I did have to endure two episodes of endless self indulgent noodling from some senile musicians, I consoled him with the fact that we would be seeing another of his heroes, Steely Dan, the following evening.
I should state here that I am not really a fan of the group. I have a nodding acquaintance with some of their hits, but the idea of a frantic weekend in the Big Apple with him, that Nice Lady Decorator and Maryse, aka Mrs Wingco seemed a great idea at the time.
Now, did I mention self indulgent noodling? What great pile of poo Steely Dan were. My open mind on the group was slammed firmly shut during the first number at the delightful Beacon Theatre. With zero attempt at performance, a crap sound, a diabolically unrehearsed gaggle of girly backing singers, a stage light directed into the eyes of the audience and a load of old decrepit musicians hobbling around the stage, I took to the bar after 5 songs, and guess who joined me two songs later? “Reelin in the years, throwing away the time” indeed…