Review – Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 12th October 2014

Taken at MidnightStill in the company of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Mrs Chrisparkle and I got up early to take the scenic drive to Chichester for our final visit there this year. Normally we only go once a year but this time the Summer Programme was too good not to wallow in it to the max. We arrived in plenty of time for our yummy lunch served at the Minerva Brasserie, the perfect start to a self-indulgent weekend of theatre overload.

Taken At Midnight, the final play in Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, concerns Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and subjected him to open cross-examination in the criminal trial of four Brownshirts – the Stormtroopers who handled Hitler’s dirty work with such evil gusto. I’d never heard about Hans Litten, but it’s not surprising – as neither western nor communist governments found his activities useful for their cold war propaganda. Historically, his was a low profile for many years and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first biography (in English) about him was written.

Penelope Wilton as IrmgardLitten’s nifty questioning humiliated Hitler, causing him to attempt to defend the indefensible; and it would be an experience Hitler was not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. On the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested and from then on was kept in concentration camps till the end of his life. Mark Hayhurst’s play follows Litten’s imprisonment through the eyes of his mother Irmgard, a constant thorn in the flesh of the local Gestapo, never allowing her son’s predicament to be forgotten.

Martin HutsonThis is a very dramatic and sombre play given a suitably intense production by Jonathan Church’s lucid direction and Robert Jones’ stark design. Plush padded leather chairs and well-made desks brought on and off centre stage give an illusion of elegance and decency in Nazi Germany; contrasted with the barren dormitory and brutal guards of the concentration camp setting against the back wall of the stage. Harsh lighting and sound plots emphasise the horror of the Third Reich, nowhere witnessed with greater impact than in a hard-hitting scene where Litten, along with his two co-prisoners, Ossietzky and Mühsam, are suspended by their wrists and whip-lashed during questioning – all done by stage effects. But the real power of contrast in this production comes from the juxtaposition of the quiet purity of Irmgard’s speech and behaviour, and the violence of the society that surrounds her.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton’s performance as Irmgard is a thing of beauty. Reserved yet assertive, elegant yet punchy, she is dignity personified in the face of extreme provocation. Her plight as the mother of an imprisoned man, whom she cannot see and whose wellbeing or otherwise she can only guess at, is beautifully and movingly presented; and the way she just hangs on to her politesse whilst sparring with the SS in the shape of Dr Conrad makes you curl your toes with shameless pleasure. The scene where she finally does get to see her son again after so many years is simply a masterclass of understatement.

Prisoner and guardsMartin Hutson’s portrayal of Litten is of a man who never loses his sense of self and his knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but whose understanding of the situation in which he finds himself gets progressively less optimistic as the years go by. It’s very moving to see his youthful dynamism get broken by the prison system and his appearance in the penultimate scene when he finally sees his mother again is heart-breaking in his resignation to his fate.

David YellandAlthough its tone is dark, and ultimately very sad – we all know what is going to happen in Germany during the 30s and 40s – structurally the play leaves us with a sense of victory. There’s no doubt about what’s destined for Litten – a savage light and sound effect shows us with horrific clarity; but we still get to see his courtroom moment of glory – for which he eventually paid the ultimate price – bestriding the court like a Colossus and making mincemeat of Hitler, whilst his mother looks on adoringly. It’s a very positive finale.

Penelope Wilton and John LightThis is a splendid ensemble production and all the cast give great performances. Particular plaudits to John Light as Conrad, seemingly reasonable and refined, playing a defensive bat to keep Irmgard at bay until he has no alternative but attack; David Yelland as Lord Allen, ostensibly the great hope that a member of the British House of Lords might possibly hold some sway with Hitler in negotiation, but in reality ineffectual and powerless; and Pip Donaghy as the spirited Erich Mühsam, always maintaining a bright opposition to the cowards who imprison him, unwavering in his taunting of the Nazis, even in the face of imminent death: “Goebbels? He’s just not a funny man…”

A very strong, emotional play with a stunning central performance by Penelope Wilton and terrific support from the rest of the cast – this is an experience at the theatre that stays with you long after curtain down. It continues at the Minerva until 1st November, and I would recommend it without hesitation.

Lynsey de Paul and Me – In Memoriam (11 June 1950 – 1 October 2014)

Lynsey de PaulNo, this isn’t a kiss and tell. Just my memories of a performer for whom I always held a very special place in my heart.

1972 didn’t start well for me. My dad died on New Year’s Day, aged 48, and I was just 11. With no brothers or sisters, it was just me and my mum left at home, with uncles and aunts telling me at the funeral “look after your mother” and “you’re the man of the house now”. And so it was; within a few days of Dad dying, I had switched from boy to man, and I still remember the burden of responsibility. You might think that I didn’t really have it in any practical sense – but I still felt the pressure both to somehow protect mum and to live up to the relatives’ expectations.

Top of the PopsI’d always loved pop music, and followed it as closely as I could, even as early as the age of 5. I had a little transistor radio; I was addicted to Top Of The Pops; but most of all, living in a pub, I was lucky enough to receive all the old records off the jukebox each time new records were installed. It meant I used to acquire five singles a fortnight – for no cost! As a result, I rapidly built up a pretty good collection and played my favourites constantly, B sides and all.

Mother and Child ReunionBut when Dad died, so did my interest in pop music – “just like that”, as Tommy Cooper would have said. I retreated inside myself, read more, played less, although I did pound out my frustrations on the piano he had bought for me in 1970. I remember Mum taking me on holiday to Spain in May 1972 for a mid-term treat (wouldn’t be allowed today) which I enjoyed enormously but apparently spent the entire eleven days saying “Dad would have loved this” which I don’t suppose helped Mum much. I did catch some snatches of pop music on that holiday. There was a jukebox in the hotel bar (the Hotel Internacional in Calella on the Costa Dorada could never be accused of being a classy joint) and someone kept on playing Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion. It felt hideously appropriate for my life at the time. “I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, but the mother and child reunion is only motion away. Oh little darling of mine, I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day….” and so on. I liked the song, and it made me grateful that I had at least one parent left, but nevertheless it still made me cry.

Song Sung BlueThen in the summer I discovered European Pop Jury on Radio 2. It was like a monthly Eurovision Song Contest and I couldn’t wait for that one Saturday in four to come round. It seemed to me that every month it was won by either Neil Diamond singing Song Sung Blue or Hot Butter’s Popcorn. But I loved it, and it gave me a warm feeling on Saturday nights, sat alone whilst my mum worked in the bar downstairs. So I was obviously in the right mood when, one September morning, whilst being driven to school by the mother of a friend (she collected about four kids from various villages so it took about 45 minutes to get there), I heard on the radio this new song. It was bright, cheeky, funky, and for the first time in my life I realised that a voice could be… sexy! I didn’t catch the name of the singer, but I heard that the song was called Sugar Me.

Sugar MeI waited for the next lot of jukebox singles to arrive, and sure enough, there it was. Sugar Me, by Lynsey de Paul, on the MAM label. In the afternoons after school I could play the records on the jukebox for free, and I gave Lynsey a right old pounding, if you’ll pardon the expression. I loved that song. It had that constant drum beat, the quirky piano rhythms and of course, that breathy voice. I also enjoyed the B side, Storm in a Teacup, but hadn’t realised it had already been a single for the Fortunes, as it had been released whilst I was in post-mourning-music-denial. That week I watched Top of the Pops for the first time in ages, and, yes she was on it. And of course, my heart skipped a beat. I was besotted!

Pre-printed autographI started buying Melody Maker and New Musical Express again because my pop music mojo had returned. I found a classified advert to join her fan club. So I sent off my subscription cost, and not long later received back a membership pack: a newsletter (short, and on pink paper), a signed photo (except it wasn’t really signed, just a photo of a signed photo), and a membership card. I was member number 199. Over the next few years the fan club was a bit of nothingness really – the newsletters were few and far between, and there wasn’t much exciting going on. But at least I was officially a member!

Getting A DragWe were heading into Christmas, and I was watching Top of the Pops again, when I saw Tony Blackburn come on and say “we’re having such a good time here but I don’t understand it – Lynsey de Paul says it’s getting a drag” – camera switch to Lynsey at the piano with her new song. Even funkier piano, even cheekier vocals; I had a sense the lyrics were a bit naughty but “innocent me” didn’t quite get why. I hadn’t known that a new single was going to be released, so I added it to my Christmas list of singles I wanted from Santa, even though I’d probably be getting a copy via the jukebox. The others were The Osmonds – Crazy Horses, Little Jimmy Osmond – Long Haired Lover From Liverpool, Slade – Gudbuy T’Jane, Lieutenant Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough, and T.Rex – Solid Gold Easy Action. That’s what I call an eclectic mix. I remember the disappointment I felt that Getting A Drag only got to Number 18 in the chart. Sugar Me had got to Number 5; but it wouldn’t be the first or last time that my musical tastes would be out of kilter with the rest of humanity. The B side was Brandy – rather a silly song I always thought, but I liked the concept that “mating was better than hating”.

All NightIf I hadn’t been watching the music press I would never have found out about Lynsey’s next release because it was a complete flop. All Night didn’t make the charts at all, despite my buying it on the one and only week it was on sale in the local record shop. Looking back, I can see that it was a “treading water” type single, very similar instrumentations and structure to her previous songs, and even though it was good, it was perhaps just not quite good enough. The B side, however, was a mini adventure: Blind Leading the Blind. Much longer than your average single, its very quiet piano introduction and an incredibly laid back verse suddenly get contrasted with a really rocky chorus and an arpeggio-filled arrangement – and it all descends into quiet and hush at the end. Great stuff.

SurpriseThen in the summer of 1973, Lynsey’s first album came out. It was called Surprise because of the surprise decision not to include her next single in the track listing. Both the new single and the album took her output in slightly different directions. The album contained elements of jazz that I hadn’t suspected she would do (I’ve never really enjoyed jazz much) so the tracks Mama Do and Sleeping Blue Nights never really did it for me, but there were plenty that did. My favourite song off the album – and probably still my favourite non-single song of hers – is Water, co-written, as many of Lynsey’s songs were, with Barry Blue (although then he was still Barry Green). It’s about as jazzy as I like to get, with a great tune and a really funky beat. But other highlights include the beautiful Ivory Tower, a sad and gentle song with a lullaby melody, the quirky Doctor Doctor, the futuristic Just Visiting, and the reflective Crossword Puzzle. I remember discovering the album in the record shop – I didn’t have enough cash on me to buy it, so I rushed home to beg my mum to lend me a little extra so I could get it that day. She obliged, nice old thing that she was.

Wont Somebody DanceThe famous surprise missing single was Won’t Somebody Dance With Me which was (still is) a most moving romantic ballad about the lonely wallflower feeling undesired – the 13 year old me desperately wanted to rescue her. Famously “may I have the pleasure of this dance” was spoken by radio DJ Ed Stewart – although in subsequent re-recordings other voices took that part, including (slightly bizarrely) Lionel Blair I believe. It showed that Lynsey was never going to be just a one-hit wonder, and deserved a much higher placing in the charts than the Number 14 it achieved in November 1973. Perhaps even more of a surprise was that this song convinced a couple of my more metal-headed school friends that, actually, she was worth a listen. The B side was So Good To You, a sexy, intimate, love song which I always took as her personal message to me about how one day I would have a nice lady looking after me. She was right – and maybe we should draw a veil over any other associations I have with that song, as being just a private matter between her and me.

Surprise centre spreadLynsey trained as an art student, and her first job was designing album sleeves. Indeed her own illustrations are all over the centre spread of the Surprise album, but of course it is as a musician that we remember her. Won’t Somebody Dance With Me won an Ivor Novello award, the first ever awarded to a woman. I wonder how much more we would have heard from her had she not had constant wrangles and legal battles with successive managements. That’s why so many of her hits are re-recorded on later compilations, due to ownership issues with the original recordings. Won’t Somebody Dance was the last song she recorded on MAM. She signed with the aggressive Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne) and her first single for him was Ooh I Do (co-written with Barry Blue) on the Warner Brothers label. It’s a great record – a terrific Latin/jazz arrangement, with Lynsey giving a brilliant, wide-eyed innocent but romantic performance, and it reached No 25 in the charts in June 1974.

No HonestlyDon Arden then created his own label, Jet Records, and Lynsey’s first single on that label was her most successful since Sugar Me – and that was No Honestly, the theme to the TV programme starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, which won her her second Novello award. That was in November 1974. At that time I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg’s Tuesday night chart show from 9.30 to 11.00pm, when really I should have been asleep because of school the next day. I’d acquired this massive, super-duper, state of the art (for that time) radio, because a school friend (who became an ex-friend as you’ll understand) broke in to our pub and stole money from the till. He used the money to buy this radio. The police caught him and said that as it was our money we could have the radio. Don’t think my mother was that impressed but I was delighted! I remember listening to the chart the week that No Honestly had really caught on and had lots of airplay and was thrilled that it got as high as No 3 on the Radio Luxembourg chart. Alas, by the time the BBC chart came round on the Sunday evening it was just No 7. Lynsey was ace at composing a ten second burst of music that could be used as a jingle, and those opening four bars of No Honestly must count as one of the most arresting introductions to a song for all time. And what a B-side! Lynsey’s version of Central Park Arrest that she had written for the group Thunderthighs earlier that year. “Come out, I know that you’re there – I have a gun and so you’d better beware”.

Melody Maker did a big double spread on Lynsey around that time and it was called “Pop’s Leading Lady”. I removed it from the paper and pinned it to the green baize board on the back wall of my classroom at school for everyone to see. If you know my surname, you’ll understand it was easy for some wag to amend the “Pop” by adding a couple of letters thus personalising it for me! I remember thinking that this big article and interview with her must mean that she had really “arrived” as far as pop music was concerned.

Taste MeRecords were always top of my Christmas list, and 1974 had a bumper crop, the pride of which was Lynsey’s next album, Taste Me Don’t Waste Me. Very different in mood from Surprise, or No Honestly. Romantic, laid back, soft-centred; with tender, gentle orchestrations with the merest hint of jazz. The most upbeat track is probably Let’s Boogie; a great tune that I remember her performing on an episode of The Golden Shot once. That takes you back, doesn’t it! Actually Lynsey wrote the 1970s theme to The Golden Shot. The major “single off the album” was My Man and Me, a sweet thing that she wrote with – I believe – James Coburn in mind. With all those older men that featured romantically in her life, someone ten years younger than her was never going to have a chance, was I! Other significant tracks included her version of Dancin’ on a Saturday Night, that she co-wrote with Barry Blue and was a big hit for him; although to be honest, I prefer Barry’s disco version. Whilst we’re talking of Mr Blue, my favourite record of his is the camp Ruskipop Hot Shot, all balalaikas and Russian Army la-la-las, which was also part-penned by Lynsey. That hit the charts in October 1974.

Hot ShotThe Taste Me Don’t Waste Me album also has its delicate title track, but for me it’s surpassed by the wonderful When I’m Alone With You, which is a kick off your shoes, snuggle down on the sofa, comfort-blanket of a song. Do you remember the radio comedy series, Hello Cheeky? It starred Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer and John Junkin. I used to love it. Lynsey guested on the show once and sang When I’m Alone With You; and she added extra lyrics – where on the record she sings “do do do do do do do do, (etc)” she sang “lovers may come and others go, only by now I’d hoped you’d know”. It’s much better with those additional lyrics.

Love BombI remember waiting (in vain) for new output from Lynsey throughout 1975 but everything went quiet. It wasn’t until Christmas that Santa again turned up trumps with her next album, Love Bomb. I loved the cover, with Lynsey dressed in sub-military dungarees – who can resist a girl in uniform? For the most part, this album is Taste Me Don’t Waste Me Part Two, with many soft, luxurious, laid back songs about sweet love – the titles alone give you a clue to the tone of this album: Sugar Shuffle, You Are the Happiest Day of my Life, Hug and Squeeze Me, Dreams; not to mention Shoobeedoo Wey Doobee How. There’s an album version of No Honestly on here too, with just a slightly different arrangement if I remember rightly. I think I was a little disappointed in this album at the time, because Lynsey hadn’t moved on from her lovey-dovey Taste Me phase. Don’t get me wrong, they still sounded good, but even the 15 year old me thought that she wasn’t stretching herself musically. The best tracks are the ones that don’t conform to this quiet romantic style – title track Love Bomb, with its fantastic tune, Crystal Ball with its elegant fade out and Season to Season (where she says “bye bye” at the end). And then as a Christmas bonus, together with Barry Blue she did the fantastic Happy Christmas To You From Me. For me Christmas is not complete unless I play this at least once over the festive season. Yes I know it’s repetitive, derivative, and shallow…. But I love it.

Happy Christmas To You From MeI’ve always been an avid theatregoer, as you’re probably aware, gentle reader, if you’ve read any of my other blogs. At the ridiculously early age of 7 I started going to the local amateur dramatic society in Wendover where we lived to watch their plays. I would get taken there by my mum and then left in the front row to watch the play and then met by mum at the end to walk home. At 8 I saw my first West End shows, and basically haven’t stopped since. By the time I was 15 I was going to London by myself to watch matinees – the instruction was that I had to be back home in Wendover by 7pm. But in April 1976, shortly before my 16th birthday I put my foot down. I was going into London by myself for the evening. Why? Because, for one week only, at the London Palladium, there was a revue starring Sacha Distel, with Mike Read, Marti Caine, and… you guessed it…. Lynsey de Paul. There was no way I was not going to see Lynsey. I went on the Tuesday night in my flash “going-out” blue suit, blue shirt and blue tie – I was indeed a vision in blue. My memories of Lynsey’s performance are that she had a small band on stage with her, and a grand piano at the front at which she sang and played; she entered the stage to the band playing the introduction to Sugar Me, but when she finally sat at the piano and started, she played something completely different – can’t remember what it was though. She sang the majority of her hits, and ended up with Sugar Me as a finale. The first half of the show was Mike Read, Lynsey and Marti Caine, with Sacha Distel being on for all the second half. We didn’t see Mike or Marti again, but Lynsey came back on to do a duet with Sacha. And that was it – no curtain call at the end when we got to see the acts again, just Monsieur Distel taking all the limelight. I was really disappointed not to be able to give her another big round of applause. But at least I saw her. Getting back home at 1am with school the next day wasn’t the brightest thing but There Was No Alternative.

Palladium showTwo of the songs she sang at the Palladium were the A and B side of her next single – Rhythm and Blue Jean Baby with Into My Music. They were so typical of the time, and I really loved them. Into My Music in particular was a quirky, introverted little number about the song writing process – always a good subject, and it made a change to hear a song that isn’t about love! It wasn’t much of a success, and her next single didn’t trouble the chart at all. I heard her sing If I Don’t Get You The Next One Will on some TV programme but the local record shop never stocked it, and, as a result, I never bought the single. It’s a good song though. “I’ve been wined, I’ve been dined, I’ve been given the bill…” or was that The Pill, I was never sure – either way is funny.

All This and World War IISometime in the summer of 1976, much loved and respected music historian and broadcaster Steve Race presented a programme on Radio 4 (I think it was) called The Composer as Entertainer. It was a fascinating programme where he examined how well or otherwise composers in general perform their own music. He went as far back as Albert Chevalier, and en route to modern times his musical journey encompassed Hoagy Carmichael, Noel Coward, Sergei Rachmaninov, The Beatles; and his final example was Lynsey de Paul. He described her as “an acquired taste, and I admit, I’ve acquired it”. He was very complimentary about her song writing and her ability simply to sit at a piano and perform with a remarkable degree of purity. The piece of music he chose to illustrate her style was Rainbow, from the Taste Me album. Talking of Lennon and McCartney (as I nearly did), one of Lynsey’s other projects that year was to appear on the All This and World War Two album. This was the soundtrack to a desperately unsuccessful film that combined wartime newsreel footage with Beatles songs performed by other artists. Lynsey performed Because (from Abbey Road) and gives it her usual breathy style. It was the only track I ever played on that album!

Rock BottomAnd then in 1977, two loves came together: Lynsey de Paul in the Eurovision Song Contest. The Song for Europe programme wasn’t televised due to last minute strikes – such was the flavour of the era – so I had to listen to the contest on Radio 2. I was so thrilled when she and Mike Moran won with Rock Bottom. The song was great – very contemporary Eurovision – and it looked brilliant at the Wembley Conference Centre with the whole business suits/newspapers/Ronnie Hazlehurst conducting with an umbrella-look. Lynsey had some microphone troubles at the beginning, and her vocals on the first verse were pretty ropey. Nevertheless, at one stage it really looked as though the UK would win – and Lynsey did a stagey “chewing fingernails” look to the camera which I remember at the time thinking had the potential to be very hubristic. And so it was, with France beating the UK by fifteen points into second place. Six countries gave Lynsey and Mike their douze points, whereas Marie Myriam for France only got three douzes – but every single country voted for France, while three countries did not vote for the UK – Greece, Switzerland and most notably Ireland, who had been the recipient of the UK’s twelve points. Such is the way of Eurovision. Still, the single hit No 19 in the charts.

Tigers and FirefliesOne day in 1979, I was rifling through the records in a music shop in London – probably HMV or Virgin, can’t remember now – and was amazed to discover a Lynsey album I knew nothing about: Tigers and Fireflies. Of course, I had to buy it, for Old Time’s Sake, realising I’d completely given up on ever expecting her to record something again. It has two stonking good tracks on it – the eponymous jolly Tigers and Fireflies and the very romantic Before You Go Tonight.

Pump Boys and DinettesI saw Lynsey live just one more time – in the West End, starring in Pump Boys and Dinettes at the Piccadilly Theatre on 16th March 1985. She’d just taken over the role from Carlene Carter. Whilst the rest of the cast – Paul Jones, Brian Protheroe and Kiki Dee – had their biographies and photos all over the programmes, Lynsey missed out as she was the new girl and the new programmes hadn’t been printed yet. I remember feeling quite annoyed that I missed out on some Lynsey ephemera there! I don’t remember much about the show because it wasn’t really my kind of music – I just wanted to see Lynsey.

LynseyAnd that was it – I never saw her again. Only doing her celebrity Come Dine With Me on TV a few years ago. I never saw her shows for Sky (we don’t do Sky) and I kind of missed her self-defence for women stuff. I would have loved to have seen her co-hosting that Marc Bolan memorial concert a couple of years ago, but the timing wasn’t good. I always thought there’d be another opportunity to see her – but now there isn’t. I can’t tell you how astonished and numb I felt when I heard she’d died. I think I simply said “oh no, oh no, oh no” constantly for about three minutes. She never smoked or drank, she was a vegetarian, she kept fit – and she only reached the age of 64. Where’s the justice in that? So remember to live life to the full, and tell your friends and family you love them because one day, they won’t be there for you to do that anymore. In the meantime Lynsey, if you’re up there, thanks so much for all those melodies and harmonies, crystal balls, zodiacs, lifetime guarantees, voodoos, boogies, wallflowers, telegrams, rainbows, pots of gold, and all that sugar that characterised your lyrics. You helped a boy become a man and gave him a star to follow. I’ll never forget you.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, 10th October 2014

Screaming Blue MurderThere was quite a turnout from the Chrisparkle contingent at last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder – my good lady wife and I were not only accompanied by Lady Duncansby and the Duchess of Dallington, but also we had a return visit from Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. I can’t think why Tatler weren’t in attendance.

Dan EvansOur genial host was the one and only Dan Evans, terrific as always at getting everyone loosened up and ready for the fray, although he failed yet again to get some seats in the front few rows filled by the cowards who slunk to the back. Well done Dan for keeping the new material coming, us regulars really do appreciate it! Unfortunately Dan had a bit of a (hope you’re not eating) phlegm problem on Friday, resulting in every so often his turning round and having a really good hack at his throat, like Bob Fleming in The Fast Show. As part of Dan’s interaction with the crowd, we loved his chats with the mysterious Scouser and his daughter the Fraud Investigator, including deciding on the merits and the risks of replying to a letter promising a huge haul of cash from Nigeria.

Peter WhiteFirst of our three acts was Peter White, new to us, and a very funny chap from Canada. He has good attack and forms a nice rapport with the audience, but for some reason decided to pick on me because of the size of my head. It’s true – I do have a very big head. But for some reason Mr White seemed to find it rather scary, which is something no one has ever said to me before. I enjoyed his observation about how at home he’s regular sized but get off the plane in the UK and he’s instantly fat. Made me think I could go to Toronto and enjoy an instant crash diet. Great material about how sex is the only fun you can have where there’s always the risky possibility of a baby being born. We all enjoyed him very much.

Meryl O'RourkeSecond on, and in a change to the advertised programme, it was the return of Meryl O’Rourke. We’ve seen her three times before, twice as an act and once as the host. She’s always really funny with her jokes about sex and motherhood – but mainly sex; and I also liked her material about finding role models for girls. She had a bizarrely funny line about how a posh lady might be affronted by her jokes (“I hope she doesn’t say ‘vagina’, I’m wearing a pashmina”) which we repeated to ourselves all weekend.

Brendan DempseyOur last comic, and again new to us, was Brendan Dempsey. What a sterling delivery this chap has! His luxurious Irish accent made the Duchess go slightly doolally at the knees. One of those comics who takes it all precisely at his own pace and with such authority that you just go with it, loving the pauses. He had some fantastic sequences: does long term romance ever blossom from a building site wolf-whistle (that had us in hysterics); how to cope with the legal firm constantly pestering you on the phone when you’ve had an accident; and what goes through a child’s mind when it gets on board an aeroplane. One of the best comics I’ve seen in a very long time – really top quality.

Come on Northampton, get your act together! The numbers attending were still only average – but this is your best value comedy by far! Unmissable fun.

Review – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2014

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofIt was only as Mrs Chrisparkle and I were settling down in our stalls seats last Wednesday evening that I realised I’ve never actually seen a stage performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’d read it when I were a lad (I read almost Tennessee Williams plays when I was 16) and I saw the famous Laurence Olivier version on TV about the same time. It’s taken me several decades to rectify this omission. This play first arrived on Broadway in 1955, but it’s absolutely as relevant today as it was then, with its examination of a family on its knees in a desperate web of deceit.

BrickBrick and Maggie are trapped in a loveless marriage at his parents’ plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Maggie feels the pressure from her overbearing mother-in-law, who’s desperate for yet another grandchild, and her irredeemably fecund sister-in-law who already has five “no-neck” children with another on the way. No wonder Maggie’s as jittery as a cat on a hot tin roof. She tries to work all her charm and womanly wiles to woo Brick into bed but he’s adamant that he has no intention of resurrecting their love life – so this baby is never going to appear under these circumstances. Maggie in despairMaybe he’s gay, maybe he’s depressed; maybe he’s too much into his liquor to give a fig for anything else. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s been undergoing medical treatment and the entire family are aware that he’s actually dying of cancer – apart from Big Mama and Big Daddy himself. How are the fortunes of Brick and Maggie’s marriage and Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage going to change during the course of this summer’s evening? This is definitely Tennessee Williams’ version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Relationships within the household will never be the same again by bedtime.

MaeIn a house where no doors are ever locked, there sure are a lot of secrets. What is it that has driven Brick to down almost three bottles of Bourbon during the course of the play? “Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’”? he asks his father, resulting in Big Daddy wanting to know who it is who might have lied to Brick. Brick confirms it’s “no one single person and no one lie”. And isn’t that the truth! Lies about the pretend happiness between Maggie and Brick. Invasion of privacyLies about the solidity of Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage: “I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound or smell of that woman for forty years now – even when I laid her!” Lies about the prognosis of Big Daddy’s medical condition. Lies about Big Daddy’s love for his grandkids (he doesn’t). The whole place is riddled with mendacity. Lying is the default setting for the entire household – as his father tells him “I’ve lived with mendacity, why can’t you live with it?” Brick drinks because he can see no way out of this; but Maggie, however, finds a way forward at the end of the play – even though it’s yet another lie.

Charles AitkenThis excellent production by the Royal and Derngate together with Northern Stage and the Royal Exchange sheds light on the darkness of this intense and disturbing play. Mike Britton’s stark design of white slatted walls suggests a cage from which the characters can’t escape – a world of black and white that allows neither the shades of grey of compromise nor the colours of real living; everything’s just harsh and clinical. Light bounces off the gleaming white furniture and walls in an illusion of happiness where in fact sadness reigns. The louvred walls suggest a lack of privacy as the light and sound of the fireworks invade the bedroom, whilst also providing a very neat representation of Brick and Maggie’s ensuite. R&D Big Daddy and BrickArtistic Director James Dacre and assistant director Dan Hutton take that setting and contrast it with the broken inhabitants of the household, creating some very striking images. Maggie flirtatiously prowling round Brick; Brick scrambling across the floor to keep hold of his crutch; the teeth-janglingly sweet “Skinamarinka” birthday greeting of the children that no one appreciates; the pathetic sight of Brick upended at the foot of the bed with burst pillow feathers falling everywhere like Paul Simon’s “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”. Visually this is a very impressive and memorable production.

Kim CriswellThere are some top quality performances too. We both felt Mariah Gale as Maggie was stunningly good in that opening scene that calls for so much expression and so many varieties of mood. It’s a cliché but she really does have to run the gamut from A to Z. We’d seen her in Proof but this role is much more suited to her. Wily, desperate, rejected, dismissive, snide, bitchy, yet always hopeful; Maggie has to be all of these and Miss Gale did it to perfection. Charles Aitken’s Brick was superbly dulled and damaged by the detritus of his friendship with Skipper, playing up with relish to the prospect of yet another Bourbon, allowing his spark to be snuffed out with the challenge of daily survival, but still snappy and aggressive in the face of too close an attack – very convincing. Victoria ElliottKim Criswell is splendid as Big Mama – formidably menacing when she’s in charge, hopelessly lost when the ground beneath her gives way. Due to the indisposition of Daragh O’Malley, the role of Big Daddy was taken by Terence Wilton, text in hand. I think he’s been playing the role for quite a while now and is giving a rich and powerful performance, only occasionally needing to refer to the script. Such is the magic of theatre that this didn’t in any way spoil the whole effect. The rest of the cast give very good support, especially Victoria Elliott as a nicely waspish Mae and Matthew Douglas as a mildly Neanderthal Gooper. We saw Children Team A on the night we went and Matthew Douglasthey were delightfully ghastly – good job done!

This is a very vivid production of Williams’ horrendously bleak drama that holds your attention throughout. After it finishes its run in Northampton it goes on to the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 29th November. Thought-provoking and hard-hitting – a very rewarding night at the theatre, and thoroughly recommended.

Review – Pride, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 7th October 2014

Pride1984-85 – the Miners’ Strike. Those were hard times. Daily news coverage of clashes between strikers, police, pickets, “scabs”; daily coverage of families scrabbling around for food; daily coverage of resolute politicians from all parties refusing to compromise; daily coverage of the gladiatorial combat between Thatcher and Scargill. No matter your own politics, people and communities were suffering. No matter where you lived or whether you were directly affected or not, nobody was immune from this strike. Even in leafy Buckinghamshire where I lived, about as far away from a coalfield as you could get, I wore my “Coal not dole” badge. We’d buy extra tins of food at the supermarket and donated them to the miners’ stall outside. I also remember feeling very relieved that I hadn’t been shortlisted for an interview for the job I applied for working in management at the National Coal Board a couple of years earlier.

Bill Nighy and Imelda StauntonLike Billy Elliott and The Full Monty, Pride is another British film that takes those savage days and creates something really positive out of them. But whereas those other films are works of pure fiction, Pride tells the true story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group, operating out of the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, the characterful activists who worked there and raised funds for the miners, and of their association with the Dulais mine in South Wales, and their wish to help the community there. Andrew ScottBut the course of true altruism never runs smoothly, and not everyone in those traditional, working-class, chapel, areas relished the attention of a diverse bunch of homosexuals from London. In the course of the film friendships are forged, fortresses are broached, seemingly insurmountable differences are reconciled and those few people who cannot find it in their heart to overcome their prejudices are left behind.

Ben SchnetzerEssentially this is a film about solidarity. The gay activists have solidarity with the miners, as an oppressed minority supporting another oppressed minority. There are also questions of solidarity between the members of each side of the equation – the differences of opinion within the LGSM group, and between the different families in the mining community. Activist Gethin was estranged from his mother for many years but regains support from her when she eventually comes back into his life. The opposite is the case for young Joe, whose supportive family turn against him when they discover his secrets. And it is indeed also a film about pride. Pride in who you are and what you can do when the world is not your friend. Pride that gives you the self-confidence to go out on a limb and to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as a badge of honour – like the successful “Pits and Perverts” fund-raising event, taking Rupert Murdoch’s attempt at an insult and using it as a mission statement. Anything that sticks two fingers up at The Sun is Fine By Me.

Dominic WestTop billing is given to Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, who are indeed excellent. Mr Nighy plays Cliff, the quiet, thoughtful but passionate Elder Statesman of the mining community, delightfully unfazed by the arrival of the gays; and Ms Staunton is Hefina, one of the strike committee women, endlessly fighting for the survival of the community. Her staunch approach to equality is heart-warming to watch, and there’s one hilarious scene where she and her ladies discover a stash of gay porn – I don’t think naughty laughter has ever sounded so funny.

Faye Marsay and George MackayBut these are relatively small roles, and I was really impressed by some of the other younger and maybe less well known performers. Ben Schnetzer is brilliant as Mark Ashton, the Northern Irish Communist leader (or as close to a leader as they got) of the LGSM. Brash yet vulnerable, you find yourself willing him through all his challenges and really admiring his indomitable spirit. Jessica Gunning plays a feisty Siân, idealistic but very practical, irritated by her husband’s lack of backbone. There’s a wonderful scene when she gives the police what forGeorge Mackay leading the protestit’s a great example of an ordinary person becoming assertive against authority and it’s really funny. Andrew Scott gives a very touching performance as Gethin, ill at ease, verging on depressed, full of sadness for the family life he has had to leave behind; and Dominic West gives a really strong performance as Gethin’s partner Jonathan, in real life the second person ever to be diagnosed as HIV positive, giving it large on the dance floor much to the delight of the Welsh women and inspiring some of the Welsh men to loosen up a bit too.

Lisa PalfreyThere is excellent support from Faye Marsay as the punky Steph, at first the lone lesbian sticking up for her rights within the group; Paddy Considine as Dai, the visionary local mining leader who had the guts to have the initial meeting with the LGSM and convinced his community that the two groups have more in common than not; and Lisa Palfrey as the hard-hearted Maureen who cannot be shaken from her prejudiced and vindictive viewpoint. There’s a great comic performance from Menna Trussler as Gwen, who’s curious to know absolutely everything about lesbians and greets them regularly with disarming joy. Menna TrusslerBut perhaps best of all is George Mackay as young Joe, tentatively finding his feet and discovering who he is, a character who brings to mind aspects of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. It’s a very moving performance. Keep your eye out for a few excellent cameos too, including Russell Tovey as an ex-boyfriend of Mark who clearly hasn’t resolved being “ex-“, and a terrific one-liner from veteran comedy actress Deddie Davies.

Mining ladiesIt’s a beautifully written film that never shies away from the gritty reality of the situation faced by both groups, nor does it descend into sentimentality. It’s full of exhilarating characters and has some very funny lines, and there’s an enormous feelgood factor about the whole film. My guess is that if you’re a right-wing homophobe there’s not going to be much in this film to entertain you; but you’d probably be put off by the title anyway. Paddy ConsidineThe final credits tell you what happened to some of the characters in the intervening years. Some of it will astonish and delight you; some of it will leave you with a heavy heart. A really rewarding look back at a time of conflict and how solidarity, tolerance and equality grew from it. Like a fine wine, this film is going to get even better in the years to come.

Indochina – Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

Laundry loadWe arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, hereafter referred to as HCMC) quite late in the evening and were met by our guide Hai. From the moment we met him, till the moment he left us in the southern Vietnamese town of Chau Doc, we barely understood a word he said. All our other guides in Indochina, although they were local, had good, understandable, English accents. Sadly, not Hai. I’m sure he had lots of interesting observations and he was a very nice man but his voice was just like that of Kim Jong-il in South Park.

Caravelle HotelOur hotel for our two nights in HCMC was the Caravelle, and ever so swanky it is too. Built in 1959, it was a communications hub during the Vietnam War and was also home to the Australian and New Zealand embassies. Very sweetly they had left a chocolate dessert in our bedroom with “Happy Wedding Anniversary” written in dark chocolate on a while chocolate slab. So kind. It still wasn’t our anniversary yet, but at least it was easier to manage (and tastier) than the huge bouquet Mrs Chrisparkle was given in Hué. After unpacking, we went for a walk around the block, but for simplicity’s sake, that night we ate in the hotel’s restaurant and for the life of me I can’t remember anything about it. Must have been ok, then.

Cu Chi rulesThe next morning we were all bound for our first excursion of the day, to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cu Chi is about 25 miles out of HCMC, and is famous for its network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong, where they hid from American forces during the war. This intricate network has tiny entrance holes, many invisible as they are covered over by leaves and other natural vegetation. The majority of them were far too small for me to squeeze into, althoughCu Chi tunnel trap Mrs C has more of a Viet Cong physique and was able to slide in and out of a few trapdoors. The advice to visitors includes forbidding them to enter the tunnels if they are of “old age (70 years or more)” (a bit cheeky) or “visitors got drunk on alcohol or beer”. Clearly Vietnamese beer doesn’t count as alcohol.

Cu Chi tunnel entranceNot only does the area have this network of tunnels, it’s also littered with mantraps, and it’s also an area that was heavily mined, so you have to be careful where you walk, and keep alert. There are some contraptions that if you step on them the surface swings down – the earth effectively gives way – and spears the unfortunate person on grisly looking spikes. This was not a nice war. There are also displays of a captured American tank, some cluster bombs, an underground camp hospital, and waxwork models of prisoners. It’s a sobering, serious place; fascinating to visit, but you come away horrified at the miseries that war puts everyone through. On a more mundane level, I’ve never seen this before – but they have an ingenious way of making sure the Gents’ urinals are kept clean: each bowl is filled as far as possible with hundreds of gin-and-tonic-sized blocks of ice. Gentlemen will understand when I say it made for an entertaining, potentially artistic and sometimes unpredictable visit to the loo.

Michelin Rubber TreesAfter the visit, we returned to HCMC, stopping briefly to admire a forest full of seemingly identical rubber trees, planted at regular intervals. Hai showed us the incisions made in the tree bark and how the sap drips out and gets collected in primitive little bowls. Apparently the trees belong to none other than the Michelin Company – I’m guessing its tyre division as opposed to the haute cuisine. You could have a great game of hide and seek here – especially if you’re quite thin.

Roadside hammocksThese long roads between towns in Vietnam don’t have much in the way of service stations or accommodation for long distance lorry drivers, so enterprising café owners and farmers have come up with a lucrative solution to this problem – rows upon rows of hammocks, tied between the trees, perfect for a few hours’ rest – or indeed an overnight stay – before completing your journey. Let’s face it – it doesn’t get cold overnight, Mobile greengrocersin fact I don’t think I’d been anywhere that humid. As we approached HCMC the roadsides were littered with hammocks, with drivers loafing on them enjoying a well-earned rest. As you get closer to the city centre, the numbers of bikes increase – as you might expect – and there were the usual amazingly ambitious achievements of balance on a bike to be gawped at. Massive bags of laundry, a mobile greengrocer stall, pet shop puppies, and charred lumps of wood were all being carried by various riders on their tiny bikes. The best one though was the guy who was carrying six boxes of goods and three massive pots of paint on his bike.Carrying paint An incredible feat of engineering! Whilst we watched these testimonies to commerce go by, Hai decided to put on his easy-listening cassette. The softest jazz covers of Killing Me Softly and Sealed with a Kiss were enough to give you a mild headache but it was We Wish You a Merry Christmas (in March) that really made me want to puke.

Presidential PalaceFor lunch we went to Monsoon – good quality food in a very nice setting. Our menu included a Sweet and Sour fish soup, some mixed Vietnamese appetizers, braised pork and eggs in caramel sauce (that’s just the kind of taste mix that I really don’t need to revisit), stir-fried beef with pumpkin flowers, and (no tittering please) stir-fried morning glory with garlic. Presidential Palace PodiumUnfortunately the restaurant continued with the gloopy western easy-listening sounds, that they obviously assume we tourists love to hear, so it didn’t encourage us to linger.

After lunch we had a trip to the Presidential Palace. This is a fascinating building, combining grand state rooms for visiting dignitaries, Presidential Palace Reception roomslecture theatres, posh drawing rooms, and amazing art work; while in the basement you can discover the military communication centre during the war, including the President’s war room (one of those places with lots of charts on the walls and a severe looking desk with just a green telephone on top) and the emergency kitchens. I had quite a lot of fun pretending to be the President taking urgent calls on the phone when no one was looking (and ignoring the sign next to the phone that says “do not touch”). Presidential Palace War RoomIt was just too tempting.

We went on to the War Remnants Museum. This, by contrast, isn’t a place for levity. There were various exhibitions of different aspects of the war, and there’s no holding back on the plentiful illustrations that cannot fail to upset you. We endured some of the images of gruesome deformities brought about by Agent Orange, but it was all very sad and War Remnants Museumdistressing, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to go upstairs to look at the (apparently even worse) images up there. We’re all different, and people deal with the repercussions of war in many ways; but I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing a middle-aged American man posing victoriously in front of some of these exhibits, accompanied by his children (aged about 10?) whilst his wife took pictures of them all smiling and looking delighted alongside images of dead and US Aircraft at War Museumdeformed Vietnamese. Outside are some wartime US Army aircraft, tanks and a helicopter which you can wander around; they are genuinely interesting and evocative to see.

It was getting late in the day but we still had a couple of sights left on the list. We visited the 19th century Notre Dame cathedral Notre Dame churchjust as they were closing but snuck in long enough to take a couple of photos – very imposing, but seeming bizarrely out of place in this Buddhist land with a violent past. It’s a very charming building though, with its spires and rose window and French colonial style. Even livelier and grander, we visited the old Post Office, still used as such today as well as being a tourist information centre. Post OfficeIt was designed by M. Gustav Eiffel, of the Tower fame.

After a much needed nap, we went out to explore the night time streets and to forage for food. We discovered a very quirky and upmarket shop which I think was called Mainan (or something similar). It was next door to the Parkson department store on Le Thanh Ton. Whilst Mrs C and our co-travellers were browsing the goods, I thought I’d take a couple of photos of their amusing décor. At that point, their security guard (who looked about 19) stepped forward and told me loudly “NO!” Night time in Ho Chi Minh CityWell, I’m sorry, no one tells me “NO” when we’re considering buying things from their shop. Briefly explaining what had happened to Mrs C, I marched out making it clear to the security guard (whose jaw had fallen to the floor in astonishment) that he’d definitely lost any custom I might have brought to the shop. So rather than blogging about what an enjoyable experience you can have at Mainan, I will instead tell you it’s full of absurdly overpriced unwearable rubbish (800 dollars for a shirt, are you serious?) and not to waste your time there. After I’d left, I sulked around Parkson until the others joined me.

View from the Saigon Saigon barWe were out to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we’d noticed this nice-looking restaurant on a brief round-tour the previous night. It was Colonial French rather than authentic Asian, and we fancied a change. It was the Brasserie of Saigon. We had a lovely French meal in its elegant and refined surroundings – the Chateaubriand, and a fantastic bottle of Saint Emilion to accompany. You really felt like you were in Paris. Sadly, according to Trip Advisor, it looks like it’s now a Starbucks. That’s a real pity. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel because we wanted to try the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar atop the Caravelle. I have to say – it was amazing. The night time views are stunning, and you feel so spoilt and cosmopolitan up there. It’s a real privilege.

Gently up the MekongThe next morning we left HCMC for a long day’s travelling down to the Mekong Delta and the city of Can Tho. The journey was divided up into different segments to make it more interesting! First, we drove to Ben Tre to pick up a motorboat (courtesy of mientaytourist.com) to take us on the Mekong to one of the four islands there – mid-MekongUnicorn Island (the others being Dragon, Turtle and Phoenix Islands). The water is very brown and muddy as you drive past the stilt houses and the fish farms on the wide stretch of the Mekong, but turn off down a tributary and it gets narrower and narrower as you approach Unicorn Island – so much so that you can almost touch land either side of the boat with your outstretched arms. Once we got off we were met by a donkey cart to take us to this little place where we sampled some local fruits, intimate Mekongdrank traditional tea with honey and lime, and heard a local folksong performance. Then it was back on the boat again to travel past the backs of the little villages, where people spill out off the land and on to rowing boats moored up against the jungle to live a life on water. We visited Tan Thach Market where they showed us how they made the traditional coconut candy. That was yummy.

strange urinal photosLunch was taken at My Tho – I can’t remember anything about the restaurant or the meal, as the only photograph I took was of the bizarre illustrations above the urinals (yes I know it’s the second mention of urinals in this blog post) where images of attractive young Vietnamese women look down upon you as you’re doing your duty and pour scorn on the beefiness of your manhood. Then it’s back on Road Number 1 all the way to Can Tho, with only Hai’s easy-listening torture music to keep you awake.

Gecko alertOur hotel at Can Tho was the lovely Victoria Can Tho, splendidly located by the water’s edge which was perfect for a late evening stroll to the sound of the Mekong. The hotel has lush gardens and is a haven for geckos, hence the warning in your room that geckos might invade at any time. Dinner was delish, and we had a particularly helpful waitress called Dung.

floating marketThe next morning we were off on yet another boat trip, this time to visit the floating markets at Cai Rang. Four miles out into the river, it’s the largest floating market in Indochina. Boats of all sizes and colours vie for position selling their wares – fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish, in fact everything you would expect from a typical Asian market. Some boats approach you rather than wait for you to come to them – Lovely pineapples!these tended to be the ones selling tourist trinkets and hot food and drink to take away. Yes, there’s even Fast Food on the waters of the Mekong. We clambered off our boat and on to another one where a lady was preparing fresh pineapples for snacking. They tasted fantastic. Crystal meth or sugarThe market area is not limited to the water of course; your little tourist boat moors up and you get out in the middle of a very extensive market, not only full of the usual fruit, vegetables and fish, but also clothes, toys, and other household equipment. One stall sold what looked like gargantuan sized pieces of Crystal Meth – but we were advised it was sugar.

How does this engine workAfter we’d had enough market to last a lifetime, it was time to head back to Can Tho by boat for the onward journey. We were happily chugging on the crest of a wave when the sound of the boat’s engine started to get a bit panicky. It slowed down; the skipper looked concerned. We pretended that we weren’t remotely worried about being on a little boat that was about to sink in the middle of the Mekong.it needs petrol? He started lifting up the floorboards to reveal the engine beneath, where he stared, prodded and poked, with a bemused expression and looking all the world like the legendary boy sent in to do a man’s job. After a quarter of an hour or so of discussion with the skipper of an adjacent boat, it finally occurred to them that we were simply out of fuel. A watering can of fuel was therefore procured from another vessel, and we limped our way back to the bank.

CrocsIt was all aboard the minibus for the next leg of the journey, aiming for the Crocodile Farm at Trai Ca Sau Long Xuyen. It wasn’t a very big minibus to accommodate us five passengers, plus all our cases, as well as the driver and the guide, and things started to get a little fractious as we tried to sort out the best configuration of seating to make it as spacious as possible. Inevitably, if one person ended up with sufficient leg room, someone else was being squeezed in a corner. Still, we tried to make the best of it. The Crocodile Farm was quite interesting – there were hundreds of them, all flopped over each other in that unusual crocodily way they have of looking like they’ve just been toppled out of some gigantic bucket and just left where they landed. We ended up having lunch with the crocs; or at least at the Farm tea room.

getting narrowerWe continued our minibus journey up to the border town (with Cambodia) of Chau Doc. We’d noticed a particularly bizarre affectation of the local menfolk en route – their way of keeping cool. It’s a very hot and humid country. But what the guys do is to roll up their shirt from the bottom upwards, so that it clings round the top of their chest. It may make them cool but it certainly doesn’t look it. I couldn’t work out why they didn’t simply take them off. The journey carried on. We were all a bit uncomfortable because the bus wasn’t quite big enough. Hai put on his gloopy easy listening cassette again. This time, a horrendous version of Those Were The Days; honestly, words cannot describe how execrably bad it was. Suddenly, one of our fellow passengers snapped. “TURN THAT AWFUL MUSIC OFF!!! PLEASE!!! NO MORE MUSIC!!! I CAN’T STAND ITTTTTTT” Whilst we were surprised at her outburst, we were definitely in agreement and it did the trick. Muttering with surprise, Hai ejected his cassette and we drove on towards Chau Doc in blissful silence.

Fish farmWe checked into our hotel, the beautiful Victoria Chau Doc (the Victoria chain have got the monopoly on these quality southern Vietnamese hotels!) Still slightly frazzled from our fellow passenger’s outburst on the minibus we headed straight for the bar and knocked back two Harvey Wallbangers and some chilli nuts for lunch. Thus fortified, we headed out again for yet another water adventure, this time to visit a fish farm in a floating village. It was enormous fun. Our boat moored us up against this structure on stilts, and, once inside, it felt like a genuine farmhouse – kind of barren but grand, but with big square gaps in the floorboards which were actually fish tanks and in which you could see dozens of very bigLittle mosque fish all swimming around contentedly. How to stir them up? Chuck some fish food in. They went berserk! Flapping and sloshing around in their water pen, fighting each other for the tiniest morsel, cascades of water being splashed out into the air – it was a very amusing – and noisy – sight.

A precarious walkway – with ominously loose floorboards barely protecting you from a sudden dunking into the Mekong – took us back on land to a small village. It had a bright, but modest little mosque into which the locals welcomed me, but wouldn’t let Mrs C in, so I just had a quick look around and took a few pictures whilst she pretended not to be offended at the sexism. Travelling pigsThen it was back to the boat via the terrifying walkway, and a return to the hotel. On our way back, watching out for the next collection of weirdly overloaded bikes – as you do – we saw one of the sadder sights of our holiday – a man, riding a motorbike, and carrying on the seat behind him a very large cage containing two, equally large, live, pigs. They were squeezed in for all they were worth, with their little legs dangling out of the holes in the cage over the side. One can only assume this was to be an uncomfortable final journey before the slaughterhouse.

Night life of Chau DocIn the evening, we went out into Chau Doc to see what the nightlife was like, having already taken dinner in the hotel. There were lots of lively night markets, a little town centre fountain that was lit up with coloured lights, some groovy civic art; and many Tai Chi classes. Tomorrow we would be continuing our journey up the Mekong and into Cambodia, so we fancied an early night and a good sleep. We hadn’t, though, bargained on spending half the night playing Hunt the Gecko.

Indochina – Vietnam – Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue

Beach by hotelOur flight from Hanoi reached Da Nang pretty late and it was another 45 minute drive before we could get to our hotel, the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa. We had a garden facing view, it was spacious and luxurious, and we slept the sleep of the righteous. Breakfast the following morning was taken by the pool and it was full of really healthy ingredients – nevertheless it was lovely! We even had time for a stroll along the beach, as the hotel is pitched right up against the sea front. It felt just like being on holiday. Travel’s a tough life though, and it wasn’t long before all five of us were whisked away by our very ebullient guide Hanh (but we could call her Hannah) for a morning visit to My Son.

My Son dancersIt’s so hard to look at those two words and not pronounce it as in “go on, my son”. But in fact it’s “mi sern” (or something like that), and a visit has nothing to do with popping in on your heir, but it’s actually the ruins of an imperial city during the Cham dynasty, active between the 4th and 12th centuries. It was only rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 1890s. In a slightly confusing twist of geography, My Son carvingsthe temples are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and there’s a notable linga still in good condition. The “tourist” visit starts rather unpromisingly with a “cultural show” of musicians and dancers, that is skilful but goes on too long. Mind you, I was very impressed with the way the young ladies balanced their water pots on their heads.

The real appeal of the site is simply wandering around all the ruins, admiring the artistic carvings, the fascinating Sanskrit inscriptions, My Sonand imagining how grand it must have been in its heyday. Its redbrick construction brings to mind how Keble College Oxford might look in about a thousand years. It’s a very exposed site, so if you go, do make sure you’ve got your sun hat on! It’s popular with the local kids too, and while we were there, a big bunch of them were having fun in the sun and splashing around in the river that runs alongside. For all the world it looks like you have stumbled upon King Louis’ ruined fortress in Disney’s Jungle Book.

Market RestaurantAfter a lengthy and enjoyable exploration, we took the minibus back to Hoi An, driving along Route 1 – or as Hanh described it: “The Number 1 road in Vietnam”. It’s the main coastal road that links Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Why is it called Road Number 1, we asked. “Because they haven’t built Number 2 yet” came her ironic reply. You get to see all sorts of extraordinary fellow travellers on the Number 1 road. For example, we saw a lady riding a motorbike whilst precariously balancing two big bags of laundry and 7 (yes seven) birdcages, each with a feathered friend inside. That’s ambition for you. On reaching Hoi An, it was time for lunch and yet another of these restaurants that provides a training programme for street children. Hoi AnThis was The Market Restaurant, immaculately clean, and with all the food prepared very openly so you could inspect everything you were going to eat at invasively close quarters. We had Cao Lau, Banana Flower Salad with Duck, Tomato Soup with meat, Caramel Fish in a clay pot, Stuffed squid, Stir fried green beans, plus rice and a dessert. It was all good stuff, but by now we had gone off Vietnamese food (the Pho24 in Hanoi just ruined it for us), so I think we just enjoyed the beans and rice. However, the other members of our party rated it very highly.

Japanese Covered BridgeAfter lunch it was time to investigate downtown Hoi An. If Luang Prabang was the most beautiful place we saw in Laos, Hoi An is definitely the most beautiful place we saw in Vietnam. Its setting is gorgeous, on the banks of the river, with charming little shops, old buildings, pretty temples, lots of cutesy colourful lanterns and a great holiday feel. It was like a Vietnamese Stratford upon Avon but without the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Cantonese Assembly HallWe had a lovely walk down by the Old Quarter. There are so many little things that take your interest here. The main stand out sight you notice is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built in 1593 to link the Japanese community to the Chinese community from either side of the river. There is a little temple halfway across, added at a later date. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually thronging with tourists. Staying on the “town centre” side, very close by is the Cantonese Assembly Hall, containing not only a meeting hall but also a beautiful temple and elegant gardens. A little further down the street you come to the House of Quan Thang, an 18th century “shophouse”, with walls of dark teak and concealing a charming little courtyard. Worryingly, the walls are littered with painted lines revealing how high the flood waters have risen in recent years.

Le Loi shopsIntersecting the street is another road called Le Loi whose shops offer the speciality service of Very Fast Tailoring. Mrs Chrisparkle and I quite fancied having something nice made, but with only four hours for them to make it we didn’t think we’d stand much chance. Not a problem. Sadly (for her) Mrs C couldn’t really find anything she wanted to have made to measure, but I did – a dashing red silk shirt with such vivid colour it would knock your eyes out at twenty paces. We went into Hoi An 41 Silk, and they promised us for sure my shirt would be made to measure and ready to collect that evening. True to their word, we went back later on and it was ready. No problem with the timing. Size-wise, however… it is a little on the large side. I could grow into it, but that probably wouldn’t be wise on health grounds. Nevertheless, it’s good to wear on hot days. And it’s a very striking red.

ShophousesDoubling back on ourselves, we visited the House of Kan Ty, yet another of these dark old shophouses, and then crossed the modern An Hoi footbridge, brightly decorated with lanterns, mythical beasts, and the ubiquitous lovers’ padlocks. Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed kip, another walk along the beach and some cocktails by the pool. I confess, we had it tough. We tore ourselves away from this ordeal to come back into town to see it illuminated by night. It really is a stunning sight. There’s a tradition that you buy a tiny paper floating basket from one of the little boats moored up on the water’s edge, Floating lanternsplace a lighted candle inside then push it off into the water whilst saying a prayer, or remembering someone. Every night loads of people do it, so the water surface is strewn with literally hundreds of these little candlelit baskets and it’s utterly beautiful.

Apart from that, at night-time the town is alive and well and full of restaurants and bars. We went to Restaurant 69 – the meal was good, but the wine was a shocker – avoid the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc at all costs. The night we were there it was “Earth Day” – and the whole town had decided Hoi An by nightit would switch off its electric lights for one hour, from 8.30 -9.30pm. To be honest, we didn’t really believe it would happen. But at the stroke of 8.30pm all the lights went out in restaurants and bars, and candles went on. They were a really compliant little town. We were slightly irked by the timing – it coincided with us stumbling back from the shirt shop in the dark, with hardly any light to guide us. One has to thank one’s lucky stars for one’s iPhone Torch facility.

Cham MuseumThe next morning we had to say goodbye to Hoi An (very sad, because it really was a terrific little place) and we were on the road again in the direction of Hué. But first stop was the Cham Sculpture Museum at Da Nang. This is a most impressive place. The exhibits are in great condition, some of them are really big and imposing too; others smaller and intricate. Cham sculpture can be summed up in two words – Hinduism, and breasts. Most of the monuments are dedicated to the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh, and there are also many to the goddesses Bhagavati, Uma and Devi. But they were really into breasts, in a big way. Breast decorationsThe more breasts the merrier if you were a Cham in those days. Breasts were always full and pert; and if they didn’t have a female body to stick them on, they would use them as a decorative motif at the base of a pedestal or on an altar. It’s really one of those places where the breasts follow you around the room. Chams are, of course, still flourishing in Vietnam, and their ancient kingdom and artistic legacy dates from the 2nd century AD right up to 1832. I’d definitely recommend this museum, because the exhibits really are extraordinary.

Hai Van PassTravelling on towards Hué, we had to negotiate the Hai Van Pass (the Pass of the Ocean Clouds), cutting through the centre of the Truong Son mountain range. Its twisty and bendy road takes you through 21 km of scary cliff edges and massive drops. They’ve built a tunnel now, so you can get from Da Nang to Hué much more quickly – but there’s nothing quite like some scenic terror to excite a bunch of tourists. At the absolute tip-top of the pass there’s a place you can get out and have a good look round – including some rather grotty stalls and a lot of souvenir tat. There’s also a very old watch tower – a cross between a sentry box and some old Victorian railway architecture – that Mrs C decided to scale. You can imagine it saw some horror during Vietnam’s turbulent history.

La Residence hotelLunch was at the Lang Co Beach Resort – and was a seafood extravaganza, so our three co-travellers revelled in it, whilst Mrs C and I pushed bits of floppy tentacle and scaly gills around our plates. We weren’t hungry anyway. It takes three hours in all to get from Hoi An to Hué, so by the time we got to our hotel we were pretty knackered. Hué was beautiful but incredibly humid. Turning up sweaty and disgusting somewhere as lovely as La Residence Hotel and Spa ought to be a crime against humanity – but we did it anyway.

Tu Duc tombsWe made ourselves presentable and then joined the rest of the group to visit the Tu Duc tomb. It’s one of the splendid Royal Mausoleums that are a must-see in Hué. Emperor Tu Duc was the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, reigning from 1848 to 1883. The tomb itself was constructed over three years in the 1860s, whilst the Emperor was still alive – indeed, he designed it. It is said that when he died, he was buried along with a great treasure, and, all those involved in his burial were later executed to keep his final resting place a secret. That’s some tough working conditions; that would never have happened if they’d been in the EU. Today it’s noted for beautiful artwork, classical architecture, and, with its idyllic lake close by, Wedding photographyit’s a favourite spot for wedding photography. We saw a young couple being photographed, her in stunning scarlet, him in vivid yellow, posing with parasols and fans. They were having a great time, and larking around not inconsiderably, like the happy young lovers they were, thereby not always responding to the photographer’s requests, much to his obvious annoyance. At one point the photographer threw his wicker umbrella down in a hissy fit because the groom was giggling so much. We spent a long time at Tu Duc’s tomb – Hanh had an awful lot to say, and by the time she’d finished, it was nightfall and we were the last there.

Night time in HueThere wasn’t a lot of time for a nap, so pretty soon after returning to the hotel we went out to find something for dinner – hopefully something that didn’t contain seafood. We found a vegetarian restaurant – Bo De – just around the corner from the hotel in what appeared to be a huge municipal car park withTattooing lots of restaurants and bars adjoining it by the side of the river. We had simple soup with vegetables and mushrooms and some mixed fried rice. Perfect. Afterwards we went for a walk by the water’s edge, and saw that they had lit up the road bridge over the river with bright colourful, constantly changing lights. It looked like the Forth Road Bridge on speed. Hue bridgeTalking of which, one guy was definitely on drugs because we saw him running along the top edge of the bridge – not the road surface but actually on top of the cantilevers. That must have been pretty dangerous. We also saw a lad having a tattoo done, in a market stall in the street; so much for health and safety. Apparently it was 36 years to the day that Hué was liberated after the Vietnamese War – or as they call it, the American War – and I think that added to the general party spirit in the night-time streets.

Cyclo driverThe next morning it was time for something we’d been looking forward for ages. We were all to take a cyclo ride through the streets of Hué, starting at the hotel and ending up at the Imperial City. It’s a really fun experience. The cyclo is a weird thing. Imagine something that combines the seat of a baby’s pushchair, the front wheels of a wheelchair, the back wheel of a bike, and the footrest of a chair lift, and you’re part way there. Ambitious loadYou get into your contraption – to be honest you fall in – encouraged by your driver, then he gets on the saddle behind you so you can’t see him, and starts to pedal so you get propelled through the streets only a few feet higher than the road surface. It’s not long before you realise how physically strong these drivers must be to wheel a fat oaf like me around the streets – it’s not as though they’re big guys – and he deserved his generous tip at the end!Crossing the bridge by cyclo But you do get a really unique perspective of the townscape, as you’re so much lower than if you were in a car – and much more exposed too, without the comfort of a car framework around you. Fortunately the roads of Hué don’t have loads of potholes.

Entering the Imperial CityWe cycled through the streets, and over the road bridge, which was a bit scary, as we were competing for space with all the usual cars, lorries, bikes and mopeds that throng through any Asian city centre. You also experience a different kind of scary when you’re at the centre of a very large empty intersection – almost a sense of agoraphobia as there’s so much space around you that you feel vulnerable. Anyway, an hour later, The Citadelwe cyclo’d over the bridge that crosses the moat at the Citadel, through the long arch that acts as a sentry to the City, to our final destination alongside some ominous looking ancient cannons. The Citadel was established by Emperor Gia Long in 1805 and comprises three enclosures – the Civic, Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. The whole area is filled with palaces, pavilions and temples, protected by ramparts, moats and Imperial Citybastions. It’s a very evocative sight, and really works on your imagination. We spent a very enjoyable time there just looking round the temples and the palaces, admiring the colours and the artwork.There’s lots of restoration work going on at the moment; when it’s finished it will be extraordinary. Kids at the Imperial CityMind you, they’re still discovering and unearthing fresh ruins, so it could take some time.

Thien Mu PagodaWe took a little drive out to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, apparently the tallest religious building in Vietnam. It’s a wonderful sight, seven storeys high, founded in 1601, and many consider it to be the iconic symbol of Hué. Perhaps even more astonishing was the incredible noise of the crickets when we got out of the bus. Deafening! There’s a little museum of Buddhism within the complex, which features some very unusual and amusing images of Buddha; and also a huge bronze bell, dating from 1710, whose ding-a-dong can apparently be heard six miles away. But perhaps the most fascinating – and thought-provoking -Fateful car exhibit is the blue Austin car that drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in June 1963, where he immolated himself in protest against the Diem regime. It was a very brave and significant act of protest that horrified the entire world. Back in the peace of today, nearby are the monks’ quarters – we were told we might get to meet some monks but none was available for a chat. We did hear lots of tittering from their bathroom though.

Moc Vien foodLunch was at Moc Vien – a very classy affair, with delicious food and simply beautiful toilets. They were so beautiful, we all kept going back to admire them. You can’t say fairer than that. The food was incredibly ornately presented; and, very kindly, they presented Mrs C with a beautiful, large bouquet for our wedding anniversary. Pity they were one day early, but it was a lovely thought. Then it was off to the airport for our Vietnam Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City, laden down with all our luggage, and a beautiful, large bouquet, which required its own overhead locker. In retrospect, not the most practical of parting gifts.