Kim and Sally at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Everyone is very excited because later this month one of Kim and Sally’s ‘yukata’ and ‘obi’ designs outfits, produced when they were the Bentley & Spens textile design partnership, is to be featured in Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk an eye catching oriental fashion show at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The exhibition- running from Saturday February 29 to June 21 – is a celebration of the iconic Japanese kimono tracing the antecedents of this defining garment back to the 16th century whilst reflecting upon its influence and inspiration for a raft of 20th and 21st century fashion designers.

Kim (Bentley as she was) and her design partner Sally Spens (latterly Murdoch) met studying textiles at London’s Goldsmiths College.  Working together as Bentley & Spens their often intricate and colourful hand painted and batik designs drew favour from clothing and interiors outlets from London, to New York, and Paris eventually coming to the attention of Japan’s foremost Kimono production company, Kawashima. The vitality and romanticism of Bentley & Spens’ work it intended to use in a range of less formal lightweight summer kimonos known as yukatas – de rigeur for chic women at the nation’s popular and season defining cherry blossom festivals. An ‘obi’ is the waist belt or band.

Kim and Sally at Tokyo yukata launch

The first Bentley & Spens yukata collection in 2002 comprised a dozen designs  with the theme Cool Flowers, Fruits Party, Exotic Japan, Sweetheart and Sea Story. An instant hit with Japanese retailers it prompted a second collection the following year entitled Tropical Daydream’ featuring hand painted birds, shells, elephants and fauna. 

Kim and Sally were flown out to Tokyo for the launch (see adjoining photographs), taking the Bullet Train to Kyoto to meet the production staff at the factory. During the subsequent six years they supplied around 80 original yukata designs.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk,

February 29 to June 21,2010, Gallery 39 and The North Court, Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. https://www.vam.ac.uk

Tickets £16-£18. 

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too much information

There’s a scene in The Kominsky Method, that wry Netflix study of septuagenarians, when recently widowed bitter sweet Alan Arkin turns to the man behind the wheel, his thespian best friend Michael Douglas, and with an expression of despair says:

“You’re talking to someone and you need a word to finish your thoughts. A simple word. Nothing out of the ordinary and it’s missing. Just gone…”

“Oh yeah,” says Douglas grimly recognising the scene, “…I think I fear it worse than cancer. It’s like that guy. Oh shit, what’s his name?”

“Whose name?” replies Arkin.

“You know, the guy with the thing.”

“What thing?”

Sound familiar? It’s the conversation stopper I and millions of others have pulled up on countless times; a ‘senior moment’ they chime. An inopportune loss of memory immediately attributed to old age; that’s anyone over 50. Like forgetting the name of the lame deputy in everyone’s favourite John Wayne western, Rio Bravo?

you know…it’s what’s his face, thingummy whatshisname…

Previously such questions – who, what, when, where or how? – would remain unresolved due to the fact that by the time we’re alone, intent upon looking up whatever it was we couldn’t remember, we’ve forgotten what it was we’d needed to remember to look up. Complicated isn’t it?

Nowadays people of a certain age (don’t you hate that phrase) turn to their smart phones for  gratification. Unless you’re drinking with my octogenarian friend (soon to be, what’s the word? Oh yes, nonagenarian) That There Sonia Morgan, with a brain sharper than a switchblade in which case all digital prompters are forbidden. “Put it away,” she’ll shriek. She doesn’t do French wine either: “Delicious, but it gives me a hangover.”

Long pregnant pauses at the end of sentences spiralling into a vortex of the forgotten. “It’s an age thing,” was the response I received from a friend older than I and who ought to have known better. Going on to repeat the mantra that anyone of a ‘certain agehas to face up to the fact that their brain just isn’t as sharp as it was. So, we’re greyer, less fit, out of work, prone to going to the lavatory in the middle of the night and as if that’s not bad enough, we can’t finish our sentences.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and the problem with growing old, if indeed it is a problem, is not diminished brain function – it’s too much information. That’s it – we’re overloaded with too much information. We know so much our brains are log jammed with useless data. A lifetime of knowledge, big and small and often entirely irrelevant, there in our heads, whirring around searching for meaning. Two perhaps three plus generations of education, newspapers, radio and television, literature, banter, cinema and music, and love and marriage and work. Finding that elusive word amid all of that is akin to picking a specific ping pong ball out of the FA Cup prize draw; there are too many. 

Don’t take my word for it. How about a second opinion? Non other than Sherlock Holmes who insists our brains are finite and shouldn’t be cluttered with the unnecessary.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” he muses in ‘A Study In Scarlet. 

“A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it…” Told you –  Too much information.

Every computer slows down eventually – no matter how big or expensive. They clog up and plod, thinking longer and harder before each function. We’ve all sat staring at that round turning thing on the screen, a sign that the machine of the future is having a stone age moment. That’s how computers work. They process. It’s why we clean up our untidy desktops, reboot our hard drives, update the software and more often than not either trash unwanted files or transfer them to an external drive. Then they work like their old selves, digitally leaner and fitter, and above all faster. Call it spontaneity. It has nothing to do with its age. You can overstretch a computer straight out the box if you throw enough information at it.

What we need to find is a method of ditching too much information – all that extraneous life stuff that at crucial moments (usually surrounded by friends awaiting a punchline)  impairs our memory and leaves us flat. 

Life was easier (excuse the Millennial cliche)  back in the day. For one thing there was less to think about. We worked, we ate, we drank beer and tried to stay warm. End of story. Now we work harder, eat and drink much more, and additionally waste hours shopping on the internet, comparing review and price sites and giving points out of ten for the person who sold us whatever it was we don’t really need anyway. It’s a synapse jungle out there and it’s getting more impenetrable by the gigabyte. And that’s before all the lies.

Imagine how much quicker our minds would be, how much sharper our repartee if we didn’t know how to use a percolator or a car crank handle or what Half Crowns and Black Forest Gateaux are? In 2019 I don’t need to know how to convert pounds shillings and pence into new pence? It’s the equivalent of 20GB of pet and wedding photographs and selfies that we’ll never look at again. Dump ‘em. Get smart and never again have to spend minutes trying to come up with…Walter Brennan; he’s the lame deputy in Rio Bravo. 

As Sherlock says: “…depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” If I could I’d high…something or other with the sleuth.

Meanwhile in the vintage Mercedes Alan Arkin is still trying to figure out what this thing is that the guy has who Michael Douglas is talking about?

“What thing?”

“The thing they use to harvest crops.”

“A tractor?”

“No!”

“Mexican people.”

“No – the Grim Reaper.” 

End of story. 

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The Quiet Life – or a hell of a holiday by Robin Banks

 

I ought have known something was wrong when the guest I was expecting insisted on the telephone that I am a “nasty person”. The woman, her mother and partner, had flown down for a short break and wanted to check-in three hours before the standard time of 3pm. After-all, cleaners have their work to do. 

It was her third call in less than half an hour and despite my offer to provide  a safe haven for their luggage while they went away and had some lunch, having access to the apartment a couple of hours later, after three, when the cleaners had gone it was evidently not enough for her.

“I’ve paid a lot of money for this,” she fumed. I agreed, she probably had, adding that I hadn’t, as yet, received a penny. Online letting agencies like the one she had booked through take the money upfront and only pay the property owner some days after guests have checked-in. With agencies’ fees on top you rarely get to know how much clients actually pay.  Like Airb&b this particular agency operates a similar policy and I suspect it was my pointing this out that triggered the nasty man outburst.

free beach pxhere

The phone rang again some minutes later and the partner explained they were having a difficult day and perhaps it would be better for all concerned if all the conversations henceforth went through him. Ok by me. We agreed that they could drop their luggage off ahead of check-in time and return after they’d eaten.

Running a holiday let apartment on the ground floor of my house by the sea had seemed like a good idea at the time. The internet had put freelance journalism on the skids and a small holiday letting business felt like a good way of shoring up the family income. We wouldn’t get rich but it would mean we could remain in the house (in a separate self-contained first floor flat) and enjoy the fresh air and faraway views. 

Rather than pack ‘em in and charge more we transformed one of the three bedrooms into a dining room the finishing touch to an apartment bigger and better appointed than any home I’d owned in London in a former life. I should add that losing a bedroom – and the potential for more income – was prompted by stories from local lettings agencies about large groups of holidaymakers (perhaps two families) trashing places. I wanted to minimise the risk with somewhere that would appeal to small families, or ideally couples.

“It’s always the well offs,” said an agent who wanted to take on our apartment.  “The more expensive the car the more mess they leave behind. We had to cancel a booking this week so that two carpets could be cleaned. Food everywhere.”

Two years later I am happy to report that most, that’s ‘most’ in inverted commas, are pleasant, respectful holidaymakers who clearly appreciate the effort that has gone into making their stay as enjoyable as possible. Yet it only takes a handful of those at the wrong end of the pain-in-the-neck spectrum to make you want to sell up and become a hermit

Ours is self catering accommodation, a fact I have to remind guests of when they request additional toilet rolls, dish washer tablets, washing powder, tea bags, and towels. I don’t know about you but the most items I’ve ever washed on holiday has been a been few pairs of socks and the odd pair of underpants. That’s not the modern way. Two couples stayed some months ago and on the first afternoon managed two full washing machine loads and additional loads every day for the subsequent four day duration of their stay. They came in a very nice car as did the guest who called me downstairs to show me what looked to be pooh on a wet hand towel. I refrained from pointing out that it had to be either his or his wife’s as all the linen is inspected with a fine tooth comb (!) before being installed via my wife and thence the cleaners. 

What two years of holiday letting has taught me is that very few clients read the house rules on any of our three websites: one is our own, and the other two are online platforms. In fairness there are not that many rules to read, just basic things like check-in and departure times. Oh, and a rule about not moving furniture around without consent. And not coming through our section of the garden as there is a risk our dog will go walkies, and, very important, not leaving a dog unattended in the flat at any time. I don’t know why I bother: We’ve had all the garden furniture brought in for a party, the hall walls resembling that street of smashed cars in The Wolf Of Wall Street and the living room carpet took a good chewing too when a dog was left, you guessed it, unattended. 

We could do what a lot of landlords hereabouts do and go through a local booking agency. They organise the lot; cleaning and changeovers, but at a price, in some cases almost 50% of takings. This clearly has a big appeal for absent owners with the second homes practically running themselves. We, on the other hand, are here, and we’re not trying to squeeze every last financial drop out of the place. It’s a space I’d happily live in and we hope because it is as it is courteous guests will return, and many do. 

The effect of all this on me? I’ve become a bit of a curtain twitcher and online troller. During the booking process you can get a sense for who is going to be difficult, although I’ll have to put my hand up and admit I didn’t see Captain Ahab coming. In fairness the woman who booked didn’t give me her beau’s surfing non de plume. There were to be just the two of them, upgraded to four at the eleventh hour. 

I became alarmed when on the first night there was nobody downstairs by midnight, and when they did show up I counted six.The front door slammed closed around 1am and three fellas, Ahab among them, appeared on the terrace to enjoy a spliff. Ok, be cool. Yes, I was cool. But not so cool when two of them peeled away to retrieve skateboards from inside a van and proceeded to skate and pass the spliff in the middle of my street at by now going on 1.30am.

You can imagine my language when I opened a first floor window and demanded Ahab explain what the ‘effin’ ‘eck was going on? It worked and they each melted away into the night. 

The next morning enjoying a coffee by the same east facing window I spotted a young man I didn’t recognise hunting around and about the plants in the front garden. Hello, seemed like a reasonably chill introduction, and you are? He explained that he was one of the downstairs guests who’d arrived late the evening before. And why was he searching the garden? But of course, Ahab had left the front door key there. What? I swore again.

Did you know you can go on You Tube and find what’s been viewed for days prior? Well you can and that lot had been watching cosmetic commercials and an interview with a tanned reality tv star at his Malibu home overlooking the ocean who when asked his favourite music turned to his mobile phone and demanded Google “play my barbecue mix”. I needed a drink. 

Perhaps the most surprising facet of the holiday letting business is how few, notably the younger ones, recycle. And yes, I do get the whole Extinction Rebellion thing, my friends getting it in the neck for driving diesel cars despite their kids having their online purchases delivered in emission belching vans. We now know that millions of tonnes of our waste end up in the far east and inside fish but I’d have thought the generation that wants to save the world from people like me would make an effort instead of bulk buying plastic and shoving it all in the trash. It doesn’t take a curtain shifter or Sherlock Holmes to spot five litre water bottles in the semi see through waste bags. Bottles, boxes and tin cans go the same way. 

In contrast Q-Tips are fine with recycling: the Miami description of white haired septuagenarians in cars with open sun roofs. Oldies know the planet is screwed but at least they make the effort to slow down the inevitable. The situation has gotten so bad with millennial guests that I’ve taken to referring to the recycling bags and boxes in the welcome letter in bold type. 

When the Nasty Man crew finally arrived (after more calls during which I was accused of withholding the address) the diplomatic other half swiftly placed their luggage in the hall. Minutes later the three of them moved off towards the town centre for some lunch. Everything seemed fine when the phone rang for the umpteenth time and the diplomatic significant other asked if he could pop in and retrieve some sandals for she whom I wasn’t to speak with? She was wearing new shoes and they were killing her. Fine, and two minutes later he was downstairs in the hall rummaging through a suitcase. 

It was then I saw through the gap in the doorway her approaching at speed. Simultaneously my other half, who had never seen or spoken with any of this party, approached from upstairs. I thought it wise to retire for fear of inflaming an already delicate situation. Too late. The women stepped through the door and going nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball with my wife shouted,  “and you can fuck off, I’m customer services.”

My wife, showing considerable restraint, told her not to use that sort of language, adding to the diplomatic other half “what are you doing with someone like her?” As our disruptive client was shoved outside she retaliated with “are you going to let her talk to me like that?”

The online agency they’d booked through wasn’t at all helpful when I explained the situation on the telephone until I said I didn’t care about the money, they could have a full refund of the monies I hadn’t as yet received as technically they hadn’t at that point officially checked-in: it was still long before 3pm. I wasn’t going to allow that woman into my home under any circumstances. 

Would I recommend holiday letting as an income source somewhere agreeable in later life? Frankly, I don’t know. Writing as one who is in a bad mood even when I’m feeling fine having dealt with people who clearly think as themselves as intellectual and balanced and ineffably right, I’d have to say no. For the simple reason that you can’t relax, and when you do it comes back to bite you. 

I’ll give it five years unless before then I take to drink and go down for manslaughter. 

 

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where am I? A very meaty issue?

I don’t know how many times I have driven east towards London over the course of 25 years on the A303, passing Stonehenge making for the M3? Let’s settle for 150 times, it can’t be far off. So imagine how I felt a few weeks ago when after about about two hours I pulled up at a set of traffic lights and didn’t have a clue where I was?  Nothing looked familiar; not the traffic lights (there aren’t any on the A303 east of Exeter); not the houses; not a busy dual carriageway; not a pub. Even as I write I have no idea where I was that autumn morning. Lost, that’ll have to do.

I remember pulling into the Exeter Services earlier in the drive to take a leak and I recall queuing up at a Greggs bakery on my way back to the car. Greggs is significant because I’d been reading about their vegan sausage roll that by all accounts is the snack equivalent of Instagram to anyone under 25 years. They are reported to be so good the company can’t bake enough and is planning to expand its range of vegan bakery to satiate the growing Extinction Rebellion generation. I’m all for veganism provided it’s delicious so I bought one and called Kim to brag about the fact: I’d been trying to track one down for weeks. I remember thinking it quite tasty. It looked, smelled and tasted like those cheap sausage rolls we used to get in the 60s and 70s, before people really cared about food and things like farm fresh and organic. The faux meat was pink and the puff pastry a bit greasy to the touch. I ate half, having not long since had breakfast, and returned the remains to the paper bag intending to finish it off for lunch. 

That’s when the lights went out so to speak.

I am writing about this because some months earlier, while Kim was working in the gallery, our house guest Eleanor and I drove to Falmouth, just for fun and to buy a gardening implement from a shop I am so ashamed to confess to visiting that I shan’t mention its name. I remember it was a grey day. I drove in the old blue Mercedes and parked on Greenbank where I often park, nar the town centre overlooking The Fal. It was lunchtime and we decided to grab a light bite at a right-on, bakery cafe place. Not vegetarian but with lots of cheesy, salady options for them’s that don’t do animal. We each ordered something cheesy on toast with salad, sharing a slice of cake for pud. It was during the pud that I came over all funny. Standing up I told Eleanor I didn’t feel quite right and that I’d be stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. 

Not quite right! Standing in a shop doorway on the other side of the narrow street I couldn’t remember where I was? Why I was there, how I got there, who drove, or where we’d parked, and if indeed we had driven? In short I had no idea how I came to be there, which believe you me is a bit worrying to say the least. After I don’t know how long I returned to an anxious looking Eleanor and said I felt a little better, and paying the bill we left. 

After purchasing a piece of gardening paraphernalia from the unmentionable store at the other end of town and still feeling like a drunk on a tightrope (Eleanor rightly concerned about my ability to drive us home) I suggested we stop off at a pub. A pair of double espressos (mine so heavily sugared it tasted like Golden Syrup) and a large brandy for me. I downed them both in single gulps and felt instantly as though someone had thrown an enormous electrical switch attached to the back of my head.

“I’m back,” I recall saying whilst looking around and wondering where the hell I was? One minute out with the fairies and the next down to earth pledging never to eat cheese on toast again as long as I live. 

Fast forward to somewhere in the west country after half a vegan sausage roll attempting to reach Alton, off the M3 near Basingstoke, in a town I didn’t recognise, not knowing how I got there, and not knowing which way to turn. My situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the reason I was going to Alton was to trade my old Merc in for a slightly newer model and because I thought I knew the route like the back of my hand I’d stripped the car of all personal items – including maps. 

I drove around in circles for what seemed like an eternity going beneath the M5 twice, possibly three times, and over what I believed to be the A303 even more. Tapping Basingstoke into my mobile phone’s GPS app didn’t seem to help much. Indeed it wasn’t until I pulled into a service station, somewhere near a military base (I kept seeing barbed wire, soldiers and jet fighters) and bought two Cadbury’s flake bars (well known for their efficacious qualities) and downing them post haste did I return to something resembling normality. Only it wasn’t normal at all. I arrived in Hampshire at the wrong time and it turned out the wrong place. Maybe I’ll try a Crunchie bar next time.

What does any of this mean? I have absolutely no idea. In fact, I have no idea why I even wrote this or where the concept came from?

 

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The last Port Eliot Festival?

 

getting ahead at Port Eliot

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed what may easily be the very last Port Eliot Festival.There was a look and feel and smell amid and among the rolling grounds, woodland and elegant Port Eliot House and gardens that reminded me of the last festival I attended, on the Isle of Wight in 1970. I daresay some of this mutuality could be down to the fact that a good number of those in St.Germans the other day, just inside Cornwall, and a short walk from the splendid Tamar Valley, were themselves on the Isle of Wight when Jimi Hendrix delivered his final UK performance. Don’t get me wrong, the majority there were much, much younger than I, but at the same time it was one of the few events I have been to in recent years when I wasn’t mistaken for either a mini cab driver or doorman. Indeed my only age issue was an barman at the rioja bar wondering if my eyesight was up to reading the menu on the wall behind him. Aside from that it felt as ageless as could have hoped for.

I am put of offer multitudinous outdoor popular culture events for a number of reasons, not the least of which are toilet and food queues niggles that were for the most part ironed out at Port Eliot where the plentiful loos range in quality from (if you’ll excuse the pun) bog standard to expensive luxury. As for the food I have never before been confronted by such a global mouth watering variety beneath a sun soaked cumulous sky. There was Turkish and Thai, Chinese and Cornish, meaty and fishy, vegan and Italian, shell fish and sushi, and for me the best French toast, dripping with maple syrup, outside Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

I was there to accompany my friend Robert Elms who had made the trip west to conduct a sort of literary Q&A on the subject of his recent book London Made Us with a music writer Will Hodgkinson.

Robert enjoying himself

He was a little apprehensive before, unsure of who his audience would be, especially as the book is tightly London focused. Over two brews I attempted to reassure him that there are also people of reasonable intelligence in the west country who not only read avidly but had even heard of London. Some of them may even have been there, or like myself come from there. 

Upon reflection I think I enjoyed Port Eliot because there weren’t aimless and headless hordes there to worship rock and pop star celebrities of varying ability, there instead to listen to writers discussing their books, like Robert, and the process that led them there. Some of them recognisable celebrity writers – a news reader, a couple of comedians, and a singer  – but in the main the stars of the festival were writers and journalists of every calibre, even including one I trained with on a newspaper in Uxbridge in the 1970s. 

The sheer range and breadth of creative skills and crafts to be learnt  there was inspiring – if one were organised enough to prebook – including pottery, printing, design, carpentry and even ukulele lessons. Within the 12th century Port Eliot House, crenelated and mullioned and remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries, home of the now deceased Lord St Germans who began the festival in 2003 – was a small Sandra Rhodes exhibition and lectures, discussions and workshops on fashion. 

Romany caravans, campers, mud bathers, mad hatters, brewers and bejewelled bohemians on stilts combined to provide a 19th century carnival atmosphere where a good many made the effort to (in immortal the words of Dave Crosby) let their freak flags fly. After the quagmire of 2017 the warm sun-bathed weather helped, making for a joyful, colourful, eccentric experience with I’ll wager few, if any, Brexiteers in attendance. The organisers like to describe it as ‘magical’, which on that perfect July day, with hair and peignoirs, bippity bobbity hats, streamers and unbounded consciousnesses fluttering in the breeze was hard to deny.

Robert’s thing went well. Far from being the fish out of water he feared the crowded Bowling Green Tent where his do took place contained a good many familiar with his BBC Radio London programme. He had them in fits and was henceforth glad handed warmly by admirers all afternoon.

It was touted as the last ever festival to be held there owing to a dispute among the former lord’s heirs. I hope they settle their differences and stage another – for all our sakes.

Port Eliot, St.Germans, Cornwall July 25-28, 2019

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Never Not Never Go Back – a taste of Viareggio

… an art deco Miamiesque illuminated barrier…

My life is one of stringent rules: Never wear aftershave; always polish my shoes; stand up for elderly people and women with young children on the London underground; never vote tory; spread the jam on top of the cream upon a scone; never buy from Amazon; and never stay at the same holiday hotel twice. Of course there are others but it is the last one that I have just broken, resulting in an extraordinary and most gratifying turn of events. 

After the upheavals of my recent, and possibly over reported and seriously unedited, illness Kim insisted we have a holiday (I think she needed one more than me).  As I am incapable of making snap decisions where significant sums of money are involved, and because modern travel is a pitfall of scams and complications, we decided to contact Citalia the Italian vacation specialists who took us to Rome and thence to Tuscany three years ago. That holiday was a two centre one commencing with four nights b&b in Rome followed by three half board at The Grand Hotel, Viareggio in the heart of the Italian Riviera. It couldn’t have been simpler or more stress free.

What we liked about The Grand Hotel, an imposing fin de siecle structure just yards from the infinite sandy beach and a shopaholic’s Eden of fashion boutiques stretching north and south for as far as the eye can see, is it’s faded elegance and apparent determination to be nothing more than an unpretentious, effortlessly run if rather large seaside hotel with a dash of resplendence. There is nothing groovy in its echoey corridors with 20 foot ceilings and tiled floors and staircases wider than most living rooms. I particularly like the evening dining room across from the cavernous reception facing the garden and pool. With pillars and a domed ceiling it had been a ballroom in an earlier life. Smiling waiters in waistcoats glide silently between the tables overseen by a sharp eyed maitre’d. And the food whilst unlikely to win any prizes is that classic global Italian I can’t have enough of.

For the first three nights, as on our previous visit, Kim and I avoided the comfortable and slightly clubby cocktail bar that leads to a small terrace protected from the street by a tall hedge. Neither of us were keen to make holiday acquaintances much preferring our company to that of those who think dressing up for dinner is wearing sneakers and a short sleeved checked shirt, tucked into cargo pants.  But by Tuesday I fancied a cigar on the terrace and decided to bite the bullet: I can be agreeable if I try. 

The only cocktail I drink – as a rule – is a vodka martini, straight up with a twist. If you’ve seen the films you’ll know where that comes from. It’s a simple enough concoction that when executed well delivers the perfect early evening punch. Few get it right: One at Rick Stein’s Ruby’s in Padstow was made with smoked vodka with the aroma of a bacon sandwich; another at The Groucho Club ameliorated by ice; most are simply tepid, in both taste and temperature. Few come even close to those  once crafted by the now legendary barman Gilberto Preti at Dukes Hotel, tucked away in London’s S.James. With non of the silly showmanship some cocktail barmen feel obliged to display the school masterly and ever so slightly obsequious Gilberto created martinis that are spoken of today, a decade after he left. 

Our barman at The Grand Hotel, Mario, tanned and erect, nodded and having agreed that basic Stolichnaya vodka would do he set about his task that he accomplished with some aplomb. The martini was good, maybe not quite cold enough, but it had just the right hint of vermouth with a citrous bite. Before we left for dinner I held my nerve and asked Mario if for tomorrow’s martini he could put the glass in the freezer beforehand. He explained that the glass had indeed been frozen but that the bar freezer isn’t that chilly. For tomorrow he’d put the glasses in a much colder freezer in another part of the hotel, along with the vodka if I’d like. Very much I concurred. 

Viareggio is 28 kilometres from Pisa airport, served by EasyJet from the UK. In typical Citalia fashion a chauffeur awaited Kim and I in the arrivals lounge and both carrying and wheeling our luggage led us to a black S Class Mercedes. Holidays should always start this way. 

The room I had booked was on the third floor with 16 foot high ceilings and a small west facing balcony from which we could see the boutiques and cafes that create at night an art deco Miamiesque illuminated barrier between the wide promenade and the hundreds of beach clubs with their multitude of  deckchairs and beach parasols beyond. The seafront and hinterland is flat for miles with a smooth and well used cycle path connecting Viareggio’s super yatch and fishing harbour with other resorts in the lambent distance.

Kim and I rented sit up and beg bicycles from the hotel on our last day to explore the coast.

We ate fried seafood and drank chardonnay from a fish-fry boat in the harbour where the fishmen sell there catches on the pavement and in the afternoon we pedalled north to the grand mansions of Forte Dei Marmi.  There is a station in town and on the Monday we took a day away from the rain and headed for Florence – and even more rain. For the rest of the week we rested and read at the beach club opposite the hotel where our admission was part of the package.   

The night after that first martini Mario nodded as Kim and I took our seats inside the bar, it being a bit breezy on the the terrace. He nodded again, as though acknowledging some forbidden protocol, when the waitress handed him our order, and duly departed, I presumed to the other, colder deep freeze.

straight up with a twist

That first martini had been good but nothing could have prepared me for the second coming. It was simply sensational. Mario had excelled himself. The frosted  glass yielded a martini with a gossamer thin slick of vermouth on its surface. It set my pulse racing and was without doubt the best martini I’ve had since Gilberto’s. Tell him said Kim sensing my jubilation. I shall I said, and I did, upon which Mario, bowing faintly, confessed he’d be taught how to mix the perfect vodka martini straight up with a twist of lemon by none other than the maestro himself, the venerable Gilberto Preti, the leading man in many cocktail articles in the UK national press and the star of a short film on boutique hotels I’d hosted during my short term as a BBC Travel Show presenter. I almost fell backwards in disbelief. Of all the vodka joints in all the towns in all the world he mixes in the one I never thought I return to. 

Mario explained he’d lived in London for a short time some 20 years ago improving his cocktail skills – and some – and polishing his English. 

The fact that an hour or so later our young dinner waiter Marco persuaded the chef to go off piste and serve me with a second creme caramel that week (he made it three on our last night) makes me wonder if my no return rule should be ripped up forthwith.

The Grand Hotel in Viareggio isn’t called grand for nothing. 

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Getting To The Bottom Of It

I would be lying if I said I was looking forward to my ‘flexible sigmoidoscopy’; in layman’s terms, a camera inserted inside the bottom. Nonetheless, this is the procedure for those such as I who have endured a bout of diverticulitis. It’s a look around the insides with a tiny – I believe Olympus – camera and light on the tip of a flexible tube to see if there is any colonic damage that could at some point trigger another round of the screaming abdabs. 

My last sigmoidoscopy was 23 years ago and all I can remember of it is that it was very uncomfortable, and more than a little embarrassing. There is no cure for diverticulitis but our medical profession has a system in place and having a close look inside the bum some weeks after the condition has subsided is accepted protocol.

My recent appointment was set for April 14 and accompanying the letter of confirmation from the Royal Cornwall Hospital were two packs of Moviprep and a bewildering instruction pamphlet. It included photographs of what my colon should look like when I arrive at hospital and a warning that the procedure could be cancelled if some of the nasty stuff remained in place. Moviprep is a powdery concoction that needs to be diluted in water and taken, in two doses, a predetermined number of hours before the anal photo-call. In my case seven o’clock the evening prior and twelve hours hence the next morning.  Without dwelling upon the details I was unable to sleep after 2.30am and spent the remainder of the night in a state of high anxiety dashing to and from the smallest room in the house. The pre-med procedure also involves drinking copious amounts of water. 

Kim took the day off work to drive me to the hospital and after dropping me off headed to Truro with Asta to meet some friends expecting that I could be up to four hours in the Endoscopy Unit. 

In a waiting room, with a dozen or so men and women, I was asked by a receptionist to complete a short form inquiring among other things if I was on any medication and if I had consumed any alcohol that day. I wish. Another white and mauve form I was told to complete after the procedure. This was a feedback form that asks recipients to tick ‘how likely are you to recommend our ward or service to friends or family if they needed similar care of treatment.’ The boxes to be ticked ran the gamut from extremely likely to unlikely, to don’t know. A box at the bottom (sic) questioned why that response was given. On the reverse are twelve questions inquiring about, among other things, the staff’s compassion and if the patient was treated with dignity; more of dignity later. All that was missing were questions about staff dress code and favourite colours. If you, like me, are wondering what’s gone wrong with the world – I can’t help you?

was it good for you

From there I was led to a much smaller, male only, waiting room where the sheepish expressions therein said it all. My three compadres were in medical smocks and all glued to their smart phones. I daresay they were watching the procedure we were all about to endure on You Tube. Don’t laugh, there are several quite graphic films there, I’ve looked. 

My second interview was with a bubbly nurse in dark blue medical attire in a small office adjacent to the waiting room. Here I was asked to complete and sign a consent form that would let hospital staff off the hook should my sigmoidoscopy go wrong and I wound up back on St.Mawes Ward. All completed I was handed a pair of dark blue dignity shorts, that’s boxer shorts with the fly on the back, a backless smock and a pair of non slip yellow slipper/socks. I was instructed to get changed and join the queue next door. Of course me being me I’d brought my own slippers and a dressing gown and despite the looming event and the hushed terror on the faces of those around me, I at least looked presentable. I like to think I could have been going into a spa, or awaiting a pedicure. 

I don’t know precisely how long I was waiting in that airless 10×10’ room, thankfully with a door to a toilet in the corner, with our bare legs almost touching, but it was long enough for me to read the Guardian’s big read, two pages of news and begin the quick crossword. At a guess, I’d estimate 40 minutes. 

That’s when another nurse in a dark blue outfit asked me to join her for a chat in the room I gotten changed in. Of striking appearance, with lustrous black hair, she didn’t beat about the bush. Straight off she said we’re not going to do the procedure today. And the reason for sudden about face?  The sigmoidoscopy procedure has to be carried out six weeks after being discharged from hospital (see the previous blog) and according to the nurse sat with me April 18 was four days shy of the required 42. She said the administrators had taken the six weeks from the day I had been admitted to St Mawes Ward and not the day of my discharge. Didn’t anyone look? Should I buy the hospital a calendar?

Secretly delighted I briefly attempted to ask my nurse to have a word with the surgean who was to carry out the procedure. My tummy felt fine. The Moviprep had done its job. I was as empty as a pub without any beer.  Kim had taken a day of work, I’d been in a state of high stress for the best part of a week, and besides I was kitted out in dark blue dignity shorts. Let’s just do it I said, conflicted but desperate.  

That’s when it struck me, they couldn’t do it. Of course they couldn’t. After all the risk waver forms I’d filled out if the slightest thing went wrong during the procedure, four days shy of the required six weeks, my nurse and the clinician would be up to their stethoscopes in litigation, and I’d be back in St.Mawes Ward looking forward to a world cruise and a new suit all paid for by the Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust. 

Because I will forever been in the debt of the NHS and in particular Mr.Michael Graham Clarke, the consultant, who brought me back from the brink without resorting to the blade I decided against completing the mauve feedback questionnaire because I’d have been stuck on question seven: Do the staff appear confident and able to perform their tasks when caring for you?

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