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V6 028 The end of the world

Volume 6 part 028 The Golden Keys

Earnest Hemingway, Bohemia and the allure of exclusivity associated with remoteness had attracted me to Key West for many years. Pete’s mate “Wendy” (David) beat us to it a few years earlier booking a trip with his partner, Bill without inviting us. They subsidised their holiday by agreeing not to exchange gifts that Christmas. Bill sent flowers to a rent-boy he enjoyed in Key West.  Wendy found the Credit Card receipt! I recall Whitney Houston being in the charts with some song about credit cards and a meal for two. Pete and I broadcast the song being played on a Juke box to Wendy over a mobile phone from a bar in Rimini during the Millennium new-year stop over on the Adriatic.

The destination of Key West remained on a back burner.

For the Canaries, Christmas 2013 “The Pasion” had been nice enough but on the wrong side of town.  It all felt a little claustrophobic. The pool was small. The bar was small. The beds were tiny. The residents were generally as aloof as the staff.  A battered SAAB was the only automatic available at the airport. The wrangling caused us to arrive in St Augustine in the dark and finding the resort was by shear fluke. We lolled by the pool every day and ate at the Yumbo every night alternating between Bei Lello and The Centro steak House with a French restaurant that served rancid pork and a Spanish restaurant that served rancid prawns filling in the gaps. After dinner drinks comprised a quick one in the Bear Cave followed by a death defying sprint on the outer ring road back to St Augustine. On One occasion we bumped into two old acquaintances from Pete’s drinking days. We followed them into Na Hund to say hello. It was all very awkward.  They clearly didn’t want us there! Being in the Canaries over Christmas offered nothing novel except for cocktails and nibbles at seven on Christmas Eve attended by four complete strangers with nothing in common other than English as a second language and a sad taste in polyester Primark shorts. We slipped out unnoticed for a steak.

To ward off the boredom of Christmas in the Canaries, I was scanning a German, gay-fashion magazine one morning when I spotted an advertisement for a gay resort called “Island House”. A tour company was offering great deals for summer 2014. The ad caught my eye because the operator was based in Aachen! The magazine belonged to a bald German guest also staying in the “Pasion” Bungalow complex on the outskirts of San Augustine. He force-fed me on magazines for the rest of the week unaware that I was mostly restricted to reading the pictures.

A trawl through the internet confirmed “Island House” as ranking in the top ten gay resorts in the world. There was now an excuse to endure eleven hours plus multiple connections for a flight to Key West. Air France code shares with Delta. Delta fly Manchester to Atlanta.  Atlanta is the hub for Delta with direct flights to Key West. A two flight option with business class seats all the way for under five grand for two was too good to miss.

By February “the company” of MHCA invested five thousand pounds plus accommodation costs for a fact finding study tour for its two directors to Key West. After-all, ninety-five percent of the design work executed by the practice used American planning standards. Once I retire properly, “study trips” of this magnitude are off the table.

I consider the flight to be all part of the fun and has to be so when taking two days out of your life as an excuse for a holiday. Pete hates travelling which probably explains why we always leave half an hour after the absolute deadline set the night before. He allows no contingency yet would nag till hell freezes if we ever missed a flight. Bubble was just the same. I have endured two decades of my nearest and dearest sabotaging the efficient start of a holiday. The only difference between the pair of them was that she didn’t insist on driving to the airport. Pete passed his test in 2010. He is a self-proclaimed driving expert. Having only hit two stationary targets, been hit once, acquired a speeding ticket in the first sixth months of holding a licence and acquired a list of parking and lane violations sufficient to wall- paper a toilet door he is evidently better qualified to drive to the airport than a partner with more than forty years longer driving experience. The holiday got off to a typically fraternal start.

Pre-take-off checks for Pete include, Passports, tickets and credit cards. That is, have I got his passport, our tickets and my credit cards? Pete takes care of the sun cream and I take care of everything else. That way, if I forget something it’s not his fault. It is my responsibility to remedy the potential omission of shower gel, phone charging gear, ear plugs, Imodium and head ache pills.  He packs a makeup-bag with more cosmetics than Liz Taylor and Michael Jackson combined after neatly laying out his clothes on my bed. I pack the suitcases. I repack the suitcases when he produces the makeup bag ten minutes before we leave for the airport. A last minute change of travel outfit has on occasion led to a third re-packing. A double check of his favourite skinny ribs tee shirts invariably means a fourth.

On the only occasion that Pete and his bags failed to arrive at the same destination Courtesy of Monarch Airlines, it was my fault requiring a trip to the diesel outfitters in Player Del Ingles to rectify “my” incompetence.

Bubble once complained that her suitcase was presented to check-in the wrong way around. The handle should be facing her has it disappeared into the rubber curtain shrouding the conveyor taking it to a Ryan Air, no-frills flight from Ancona.  Needless to say, when it reappeared  from a baggage chute at Stansted airport the handle was facing away from us causing me to lose a couple of finger nails to retrieve it from the carousel. “I told you that you had put it on the belt in Ancona the wrong way ‘round….” Came the swift and unsympathetic rebuke from Bubble.

I present the passports and visas to check-in. Pete comments that my bag is heavier than his even though I’m carrying enough sun screen to grease the birth canal of an African elephant. I shepherd us through security having always provided a priority pass. In the executive lounge I serve the latte topped up with a double espresso. Peter scowls at me for taking breakfast. The couple or so glasses of complimentary Merlot I take to numb my resolve to open the emergency hatch at thirty-five thousand feet amplifies his disdain equalled only by the eye rolling that says we’ve headed for the gate too early. Without exception he occupies the window seat without any reference to his boarding card complaining to anything and everyone that the seat and frequently the full lay down bed, is shit.

To avoid a secondary sneer, I take orange juice instead of complimentary Champagne. He takes water, animatedly extolling its health benefits over orange juice. Invariably the food served on real china table-ware with real metal cutlery laid over real linen napkins is also “Shit”. Stop-overs are a necessity for Florida and always too long. Upon arrival, I grab the bags from the carrousel. Peter takes a seat and yawns. Having bought matching luggage equipped with wheels avoids the Mexican stand-off generated by which of the two of us steers a trolley. Receiving instructions on which way up I stack his case in the boot of the chauffeur driven airport transfer is invariably the first civil comment between the pair of us since that morning’s alarm call.

In Key West, the Taxi was a mini bus with no doors to the rear seats. I squeezed my gut and carry-on luggage past the first three rows of passengers to a running commentary from Pete who had already taken up position in the middle of the back seat. Had he gone to the toilet while we were waiting for the bags rather than after them being rescued, we wouldn’t have been at the back of the queue for the “taxi”. The full audience got to hear first-hand that he’d actually been for a shit. Thank-you for sharing!

Sun deck above the bar beside the pool and no reason to leave the resort when its hot and humid

Island House is located at the corner of White and Fleming. We were the last passengers to be dropped off by the mini-bus doing a circuit of mostly straight venues. By the time I had prized myself clear of the van, Pete was already checking in, abandoning me to pay the driver and offload the suitcases.

Dragging both bags from the back of a bus would have been far too much to expect from a partner who invariably puts number-one first. 

The resort is a two storey, painted timber former colonial residence built around a couple of courtyards. Rooms are accessed direct from balconies that circuit the entire perimeter of the buildings. External stairways lead to the upper balconies along with a bridge-link above reception equipped with an internal stair linking to the spa and gymnasium. The spa and gymnasium can also be accessed through reception. To the rear of the main block is the pool. Eight, prime suites overlook the pool from both ground and first floor. We occupied 212, a deluxe suite on the first floor. To one side of the pool   an open bar- restaurant offers a varied twenty four house service. The communal facilities are open to non-residents on a subscription basis ensuring a daily turnaround of fresh faces. With the exception of the gymnasium the whole complex is clothes-optional fuelling Pete’s perpetual observation that we pack too much. 

Having more than one way to get anywhere in the complex lends itself to discretion. A trip to the bedroom could easily become a stopover in the sauna or steam room without ever being missed on the pool side. Taking the first floor scenic route avoided eye contact with reception. Two beds by the pool, immediately below our balcony were our adopted base for the fortnight. A small but varied menu meant that we could choose whether or not to bother getting dressed in the evening. People came and went. Americans are renowned for short holidays, fortunately, most staying for only three or four days. Staying for a fortnight was unheard of, to the point of suicidal decadence for an American. Two other Brit’s, from Manchester stayed a week but were regulars and preferred to do multiple trips over the year traveling economy, rather than a longer summer break.

“JJ” was hosting in the pool every day. Considering that he originated in North Carolina he was charming and articulate and an alcoholic who had been exiled to Key West by his family. Island House became his sanctuary and retreat during the day retiring to a shack somewhere near Duval each evening before sunset. Not an hour passed-without the boast of an “… I Live here…” boomed nasally into the ear of any unsuspecting redneck from somewhere remote like Idaho or Arkansas jealous for a gay good life in a tropical paradise, daft enough to listen. He walked the pool, hour after hour, wearing nothing but a straw hat, a smile and a banana Dakari. The majority of “JJ’s” relatives lived in a belt between New Jersey and Atlantic City. Each Christmas they held a family reunion that sounded very much to be an intervention adding to speculation that they had all contributed towards his relocation package. A mottled “ginner”, also in a straw hat and also apparently without a day job emerged to be the local small time drug dealer, setting up his stall on a patio table outside the room adjoining ours until motivated to move on by my evil eye.

A seventy two year old black man with a dick the size of a donkey sunbathed daily on the roof top terrace above the bar. He, too had retired to Key West after pressure in his mid-sixties to stay in the closet and now lived on an unseaworthy fishing boat.  Other than to put his generous tackle on show I couldn’t get why someone the colour of coal needed to sun bathe. I kept well away from it. Apparently it’s not good to be Gay in Philadelphia. The black man’s family were still unaware that he was gay. They thought he’d moved simply because he liked “fishing”.

The manager of the local Hyatt joined us, at dinner one evening uninvited. He came from San Francisco which said it all and, sadly it took him over an hour to take the hint. The following day by the pool he found it necessary to absolve his lack of manners by apologising for the previous night.  Assuring this complete stranger that he was not in the least objectionable, simply totally obnoxious but that this is what we had come to expect from anyone from San Francisco, went straight over his head but appreciated by an aging exotic dancer who now worked at the Las Vegas “Blue Room”. The “Blue Room” was an exclusively gay venue set up to rival Island House but slipped into bankruptcy that season. His managerial skills were clearly on par with his dancing.

Duval was only a fifteen minute walk. Duval is the main street of Key West. The four gay bars are located to the East of the junction with Fleming. Raucous straight watering holes and swinger’s bars lie to the West including “Sloppy Joes” although not the original Sloppy Joe famous for pickling Earnest Hemingway’s Kidneys while he was still alive. Restaurants abound. Those with few customers are worthy of a second look. Having linen and no pictorial menus is a sure sign of quality. Those displaying photo-shopped images of the food they claimed to serve were the most popular with “White trash tourists” compounding the observation that most American’s can’t read.

Since the airport had been extended with a short take-off and landing runway Key West had acquired “International” status yet still requires an A320 to come in like a flying-brick with brakes already fully applied. The “international” tag came with a once a day connecting flight to Mexico City.

For the most part, the “International Airport” attracted the “domestic white-trash” indulging in the vices the gays’ had invented half a century previous.

What didn’t arrive by air came by sea in an endless chain of budget cruise liners docking to see the legendary sun set from Malory square which, in turn, the mountainous ships had successfully eclipsed. This was no place for “Earnest Hemingway” who, far from being a bohemian was an alcoholic propping an “authentic” bar renowned for having relocated twice since his death. 

The “Bull Dog” boasted a “swinger’s terrace“ at roof level for anyone still under the illusion that Key West was an outpost of Confederate Congeniality. Wall to wall, Tee shirt shops sporting “rude” Tube topics to cover whatever your preference or proclivity, offer a shopping experience rivalled only by Blackpool.  I did a gay bar to take advantage of a urinal during a last minute, day time souvenir hunt. In day-light the place needed a good scrub, by night it was the few customers pulled in from the sidewalk by desperate go-go dancers who needed the good scrub. The open go-go bar with the predatory go-go dancers is directly opposite a show bar from where gigantic Transvestites lassoed passing punters. Redneck homophobes take safe passage by to corralling their obese broods along the white line in the centre of Duval street.

To the rear of the show bar was the “saloon” renowned for being a watering hole for the more mature Gay which accounted for it being empty but also unsurprising due to being reached through a narrow alley blocked by Six Foot Transvestites. Ill equipped for the tackle either side of Duval we determined to give all bars a miss!

A corner restaurant with a quaintly Cuban name that escapes me, served Mushroom Martini’s on an air conditioned outside terrace. We returned three times. The Italian restaurant where the Bulgarian waiter loaned Pete his father’s reading glasses to resolve a perpetual dispute regarding why he insists on going to Restaurants aware that he is incapable of reading a menu, received two visits. The “Cat on a hot tin roof” despite its reputation and being so popular that we were relegated to the external balcony and sat on a high table with bar stools that nearly got us “doing a runner” had it not been for my short legs. The gin and tonic tasted like mouth wash. The tonic water tasted like gin. The bruschetta would have been put to better use for skeet shooting or exfoliating dead skin.

A taxi to Island House from “Duval” cost fifteen dollars. A peddle rickshaw cost twenty dollars. The cyclist was well worth the five dollar tip for the effort required to get my bulk into second gear. The momentum saved me from a ten dollar tip.

I’m sure that we must have eaten out more than six nights but time flies and in that heat who could be bothered! Maybe we did actually eat by the pool for most of a week? The red wine was very competitively priced and served only ten yards from the “beach Bed”. The staff fussed a lot, especially a little Peruvian in thick glasses with whom we became particularly fond. I was asleep in bed by the time the “boy’s” came back from the bars to frolic by the pool until the early hours. Pete stayed out to play most nights.

We bought a couple of cartoon oil painting prints as souvenirs, hand-made resin coat hooks and the obligatory “T” shirt. The Iraqi projects were paid partly in cash with the illicit dollars traded for a “James Dean” photograph which took the threat of a court order to get delivered eight weeks after we arrived home.  Key West is nothing memorable but I was glad I’d been. Island house a delight but unnecessarily remote but all in all a good time was had.

The stop-over in Atlanta offered further insight into the highly developed impartiality perfected in the Unites State of America. Atlanta is a busy airport, allegedly the largest in the World.. With the exception of a hand full of Orientals, customers elevated to the executive lounge were almost exclusively white. An army of stewards were exclusively Black! From bar keeps to boot boys and cleaners to caterers they were all black. In a two and a half hour stop-over the divide was so conspicuous that the only black family to risk the facilities appeared almost apologetic. I want to tell the two we met in Brighton that in my limited experience, only New York approaches the myth of a classless society. For New York read, “Manhattan” and for Manhattan read the one percent who aren’t tourists but can afford to live on the Upper West Side and shop at Sachs. In New York the one percent feed on the ninety-nine percent who think that if they play ball and keep their heads down, and don’t smile on the daily commute, they too will someday be part of the one percent. For the rest of America they do it to themselves. The oppressed thank the ones who do the oppression. The ones who do the oppression do it because they can. After all, “they have god on their side”.

New York in October 2014 was altogether a failed experiment. Only three months after Atlanta I needed New York to wash away a newly acquired contempt for all things American. Having Joe and Elena along for the ride, and through no fault of theirs, was an opportunity for rediscovery, sadly missed?

Starbucks has taken over from a string of bars for the frequent pit stops required by anyone on blood pressure pills.

Key West had been the consequence of a chance encounter in the Canaries. New York in October was too close to the festive season to consider a Christmas break away. Two trips to the states in 2014 left me with a lot of catching up to do in the Middle East. Our resolve to stay at home until summer, buckled over Christmas day lunch. The tree and the dogs did little to offset the greyness. As compensation we booked the Canaries for February 2015.

V6 027 Manhattan is not an island

Volume 6 part 027 New York and beyond

Rarely venturing off Manhattan we have done brunch in Brooklyn. A day trip on the long Island Railway as far as Sayville followed by a ferry crossing to “The Hidden Forest” was our first taste of Fire Island. By the time we had scrambled through undergrowth to emerge in “Cherry Cove” there was just enough time for sharing a Pizza and a bottle of Pinot Grigio before the last ferry of the day left for the twenty-minute ride back to the mainland.  It was the end of the 2007season.

The return to Fire Island in 2008 celebrated a belated honeymoon with 5 nights at the Madison Guest house in the middle of two split weekends in New York City.

There are two Gay Villages on Fire Island.

Cherry Grove has become a Lesbian ghetto fondly named “Cherries” and tolerant of the twinks, cheap hotels and partly shabby bars. Since the late 60’s the Pines has been directed at the more mature, discriminating Male Manhattan Gays. Fine examples of 20th century domestic architecture overlook one of the most stunning shorelines in the Northern hemisphere. Restaurants are few. Narcissists abound. The Madison offered exclusive pent-house accommodation for the discerning traveller. Painted all white, embellished with brown suede and only fifty meters from the dock it has all the ingredients for the ideal Honeymoon destination.

We arrived out of Penn station to Sayville, changing at Jamaica and taking the Mid-afternoon ferry. An obliging local pointed us towards the un-sign-posted Madison hidden behind a close boarded high fennec bordering the Atlantic View boardwalk. After unpacking, we walked through the meat rack to “Cherries” for afternoon tea. We dined enjoyably at Cherries Restaurant, sheltering from a short-lived torrential, thunderstorm.

Returning in early evening daylight with Pete acting as guide through the mile or so of undergrowth that separates the Pines and “Cherries” I managed to step into a swamp. What appeared to be a puddle left over from an earlier thunderstorm was deep enough to have me up to my nuts in black slime. The branch I grabbed to prevent my decent bent under the weight causing me to sink at a leisurely pace otherwise unsupported. I cut a dashing figure to the “Armani” boys dressed to the “nines” walking along the boardwalk in the opposite direction heading for a night’s entertainment in the undergrowth. Pete walked ahead acting as a human shield, jumping aside to give me full exposure to the oncoming pedestrian traffic. The smell would have been a giveaway. While I monopolised the formerly all-white walk-in en-suite shower   Pete made use of the open air pool side facilities. We had been in the Pines less than four hours before I’d succumbed to the swamp and my “beloved” had accidentally flung an ill-fitting diamond studded Amuletti wedding ring into orbit. The decking had greedily swallowed the shiny white gold disk with no intention of ever giving up its treasure. The week went rapidly downhill from that moment. 

Hiking between the PInes and Cherry grove through the “Meatrack”

Returning in early evening daylight with Pete acting as guide through the mile or so of undergrowth that separates the Pines and “Cherries” I managed to step into a swamp. What appeared to be a puddle left over from an earlier thunderstorm was deep enough to have me up to my nuts in black slime. The branch I grabbed to prevent my decent bent under the weight causing me to sink at a leisurely pace otherwise unsupported. I cut a dashing figure to the “Armani” boys dressed to the “nines” walking along the boardwalk in the opposite direction heading for a night’s entertainment in the undergrowth. Pete walked ahead acting as a human shield, jumping aside to give me full exposure to the oncoming pedestrian traffic. The smell would have been a giveaway. While I monopolised the formerly all-white walk-in en-suite shower   Pete made use of the open air pool side facilities. We had been in the Pines less than four hours before I’d succumbed to the swamp and my “beloved” had accidentally flung an ill-fitting diamond studded Amuletti wedding ring into orbit. The decking had greedily swallowed the shiny white gold disk with no intention of ever giving up its treasure. The week went rapidly downhill from that moment. 

In those days “Jumping Jacks” did good food, offered table linen, OK wine and efficient friendly service. Located overlooking the beach at westerly end of Cherry Grove the wild deer would feed in the Dunes close enough to help themselves from your plate. The deer carried ticks infested with limes disease.  The restaurant above “Cherries” bar looked out over the sound towards Long Island thankfully serving half decent food, as it was too dark to see what you had ordered or what you were eating. A process of deduction determined from which menu or serving pot you would be likely to be charged. Contesting the bill would be a product of pure here-say!  The wine list was superfluous as whatever the choice, was served from one of two boxes kept under the counter. A red one and a white one tasted very much the same in the dark, the difference dictated by the intensity although not necessarily the colour, of the residual stain left on white linen trousers by the obliging but visually impaired, reptilian waiters. Breakfast on the quay side in the Pines was once fresh tasty table service served up by tasty fresh well-dressed college kids on summer break now replaced by  hit and miss self-service fast food doled out by slow staff with no place else to go. Eggs benedict at the “island breeze” in Cherry grove is worth the hike. The Canadian bacon is no more disappointing than that served in the rest of North America.

In recent years the Bistro in the Pines and the Top of the bay In Cherries have provided expensive antidotes to the degenerating style and service of the Islands former glory. Jumping Jacks is back in name only.

For the most part, brandy and Coke rendered Pete oblivious to the charms of Fire Island. He took to partying at both “Hi-tea and low-Tea”, frightening a large proportion of the natives in the process.

I was rarely invited. I lost a friend for dinner that year.

I was glad to be flying business class. I was glad to be going home.

We gave New York a miss in 2009. The brandy was becoming a burden.

The ferry to Cherries passes a baroque timber mansion overlooking the “sound” called the “Belvedere”. Built by a famous stage set designer, the house is now a boarding house for an exclusively gay clientele managed by a couple with tenuous links to the former owner. Individually themed rooms featured trompe d ’oil frescos on every surface including the ceiling. We took the “Pompeii” for week in September 2010. Pompeii is one of half a dozen suites that benefit from a private boardwalk extending onto the water’s edge. A king size double bed pressed against the wall allowed access from one side only severely restricting nocturnal rambling to the micro en-suite. Paintings featuring nudes served to titillate and expose inadequacies alike. A small gym, deck level pool and clothes optional roof terrace opening from a belfry on the third floor that ran reel to reel gay pawn concluded the facilities available. Self-service, “Folgers” instant coffee and Wal-Mart creamer brought over in bulk on the morning ferry constituted room service.

Taking drinks through the window at Jumping Jacks

We took Brunch at Cherries or the Island Breeze, ate dinner at a revamped Jumping Jacks managed by an English woman originating from Scarborough, or the upper deck at Cherries. The Island Breeze also received a visit on a couple of occasions. Generally the meals were fairly well prepared and presented, modestly priced and frequently fully defrosted. I took after dinner drinks, solo at the bar in Cherries or the Island Breeze. The lesbians were friendly enough, largely keeping themselves to themselves and their Yorkshire terrier derivatives which couldn’t be said for the men who were generally from the shallow-end of the gene pool and without the distraction of four legged friends. The attractive ones travelled in close, tightly knit, gangs penetrated only by the rustle of a sugar daddies open wallet.  Quiz night was a washout. The questions revolved exclusively around American popular culture automatically excluding foreign tourists or groups with less than a combined half a dozen brain cells from the winning pot.  Out of a total of eleven teams of city air-heads and summer islanders I still managed third place. The winner with a proper Yorkshire terrier who sat on the local council appeared well acquainted with the raven haired, thirty something, bar manager who purported to being retired from the NYPD. The older Lesbians fished the Atlantic for breakfast at dawn each morning. They dressed the part in combat shorts and multi-pocketed vests and considerably more capable with a twenty foot rod than the limp wristed men.

Cherry Grove – The Belevdere

The pseudo glamour of the Belvedere was not reflected by the clientele. Both were marginally decrepit and in need of some serious renovations around the edges. Scranton is a stateside Grantham for those down cycling from Des Moines, at the back of beyond and beyond redemption. Three older gentlemen and a screaming queen came from Scranton. Scranton is apparently a cheap place to retire to for blokes from the Boroughs. They took two rooms between them. The residents for each room alternated by the hour with the younger one the principle variable and much in demand and from the volume of his voice, wasn’t going to get lost that weekend. Pill popping was allegedly medicinal. His life threatening chronic illness deteriorated rapidly when called upon to undertake the most modest domestic duty. Being ordered to “fetch a Folgers” initiated an immediate relapse of his MS. I found him to be an overall classic nasty piece of work. Pete found him to be entertaining. A chunky chap of completely the wrong shape, claiming to be a Choreographer working on Broadway during the week proved to be equally odious. He would insist on sitting on an adjacent sun lounger legs akimbo, naked from the waist down except for his loosely draped towel as a way to cool down from a totally ineffectual twenty minute stint in the pool side gym. His power of seduction was literally in your face. The only thing to be admired about this rampant, mildly desperate, “has-been” was his choice in men!

A black and white couple from the New York Philharmonic, a brace of teachers from North Carolina and second hand car salesmen from Atlanta coerced  by a no-touch, blond house-boy who dressed naked after dusk indulged in a pool party into the early hours after the local bars closed around midnight. Those were barmy nights! Pete had jumped on the wagon the previous Christmas and was tucked up in bed after a heavy evening crushing and fertilising the flora in the meat rack.

how to paint a ceiling ?

We resolved to return for the sequel in 2011.

Business was good. I was now officially “retired” with the new company coming into force the day we departed for New York in late August. Pete was officially sober.

In addition to the two weeks taking Joe’s selection of inheritance memorabilia to Italy we planned to repeat the Fire Island of 2010 but with a shorter stay in the city before heading out to the Belvedere. Both the Washington Square and the fashion-district Hilton were fully booked. Wednesday evening would be spent at the Sheraton on Canal. We would be on the island for late-lunch on Thursday. There was little point in extending our stay in the city where the itinerary in previous years had come to largely revolving around extended bar-crawls. We would do the shopping on the way home.

A larger, less ornate room than the previous year’s “Pompeii” at the Belvedere overlooked an unkempt swamp, abutting a private balcony so close that the toads could land spit without breaking cover. Mosquitos swarmed. I am highly sensitive to all things that bite. The “lesbians” had taken over the local town council in Cherry Grove, banning allegedly carcinogenic insecticides, allegedly to reduce the incidence of breast cancer, yet giving scant regard for an Englishman’s irregularly high histamine levels.

Contrary to our better judgement but with no alternative rooms available, we unpacked and set out for late lunch. Heading out to the ocean and then west along the shoreline we exited the beach at the boardwalk that feeds Jumping Jacks.

Plastic table cloths had replaced the linen. The lady from Scarborough had done a runner leaving the Diner in the incapable hands of a bunch of chemically assisted juveniles super-glued to social media. The JD and coke was as thin as the anorexic waitress.  Homemade house specialities, including the Findus fish and chips originated from a rusting chest freezer rattling away next to the gent’s toilet. Choosing from the labels on the cartons rendered the whole concept of a menu redundant or at the very least, superfluous. Vanilla cheesecake was anaemic. Strawberry cheesecake was a pink version of vanilla. Neither had ever seen a cow but proved to be an equally excellent fix for loose dentures.

Clarification of the mandatory evacuation notification in advance of a rapidly approaching Hurricane, broadcast over the sports channel, was less than useless from a crew incapacitated by words of more than one syllable or outside the constraints of their auto texting. We retreated to the Belvedere and rebooked the Sheraton by internet, for the next evening as a contingency.

Craig and Julian, the proprietors of the guest house, pressed us to take the mid-day Friday ferry with baggage limited “by Law” to what we could carry. There was no rebate for missing nights due to a Hurricane! We had been on the island for less than a day. The long Island rail service into Penn station was full of evacuees fleeing the impending storm estimated to make landfall sometime Saturday evening. With the calm, we naively thought that we would simply resume where we had left off. The worst of the hurricane was a day late crossing Fire Island to the West of Cherry grove in the early hours of Sunday morning. Jersey caught more wind than New York. CNN reported trash-cans being blown over in Queens. We slept through the whole thing despite being prepared, when ordered, to move from the fourteenth floor to below the tenth at a moment’s notice. Peter couldn’t share the “Dunkirk” spirit dispensed until the beer ran out in the lobby bar. He was confined to Fox news for the better part of forty-eight hours. Marshal Law quarantined the streets of New York City. With no response from the Belvedere during Sunday we re-booked at the Sheraton.

Throughout Monday the mobile at the Belvedere went unanswered. Again we rebooked at the Sheraton, each time through the internet due to reception refusing to take bookings in case current guests reaching the end of their stay refused to check-out.

A chatty chap at the “Ice Palace” picked up the phone immediately it rang. He confirmed little damage had afflicted Cherry grove and that two Ferries would be running at midday on Tuesday. The following morning, with the promise that the “Ice Palace” would save us a room in case the Belvedere was swamped we headed for the 9.0am out of Penn station. Power lines were down East of Babylon cutting short the train journey. A sprint across the platform was rewarded with two seats in a taxi-share to the ferry dock at Sayville. $50 each for a one hour ride, plus tip, got us to the terminal in time for a packed 12.30pm crossing to Cherry Grove. We waited patiently in queues snaking around lakes of fresh water puddles under a blazing clear blue sky. The locals marshalled trolleys piled high with everything required to fully restock their homes, including all manner of cats and dogs while Pete and I nursed two small carry-on’s carrying soiled underwear and a lap-top computer.

The Belvedere dominates the shoreline overlooking the Sound from Cherry Grove. The belfry was intact. Craig and Julian were not only surprised to see us pulling on their door bell, but appeared positively irritated at our untimely intrusion. We had paid for the week and a week we were going to have. There were three days of partying to catch up on. The room was undisturbed. Not even the bed had been made. Having little to unpack, we took up immediate residence by the pool. As no other guests had arrived by Thursday we traded two days back in New York for an extra two days on the island. On Sunday morning we would leave for Manhattan and Monday evening for JFK.

This year there had been no blond cheer leading house boys, and no choreographers, no musicians and no teachers. There was a dirty old man travelling light with a single change of clothes in a supermarket carrier bag wrapped around a bottle of vodka and a real Chinese boy who would insist on constantly approaching us totally uninvited, and with his shorts around his ankles enquiring if we liked his skimpy underpants. Dropping his trousers at every opportunity that mispronunciation dictated was extremely off putting.  I can’t imagine that the Chinese ambassador to the UN would have countenanced such behaviour from such a spectacularly ill-endowed junior-clerk enjoying a few days of “cultural” exchange. True to stereotype there was no digression for a baby-Gay from a mission once set.  Irrespective of the chronic communication barrier, he took little persuasion that Pete was available. The zeal with which he pursued his prey was a joy to behold. 

Chairman Mao would have been proud!

There was little else to laugh about.

The Hurricane had left the Island a swamp leading to an explosion in the Mosquito population. Instead of draining the swimming pools, chemicals and a leaky sieve were relied upon to sanitise the water. Whatever the source of the infection I spent three of the last four days at the Belvedere basted in calamine lotion to mitigate the effects of “Folliculitis”, most commonly called “Hot Tub Folliculitis” embellished by a rash of bites of biblical proportion.  The cutesy doctor doing his two-week freebie sabbatical for the gay community in exchange for two weeks free bed and board had been worth every cent of the $50 donation. Following the diagnosis, with a second opinion from his live-in Korean boyfriend who coincidentally practiced as a dermatologist, the doctor accompanied me to the local pharmacy to assist in the selection of over-the–counter assorted pills and potions. His follow up consultation was a home visit, immediately after a daily work-out in the Belvedere pool side gym. Regrettably, the visual inspection was not supplemented with a full physical.

A beach to die for….

To avoid public embarrassment, I stayed inside a shirt when out in public. This gesture was insufficient for the Craig and Julian who took on an increased, decidedly frosty demeanour towards their former storm chasers.

Restaurant standards had fallen to the point where the prospect of starvation was not only a possibility but a possibility of choice. The food at Cherries had, on occasion been fairly digestible. Cheap and nasty food, served at exorbitant prices by an indifferent workforce, was now served in even cheaper and nastier style. The reliance on candle light failed to disguise a lamentable menu. Plastic plates and cutlery had been introduced over the year, supposedly as a “water conservancy” measure. To add injury to insult, the moth I was swatting for half an hour turned out to be a partial detachment of the retina.

It was time to go home, complete with “Flea bites” and “floaters”.

The floater stays with me, leaving an indelible reminder of 2011 and the inhospitality of uncomfortable hosts at the uncomfortable Belvedere. We had illicitly scattered the ashes of dear ma-ma over the “Belvedere” in Aachen just four months previous. The word “Belvedere “has become synonymous with all things uncomfortable.

There was no New York in 2012. We sold the house in Brincliffe in 2012 staying relatively local until the deal was sealed choosing Ibiza instead.

New York always beckoned. 2013 was a full two weeks stateside with the first 3 days in New York and the remaining time spent on Fire Island. We chose to return to the Madison in The Pines. Little had changed on the web reviews since the 2008 honeymoon. The Madison was still considered the best. We took the penthouse overlooking the pool. The house had sustained no damage in the 2012 hurricane yet the white, both inside and out were now a myriad shades of grey. The linen cupboard doors hung from their hinges as testimony to the indifference of the live-in staff. The linen cupboard said it all. For most of the day the place was deserted as long-time returning guests caught up with each at house parties or on the beach. A group of boisterous week-enders destroyed any semblance of tranquillity whilst turning the Jacuzzi into a cess pit of secretions creating a greater risk of pregnancy than through all-on unprotected penetrative sex. The DNA in that gene pool was going nowhere. Bi sexual swingers had been the last company we had expected to encounter in an exclusively men’s resort matching the dismay of coming face to face with a ginger minge at the “men-only” Finca in Ibiza the year previous. We stayed well away.

“Jumping Jacks” had regained its table cloths, “Dream breeze” (Island Breeze) had discovered cutlery and “Cherries” re-discovered plates. They had responded to a new first floor restaurant called “Top of the Bay”, located on the first floor deck overlooking the dock and favoured by the Old Money, Yachting fraternity dropping in from the Mainland on private yachts with more money than taste. The Pines had a restaurant of similar quality also located on the dock also giving priority for tables to regulars irrespective of pre-booking. Bars remained pretty shit attracting business with innocuous quiz nights aimed at punters with an intellect comparable to that which had been sluiced from our Jacuzzi at the crack of dawn each day. Unsurprisingly, the majority of questions still featured obscure American sit-coms and veteran baseball players ensuring that Europeans and Mexicans continued to have little chance of winning. Only criminally crass, fifth grader mid-west red- neck Americans stood a chance of taking away the bonus pot which unsurprisingly stood in excess of five hundred dollars for a stake of only a dollar a ticket. Judging by the competition, the pot was definitely going to make it through the season unless the ladies with the Yorkies reoccupied their former fiefdom. Franklin and Dion serenaded sixteen dollar JD and Cokes. Even in its heyday at the “Monster”, the signature drink of a pint of “long Island Iced tea” hadn’t topped ten bucks. I drank alone most evenings. Pete not only feared the booze but his tolerance to the incessant “rah-rah-rah” jabberwocky perpetually spewed out by the seriously-stupid put him in real danger of being arrested for multiple homicide or at the very least, inflicting mass grievous bodily harm.

Most afternoons we walked the mile or so along the beach from the Pines to Cherry Grove to take the reasonably priced cocktails served through the window at “Jumping Jacks” by an aging Muscle-Mary. Pete took tonic water whilst the gym-bunny hit on us in turn with his one good eye. The guy had been on the island as long as we’d been visiting although fairly aloof cocooned in a tight circle of the season’s in-crowd. It was time for him to graduate to long pants and go home. He knew it.

Lazy days on the beach gave way to lonely days around the pool cracking open the gas barbecue for grilled chicken legs the size of Turkeys accompanied by authentic French Baguettes and homemade pate. Barbecues broke the monopoly of dressing for dinner. While I snoozed to Pinot Grigio, Pete would wander the Pine Woods. Passing on the narrow board-walks, Craig and Julian of Belvedere days sustained their pretence not to recognise us.

We met Michael and Joseph, a young gay couple from the Bronx now living in Brooklyn with a King Charles spaniel. Being teachers, one of them a NYU beach-time was in plentiful supply as long as they could find somewhere to bunk. They paid their way and lived modestly. Their combined IQ was greater than the cumulative total of the seasonal visitors.  The Spaniel was a likely contender to win the jack-pot at Cherries quiz night.

Michael’s observation that I drank too much, consuming a whole bottle of red wine and a couple of G&T’s on out last night on the island was not well received. They dutifully walked us to the Ferry to wave goodbye the following day. It was the first time we didn’t go back to New York to bid the city our farewell. From the LIR we took the Sky-train from “Jamaica” straight into terminal eight and the AA business class red-eye back to Manchester.

From Hi-T to Low-T, from the self-service breakfast to the extortion on of the general store, from the queenie Bistro to the Findus frozen meat feast… – Fire Island had peaked. It was no longer the preserve of the beautiful people, or the eccentric, or happy or even the “Gay”. Fire Island has joined the Canaries, Manchester’s Canal street and New York City in abandoning the “larger than Life” in favour of simply, the ordinary.

The beach is still to die for. The echoes of a by-gone era of superfluous excess still resonate as further proof that memories surpass reality.

Had it not been for Joe and Elena and 2014, 2013 would probably also have been the last time in NY.

I had arrived in New York in 2002 and instantly understood what the boys we met in Brighton meant when they said that America was a classless society yet “America” is not New York. Neither is America San Francisco or LA and will never be Cape Cod or the Pines.

For class, read money!

New York works. If you get the buzz you get it. If you get the rawness of it’s extraordinary ugliness … you get it. If you feel the vibrant power … you get it.

If you don’t you’ll never get New York. In New York, if you can, you will… and if you will, you will win. In England the establishment allows you to go only as far as to the point where you do not pose a threat. This system pervades every strata of society from the old Etonians controlling government to the lad in Rotherham with a right to look down on a migrant worker! The English all have their place and each place endures a layer above whilst enjoying a layer below. We drive cars as external manifestation of this system and that reinforce this stratification by emblems, labels extending even to an unhealthy respect for registration number plates. Americans simply do it by size!

Sadly contemplating my escape in the town car taking us to JFK on my first visit to the Big “A” I knew that had if I had gone to New York twenty years previous I would not be going home.

I would have stayed on as yet another one of those side walk, teeming masses scrambling to make the dream come true in a city that truly never stops and where the slivers of sky glimpsed through canyons of grey concrete is literally the limit. The few who make it, clawing over the residue of the many who don’t get awfully close to that sky however short-lived or precarious their ascendancy. The few may tread on the many but while they are careful not to remove hope they will remain largely unopposed. Look into the weary eyes of a million seething commuters daily swarming the sidewalks of Manhattan on their two hour trek from the nearest affordable suburb they rarely see in day light to do a twelve hour grind for a heartless overlord in an airless arial necropolis and all that you can see is hope. You can rarely see happiness.

It is easy to suffer delusions when an experience of New York is based on a selective two weeks a year confined almost exclusively within Manhattan fuelled by a bottomless credit card, yet in New York you can be truly anonymous, you can be you or, you can be a masquerade.

Nobody really gives a shit!

In the airport concourse in September 2002 it was Cheltenham 1967 all over again. Once again, I didn’t miss the bus… I had responsibilities!

V6 026 New York, New Y, NY and on and on

Volume 6 Part 026 New York … the wheels fell off

By 2013 it felt that the whole place was coming apart at the seams. All too much “been there and done that”. Trying something new was fairly disastrous, trying something old, simply depressing. The walk via “One World trade” to the jetty for “Governors” Island, only to find it closed for rebuilding was a mile too far for the little man in flip flops.  The Paris Café carrot to get him from Battery Park to Brooklynn Bridge failed spectacularly. It too, was closed for renovations. For the first time since 1866 its door had been closed by the Hurricane which beat the one in 2011 for severity. By 2014, for Joe’s visit, the Paris café had opened “under new management”. Despite still appearing in travel guides it was reduced to pub-grub and Peroni. There was no evidence of the Irish family who had managed the place for an eternity. On the next table were a family from Salford celebrating their wedding. The two daughters had served as bridesmaids that morning at a civil ceremony at the Town hall a couple of blocks inland. They recognised us as the four who had occupied the front row next to the bogs on the AA flight in from Manchester where a “sprog” had wee’d his pants in the aisle queuing for the toilet in the after dinner dash. We remembered her for later checking why her feet were wet and told her so. Maybe she’ll wear shoes the next time she uses an American Airlines micro-loo.

Much to my dismay the family were off to Hoboken to collect a wedding cake ordered from Mario’s after seeing him baking on a Sky channel reality TV programme. The Itinerary I had drafted for Joe and Elena’s “blast of a lifetime” in the Big Apple had been received with largely gross indifference. The only activity they wanted to add to the list was a trip to some Italian baker I had never heard of and located in Hoboken. Who the fuck wants to waste holiday time in Hoboken? Hoboken is in Jersey. It looks back at Manhattan. A very fat temp PA I once enjoyed the misfortune to employ came from Hoboken. She was fat because she was Idle, came from Hoboken and ate cakes. We were supposed to be heading in the same direction but only if it rained! Worse still, we would need to take a sub way. In over ten years of tramping the streets of New York the nearest we got to the sub way was Penn and Grand Central station and the rush of hot air exhaled by the sub way vents along Fifth avenue.

It rained on the Saturday in October 2014 so we went to Hoboken.

After ten minutes of utter confusion and absolutely no assistance from fellow passengers we mastered the ticket machine for The “Path” from 34th street direct into Hoboken central. In New Jersey, a post woman pointed the way the baker on Washington Street. Due to the rainy day and an early start we encountered no one queuing in the roped “Slaarght Lines” outside the bakery. Inside we were ticket “37”. “16” was being served. By the time we sought refuge for brunch in Jonny Rocket’s diner a little way further along the street, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and the queue outside the cake shop extended to over a hundred meters.

Armed with $150 of cupcakes, homemade biscuits and brandy-snaps filled with piped clotted cream we were back on the “Path” heading for the first stop after the Hudson River which pops up on Christopher Street. We’d been there the previous night for a play at the Lucille theatre which smelled of mould and dry rot. The pre-show dinner was at a Cuban restaurant opposite the theatre and a delight, despite the owner who served us being a miserable old man who couldn’t force a smile even for his 20% tip.

The paper hammock containing the cake cargo burst just after we crossed under the Houston. We never got to shop in Tribeca or see the house where “Ghost” was filmed on “Baker”. Brunch was big on the agenda for 2014, as were street bought donuts and Mary O’Grady’s Shepherd’s pie and fish and chips. We also did an appalling French Bistro with a radiator hot enough to toast a Hungarian. All the staff were East European. We did lots of Italian’s. The “Boat House” in Central park was a pretentious as the former “Tavern” with food equally bland. Given its reputation for exclusivity we were surprised that, despite my protestations the Indian Taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong side of the Park and nearly late for a pre-booked reservation. The entertainment was provided by a wild racoon playing on the outside window ledge.

We concluded that the Fish lunch in the Oyster Bar under Grand central station was worth the hike. Taking Stella Artois in the gallery bar hoping for a replay of a famous Hitchcock film was an expensive toilet break.

The 2014, Time Square Sheraton is possibly the worst hotel in the world it has been my displeasure and discomfort to visit. All so brown and impolite with an estimated two and half thousand rooms sized just sufficient for a battery hen, invoices that don’t match the services taken and check in times comparable with the accuracy of a British Rail timetable, this is the place to avoid. Scruffy lobby facilities monopolised by scruffy out of town business executives during the day gave way to scruffy lobby facilities serviced by incompetent indifferent staff during the evening. Ordering a coffee resulted in being presented with a waxed paper beaker and directions to a self-service coffee fountain sat in the midst of a prehistoric swamp no one could be bothered to mop up. Submerging a sign denoting “slippery Floor” was deemed sufficient. We received the Greeks drinks. The Greeks received the Russians bill who had left in a huff, late for theatre reservations.

The weather in September is ideal for New York. Not to hot and not too cold but just enough to burn. The weather in October is pleasant but approaching being too risky to guarantee promenading at will.

February 2004 was business! I was, by now “an old pro” in New York City. A weekend at minus fourteen degrees centigrade offers a new perspective on the lakes in Central Park, overcoats and boots on Fifth Avenue and the number of unoccupied bar stools in the Monster bar. People stay inside in a New York winter. That year I stayed at the “Benjamin” courtesy of the office. Overshadowed by the Waldorf, the Benjamin is as Brown as the Affinia and as beige as the Sheraton. On Sunday afternoon, I walked the length of fifth avenue arriving at the Monster Bar as the sun set behind the Canyon on 8th. I warmed to a long Island Iced Tea consoling Peter by text that his favourite Boutique on Waverley had disappeared. He wouldn’t be getting a replacement pair of shiny fluorescent orange “camy” style trousers from the select store we raided on our first visit in 2002. Pete had piled the counter high with a selection of pants, shirts and even a pair of exclusive cowboy boots, first seeking reassurance that each purchase was sanctioned. Why would I be complaining? The cute Jewish sales assistant handed me the totalled bill with a sneering smile. I handed him Pete’s credit card with a retaliatory smile! Peter signed the receipt with a glazed expression forcing a grin through a head-full of clenched teeth… Sugar-daddy my arse!

The adjacent pet shop has weathered the fashion of fickle New Yorkers. We pay an annual pilgrimage to lament the terraced cages of sad little faces destined to be trophy accessories along with the Gucci handbags and Jimmy Chus. “Min-Pins, Miniature Pinchers at a thousand dollars apiece were discounted if bought by the pair or sold as three for the price of two! Fat Yorkies would be the last to sell, often lasting out a full week of our vacation with us leaving for home and they still incarcerated.

I flew “Business” in 2004.

Somewhere along the line in 2010 we did we did the Hilton in the fashion district. At 23 stories it was a pencil thin tower with a fashionable roof terrace and bar that was out of bounds after Pete became “tea-total”. I liked the Hilton. The roof terrace was first in a line of missed opportunities.

Pete won the trip in 2006 as first prize in a Swanke Haden raffle to celebrate their centenary. We had bought the house in Broomhill that year and were giving a holiday a miss. I paid for my ticket out of money set aside for the new front garden railings. This was the first time we travelled business class together although from Stansted on a “B.C.” only flight which subsequently went bust but spoiling us for subsequent tours. October was a little damp but still warm enough for jacket weather. The company selected a Marriott Hotel someplace up-town.

The event was a major disappointment somewhat disproving the theory that America is a classless society. The “haves” occupied the stage area to look down upon the “have-nots” in a very drab ballroom on the ground floor of the Swanke-Hayden offices in the Puck Building on the corner of Lafayette and Houston. Peter and I were with the have-nots but endowed with special status as not only being the honorary Gays, but the honorary Gays “from little old England”! The sycophantic Director in Charge of the Sheffield Office was licking arse in high places.

MoMa 2004….

This was the first time inside the former Victorian warehouse which we had seen on our way back to the airport at the end of the initial tour to New York in September 2002. On that occasion we didn’t actually bother to step outside the Lincoln town-car taking us back to JFK. The week had been so busy we hadn’t made the courtesy visit we had promised ourselves. To know that the office was real was sufficient.

The first trip in 2002 took in the obligatory sights in less than a week covering the Ground Zero, Battery Park, Statue of Liberty, Staten Island Ferry, Wall Street, Broadway and the Yellow-fat-Rat-Bastard super store on lower Broadway, Brooklyn Bridge, The statue of Liberty, Grand Central station and central Park. The nearest thing we got to culture was an afternoon at the Guggenheim. With the exception of the Guggenheim and Yellow-Fat-Rat- Bastard the whole tour was repeated in ’14 for the benefit of Joe and Elena. The cake shop in Hoboken was their highpoint with Elena preferring to spend the time on top of the empire state to catch up on her texts rather than the spectacle of the world’s most vibrant city. We tried for and missed the “Top of the Rock” three times

Over the years the repertoire expanded to cover MoMa, the Met, the cable car to Roosevelt Island, Macy’s, The Chrysler, The UN, Trump Tower, Woolworth building, the Oyster Bar inside grand central station and the Hi-line. In ’14 they got the lot although the visit to MoMa didn’t get past the museum shop. I was bought a cardboard cut-out of the Chrysler building in exchange for a visit to see the underwear in Victoria’s Secret on the corner of seventh and 34th. Spoiler alert!!! Victoria’s Secret is not confined to a New York thing! They are everywhere including the departure area of Terminal one at Manchester Airport. Elena spent more time riffling through knicker drawers than looking through the lens of a camera bought especially for the trip to NYC. There were more selfies outside a cake shop in Hoboken than from the roof of the world’s greatest metropolis. A Sunday stroll along the hi-line has become so popular it is now single file and not the retreat from the hustle and bustle at street level it once professed to be. Something else the Italians didn’t get in ’14. The Metropolitan Museum had lost out to a bra counter.

The New york trip of October 2014 will be issued as a pictorial addendum – … ….cant wait …..

V6 025 A lasting love affair

Volume 6 part 025 Taste the Apple

Selling the company name and portfolio to a company of American origin hijacked travel plans for 2002. The annual February-in-the-Canaries had moved to April to ensure I was available to seal the deal whilst also salting the idea of where we would be going in September…

New York, New York!

The new owner’s parent company originated from New York. I had not wanted to sell but believed we needed to sell. Although there was little that a visit could achieve if we didn’t like what we saw the Americans deserved “the benefit of doubt”. New York had never been high on my priorities as a holiday destination. The city that never sleeps was just another place on the “bucket list” but well towards the bottom.

A week-end trip to Torquay in summer of 2002 to meet a long lost family of Pete’s relatives offered the perfect opportunity to absorb the “Rough Guide” to New York.  The “rough Guide” simplifies everything for a first time traveller with limited time and matching budget. Pete’s cousin, who had offered the invitation, emerged as a part time transvestite with a fairly good taste in Gay boutique Hotels that regrettably banned dogs following a boisterous Labrador being allowed to destroy a retractable pool cover. Stella the “JR” was all of four kilos with no interest in pools or pool covers but fell foul of the carpet-ban being forced to spend her holiday in the car after being caught in the act of being smuggled out of the room on the first morning after snacking on a pillow and a tube of toothpaste, boffing and converting a toilet role into a confetti cloud. The second night, while relegated to the car she ate a sports shoe and for the main course, part of the back seat of a Mark II Landrover. We had driven down on the Friday. Saturday was spent walking the streets seeking out bars and restaurants with beer gardens that allowed dogs. It was too warm to leave the dog in the car.

The cousin introduced us to the four most prominent gay bars in town where, for a “straight Guy”, he appeared well known and partially popular. To compliment propositioning Pete at the urinal offering his services as a “kissing cousin” he also popped pills. It was no accident that I ground a couple into the carpet with my size eleven and a half hoof before he could bend low enough to rescue them in the Sunday evening crush in some back street bar. He was fairly devastated, clawing at the worn, well compressed Axminster to rescue whatever morsel of stimulant not absorbed by the residue of the Sunday afternoon spillage. I was mildly amused but, then again had spent the day indulging on carafes of chilled Pinot Grigio delivered to my sun lounger from the hotel bar.

We met the cousin’s wife at an Italian Restaurant. Pleasant enough albeit dowdy, she appeared oblivious of the transvestite Alta-ego even though her husband had featured on the front page of a gay-pride review the previous year and shared a wardrobe. The cousin disappeared for extended periods during the meal making for very uncomfortable conversation. The rest of the family had adjourned to their phantom yacht for the week-end.

I summary, the plans for New York were hatched by the pool one sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-July reading the rough guide cover to cover fuelled by three bottles of a delightful chilled dry white wine served in blue glass carafes shaped in the style of rampant mermaids. Stella was liberated from the Land-Rover on the hour for a walk in the car park or to sun bathe on my knee sat on the front steps of the hotel reception. The Hotel grounds were out of bounds even though the baby JR’s manners surpassed those of the local gays. Peter frolicked in the pool entertaining a local audience of drag queens and fag hags. We won’t be going back.

Manchester to JFK became our favoured commute. The rough Guide” street maps gave limited indication of distance or scale. Taking a best guess, the Washington Hotel, curiously located on Washington square provided an affordable option with a relatively close proximity to Christopher Street. On the ground, the convenience the West Village was better than could have been expected.

For the record, roads East-West are Streets and those North-South are avenues. Ten blocks walking north-south takes around ten minutes roughly equivalent to walking one block east-west. Streets and avenues are essentially one-way traffic and alternate their direction in turn. Even numbers are heading north and generally East although the East-West gets a little messy North of the South end of Central Park and South of 14th Street where street names take over from street numbers. Avenues are increasingly being referred to by their Christian names such as Columbus, Avenue of the Americas, Lexington etc. etc., which is singularly unhelpful for the minor dyslexic traveller.

Simple! 

Anything west of Fifth Avenue is “West” xxx Street and anything east of Fifth Avenue is “East” xxx Street. This important piece of geography can reduce cab fare by up to fifty percent. Broadway stretches most of the North-South distance of Manhattan on a shallow diagonal across the grid iron plan whereas Fifth Avenue finishes or starts, at Central park or Washington square depending upon which way up you are and walking. The triumphal arch, known as the Washington Monument is nothing as grand as the Arc de Triumph in Paris but offers a landmark in a lively park serving a lively crowd which mostly spill out from the surrounding blocks of UNYC. A variety of Street Artists entertain the lunch time masses in the plaza around the fountain in summer sharing space with the god- squad and political extremists spouting a monotonous tirade of intertwined obsolete doctrine. The fenced play-pound for village dogs is worth a look-in for the terminally homesick. Taking seasonal shade under the trees to the West end of the park can bag you a game of chess or two with relatively rough but surprisingly capable hustlers, some of whom moonlight as drug dealers.

Washington sq 2013 but just the same every year…

American Airlines gets us in for late Lunch time just two hours on the clock after leaving Manchester on a seven hour flight. In the early days we flew cattle class graduating to premium economy by 2005 and exclusively business by 2010. An AA gold card gets us past the hoi palloy. The yellow cab is a fixed flat-rate-fare, hassle free ride into Manhattan giving half a day to get your bearings before hitting the sack in the early evening to combat the time zone differential.

New to the city and too early for check-in at three, we left the bags in reception and took a stroll into Washington Square. Typically, busker’s murdered every manner of musical instrument in the late summer sunshine by the fountains. Old black-men played chess in the shade. Dog owners let their pooches play in the secure compound reserved exclusively for pet owners after allowing their animals to lay ambush on the pavements.  Flip-flops are not a good idea in New York. Pete scored twenty-five Dollars’ worth of weed the second his feet hit the park-side side-walk in a repeat of Height-Ashbury two years previous. He was also wearing flip flops.

A Polish receptionist showed us to a pokey room on the fifth floor with a view rivalled only by the one in San Francisco. The battered air-conditioning units provided the sound effects otherwise lost by being stationed at the back of the hotel away from the constant, twenty four hours a day, traffic noise. The shower worked. There’s no denying the efficiency of an American flush. It’s safer not to hit the handle whilst still sat on the loo.  The suction will literally kick the crap out of you! Over the succeeding years we developed a cordial relationship with the miserable Pole’ on reception and the fearsome flush alike although It took five years for her to give us a smile and six to for a street view.

Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Avenues are slightly converging by the time they get as far South as Waverley. The streets start to lose their regular grid-iron pattern below Chelsea and 14th Street. Less than twenty minutes’ walk west of the hotel is Sheridan Square, home of Gay “rights”. The Stonewall Inn still presides over the square marking the very spot where the emancipation movement had its “big Bang” in ’69. Christopher Street starts just west of Sheridan linking Eighth Avenue all the way to the Hudson River and marking the traditional centre of Greenwich Village. Greenwich Village was world renowned for its liberal attitude to Gay’s. This was Gay-town, East Coast style. The most popular bars appeared in the “Rough Guide” but find one and you’ve found the lot. Each bar keeps a stock of A5 size monthly issue magazines with variously raunchy titles listing the places to be and “what’s-on-and-where” for any given day of the month.

In the early years, wherever we found ourselves we would always make it back to Christopher for the last drink. We became regulars of the “Hanger” which offered a mixed crowd of unusually heavy drinkers ranging from bears to brats, blacks, whites and Latinos of every shape and size. Tourists were both domestic and foreign. The domestics were generally red necks in exile from the Mid-West, bible-belt and beyond.

“Ty’s”, directly across the street was preferred by the more mature punter seeking refuge from the ageing go-go boys featured at the “Hanger”. For a proper chill then it was “Boots and Saddles” at a time when the men’s bar was a scream-queen free-zone. “Duplex” on the corner of eight and Waverley was more for the younger trade apparently renowned for renting at competitive rates. On the opposite corner stands the iconic “Monster” Bar. In its heyday this was the quintessential gay bar with a sing-along Noel Coward lounge at ground level furnished with baronial chairs and a grand piano. An oval bar dominated the centre of the room, imprisoning gladiatorial, bare chested barmen. Drinks were a fair price and served with astonishing efficiency worthy of the rip-off tips typical of the United States. A basement bar was home to a week-end disco that served as a letting agency for the boy’s from the “Duplex”.

In our first trip to NY we didn’t wander far from Christopher. There was no need. We met nice people doing fun things who liked the company of English queens. A boy from Brooklyn with bleached bubble-cut-curls learned how to speak “Yorkshire”. He popularised such words “twatted” throughout the neighbourhood although pronounced “Twaart’d – y’aarl” and screamed out at ten decibels above the safe volume for the human ear. We entertained a charming young man of mixed race, newly in town from Des Moines on a three-day marketing convention, taking him on a pub crawl around Greenwich Village. Normally extremely observant and receptive to the minutest detail it was not until Pete came to shake the young man’s hand good-bye did he realise that the boy only had one arm. Two further pints and a story involving something about how is birth-mother had put his arm in a mangle at the age of four saw the baby black man depart for the airport with two new lifelong friends. Needless to say, we never heard from him again and as likely to find ourselves in Des Moines as moving to Grantham.

An armless encounter never the less!

We had discovered the “Eagle” in the meat packing district. In those days you wouldn’t walk the meat packing district day or night. Resembling a tourist amplified you as a possible target. Not looking like a tourist offered no defence. The Eagle was located in a four storey warehouse and spread over all four floors with a bar at each level. By the time the smoking-ban in public places came into force, the roof of the Eagle became the fifth bar complete with ketamine fuelled clientele. After one such encounter between Pete and cute Greek boy we had met the night previous at some dive in the East Village, I spent around $70 on taxi fares dashing from one district bar to the next in the hope that Pete might find some action. The only action he managed before coming down from a stratospheric “high” was heading for the toilets at the “Phoenix” on Second Avenue. The bogs were in the basement. He cleared the terra-cotta stair-case in one step! His relaxed posture ensured that nothing was broken although see-through skinny rib string vests were out for the rest of the week. The bruises were a little too ripe to be displayed.

A Sunday lunch beer blast at the Eagle was supposedly accompanied by a barbecue. Contrary to Pete’s reconnaissance and spurious feedback, the only thing being eaten in the rear courtyard was live sausage. I retaliated, by denying to an unsolicited enquiry at the bar that Pete and I were a couple and trading him to a short, fat, Korean business man wearing a suit and tie in a leather bar. The Korean hovered close-by brandishing a chain for most of the afternoon ultimately going halves with another customer for a boy wearing only a padlocked chastity belt and allegedly formally owned by a State Senator based in Washington. The grimace on the poor boy’s face made it difficult to ascertain whether he was having fun with Pete tickling him into a hard-on trapped inside a leather pouch or if he had something vital trapped in the padlock. I couldn’t help thinking how dirty his bare feet must have been.

I got neither sausage nor beef burger that year. We settled for a pizza on Seventh Avenue in an Italian restaurant next to a Chinese internet café where woodlice had rained down onto key board from the dining mezzanine above while I was locked into a one-hour web exchange with the PFI team at the University Hospitals of Leicester.

The “Rawhide” on the corner of Seventh and twenty-eighth, wasn’t worth the walk unless you got off watching the new arrivals checking themselves out in the two-way mirror that made up the street frontage to the bar. As soon as a newcomer sat at the bar they realised they had already been the centre of attention. 

The “Hole” was as big a shit hole as the “Cock” with the exception that the shit was in the toilet and not on the floor. The “Cock” got its name, surprisingly, from the five feet high neon cockerel in the front window. We walked past it three time before asking a stranger for directions. He pointed to the “Cock” on the corner. You could scarcely miss it if, indeed it was a five feet high neon “Cockerel” you were looking for. The “cock” was renowned for its gig’s. The Scissor Sisters had started-out there and I believe there was a vague connection with Madonna although I’d lost interest in the conversation by that time, being in danger of hyperventilating through lack of oxygen.  Fortunately, there were also a number of smarter bars in the East Village, not unlike the “Phoenix”, where punters wore slacks and buttoned down collared shirts and deck shoes. These were altogether more civilised drinking holes. For the most part the Gays’ wore clothes whatever the bar. It was simply a matter of what clothes.

Over ten years and more, the bars have steadily migrated north. With a few notable exceptions, including the Eagle, bars have given way to lounges. West Village gave way to Chelsea. Chelsea, in turn gave way to Hell’s kitchen but remained just as drab for an equally drab crowd.

As with the Canaries, the characterful have gone underground. The characters have become main stream. With mainstream became “normal” and normal doesn’t pose a challenge.

Gay egalitarianism had given way to gay discrimination. Latinos had their bars, Black’s theirs and the whites shared with self-professed liberal straights, lesbians, transsexuals and hen parties. Old men still go to Ty’s, now as tired as the Monster since it temporarily lost its Bishop’s thrones and grand piano. The Boots and Saddles, once the preserve of “Real men” quaffing beer by the mugful without holding the handle now scrapes a meagre living hosting drag shows compered by nasty, screeching skinny twinks whose sole purpose in life is to intimidate and attempt to embarrass late middle aged English gentlemen.

“Splash Bar New York”, euphemistically called SBNY died before “Heaven”. The water fall, allegedly full of prancing go-go boys was as disappointing as the Greek Adonis who needed a hutch up onto his podium at the start of each of his five-minute, twice an hour body popping go-go sessions. On the singular occasion we tried to enter “Heaven” it was Lesbian night and conditional on showing ID. Presumably the Russian wrestler guarding the door thought we were transgender. She had thought twice before rejecting us outright. The uptown “Red Rooms” on 56th was so high class that we were the only customers. When a twenty-something pink-pig with blotchy pink skin in red speedos attempted a private dancer improvisation with his back side, altogether far too close to my right knee, we made a break for it.

Greenwich became so diluted as to be unrecognisable. New York fell victim of the Internet and social liberalism just like any provincial town in the UK. By 2009, Pete stopped drinking and bars became incidental. Becoming adventurous with restaurants also has its draw backs. They change or worse still, stagnate. They also go away. Memories should be simply be left as memories.

The Guide book branded the “Tavern on the Green” the most pretentious eatery in New York but if you had the cash and wanted to be seen it was the place to be. We booked for Sunday Lunch. The beer blast could wait until 2003.  A table on the terrace, partially shaded by a Rowan Tree, resplendent in red berries, offered an unrivalled vista of the large tables filled with family groups from Brooklyn and Queens taking lunch under the guardianship of grey suited security men with curious bulges, mostly in their jackets.  The food and the service was exceptional in its banality. I grabbed the seat under the Rowan, best placed for people watching while Pete received his entertainment from a pigeon shitting squarely onto my left shoulder. Had it not been for his shrieks of laughter the waiter might have been able to ignore the embarrassment of having one of its patrons being shat upon from a great height during a corn-fed chicken entrée. I had wondered why Pete didn’t make a fuss about having his back to the New York Mafia. It transpired that he had seen the tree and its tenants en-route across the terrace and quickly computed the risk of arial bombardment.

In the early days we mostly ventured into street frontage restaurants and faster food “joints” on Christopher, Seventh and Eighth. All professed Mediterranean origin which is more than can be said for most of the places in Little Italy.

September breaks invariably coincided with the “Little Italy Carnival week”. The very same “ladies who do Lunch” and who regularly did Sunday lunch at the “Tavern” spilled out of every pavement restaurant the length of Mulberry. Gangster Molls are particularly fond of English Gays. They rarely failed to make a fuss, giggling their good-byes all the way to their chauffeur driven, steroid injected, armour plated, four-wheel-drive off-roaders for the trip back to some safe enclave in the outer Boroughs or the respectable suburbia of Long Island.

At least one late lunch in Little Italy is a compulsory excursion extending to and including the trip of 2014 accompanied by Josephine and Elena on vacation from Italy. We did it twice that year which says something for the admiration of Italians towards their home cooking.

The “Joseph Lawrence” on corner of Waverly and Sheridan was an accident. The Greek across the road was no longer in existence but at five in the evening there was no queue at the JL. By 5.30 the queue of commuters wanting a seat was three times the capacity of the restaurant. Tidy “New-England” staff complemented simple but exceptionally well presented dishes served with an extensive and sensibly priced wine list. The tiny elevated kitchen on a gallery, staffed exclusively by tiny Central Americans opens into the thirty or so seater restaurant finished in scrub pine floors and tables. French style windows with sills at table level, opened out onto Sheridan square.

By our fifth visit over a period of four trips to New York the untidy waiters matched the untidy French windows in need of serious renovation. The barmy New York autumn air now had free-range around the sun split timbers inhibited only by the nesting ants and designer cobwebs left conspicuously to keep elbows clear of the split panes of glass.. The wine prices were as high as the top shelves to which lack of demand had seen them relegated. There are still queues at “tea time”. The tiny cooks in the tiny kitchen are still doing their thing but with a tiny menu.

Location and room rates make up for the limited facilities at the Washington Square Hotel. As a popular tourist destination we also found the hotel often unavailable. The “Affinia” within walking distance of Penn station offered an Ideal pit-stop for the 2008 holiday when the middle four days were to be spent on Long Island. 2008 was the honeymoon year! The Long Island Railway terminates at Penn station. The Affinia was big and drab but a good price and for its purpose, a good location albeit that they wouldn’t hold luggage for non-residents forcing me to find a depository three blocks walk away.

For the 2011 lay-over in New York we chose the Sheraton on Canal Street. A Hurricane forced us back into the City from Fire Island the day after we had arrived at the “Belvedere”. For the first time in its history Macy’s and the sub-way closed. We stocked up on provisions from the deli counter in the lobby just in case the rumours that no staff would be getting into Manhattan for the whole week-end were true. Marooned at the Sheraton for a third day, a card on reception advertised a Restaurant on the corner of “Canal and Church”. Only two blocks away it was worth chancing the walk. The “Macau” was open but empty. The staff had being doing a sleep-over but forgot to inform their regular customers. Power cuts had damaged the neon. Super service and fab food, a cross between Portuguese, Chinese and New York’s finest steaks made it an instant hit. Our return after a week on Fire Island to a heaving Friday Night crowd was greeted with priority for a corner booth, the same menu as the week before and a complimentary bottle of wine thrown in as an apology for the wait. We have still to return.

The Paris Café was a must and lunch-time favourite for over ten years. Located off Quay 19, just South of Brooklynn Bridge it boasted the best fish on the east coast. Although an accolade too-far it did serve Stella Artois by the pint. The only other place we had found “Stella” had been at the gallery bar in Grand Central Station.

Day two of the first trip to NY coincided with the anniversary weekend of the attack on the twin towers. Burly Fire fighters and Policemen from every part of the states had descended on New York to admire Pete’s “stars and stripes” converse boots. Within half an hour of discovering the Paris café, the place was crammed with burly officers in uniforms of every service, rank and denomination drowning their corporate sorrow.  What a party that was! We ordered lunch sandwiched between the bar and beefcake. The barman refused our order for two shrimp starters offering the second free if we could finish the first serving between the pair of us. That year we skipped the main course and went straight into a few jars of Stella for desert.

V6 024 Spain’s St Tropez

Volume 6 part 024 Viva Spain

As for September 2000, I got to choose the autumn break for 2001. Peter allowed me to select Sitges located just south of Barcelona and featured heavily in the free-press, hand-outs readily available in any self-respecting Soho Gay bar.

The similarities with “San-Fran’” extended to a bay populated by pretentions “queens” and overpriced bars and restaurants. In this case, the majority of the “Queens” came from London, a particularly narcissistic bunch with a catty, viscous streak and mouths to match. The basking “queens” colonised the beach well before lunch time along with most of the brunch bars that line the main shopping street. Versace was definitely “in” that year. To kick-off the evening entertainment the restaurants in the old town are more worthy of a visit. The walk along the Corniche is attractive.

“Throb” had not excelled themselves. The hotel was underwhelming but central. We were on the fourth floor with a panoramic view of the living room beyond the laundry adorning the balcony of the flat across the street and directly opposite. A Last minute flight change put us on a Charter to Reus instead of Barcelona. Reus is a deportation depot for Scousers accompanied by hordes of unruly offspring labelled “Whitney”, Wayne and Shane. One “Whitney” very nearly had her arse ripped off when the baggage carrousel fired up underneath her, despite multi-lingual warning signs to stay behind the yellow line. I surmised that they were terminally stupid or on holiday in term time and consequently couldn’t read.

The foot-path to the Gay-bay is sufficiently uncomfortable to dissuade the pollution occupying the main beach in town from making the hike. A very rocky, but highly secluded cove was accessed by a three mile yomp over hilly scrubland. The shortcut along the railway line was not to be recommended. The regular high speed electrified commuter trains made the tunnel far too risky for all but the trimmest gays. Additionally, the scrubland provided just enough cover for skulking, dirty old men to ensure keeping up a brisk pace. I lost Pete on several occasions to be reunited usually just before the tapas lunch featuring draft San Miguel though god knows how they got the barrels down the cliff face. The beach shack provided basic snacks and beverages. They also provided the tiny spoon for an off-duty judge from Bournemouth to dole out a daily “coke” ration to his pet twink. When he wasn’t entertaining his old man, the twink was shopping. Fortunately, the Judge had an extremely “flexible friend”.

Pete extended his interest in nature by taking up afternoon rambling returning for a beer-break some time before sunset or just in time for our trek home. Like many of the gays, the sun goes down early in Sitges in September. On the singular occasion that we took the “scenic” route together I was clearly a hindrance as Peter set a pace that left me more than a half a mile behind, lost and having to detour back to the original hill top pathway to cross the railway where it shot into the mountain tunnel. He was back at the hotel over half an hour before me, complaining he hadn’t got the key and, typically, elected to give me the silent treatment for the second half of the week.

A shopping trip, usually a safer bet as an anti-dote failed to lighten the mood although an American “ginner” trying on a pair of turquoise speedos offered some light relief when parading through the boutique  soliciting opinions on whether his arse looked good in these. He also modelled a belt with a brass buckle which clashed violently with is speckled complexion and also did nothing for his arse. Pete bought a pair of black designer label trousers to go with a Jesus print “T” shirt he acquired in a buying-binge competition with the judge’s Twink the previous evening.

On the only day we gave the gay bay and beach a miss we met “Yuri”, the lip-stick lesbian with an arse so firm you could bounce her around a squash court.

Having recently split from a long term girlfriend in Madrid, she was in Sitges for “lesbian week”. Unfortunately for her she was a week early. Had she mistimed it by two weeks she could have found herself in “Bears Week”. Yuri was of Venezuelan decent, living in New York and if her business card was anything to go by, was something in real-estate. She entertained us over lunch in a very smart beachside restaurant overlooking the gays and sufficiently pricy to exclude the white trash more accustomed to the Vauxhall Tavern. Not to infer that all patrons of the Vauxhall tavern are white trash, some are provincials and some are foreign. A Spanish Stallion parading on the Gay beach provided a minor distraction from a fillet steak by showing us all how the Turquois Speedos modelled earlier by the pink pig from Massachusetts should really be worn.

Somehow, the Venezuelan invited herself to dinner that evening.

After meeting Yuri outside the Versace shop we strolled to the old port for a fish supper at a restaurant overlooking the Cathedral which we had discovered on our first night. After returning from a ten-minute adjournment to the toilet she reordered the appetisers eating the second helping of giant prawns complete with shell, head and legs. A further ten minutes in the toilet and the Dover sole went down as finger food, bones “et al”. She literally shovelled it from the plate to her mouth with her fingers. What missed her mouth ended up, in equal proportions down her cleavage or decorating a guy’s blue suede jacket on the adjoining table. An empty plate signalled it was time to move on, despite Pete and I being only half way across ours and having to forgo pudding. We paid the bill, catching up with her disappearing up a back alley leading into the old town a few hundred meters past the Church.  VIP tickets into a night club, a spot of jigging about to free champagne that Yuri blagged from a party of Middle Eastern types, who could equally have been Mediterranean judging from their preference for the blond boys, concluded with us carrying a collapsed Lesbian “home” and draping her over the shoulder of a hotel security guard at just past midnight, rounding off the sort of evening that two provincial boys from South Yorkshire rarely encounter. I was well acquainted with Gays having their exclusively male holiday resorts but it had never occurred to me that Lesbians had managed the same emancipation from straight society. The security guard was constructed like an East German Shot-putter. There was no way she was letting two giggling gays past her that night irrespective of how tasty their baggage.

Yuri stood us up for lunch the following day but was already at the Fish restaurant we returned to for dinner that evening by way of an apology for the previous evening’s antics. The happy whore had acquired a new pair of patsy’s to subsidise her European adventure and elected not to recognise us. We advised her new victims against ordering the giant prawns in the event that she displayed any signs of incontinence. Peter later explained to me why New Yorkers, in need of chemical sustenance visit the loo with such frequency. Yet another revelation!

A pair of men’s-bars, conveniently located opposite each other half way up a back alley offered sanctuary from the London style-queens in being very small, fully enclosed and dimly lit and hardly conducive to a freaky fashion show. Other than the Tuesday night underwear party at the XXS and the odd creepy Spaniard leering from the gloom in The “Toro” we had the place very much to ourselves. At the underwear party, along with a dumper truck load of dignity, I lost the chain holding an eighteen carat gold razor blade Bubble had given me as a Christmas present back in 1984. To be expected, no one handed it in…

I tired of Sitges, its clones, its cliques. Its pretence and its prices! The Gay Londoners had moved in their gay “families” lock stock and beer bellies. Sitges was under occupation and outsiders weren’t getting a look in! I found Sitges to be a very lonely town.

Back at the airport, the Cosmos coach bringing a clutch of Liverpoodlians back from a week “all-inclusive” in Lorret de Mar  got a ring-side seat for the arrival of our stretch Limo laid on by “Throb”. The “Gays” were travelling in style. The driver took our bags straight to the check-in to beat the queue.

We waited! … and then we waited some more with no sign of life behind the check-in counters. The natives marauding behind us were becoming increasingly restless, exhibiting classical withdrawal symptoms after a week’s beer binging. The back six rows had caught a sniff of the duty free shop and open bar the other side of security. Although the crowd could not have turned uglier, but fearing that the off-spring might also become increasingly restless through deprivation of coke and fags I broke free to approach  the empty information counter on behalf of the inarticulate herd. As the door opened to the back office I caught sight of a TV showing a “disaster” movie of epic proportion. The door closed immediately. An announcement would follow.

Mobile phones were buzzing in every quarter of the terminal before I could announce to a captive audience that the entire airport staff appeared to be simultaneously watching the same horror film. 

Stella (our friend and not the dog) asked us if we were OK and would there be a flight today and then rambled on at great length about something hitting some twin towers somewhere in the USA. I was rendered speechless in a mild state of shock. I had no idea that so many out of work scousers had mobile phones let alone could afford “roaming” charges, or communicate verbally at all, given their use of a language that is barely English spat through showers of saliva threatening to earth analogue phones to ground through synthetic satin Korean Track suits.

The full horror of the days’ tragic events enfolded on the TV screens wall-papering departures originally installed to make lengthy waiting in an overheated porta-cabin tolerable. The tribe carried on drinking whilst the unchained sprogs continued rioting. The mute button and Spanish subtitles added to the surrealism of it all. I entertained the kids who got too close with bed-time stories of how we were all going on an aeroplane with a greater than 50/50 chance of being hijacked and being hurled into the side of a block of council flats somewhere between Salford and Birkenhead.  They were going to die in the most horrible and excruciating pain. Silence triumphed. I had managed to create a twenty feet exclusion zone around our table. “Whitney” was not the same hard nut she personified on the way out wailing herself to sleep just after landfall over the South coast.

Ours was the last plane to land in Manchester for the next four days! Another two hours delay and we would have had four days free holiday. I phoned Yuri to offer refuge in England if she was trapped this side of the Atlantic but could get to the UK. It was the right thing to do. There was no reply. Future emails bounced back. We didn’t meet again.

When we left Spain the towers were burning. On the drive home from the airport we stopped off at the Norfolk arms in Glossop for a midnight pint and an update. The wall to wall TV’s in the sports bar exclusively showed repeats of the collapse of both towers of the World Trade Centre. The pilot had announced nothing.

There was little sleep that night. As usual, I collected the dogs from the kennel the next day.

V6 023 almost YMCA

Volume 6 part 023 Go west young man

International travel became altogether more interesting after Pete arrived.

To match his choice of the Canaries in 2000 we chose San Francisco for a week the following September. In an overt display of Democracy, Pete suggested the destinations and I agreed.

What harm could a week in the USA do?

Earlier in the summer we had been to Brighton for a long weekend where we encountered a couple of West Coast Americans enjoying a beer outside a gay pub and extolling the virtues of California. They liked England and the English but hated the class distinction. I hadn’t a clue what they were rattling on about. I was the boy from a pit village who had done fairly well and by now the principle shareholder in a newly incorporated former partnership of Architects.

We emailed to let the Americans know we would be in San Francisco for a week in case they fancied meeting up for a meal of two. In response, they would be in Chicago although regrettably missing the Fulsome Street fair for the first time in eight years! Peter and I were totally unaware of a “Fulsome street fair”.

San Francisco was Pete’s Alma-Mata. It was the home of the gay and apparently, home of the macho gay! It now also, had some strange street fair that we had never heard of!

On Pete’s insistence I pre-booked a hotel having first argued that the place was full of hotels and best tested for location upon arrival. Not until we arrived in San-Fran’ did we realise how big a-thing the fair actually was and how lucky we were to have made a reservation. The city was full!

We missed a connection in Detroit and in turn, most of the first evening in San Francisco arriving at our hotel at two in the morning. A taxi driver of obscure, but eastern European origin with little command of English eventually delivered us via a decisively dodgy neighbourhood to a “boutique”, Edwardian hotel located on a side street, two blocks or so from Union Square. Too tired to hop straight back into the taxi and head back to the airport, we decided to sleep on it. By the morning the sun would be shining, we would be lounging in bed with a view over the bay and the butch lesbian night clerk of a “quaint” hotel in a dubious district, would be off duty.

Refreshed, awakening by eight in the morning and true to form, the sun was shining. The view of the bay was an eleven storey blank brick wall on the opposite side of an alley, not three meters from our window. I gingerly closed the drapes, awakening Pete from a catatonic coma with a Folgers coffee capsule and ushering him out of the room before he caught sight of the spectacular ancient brick pointing at close range.  The butch lesbian had been joined in reception by a posse of Ukrainian lookalike, shot putters. We took breakfast in a traditional “diner” down the street seeking solace in a plate of Findus Hash-browns, pasteurised egg powder easy over and streaky bacon of an indeterminate origin so crisp you could use it to shovel the oversized portion of authentic west coast baked beans in tomato sauce. Mustn’t complain… we were in ‘Frisco!

By the end of the first day we’d seen almost all there is to see. The cable cars have yellow lines on the floor for which any transgression is punished by public humiliation. Fisherman’s Warf is a tourist rip-off and smelled of pungent mould but has a very interesting souvenir shop selling all manner of embalmed bugs. We still keep a stuffed locust magnetised to the kitchen wall. If you don’t know what a dead sea-lion smells like, take a trip to Fisherman’s’ Walk.

The view of the golden gate is as good as it gets. A boat trip around Alcatraz concluded that we didn’t need to visit Alcatraz and that we should also avoid Oakland at all costs. It took most of a wasted first three days to find a mobile phone shop to confirm that there was no “roaming” signal on the West Coast. China town and Little Italy are just about big enough to be worth a walk-through although in every respect, the one is indistinguishable from the other. This was the first time I had ever travelled west and from what I saw in the first forty-eight hours, probably the last.

By midweek we were sufficiently bored to justify hiring a car. Pete slept all the way to the cascades comparing the Giant Red-woods to a cruising area without cock. He failed to explain what a cruising area actually was, preferring to publicly condemn the place for not allowing smoking… “For god’s sake we were outside” after all! California had introduced the smoking ban inside public places the preceding year but should the trees go up in flames, “what’s a thousand year or so of growth rings anything to write home about?”

Pete took in the view of the roof lining by fully reclining the passenger seat to resume his nap for the drive North East to Sonoma. Sonoma was all a bit “Stepford wives” with old money, originating as far back as the “sisters of America”, doing lunch in a restaurant with a remarkable resemblance to a Swiss Chalet. Two hundred dollars got us two courses and a bottle of local Pinot Grigio masquerading as non-alcoholic mouth wash. The imported version was half the price and twice the quality. If you have to be loud don’t draw attention to yourself while being lovingly fork fed linguini by your “hair-stylist”. The mood darkened immediately that a blob of fluorescent orange pesto hit the shelf created by her amply, if artificially, inflated heaving bosom straining beneath a snugly fitting grey “Chanel” matching two-piece suit. The flurry of lace capping a white silk blouse created the perfect depository for the linguini heading south in the direction of her cleavage in hot pursuit of the sun-dried tomato dressing.

We applauded! The “old money” on the adjoining table, smirked their approval. During the ensuing bonding session we discovered that the “old-money” lunch was in honour of a teacher who was retiring after apparently, having tutored three generations sat around the table. Presumably “old-money” didn’t think enough of the old dear to pay well enough to allow her to retire at an age when she could have actually enjoyed her dotage! “Doing lunch” was their way of making amends, no doubt!

Filled with overpriced plonk, Pete had an excuse for sleeping all the way back to the city. He missed half of the Oakland bay Bridge until the road toll, but was fully awake for the descent of Lombard Street that links Russian Hill to bay town. Free-falling down the winding hair-pin bends is compulsory for any tourist with a hire car and judging by the erratic lane discipline of the bumper to bumper cavalcade, quite a few were British.

I needed to do Ashbury Heights (spelled something different). I was a child of the 60’s. Haights-Ashbury was “flower power”. Along with a thing for the Beatles, It had been the inspiration for a short lived business-venture with my friend David, selling double sided sticky taped potato prints designed to look like flowers to fellow pupils in the Benjamin Outram Fifth Form as bicycle ornamentation. Of the three customers, one of them sold on the psychedelic floral prints to a hairdresser friend and the other two demanded a refund complaining that the tape stripped the paint off their bicycle mud-guards when ordered to remove them by their retrogressive parents.

Castro district – check out the rainbow flags denoting the gay bars of Castro

To fully soak up the experience, we walked. What a hike! All those hills are so unnecessary. On the map the terrain had looked fairly flat and the city blocks relatively compact. Within a hundred meters of crawling into the district of Heights-Ashbury, Pete had scored a hash-buy simply by crossing the street at the first intersection of Ashbury and some slum back-water. A tiny Latino slid him a “teenth” in exchange for a furtive twenty dollars. Peter had followed my warning not to take, by pain of death, his own supply of herbal cigarettes into America. Although I readily provided the twenty dollar bill I was well pissed that the local scouts had ranked his street-cred above my own! The “child of the sixties” had been resolutely passed by…

Save for graffiti above street level, purporting to be street art and shops selling joss sticks at exorbitant prices to tourists eager to re-live their youth there was little left of “Flower power” with the exception of the bongo, jazz players in Golden Gate Park dressed in Thai-dye who should have gone home forty years previous when the hair on their heads wasn’t limited to a gangling of grease tied up in rainbow coloured rubber bands as an excuse for a pony-tail. 

All very sad!

Disillusioned, and resisting the temptation to spend three-hundred-and seventy-five-dollars on a black leather, retro biker’s jacket with a painted Eagle that had seen times that were altogether more innocent, we retreated to Castro, capital suburb of the capital city of the gay world. Taking solace in a pint of “long-Island-tea” I was enjoying the age of fifty yet life had so rapidly passed me by. What had been new and vibrant at aged sixteen was now grey and dishevelled. The petals had truly fallen off my flower power…

Not a day passed without experiencing some jaw grinding, board screeching episode of epic proportions involving insufferable yokels behaving sufficiently badly to have us readily fleeing back to Detroit.

Little wonder that the British gave the Americans their independence!

Waiters considered pressing nose-tip to nose-tip acceptable to congratulate their customer on the excellence of their choice from the menu. Wine selection was tantamount to administering a French kiss complete with bad breath, spraying spittle and a close encounter with magnified nose hair. One more overly expressed, “Excellent choice sir” spat into my lower eyelids and I would have chinned the chap. The same waiter mentioned to Peter during one of his many cigarette breaks on the sidewalk that “he would be as big as his partner if he didn’t smoke”. All I caught of the conversation was Pete’s reply …”any why the F..k do you think I smoke?”. Apart from the overbearing service, the fish restaurant in Castro was top notch and a well-known attraction given that it accommodates only half a dozen six-person stainless steel tables at which only members of the same party can sit at any one time.

Whether it be in a restaurant or a bar, it transpired that taking a place on the opposite end of a table that seats eight but occupied by a chino clad couple of “Clones” is an invasion of privacy. The pair objected vociferously in an animated South Westerly drawl but that failed to deter us from joining them. Mr “Gay Oregon 1979”, resident cruiser in Daddies Bar, well noted for their half priced, pint sized drinks- offers filled us in on the protocols surrounding territorial boundaries in public places although his familiarity didn’t extend as far as enlightening us as to what he had been doing in the intervening twenty-one years since winning his accolade. We could only assume it was spent giving etiquette lessons to itinerant Europeans. The barely legible “1979” badge on the back of his faded denim jacket was as washed-out as the personality who wore it. It was time for him to follow the advice given to the Thai-dyed bongo player, to go home.

Three well dressed “Bostonians” taking a break from the bar during the five o’clock happy-hour going for a smoke on the “sidewalk” outside the Sunset Lounge excelled themselves by very loudly letting it be known, that fashionable gays had “made Castro” and that fat people “should be kept off the streets”. A rather rotund lady in a fashionable, floral print with a leather-bound twink in tow couldn’t avoid overhearing the verbal assault. The poor dear was mortified yet defenceless, coming to a stand-still eyeballing the trio at point blank range whilst her boy-toy strained on his leash in a futile attempt to escape. I was equally relieved when a cowboy from North Dakota who had helped himself earlier to one of my “Marlborough lights” intervened by threatening the boys with one last trip to the Cascades face down in the back of his AMC pick-up truck. By the time he had wrestled the smallest of the pretty boys into a damp tarpaulin the other two had beat a hasty retreat inside. The Good-Samaritan called it a day, allowing the soiled chinos and dishevelled polo shirt to dismount from the rear of his truck unimpeded in favour of extorting yet another “Marlborough Light”. I recall that he also kept my lighter, but who’s arguing?

I calmed the old dear by congratulating her on the delicacy of her daisy print dress and matching house boy. She went on her way having reclaimed her share of Castro. Some tourists also excelled at anti-social behaviour barging around tiny souvenir shops oblivious to staff and other customers alike. The irony is not misplaced! Being poked in the back for stomping on my right foot for a second time the excuse proffered was “I’m from North Carolina” as if that exonerated bad manners. “Nice for you! Do you still eat black people in North Carolina?” sent the white boy through the door as quickly as flushing a toilet. Without exception, American toilets have particularly impressive flushing systems.

With the exception of the patrons of “Daddies”, tea time in Castro”, was largely preserve of the smart but casual after-work cocktail crowd. By sunset the dress code mutated into blue jeans and replicated checked shirts. Knotted neck scarves or loosely draped hand-kerchiefs of various colours protruding in a flourish from either arse pocket provided entertaining decoration. Pete prided himself in breaking the kerchief code. Under the influence of the pint sized Long-Island-Iced teas I could only remember that yellow signified “water sports”. Yellow handkerchiefs were off the menu irrespective of which pocket they peered from. I believe my colour of choice was “blue” but being unable to remember from which pocket they should hang made the speculation far too risky to test. A high percentage of punters were garnished with moustaches.

The boys from Polk wore too much make-up and leopard skin print. They didn’t like the men from Castro. A case of mistaken identity probably accounted for the poor service we received in Polk but in reality the bar boys in this part of the world are fairly nasty and to be avoided. In every sense of the phrase they are well and truly up their own arses.

By midnight the cow-boys were out in force on “Market”!

Market is a street.

Market Street was only a few blocks from the Bijou walled garden passing for a hotel which we had made home for the week. Folsom Street was just below Market, or in the vernacular “south of Market”. The gay guy that split shifts with the lesbian concierge speculated that “Market” might be more up our street than either Polk or Castro. The “Lone Star” bar appeared in all the mag’s as the place to be on a Thursday night. A queue of just four Stetsons highlighted the entrance to the bar. Assuming they were outside for a smoke, Peter and I walked right-on-in! Sensing some gingham clad Neanderthal was attempting to communicate I allowed eye contact. Repeating in a deep throated roar “Thare’s a slaarght laarn t’tha lerft!” in an incomprehensible southern drawl failed to bridge the communication gap. At the risk of having to recruit a translator we excused ourselves with an apologetic, “terribly sorry, I only speak English” and made it through to the sparsely populated bar with no further interference.

It transpired that a “slaarght laarn” is a queue! Apparently “there’s a slight line to the left”. The purpose of the queue to gain access to a bar with a population of four remains a mystery.

A vast, poorly lit lounge was home to a dozen or so, ‘Sisco clones propped with their backs to the counter watching “South-Park” on a giant roll down, back projection, TV screen! I hadn’t travelled half way across the western hemisphere to watch cartoons with a bunch of allegedly nob hungry clones, clearly without the balls to do anything about it!

A young man sitting at out end of the bar dressed as a replica “Paul Wella” sympathised. His name was Michael. He was an IT expert recently re-settled from LA. He liked “the Jam” and everything English and particularly the men. He was off to meet an English date in another bar and who had shagged him the previous evening, volunteering to show us the sights on the way.

There wasn’t a single customer in the first bar of the tour, probably because it smelled of shit due to the toilet cubicle being open to the bar yet having no toilet-pan. “My Place” is not to be recommended… it is literally a dump but apparently a busy dump on Saturday evenings. Michael suggested the “Power-House” as an alternative if we didn’t mind a crowd. It was his final destination. The Power-House was only a few doors walk away located on the corner of Folsom and somewhere. The bar area was heaving overlooked by the stage featuring a combination of boot blacks and barbers!  Men paid customers to be allowed to clean their boots. Customers paid men for a haircut while other customers paid to watch. Whatever turns you on! By far the busiest place in the bar was the smoking room with a constant stream of two-way traffic ducking back and forth through a plastic curtain draped over a small opening in the side wall of the bar I guessed opened into aside alley. This was to be expected as the anti-smoking rules were rigorously observed in California. I could take or leave a Marlborough if it meant leaving my bottle of “Bud” unattended at the bar for any length of time.

While Pete disappeared into the smoking room I took up position with an elbow casually draped over a newel post sporadically sipping from the neck of a bottle swinging between thumb and for finger. They didn’t serve beer in glasses. Totally unsolicited and absolutely uninitiated a junior” Jock” approached and with a smile that could blind a camel was making a play.. (text censored – see the book for the full gossip….)

Probably my finest hour!

“Paul Wella’s” boyfriend turned out to be a minute muscle-man who, by coincidence, Pete had christened “Macho-Macho-man for strutting his stuff in the Gran Canaria “Cruise” Bar earlier that season. The nick-name was a by-product of biceps preventing his arms from dangling less than thirty degrees from vertical. Pete ruined Macho-man’s holiday in San-Francisco as successfully as he had done in the Canaries only six months earlier.

Macho-man was in “Frisco” for the Folsom Street Fair accompanied by his boyfriend who didn’t get out much. The boyfriend was a police Superintendent, allegedly stationed in Huddersfield. He didn’t like gay bars, was here attending a conference, wore a suit and on the single occasion he joined Loz for a drink, proved to be a thoroughly decent sort. “Paul Wella” lost his bit-on-the-side after macho-man traded our silence for a few glasses of JD and Coke. As if we cared, his real name was Lawrence.

With so much talk of the “Fair” we simply had to go!

Peter in the thick of it – Folsom street 2000

The Folsom street fair is NOT a craft fair. It is as close to a village fete as Good Friday is to a Moscow, May-day, military parade. Red Cross stalls are strategically placed next to the S&M booths doing a roaring trade in the disinfection of whip-lash wounds. For a mere five dollars a shoe-shine licked your boots clean, even obliging Pete who was only wearing flip-flops.

There was no discount for flip-flops which was hardly surprising given the condition of Pete’s feet. A chronic athlete’s foot condition had been under treatment since he removed his converse boots in the back of the Landrover on the first 1999 Christmas wing-ding to Italy.  Bubble had the particularly acute sense of smell shared by all the family except for me with the biggest nose. She had retaliated with a bulk-buy from the Dr Scholl’s discount bar at the Aachen Walmart but eight months on, the therapeutic effect was barely noticeable. To the shoe-shine boy, the variation from Cherry Blossom and Bees Wax was simply seasoning on a hearty meal.

First-aiders administered complimentary sun-screen or antiseptic ointment for those burned by the September sunshine or getting too amorous with the giant size penis shaped Ice sculptures. It was a mixed crowd ranging from Clones, with or without leather, to traditional families with baby buggies. Clothing for all groups was optional and frequently avoided particularly by the overly exposed jack-off brigade starring in their own home made pavement porn movies. Slaves were accessorised with chains and all manner of pointy sharps piercing any or all saggy bits including the unmentionables. The blades and the chains were frequently combined.

The Bull-Whip competition finished me off! A semi-naked woman was strapped to a crucifix whilst competitors challenged each other to stroke her nipples with the tip of finely cut strip of leather from a thirty yard starting line. A whip, tipped with tiny razor blades fashioned into the shape of fish hooks raised the loudest applause. The woman’s’ heart was visibly pounding out of her chest as the reeling leather inched closer to its target.  I looked away, entertaining myself on a soft porn stall… not literally… until Pete made his get-away. He re-joined me in time to witness a trio of competing bleached blond porn stars, well past their best-before-date, simultaneously ejaculate onto a group of happy clapper, hill-billies who had been selecting a combination of dried flowers and pot-puree on an adjoining stall. Not so much disgusting… as sad. The whole place was fairly sad.

Precisely on the dot of six pm, the riot police moved in on horseback. What had been a de-regulated anything-goes, free-zone for eight hours switched instantly into a police-state straight out of “1984”. Flailing police batons hurled plastic pint-pots containing varying amounts of overpriced, under-strength local beer from hand to gutter with the accuracy and alacrity displayed by the Argentinian National Polo team. Punters too slow to dress were being rounded up and herded like prairie cattle into a gated compound. The stereotypical gays sought refuge within the surrounding bars, ignoring any remonstrations regarding the “slaarght laarn t’tha lerft!” Families and discernable tourists were given safe passage. By eight pm the only remnant of the Folsom Street Fair was a lady, down on her luck pushing a shopping cart full of cans for recycling. She was a hundred bucks away from a down payment on an apartment. She spoke with a terribly posh east coast accent giving us a sob story that she lost her job and apartment when paying for Cancer Treatment. The speed with which she downed my JD and Coke suggested she was no stranger to Mr Daniels but I preferred she enjoyed it than losing it to a policemen practicing croquet with my right hand. After an exhausting day that had commenced well before noon, the bars were thinning rapidly. Feeling grubby we decided to head home for a crap and a clean-up before returning to take up our position with the late night crowd over a few “smokes”.

On the walk back to the hotel, just south of the City Hall we came across a collection of policemen crammed into a fast food outlet devouring every kind of donut imaginable. It was all so stereotypical but it was true! Policemen do eat donuts. They are fat and greasy, mostly white and bad for your health…. just like the donuts. We took a selection box of nine with a mix of toppings and fillings to replace dinner. Lunch had been an equally nutritional blend of artificial hot dogs laced with a variety of multi-coloured carcinogenic compounds dispensed from high-pressure, hand pumped, piping bags all washed down with a gallon or so of carbonated gnats piss.

Suitably refreshed we were back on the streets before midnight in anticipation of a scintillating Saturday night that would extend almost until dawn. Unfortunately our fellow revellers hadn’t got the message. The majority who had drifted off in the early evening under the duress of police pressure after a day’s revelry failed to re-materialise. Loz made it for a nightcap having missed the “Fair” under orders from above. Young Michael was spending his Saturday night out with his sugar-daddy who had arrived from LA for the week-end. We had the “Power House” to ourselves which rather defeats the objective of a Gay Sleaze Pit however, six nights of bar crawls, culminating without exception in the same dive is sufficient sight-seeing for any tourist. Seven days and enough is enough!

We didn’t see “Barbary Lane”, Mrs Madrigal, Mouse or Mary-Anne Singleton, yet it would take a lot more than Amsted Maupin to get me back to the city by the bay.

V6 022 all good things etc.

Volume 6 part 022 Death of an Era

Where Pete got to select the spring break I got to take instruction on where we went for the late summer holiday in September. The routine set since spring 1999 was interspersed with family commitments involving Christmas breaks driving to Italy, originating in the first of those trips in late ’94, and Italians arriving in the summer or the three of us , Bubble, Me and Pete, doing Ryanair assisted day trips. This regime worked reasonably well with Pete trading Christmas for the spring Canaries break, ma trading being abandoned for the spring and autumn holidays as long as she got Italy at Christmas with some shopping thrown in on the way and me going along with everyone.

Two months after the 2003 Canaries jaunt the routine was shattered when, Enzo died. The brother-in-law had been succumbing to lung cancer a few months previous. We had planned to give Italy a miss for Christmas 2002 but relented to keep the likely final year a conspicuously family event. 

It was all a very sad end.

The week before Easter of 2003 the Doctor advised Josephine that it was time to gather the family. Inevitably the travel plans were all a bit of a last minute panic. We got the call on a Wednesday. There were no open ended flights. After the day at work on a Thursday we headed for Dover in the Merc’, collecting Syb from Cromford and dropping the dogs at a kennel in Matlock on the way. Bubble knew we were on the way from Sheffield but had not thought it necessary to pack before we arrived. True to form, she had perfected the technique of how to turn a drama into a crisis. Just before midnight we checked into the Premier Inn in Dover overlooking the harbour. The bar was closed. We made do with Mars bars and cans of Cola from the vending machine by the front desk. Pete had finished his stash pf six cans of Stella in transit and sedated by a couple of herbal rollups was gone to the world before his head hit the bed.

We secured a place on the 7.30am morning ferry to Calais. Heading South through France and the Mont Blanc tunnel, we arrived in Pesaro twelve hours after leaving Calais at 10.30 in the evening. It would have been sooner had it not been for French Traffic patrols, an insistence from Bubble that we ate and a wrong turn before Alessandria taking us via Turin in the rush hour.

Remember… It is always rush hour in Turin!

The keys were in the front door. Joe was home having been relieved for a short break from the hospital by Carla. Peter and I checked into the Hotel Cruiser having made the reservation by telephone en-route. The Hotel would give us a bolt hole with privacy and a mini bar. We all returned to the bed side early the next morning. Peter stayed in the corridor. There was nothing to be done but wait.

Enzo died in the early hours of Monday Morning. I left Pete in bed at the “Cruiser” arriving at the hospital at the same time as Nadia and negotiating access into the locked hospital through A&E. It was still dark. We left the hospital before seven to break the news to Peter but not before waking Bubble and Elena back at Joe’s flat. By ten in the morning we had selected the casket, funeral cars and flowers with all other arrangements sorted by the funeral director who collected a burial outfit before lunch. The family assembled for viewings at two on the same afternoon. Peter and Elena took some persuasion to take a last look. A pair of old hags kept vigil over the body, denying Josephine some “me” time. We waited patiently in the hallway as a procession of family members paraded in and out in various levels of distress. A lady in an adjoining chapel was buried in a hooped skirt. As the trolley burst out of the Mortuary on her way to a chapel of rest the skirt snagged on the flailing double doors. The exploding hoops exposed the old dear’s most vulnerable parts to a lobby full of already distraught, newly dazed, mourners. We resisted a descent into hysterical laughter.

Not a nice way to go.

The funeral took place on Tuesday afternoon with a procession leaving the car park at the foot of the hill below the cemetery. I had the car cleaned that morning to “be seen” at the head of the motorcade. Bubble was most indignant that she had to walk the last five hundred meters making up the front row including me and Josephine, with daughters, husbands and boyfriends a close second followed by a gaggle of relatives arranged in hereditary order. With an average age measured almost in three figures, progress up the sleep gradient between the car park and cemetery was at a crawl. Cousins on the back row were taking bets on who was the next to go! …The front row knocked out by carbon monoxide belching out from the rear of the “350” Mercedes diesel engine or the appointed geriatric, chief-mourners walking way up front, should the clutch slip. We arrived at the second storey gallery housing the third level tomb without mishap. The heavy fragrance from the abundant floral tributes was overwhelmed by a rancid odour emanating from the far end of the terrace. A short ceremony involving some superstitious oratory prior to bricking up the french-polished walnut casket in a hole in the wall culminated in an orderly queue of grieving by-standers shaking hands with the close family assembled at the head of an external flight of steps.

Contrary to our initial suspicion, the smell was not the product of composting flowers left over from a previous internments. As the line of well-wishers shortened the stench increased in intensity finally settling in a sewerage infused cloud enveloping Oswald’s daughter, Ennis. For a German, she packed quite a punch. With the exception of Ennis, the rest of the nation is to be commended for their standard of personal hygiene.

Surprisingly there was no wake. I was under the impression that Italians could beat the Irish when it comes to sending off their dead, expecting a full spectacle just short of a New Orleans Mardi Gras complete with accompanying samba and heavy metal steel band. We settled for raiding the local Deli’ for roast pork, padinas and pizza before settling down in front of the TV for a quiet evening in. Charged with selecting a film from the limited collection of English language videos, Peter settled on “Tomb Raider” but under pressure to apply a little sensitivity suggested “Rise of the Mummies” as a compromise. The choice went down surprising well considering that it was less than five hours since Josephine had bricked up her husband in a wall!

Bubble didn’t miss out on a shop. Along with packing the two giant Easter eggs Pete bought for his nieces we managed to strain the hinges on the boot lid to the point where the unique, automated closing feature of the S320 gave up the ghost. We left Italy on Good Friday, hoping to miss the bank holiday rush for ferry space at Calais, stopping in the mountains for a breather in Oberammergau, met a two-meter-high transsexual in a souvenir shop and telephoned ahead for two rooms at the Haus Press. It was late when we arrived in Aachen. There was no record of a telephone booking. We stayed at the Ibis ending a tradition with Haus Press that went back to the early 90’s.

It was the second time Pete had travelled in summer to Italy in the Merc, in addition to the four trips made in various Land-rovers for Christmas. He had sampled the route via Germany and over the Seefeld pass in June of 1999 when we took the Merc to Carla’s wedding. I had been appointed chauffeur for a second time. My “special friend” was to be a “special guest”.  Along with clothes for three for the two week stay, the boot carried the second twelve piece dinner service to head south of the Alps in the same decade. The bridesmaid’s dresses were hung with the suits in the rear right hand passenger seat obscuring Pete’s view to the west for the whole outward journey. It was the only occasion he lost the other half of the back seat for a transcontinental sprint.

Rounding the last bend out of Brenner just as the road rises for one last time North of Verona, with the Zoo on the left, the entire road width was full of articulated truck. Two forty-foot multi-axel lorries as high as a house were going head to head, uphill on a two lane Autostrada. Decelerating from one hundred and thirty miles an hour to under thirty in as many yards put both Bubble and Pete in their respective foot-wells. If his hair hadn’t been dyed white it would have gone that way quite naturally. Although I had no worries that the car wouldn’t stop in time I was less confident of the braking system of the Alfa Romeo riding on my rear bumper.  It finished up parallel parking with one of the lorries but on the hard shoulder. The driver’s face was as white as Pete’s hair!

We stopped for a brandy at the next service-station aptly located on the banks of the River “Po”.

The wedding was a chique affair with Carla rivalling Nadia’s “1994” nuclear fall-out of frilly lace with a totally undecorated, body hugging, slim-fit classical gown to complement the three shades of grey to black worn by the groom.  I wore an equally classical black Versace three piece suit. The waistcoat was pin-striped in silver grey. Risking anonymity, Peter took his seat at the top table wearing a beige suit, black skinny rib vest adorned by a chunky, silver chain I bought as a surprise birthday gift in the Corn Exchange in Leeds for seventy five pounds and with hair bleached white.

“White” not blond. He resembled an Annie Lennox in exile.

Although warm, allowing us top up tans, the rest of the holiday was fairly dismal. Bubble stayed on for the rest of the summer being repatriated by air in September of that year. Peter and I drove home alone heading direct to Aachen in the same day.

To reiterate…

The routine set in ’99 comprised Peter selecting the Spring Break and I, under covert manipulation, the autumn vacation. This convention largely fell apart after Enzo’s death in 2003.

Up, until the Christmas of 2002 we had continued to do the “Santa Run”. Pete had joined us for the 1999 millennium “spectacular” reducing the carrying capacity of the Disco by more than fifty percent. He had insisted on keeping the back seat clear for sleeping, only temporarily relenting for the summer “treat” of 1999 in favour of the bridesmaids dresses. Adding spice to the winter trip in ’99 by diverting to the Fern Pass had been a minor disaster. We got lost and added four hours to the Alpine crossing. There was no placating the pair of them. Pete wined on bout gaining four additional hours of discomfort, Bubble complained at losing a shopping opportunity and I developed chronic ear-ache. On a mountain top somewhere near nowhere I vowed that this was the very last time that Hannibal would do his winter crossing which greatly pleased the “donkey” on the back seat.

Until the millennium, the previous trips had not included the New Year. We did Christmas but previously were always home by New Year’s Eve. Following the extended millennium break we reverted to the tradition of arriving the day before Christmas Eve and leaving two days before New Year’s Eve. The extended stay of ‘99 forced day trips to break-up the monotony. In Rimini we got to drink in empty bars. In Riccione, we ate in empty restaurants. The “Bombo” terrace remained deserted for the whole two weeks. Peter embellished a full size nativity scene by posing for photographs with the three wise men and gifting baby Jesus a twenty pack of gold wrapped Benson and Hedges cigarettes. Jamming a lit cigarette between the chubby fingers of the infant Jesus he figured that the ceramic statues would be non-flammable. We high-tailed it back to the Land Rover when the smouldering stub fell awfully close to the straw lining the manger. We were no closer to hell than after publicly ridiculing the valiant efforts to dislodge a north start caught in a jammed washing-line intended to drag it high above the square in Fiorenzuola during the Christmas Eve passion play. We had gone to the village for a pre-Christmas Supper blissfully unaware of the spectacle that awaited us over coffee and brandies.

At the crescendo, the donkey pissed on the Mayors foot.

Pete let it be known that December 2001 would have been our last Christmas in a Land-Rover countered only by Enzo’s illness. He hated the journey and didn’t “do” family. The Mark II was infinitely more comfortable than the Mark 1 and he was now accompanied by his one year old dog. Seefeld offered a chance for a walk in the snow and take coffee and Brandies before the final assault of the Brenner Pass from where it was down all the way. The dogs, Stella and Bubble’s Yorkie called Mitzi, enjoyed harassing the horse drawn sleighs while Bubble enjoyed shopping in Albrecht. We had shopped in Albrecht for the best part of a decade and bought all manner of jackets and jumpers, slippers and gloves all featuring lots of wool and embroidered edelweiss.

The grit cut Stella’s paws and although we managed to find a pink snake-skin dog-coat with pink feather-boa trim in which she was comfortable, there was no way she was wearing the matching two pairs of boots. The “Gay” who served us was most perturbed.

2002 was different. We had been to Italy by air in late October to repatriate Bubble who had returned to Italy with Joe after her August holiday in England. By late autumn we all knew that the prognosis was grim. Joe had enough to cope with, without the hassle of entertaining granny and her insatiable desire to spend. By now, she was into diamonds. In an attempt to keep things as normal as possible we had no choice but to accept the invitation for Christmas at a restaurant not far from Nadia’s house.

The trip was as drab as the car. I never really liked the dark Blue Mark II.

Enzo braved the dinner and the dog even though its incessant yapping caused him great physical pain. Stella liked Enzo and wanted him to play. We left for what would definitely be the end of an era on so many levels.

December 2004 was the very last time we spent Christmas by Landrover in Italy. I can’t remember why and can’t remember how although apparently it was in the Pale Blue version, last of a generation Disco’.

V6 021 Less than Paradise

Volume 6 part 021 Singing like a Canaryend of the quiet life

In addition to the English hitting the Adriatic, Carla came to England in summer of ’98 accompanied by her boyfriend, soon to become husband, and of course, her mother Josephine. We did the sights and melted on a day trip to London. It was a record summer. Together, we picked out a new Disco to replace the green one. The silver one was a colour match for the Merc 320 of the time. Being the end of the line for the Mark 1, this new Disco carried more adornments than a gypsy caravan. I traded the offer of a roof ladder mounted on the rear door for real wood veneer inserts on the dash. A couple or more trips to Jordan involving a few days in Palestine and a couple of jaunts to Abu Dhabi rounded off autumn of ‘98.

I had met Pete during the same week in early September ‘98 that I took delivery of the silver Disco. The “silver” did the by-now traditional Christmas Trip to Italy that year getting a taste for some snow in the mountains. It was too soon to take Pete on a Christmas family outing. We phoned.

As compensation for being left home alone at Christmas, Pete was treated to a spring break in the Canaries. It was Pete’s idea, he had been before. Pete took care of all of the booking. I contributed the cash and the transport to Manchester airport. It snowed.

The February 1999 trip was the first of a succession of repeat visits to the Canaries which ultimately came to rival Italy for monotony. Most of what we did in Gran Canaria, we had done on the first trip.

The drinking started at Manchester airport with a couple pints of Stella each to dull the pain of queuing with a couple hundred track’y clad elbows. Once on board it was Brandy and cokes before lunch followed by brandy and champagne for desert. The scousers look on, beaten at their own game.

We took a bus!

Thomas Cooks provided the airport transfer from Las Palmas to Player Del Ingles, or more specifically “Maspalomas”. The peasants wore sandals with socks. Pete had already vetoed sandals with socks so I knew it must be wrong. Joe rang me on the mobile and concurred! The peasants were singularly unimpressed that someone could get calls direct to a breast pocket in foreign parts and totally oblivious to roaming charges. The transfer was long enough for us the check-into the very straight. resort-complex sober.

The bungalow complex for the first trip was new and within walking distance of the beach. Unfortunately once at the coast there was a hike of equal distance to the “gay” beach exaggerated by yomping through soft sand. Pete’s abhorrence of socks with sandals stretched to socks with shorts and socks with sports shoes. I grew blisters on both heels the size of golf balls propagated by new black Nike trainers given to me by Josephine as a Christmas present earlier that year. They were worn without socks! Taxis took the strain by the third day with replacement flip flops redirecting the blisters to each big toe.

The resort was all very family. We would regularly meet the Scandinavian contingent taking their dogs for their morning crap as we were getting in from the nightlife in the Yumbo centre.

For years I called it “Jumbo”!

We discovered Bei Leilo, a bijou German restaurant on the second level of the Yumbo with a great view of the carnival stage. Pete wasn’t into eating in those days, leaving me very much free to choose the venue. For the whole week I worked myself through the same menu. Why fix it when it “ain’t” broken? …although we did manage a sea front fish restaurant in Faro a couple of afternoons.

After-dinner drinks were usually taken in a disgusting dive called the “Saloon bar”. It had bugger-all to do with cowboys and Indians but featured a sling and a bath if you really felt the need to boff at the many and varied explicit scenes broadcast on the wide screen TV hung above the entrance doors away from the prying eyes of passing “straights” peering in from the shopping terrace no doubt curious as to the purpose of the bald pool table devoid of balls for a game apparently played with a paddle bat!.

Once more, enjoying very little sense of smell has its up-side.  Pete thought it all hilarious.

The “Baren Hole”, (bear cave to the uninitiated) and the Hummel-Hummel when Hummel-Hummel was the original Hummel-Hummel spread over two sides of a corner café, kept our attention until around midnight or a little after before transferring to the seedy nightspots of “Cruise” or “Construction” until the early hours.

It was time to leave when deck shoes stuck to the floor or the lights came on at five in the morning for the hosing down. “Kings”… Next door, filled the hour between five and six. By Year three, an adjacent kebab stall was providing breakfast.

The “Baren hole” is a bear cave! A small bar, open to the street and totally swathed in “bears”. Stuffed teddies of all shapes and sizes and of all manner of dress and origin. Thousands of the things and a positive fire and flee hazard. The customers, commonly labelled “bears” in the gay community were the more mature end of the party spectrum, mostly clad in checked shirts and hiding behind a variety of facial hair of dubious design and configuration and in some cases, origin. These guys didn’t mind conversation although there was a small dark room for those feeling a little tongue tied. Nobody can accuse Peter of being short of words yet he made use of the cubicle on more than one occasion although boasting to have never been a fan of “small talk”. Resorting to something bigger, in the more salubrious environment of the neon lit loo resulted in a management request not to monopolise the single facility for anything other than using the toilet. By the time he had finished with an American, Tom Selleck impersonator the queue for the Urinal was approaching triple figures. I had seen the pair disappear into the toilet “two by Two” but was tasked to keep the American’s boyfriend’s back facing the door way. There is only so much distraction a first time country boy can create with small talk to offset the concern of a jealous lover that his partner may be trapped in a festering foreign urinal by a faulty lock, potentially gripped by raging dysentery, or worse still have left his comb at home but discovered another grey hair. They surfaced red faced, though not through embarrassment.

What happens in the Yumbo has always stayed in the Yumbo!

Michael, a Freddie Mercury lookalike from Manheim owned and ran the Baren hole with his partner. Michael was a nice guy. He lasted, perhaps five years before prematurely bequeathing the bar to his partner. In turn his partner also lasted, maybe another five years before bequeathing it to Peter, the former German waiter with a Chinese pig-tail. Peter has lasted the longest. Peter doesn’t play around!

Hummel-Hummel was a bar of two halves. Manly-men one side and cutesy boys the other. Each side had its compatible porn screens discreetly mounted high enough above the bar as not to be visible from the street. The odd oldie took up residence on a bar stool in the Boy’s bar and vice versa the occasional twink would be glued to an old man’s lap.  The staff were young, fun and mostly a mixture of German, Dutch or Spanish. For the Madonna festival, where the entire local male population mutate into transvestites, the boys in the bar proved no exception. Favourites were Tarts or Slappers with Nuns running a close second. One particularly pretty bar attendant came dressed in tweed in the semblance of a smartly dressed, Bavarian Lesbian. “Iche bin eine lesbiche frau” rings in my ear to this day. So tasteful!

Being introduced to the “Cruise” was a revelation. Dark corners, dark rooms, loud music, cheap drinks and the daft and the desperate from every part of the globe herded inside, shoulder to shoulder trying to make eye contact. Whilst the herd kept cruising, it wasn’t sticking to the floor. Commandeering a bar stool with a commanding view and in easy reach of Niko for a constant supply of knock off brandy and coke had me set for the night. Negotiating the urinals risked losing both the stool and what modicum virtue counted for virtue in the devil’s waiting room. Pete provided protection for the stool. Avoiding eye contact for a devout people-watcher can be quite exhausting. I never failed to make a friend or two, mostly amongst a similar contingent who were also more concerned with losing their perch than their privacy. Occasionally, persistent perverts failed to take the hint from a polite “no thank you”. I soon mastered the art of mouthing “Fuck-Off” is six languages. Niko would keep me company by letching over the bar when Pete was on walk-about. Although protesting to being Spanish by origin, his English accent came straight from a cross between Faulty towers and a 1958 Carry-On film. I remained convinced he was perpetrating a piss-take on his fellow ex-pats. The more we chatted, the thicker the Hispanic drawl lubricated by frequent illicit helpings of the counterfeit hooch became, eventually leading to his impromptu discharge in favour of a barman actually equipped to tend bar.

Over the next twenty years Niko, christened by us, Julio (pronounced hhhooollyo!  …accompanied by the generation of copious quantities guttural phlegm) has popped up as manager of the “Kings” nightclub plying us with free drinks for a few seasons until it went bust, general manager of the “Villa Magnolias” gay men’s resort which went straight and more recently receptionist end general dogs body at the “Villa Blancas” Gay resort… There was a time that we very much liked Niko!

March 1991 – Peter with Wendy the Witch (David)

In the early days the lodgings were always straight. Without the benefit of daily eye candy around the swimming pools mostly filled with screaming kids wedged between inflatable toys marinating in a salty soup of slime, the only distraction during daylight was to head for the gay beach. Irrespective of the intensity of the hang-over we set off religiously at just past nine every morning arriving at “Bar 7” an hour or so later and in time for the first pint of the day.

“Bar 7” is the hub of the Gay beach but also the nudist beach due to its proximity. Germans had discovered the seclusion of the sand Dunes in the late ‘50s at a time when most of Europe was still recoiling from rationing and the Germans were recoiling from convention. The seclusion and uninhibited environment rapidly attracted a gay scene when Europe remained largely hostile but a few Pesetas bought a lot of blind eyes.

Naturists had gradually migrated to the fringes of the nudist beach being largely squeezed out by a Gay crowd of whom only a small percentage were baring all. Regrettably, those prepared to let it all hang loose were generally of an age when they should have known better and kept it wrapped in their pants. The younger and altogether more appealing set mostly had the self-confidence not to have to flaunt it. Never the less, this was all something new for me and other than checking the bar stools for sweat stains before taking a seat, rather enjoyed the liberation of it all.

Lunch in Fara by the lighthouse (Peter and a Parrot)

This was an era of novelty, striking contrasts and vibrant characters with something to say and do, all fuelled by a tiny cabin bar dispensing raucous music and gallons of San Miguel. This little fly trap was the centre of the universe for otherwise ordinary people for one week of their otherwise ordinary lives.

The flight home was fairly sedate.

Only the weather on the July trip to Italy for Carla’s wedding matched the Canaries. I believe Peter found Italy to be very disappointing although not compounded by the bad weather for the repeat trip in Christmas of that year to celebrate the ”Millennium”.

We did Gran Canaria all over again in February 2000 but I have absolutely no recollection of where we stayed! 

For the third attempt at surviving the Yumbo, the holiday hotel for February 2001 was a mixture of cheap and cheerful, self-catering apartments and bungalows discovered by Pete on an earlier trip with a former partner. All very family friendly and no doubt we provided the curiosity factor. There was nothing regal about the “Royal Suites” other than the towel Pete used for a turban to staunch the blood flow from a gash in the back of his head sustained whilst tight rope walking a ten-inch high curb at three in the morning on the way back from our first night at the Yumbo. We were having an early night due to being accompanied by Pete’s best friend, Dave, more commonly labelled “Wendy the Witch” and subsidised by my air miles.

Villa Blancas March 2005 – Me, the Barzillian, a gay, and Peter pre haircut…

Dave turned out to be a bit of light-weight. He had no recollection of the out-bound flight after the second Brandy and Coke used to top up the two pints of Stella guzzled in the airport lounge. The in-flight champagne, the Limo’ transfer to replace the bus, a meal with wine at Bei Leilo’s and a blow job in the Cruise bar all washed down with half a dozen cola mixers were all wasted on him.

Wendy wasn’t really there for the beer. By the end of a week he had spent so much time cruising the less salubrious bars he could see in the dark. Being strapped into a sling and left for bait was insufficient to tame the boy insisting that a day time raid on a seedy sauna in the “Nilo” centre the following day. He had been given the recommendation along with a few other sordid suggestions from a Norwegian whilst on his knees in the dark room of the Cruise bar. David was fairly put-out when a little old man who only spoke Spanish answered the door-bell but refused him entry causing David to barge his way into the old man’s, back- kitchen before realising that we were at the wrong address.

For the 2002 retreat, we rose to the level of a 3 star, complete with an escort of soldier ants in the bathroom. The weather was equally as rough. We had delayed the annual spring break from February to April to ensure that the sale of the company to an American was secure before we partied. Prying eyes and the noticeably indiscrete “nudge and a wink” from the Rotherham revellers put the family pool out of bounds. The wind and rain rendered the beach a no man’s land. The Whitney Houston impersonations from a waitress using a bent straw as a digital mic’ was welcome compensation for the trudge to Beach Bar 7 but she closed on windy days when the supercilious gym bunnies took refuge in the dunes. Men of character were in decline. We had not encountered the style-queens from Milan dancing on the dustbins since our first season in the Canaries. The one that cracked his ankle and had to be carried off the beach still managed the Saturday night carnival dinner fully decked in a Black Versace three piece suit and tie. One of his friends looked equally dashing in a complementary Armani box suit whilst the other sported a shimmering gold, close-fit, full length Nino Ricci ball gown. The blond wig to the waist was a questionable accessory to a shimmering gold, slim-fit, full length gown in a packed Yumbo sleaze bar but no more so than at the urinal. How often does one get invited to hold up the hem line of a shimmering gold, close-fit, full length Nino Ricci ball gown when the recipient just has to go!

Italians really know how to go for it all the way in a gay resort. Unlike most of the folks back home they are only too willing to strike up a conversation even if they don’t speak a word of English. The younger ones took care of the older guys including one who had recently suffered a heart attack. He watched the beach bags while the younger ones went to play in the sand and surf. “La Regina di Dunas” disappeared for days on end.

Margo’s was a welcome retreat at the end of a hard day’s people watching on the beach and incentive to complete the two mile yomp back along the water’s edge carrying Pete’s rucksack with Pete’s tee shirt, Pete’s towels, Pete’s three different grades of Piz Buin and Pete’s two variants of after-sun moisturiser. The tiny bar, located on the beach front in Faro, was a proverbial carrot-magnet. It was close to the taxi rank for a quick getaway, served German beer and German Frikadellen and German Bockwurst to German Tourists singing along to “humpa’” music accompanied by free shots of something called “orgasmus”. Margo ran the bar. Her husband, Fritz looked after the “frits”. He served a pretty mean homemade one Euro Frikadellen garnished with imported German “zenph”. The imported bock-wurst with traditional home made potato salad or “frits”, from Fritz, also got the “Zenph” treatment. An oblong servery counter filled the centre of the bar leaving just enough space between the bar and external walls either side for a single row of bar stools, always occupied to capacity and a single row for standing room only. The bar was gay friendly and needed to be as squeezing through the crowd to the loo was a highly intimate experience. The busy time was five-till-seven. The bar closed at 7.00pm. Margo and Fritz had a good life.

Unlike the Italians, the “Scandinavians” all spoke impeccable English. Unlike the Americans they didn’t need to speak even with “their mouth full”.  The Scandinavians were especially obliging and for the most part good company with the exception of the one that kept unexpectedly popping up in the most bizarre situations and would insist on announcing his presence with “Hallo’”, pronounced “aarrrllllohhhh”. He appeared from behind the bar, from under bar stools, from the inside of toilet lock-ups and the front of any half open pair of stone washed Levis. I had reached the point where just one more “Hallllo” and I would have taken refuge in a dark room long enough to bludgeon him into the two inch deep slime topping the terrazzo tiling. He wouldn’t have been found until the hosing down at dawn. A Belgian “Bear” rescued the boy from Oslo before any fatal wounds could be inflicted.

We met a Bulgarian. The half of the Bulgarian that was German was called Herman. His dual nationality allowed him to travel. A pretty little thing, but although perfectly formed and wearing an authentic knock-off of a Bayern-Munchen football kit, so tiny he couldn’t get to the bar. One swoop of the right arm and he was on my lap and being served by Niko with a San Miguel. Pete taught him the art of “pulling”. On a week’s holiday there is no time to lose. We announced to the bar that he actually played for the German football team emblazoned all over his shirt instantaneously increasing his popularity by a magnitude of ten. He became a very popular boy wearing only the same red satin shorts and matching trimmed white football shirt for the whole week. When he wasn’t wearing the football kit he wasn’t wearing anything! He fell in love with a Swedish boy who could speak neither German nor Bulgarian but trusted me enough to translate his impeccable English.

Then there was a Dutch man who wore a velvet cloak and multiple rings adorned with razor blades, a man who ran the “Prison bar” and liked to paddle bat the customers, Collin from Leeds who ran Diamonds and sold Walkers crisps, Suhail the drag queen who lived with a Welsh man and who owned the “Centre Stage” cabaret bar, a Belgian barman with ringlets we nicknamed Trevor, Cristopher from Austria who waited at Bei Leilo’s but hated the Spanish, the incredible hulk waiter from Holland and William from Hungary. William was also a waiter at Bei Leilo’s and so exceptionally handsome he didn’t know it, unsurprisingly straight and in Gran Canary with his wife to learn Spanish as part of a University degree in business studies… all characters! .. and all larger than life. I miss most of them dearly.

There seem to be few characters in the World any more world or maybe Pete and I have become too conventional to attract the unconventional.

When the beach couldn’t be relied upon to provide sanctuary from being exhibits at the straight zoo, the only alternative was to find a gay resort.

I spotted an ad’ in a free-flyer being handed out on Canal Street during Manchester’s 2002 Gay pride. There was no internet but in those days telephones worked both ways. One call and a credit card later and we had a “Throb” week in the Villa Magnolia for February 2003 complete with airport transfers and long stay parking. They couldn’t do anything with the flights, condemning us to a choice of Thomson’s or Thomas Cooks. Either way the staff were as large as the seats were small. The service remained entirely discretionary.  A five-pound coupon that could only be used on Thomson’s flight in the same year and to the same destination was their idea of compensation for a shortfall in the number of in-flight meals loaded for take-off. Twenty-five pounds for additional leg-room bought a confrontation with somebody already occupying the exit row, as well as an address for the letter required to claim a refund for the cash you had parted with only thirty thousand feet and twenty minutes below and the bar closed for the rest of the journey in case you became increasingly aggressive. Neither the twenty-five pounds nor the apology ever arrived.

Whilst the capacity crowd of semi-paralytic passengers scanned the “meeters and greeters” for hand scrawled placards bearing the logo of the TUI, Thomas Cooks or “everyone-who-does-it-on-the-cheap” we got a full “Hi-max”, wall to wall, two meter arched rainbow banner embroidered with “foot” high black capital letters spelling out the name “THROB”. Hardly an exercise in discretion! Any question that Pete and I might be just “good friends” was answered without reservation. Firmly out-and-proud we allowed the rep’ to carry our cases to the awaiting car. A stretched, black Mercedes with six doors wiped the smirk from the Boots-own-brand “London Look” fellow commuters in curlers, socks and sandals squeezed into a twenty-year-old Scania school bus for the ninety-five minute journey to Player Del Ingles.! The Merc’ did it in thirty-five minutes.

Villa Magnolias was a small resort of ten single-bed bungalows arranged around a rectangular pool in the Campo Di Golf area of Maspalomas. The electrically controlled entry gate was the only way in and out and monitored from a tiny bar that also served as reception. We were allotted a bungalow overlooking the exclusively male guests romping in and around the pool by a Belgian barman we christened Trevor, having established during check-in that his English was incomprehensible. Within minutes we were unpacked and at the bar behind a couple of pints of draft lager. Trevor did everything from reception to gardening and cleaning to cooking.  Nothing was too much effort but to the point of him being pushy warranting the door to be locked when taking a shower and sun tan oil being kept out of reach. Enjoying the discretion of a sympathetic surroundings removed the motivation to take the arduous daily hike to the beach.  We met some nice people and polite conversation within twenty meters of a well-stocked bar free from unremitting sand storms. Pete learned he could lie-in until noon. The sister resort of Villa Blancas, only two doors away offered a change of scenery and extended menu. Villa Blancas was a larger resort of some twenty or so bungalows and altogether, less exclusive. We largely gave it a miss. Socialising with the neighbours was a step too far!

Night life and eating out followed the pattern set since the first trip in 1999.

We followed up 2003 with the same thing in 2004. A young man called Wayne sponged off us for most of the week having fallen out with his own sugar daddy couple called Barry and Gary, on their first day in the Canaries. We knew Wayne from the Norfolk Arms in Attercliffe. He amused us. Barry and Gary new how to live it up! Their idea of a good time was an “all-you-can-eat” for five euros, buffet bar pushing out the boat in a restaurant on their final night boasting croutons in the soup and ”everything” said with a sweeping flourish of the right arm. Pete and I left a few days before the odd trio. Having deserted his sponsors on their first night, Wayne found himself without friends or finance. I loaned him a hundred US dollars and a few pounds to tide him over until repaid by his army officer boyfriend upon our return to the UK.

Peter had firmly established the February break in the Canaries as Pete’s destination of choice.  I, personally, could have given the place a miss…

Villa Magnolias was missing from the “Throb” brochure for spring of 2005. We made do with an alternative booking to the Villa Blancas with which we had become familiar the previous year when attending a dismal pre-carnival barbecue, rescued only by the joint antics of Wayne and Pete to wind up the “London” queens.

The ear splitting doorbell on the main gate announced the arrival of new guests and day pass visitors.  There was no respite for those attempting to sleep off an early morning hangover. A garden shed at the opposite end of the pool from the entrance gate served as reception and bar. Newcomers were obliged to parade pool side with bags in tow while freshly aroused, reclining, onlookers, took first pick of the new meat.

In his newly relegated role of doing-everything-demeaning since being demoted from the “Magnolias” now run as a straight swinger’s club, Trevor had failed to recognise us pacing towards him unsteady from our post flight cramps, mainly due to Pete’s characteristically close cropped blond hair having exploded into a mass of curls, resembling Sean the Sheep. 

Greetings were always familiar.

Grasping Peter’s face between a pair of beer stained, beef-burger scented paws followed by a simulated, if somewhat moist “Moi, Moi” to each cheek, he greeted us with the enthusiasm afforded to all guests having only paid the deposit and having yet to settle their bill.  As Peter’s hair parted under the squeegee effect of Trevor’s hands to reveal his tiny face beaming back with its cheeky familiarity he was met with the startled, wholly uncompassionate response of “Mon Dieu! “’as your ‘airdresser dyed?” wailed across the pool in the shrill, yet luxuriant French, Flemish accent  we had come to associate with the complementary hospitality at the Magnolias.

In his mid-fifties Trevor was no oil painting but at best, could be described as unkempt yet managed to hold onto an almost cute young Brazilian, half his age and which we were to believe had little to do with being sponsored for a European visa or being extended the same complimentary services enjoyed by a select few of Trevor’s loyal followers.

This was the last season for Trevor. Some said he had happily retired. Others reported that he had gone home to Belgium.

Bubble, Stella the dog an Peter doing lunch at the “Bear” January 2005… We enjoyed a regular table and they allowed the dog in for the digestive drinks …

V6 019 1 funeral and a wedding

Volume 6 part 019 Gone like the wind

Walter inconveniently died in 1994. 1993 to the Maldives was likely to be my last long haul without “dependents”.

Nadia, second daughter to Sister Josephine planned to marry in June of 1994. The wedding would be the holiday of the year and for Syb this would be the perfect excuse to hone her car-cramming expertise. From twelve-of everything-Royal Albert “Country Roses”- bone china, dinner, tea, coffee and Mocha sets to bridesmaid’s dresses, wedding attire, and the odd kilo of boiled ham the car would be crammed with everything and anything required to execute the perfect Italian Summer wedding.

Before being loaded, the car had to be emptied! Europa cars, In Sheffield, took on the task of renovating the eight-year-old Mercedes 560 with a complete internal and external valet. Walter had not looked well when we arrived in Sheffield but I put that down to having ridden as passenger to Ma’s driving to deliver the car that April Saturday morning. We travelled back to Matlock together in the Red 190E with Ma relinquishing her regular monopoly on the front passenger seat. Walter steadied himself on the dash all the way home. An ambulance hauled him away later that afternoon. He died in hospital the following week-end.

Joe flew from Italy to attend the funeral joined by a small contingent who had driven over-night from Aachen. After the Wake they all got a tour of the peak district. Three weeks later Bubble and I minus one of the key passengers, were on our way to a wedding set to rival Princess Di’s. The “Royal Albert Country Roses” survived the Italian pot holes. Syb filled the space left unoccupied by Walter’s demise with a two and a half thousand Euro shop for clothes as we passed through Garmische.

all dressed up for wedding when a submarine would have been a safer choice (june 1994)

The wedding was a wash out. It rained and then rained some more. The fashion was hardly “Italian”. The 560 SEL was the wedding car. I was the chauffeur. Bubble was relegated to an in-laws ancient, barely street-legal BMW. As the wedding evolved into a holiday we did all the same old sights including the mother-in law. Joe’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and my 44th birthday broke the monotony. Syb took back as much tat back to England as she had brought to Italy, raiding pottery shops from Gradara to Gabicce Monte and most places in between. Genuine pieces were matched pot for pot with knock-off Limoges cake stands and finger bowls of varying degrees of inept counterfeiting. With her husband dead hardly a month she had found a new resolve to spend! Having had him burned she knew he wouldn’t exactly be turning in his grave! The return drive was leisurely. We did Oberammergau for the first time, stopped over in Farchant, shopped in Aachen after a good night’s sleep at the Haus Press and took our regular table on the lunch time ferry from Calais back to Dover. Little did I expect we would be repeating the same route the following Christmas, or the following eight Christmas’s for that matter with the odd summer jaunt thrown in for good measure.

Andreas and Nadia (left) settong off for their honeymoon – Bubble, Joe, Enzo and the dog, Carla and Alessandro with Elena in the forground making up the sending off committee…

The Red 190E had been locked in Walter’s garage for safe keeping for the three weeks we were at the wedding in Italy. As it slid backwards from the gloom of the double depth garage the morning sun slashed the matt-black dash-board spot-lighting the residue of a collage of sweaty finger prints. Walter was still with us! His ghost had been incarcerated in the garage whilst we were making whoopee with the inheritance. “Autoglym” interior-restoration-polish completed the exorcism. I buried Walter’s ashes in a tomb in the garden. Three months later I traded the 190E for Landover discovery. I’d sold the flat in Sheffield to a Mexican and there was no point in keeping two cars at Cromford when neither of them could tackle a snow drift on the winter commute. Rather rashly, and in haste I softened the blow of trading a Mercedes for a lowly “Landover” by offering to take Bubble over the Alps to Italy for Christmas if it arrived on Time. It arrived on December the third. We left for Italy on the nineteenth!

My fate was sealed!

playing in the snow December 1994 – Carla and Joe

For the next decade, Christmas meant hauling crates of gifts wrapped in shiny paper, a myriad of household goods and the ingredients for half a dozen alternatives to Christmas dinner across Europe. We would have done Hannibal proud. A twenty six pound turkey takes two days to thaw when packed in a sports footlocker with joints of Pork and Gammon, two full legs of lamb, and a whole Salmon. Packed carefully and the thaw would be sequential and allow the Turkey to make an effortless and timely transition from tail-gate to oven. Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and two quality street tins full of homemade mince pies ensured we wouldn’t starve if we got trapped in a snow drift. After-Eight dinner mints, Paxo stuffing, baked beans, bacon and enough cheese to constipate Romania filled any voids potentially at risk of exporting British Fresh air. Over the years, Christmas presents ranged from leather Wing-back arm chairs and a Chippendale Roll top desk to Dolls houses by the pair.

By the winter of ‘99 the back seat was reserved exclusively for Peter. He accepted the invitation on condition he got to sleep when he wasn’t moaning. “Are we there yet” emanating from the middle of the back seat that started before we hit Luton, set the scene for the storyline to Shrek 2. Unlike the Landover, Peter didn’t stop whining even when we reached the Adriatic. Mitizi, the sole surviving Yorkshire terrier mostly travelled on Ma’s knee. On several occasions the dog helped herself to a bottom set of dentures left protruding precariously over Bubble’s bottom lip when she repeatedly fell asleep on the arduous drive with her mouth open. The kids in the back of the Alfa-Romeo in a traffic jam around Bologna thought this hilarious until Bubble surprised them by prematurely awakening just as the terrier was about to pounce. She paralysed them with the infamous “stare of death”. After all…. “She didn’t have false teeth”.

And that’s about as exciting as it got.

The ’94 trip had been a novelty in a two door version “Discovery Mk 1”. No matter how tightly packed nothing was going to be flung out of the rear cabin of a two door version.

The itinerary had been set on the assumption that wind and rain would further inhibit an already questionable tractor engine that would prove no match for a Mercedes. To the contrary, once wound- up there was no stopping the old Shire horse. Over fifty miles an hour and conversation was a possibility. Over seventy and the wind noise took over. Everything worked but worked on an industrial scale. Brakes, heaters, blinding high level headlights and a second gear-leaver to lock the wheels driven by an automatic gear box made for an effortless journey. The high ride gave the opportunity of picking a preference of which tree to hit should we come a cropper. Mobile phones at last allowed for “Roaming” with office queries interspersed with travel updates to Italy every few hundred miles. What a revelation! It would be years before the Mobile phone became an intrusion.

The dark metallic plum colour required repeated trips to the car wash but by the third visit the tiny Italian friend of Enzo who ran the local petrol station had equipped himself with a step ladder. Bubble mounted the front seat with the same helping hand used to shoe-horn pasta infused yokels into the rear seats. Nadia managed to rupture the spring on the self-retracting rear step on her first go. A Sketchleys coat hanger served as a temporary repair. The car’s capacity in snow wasn’t tested until the return journey home to the UK with heavy falls from the Alps to the Channel coast.

We largely matched the ’94 Christmas trip in ’95 but without the snow.

1996 and ’97 was a Green, four door version. This was my favourite. Half way between Modena and Bologna we lost a pound and half of smoked- ham when Bubble inadvertently opened the rear window mistaking the switch for the front window.

The orange peel she had hoped to discard made it all the way to the Pesaro.

At temperatures in double figures below freezing there was little sightseeing to be done in 1997. Irrespective of the three fur coats Bubble regularly travelled with, pavement cafes and strolling the Corniche were out of the question. Heavy snow-fall enhanced the excitement of a traditional and characteristic day trip into the mountains filled with family for a local lunch. The car performed flawlessly, ploughing roads and open fields in equal measure. In the blizzard none of us knew which way we were going let alone which side of the road was the right side of the road, or the wrong side of the road from a continental perspective.

Whilst having a haircut in a salon opposite the Rossini Theatre the following day, the diesel waxed in the minus twelve degree winds originating from Siberia ripping across the square on their way down the Adriatic. The barber had apparently conducted the Leeds Philharmonic amongst other garbled attempts at holding his only customer of the day ransom for a couple of hours. The car reluctantly started but refused to travel more than a hundred meters or so without cutting out. We hopped out of town. Stationary in a Landrover in the middle of a major intersection during an Italian, lunch-time rush hour brandishing a GB plate is not a sure-fire way to make friends and influence people. The IAC mechanic diagnosed the problem within seconds having to wait only forty minutes for the low loader to arrive. Automatics don’t like to be towed!  In forty minutes one can make an awful lot of enemies but just a few friends while taking refuge in a street side café over a cappuccino and brandy or two. The “winter, off- roader” was transported to a garage to thaw for the night. The garage was one of three main Landrover dealerships in the country, coincidentally and conveniently located in Pesaro and even more coincidentally managed by the neighbour of one of my new nephew-in-laws-to-be.

Over thirty centimetres of snow fell in the night. It was touch and go if we could rescue the Landrover from the dealership. A heroic effort in an Opel Corsa reunited us with the off-roader twice its size and gaining a tow in the process. Back at the flat we packed the tale-end and armed with de-icer additive for the diesel -set off for home via the Alps in heavy snow. Other than threatening not to start after a stop-over in Austria where the temperature fell to minus 20 degrees during the night, the car performed remarkably well. In Carpagne it had made its way up a ski slope. In the Hunsruck it overtook snow ploughs although on one occasion jumping out of gear and coasting onto the hard shoulder we managed to get buried by the very same snow plough we had just passed.  Sybille was still shopping!

For Christmas ’98 we made the crossing in a new Silver Disco’ with all the familiar pit stops of previous years. We took refuge in the Lambertz Cafe, by the Rathaus to avoid the winter cold and snowfall inflicting itself upon the Aachen winter market. They were playing Gorge Michal’s “angels Wings” over the entertainment system drowning out the carol singers in the adjacent square. I phoned Pete to give him a listen.  Peter liked George Michael.  Peter doesn’t like carol singers. We had been an item for less than three months but I missed him.

Winter ’99 was millennium madness once more in the Silver Disco but this time and for the first time joined by Pete for Christmas. After further “family Christmases” for 2000, 2001 in the Gold Disco and 2002 in the Dark Blue model he vowed “no more”. He cracked in 2004 when we made a festive ritual reunion in the powder blue model.

Meanwhile!…

In summer 1994 we had done the Italian job in the Mercedes for Nadia’s June wedding.

V6 020 Downhill all the way

Volume 6 part 020 roaring ‘90s road map

Joe, Enzo and Elena came to England for summer of 1995. Enzo had a desire to see Scotland but if he blinked he would have missed it. We did Scotland in three days.

Thr other side is Scotland

Day 1 we drove to Edinburgh and took lunch overlooking Waverly Park. I enjoyed haggis pie in a pub. By nightfall we were in Aviemore and checked into the only hotel with rooms.

Pitlochry
Aviemore

It had never occurred to me that we should have booked ahead out of the ski season. We dined. I slept while Joe and Enzo made use of the almost midnight sun conditions to watch rabbits playing on the lawns until the early hours. Day 2 was Aberdeen. Lock Ness and a night in Oban. The rain petered out just south of Fort William. We checked into a “Best Western” hotel, not because it was a good hotel but because of the Bau-haus-meets art-deco style. The accommodation was fairly rough compounded by having no sea view and extract fans from the kitchen firing up below my bedroom window at 4.0am. We ate at a fish restaurant on the jetty after watching seals playing in the harbour and stealing from the local fishermen. The return was via Morecambe bay for some strange reason. We saw distilleries at Pitlochry, stood under the kissing gate at Gretna Green, flew through Edinburgh, saw Ben Nevis but didn’t see the Lock ness Monster or get to go Grouse shooting. Elena and Enzo were respectively, most disappointed. The Edinburgh woollen mills di great business.

spot the “monster”… and Enzo fell asleep….

The plan was to repatriate the Italians by car giving Joe and Bubble the opportunity to catch up on relatives in Germany on the way. The week before departure a business commitment to resubmit a business case to the government for a new women’s hospital in Sheffield, intervened. They would get the ride to Italy but I would work in transit.

Cousin Finney did a barbecue comprising of potatoes cakes. Potato cakes and beer. She did a good potato cake, a skill learned from her mother who also knew “how to entertain”. The second eldest son, Gunter was deputised as beer monitor. He wore tennis players sweat bands around his wrists. Josephine’s enquiry, as to whether he had been attempting suicide was not well received. His protestations to have cut himself whilst dropping a crate of beer were altogether too emphatic. She had merely made a remark about sweat bands looking like bandages. “Me thinks he doth protest too much…” sprang to mind and not least since he was purported to have been the one who walked out on his girlfriend through a fourth floor window!

We stayed at the “Alter Wirt” in Farchant on the journey down to Italy but dined across the road at a regular venue for dinner. There was just a hint of declining standards. Sybille invested in even more fake Limoges that summer, we did the sites including my seconf trip to Venice where bubble hit the glass shops and came home.

Allesandro, Carla. Joe. elena, Nadia. Andreas and Bubble 1995

The summer of ’96 was a repeat and final “Italian Job” in the 560 SEL. Ma went ahead by plane while I went to Abu Dhabi to design a rehabilitation centre from scratch. Abu Dhabi is remarkably hot in July. I had left the car at Heathrow for the best part of a month. Within a couple of hours of touch down in London I was on the channel ferry and on the way to France. A black XJS fancied a bit of right handed sport. The last time I saw his exhaust pipes was leaving him standing, a mile or so after the first pay station. The next time I saw him he was hurtling along a parallel slip road connecting the A16 to the A28. Unfortunately, I, also should have been on the A16. Rouen is a hell of a detour if you are heading from Calais to Paris which of course should have been Rheims to miss the traffic!

Without a map I was fairly lost.

The suitcase was full of three piece suits, damp from the air conditioning after a month in the desert. Only an English man would wear a three piece suit in the Middle East in July! I had the foresight to pre-pack a holiday travel bag from which I retrieved jeans and a tee shirt for the onward journey. A road side motel at the back of a dairy farm provided the bed for the night. The landlady sent me on my way at six in the morning with a packed lunch and directions eastward. Her wry smile and a cheeky pat on the bottom, made clear that she was aware that I wasn’t wearing underwear. In my haste I’d forgotten to pack a spare pair for the journey. There is something decidedly horny about driving a five-point-six litre, three-ton, V8 at more than a hundred and twenty miles an hour when you aren’t wearing underpants. I arrived on the Adriatic in time for join a gathering of the Bartolucci clan for “tea”. I was still not wearing pants!

Going “commando” has its complications, the most common of which is a zip fly. Fortunately, “501’s had buttons. By the time my favourite pair of jeans hit the dustbin, old-age and incontinence had done the rest. Dressing knickerless is a young man’s game. I guess the Adriatic adventure had been all the same as the previous twenty or so holidays.

In October 1996, Syb traded-in the ten-year-old 560 for a brand new silver Mercedes S320 with automatic self-close doors and double glazing. It arrived for her birthday in October of 1996 and just a week before the wedding in Aachen of Berbel’s daughter, Rita.

The M5, M25, M26 and M2, first time in the tunnel and a clear road from Calais followed a detour via Weston-Super-Mare where I had attended an interview for a lottery funded Helicopter museum. Anyone staying the night in Weston-Super-Mare should probably avoid the Best Weston. We checked out before we had checked in. The helicopter scheme was a long-shot in that the practise had little expertise in designing Museums other than the National Museum for the UAE, and particularly one’s for rotting whirly-bird carcasses playing house to the local rabbit population. We left Weston Super Mare around lunch time, arriving in Aachen for Dinner at the Haus Press.

The wedding ceremony in Aachen was a church affair in a protestant chapel near to the Central Railway station. Berbel was the former girl-friend of Cousin Willie. Willie had been dead since ’91 and his father since ’94. What a great opportunity for Bubble to be seen arriving despite scarcely knowing anyone else at the event other than Cousin Karl-Heinz who is Berbel’s brother-in-law. Bubble supposed that Karl-Heinz was sure to be at the wedding and where he was, his mother Sonia would be in close pursuit. Being seen making an entrance in yet another new car, was sufficient justification for Sybilla to make a thousand-mile round trip to attend the wedding of the daughter of a German xenophobe with an express hatred of all that was English. We arrived in a timely fashion and grabbing a conspicuous parking space at the foot of the flight of steps leading to the West Entrance. The car attracted the requisite attention, not least due to inadvertently taking the spot reserved for the wedding car relegated to double parking on the pavement of the Ibis Hotel across the street. Regrettably, Sonia was nowhere to be seen.

The bride was a big girl in a back-less dress. At the alter she took her place beside her Arian fiancé with the polish name. As she descended to her knees a beam of sunlight, searing through the Rose Window within the South transept to her rear, struck her exposed flesh with sufficient ferocity to explode a pig at a Ku-Klux-Klan hog roast.  The husband-to-be was half way down to his knees, catching the full force of the flash. The low level reflection up-lit up his nostrils like ruby coloured lava lamps. He was to be commended for not high-tailing it back down the aisle there and then but fearing the presence of the devil incarnate the priest had already started the committal ceremony.

Not until the closure on the automatic, electrically assisted air tight doors of the three and a half ton Merc with its double glazed side windows had us firmly cocooned did I subside into uncontrollable laughter. Syb was in a state of shock having suffered a momentary loss of vision rendering her incapable of seeing the funny side.

…but then again she rarely could see the funny side of anything! We attended a rather primitive wedding buffet choosing to give the evening event a miss. Conversation had dried up between Bubble and Sonia before the cutting of the cake.

For summer of 1997 Joe came to visit. Elena, Nadia, Nadia’s husband Andreas and their first offspring, Sophia tagged along. A seven seat “Disco” can come in handy but with limitations if luggage is involved. The trip to “Oasis” near Penrith was a two car affair. A long week-end in a stylish chalet, in the heart if a Cumbrian Forest would be complemented by sailing, swimming and horse riding. 

Dignity was in short supply that year.

The massage and aroma therapy proved to be a welcome treat until I fell asleep in a plastic deck chair by the pool in the Astra-dome with the asymmetrical weight distribution causing the rear legs to snap triggering me to be publicly hurled backwards through a synthetic palm plantation.

Nadia lost her bra on a water slide.

The horse riding afternoon had us bobbing down a dirt track clinging onto a herd of recently broken pit ponies and resembling a bunch of “Thellwells” riding cactus suppositories. The head-gear would have complimented a 1938 Nurnberg Rally. Joe ran alongside baby Sophia acting as stabiliser to ensure she didn’t fly headfirst through the thorn tree hedges lining each side of the rutted mud slide. Flip fops aren’t designed to aide running through mud. 

Having to solicit the assistance of two twelve year olds to peel me out of an undersized wet suit was the final depth of after spending half an hour on the floor of a sailing dingy avoiding the mindless behaviour of the untamed bottom boom and the other half hour underneath a capsized boat which paled into insignificance in comparison to the hoots of derision emanating from the shore line, directed at my svelte profile clad in shiny black vinyl. Contrary to popular mythology, “black” is not sliming. Elasticated black vinyl not only resists the body-parts attempting to defy gravity but when it’s not driving dangly bits into conspicuous places its attacking any and every orifice that might remain undefended. According to one of the witty twelve year olds, I was well past being an impersonation of the “Michelin” man, resembling more accurately a bag of potatoes trying to escape a piping bag. The boys tore at neckline with the same enthusiasm employed in ripping a Band-Aid from a hairy arm pit.  In a single coordinated attack I was forcibly peeled to the waste from the shrink wrapped wet suit resulting in me being savagely slapped by both free flailing arms whilst the recoil sent the two boys flying backwards through the changing room door where they were exiled for the remainder of the extraction process. It was left to Andreas to get the rest of the full cover, life-sized condom passed my knees. To add hurt to injury the whole sorry adventure was caught on video.

As always, restaurants provided the high spot of the weekend, commencing with a Chinese banquet during which a barely walking Sophia thought it appropriate to do a strip going berserk in nothing more than a nappy like a remake of Chuckies Bride. We managed a steak house and a pub meal which was fortunate as we returned home via Morecombe and Blackpool which are both hardly famed for their culinary delights.

If I did a “Centre parks” again I’d know to take rations as for the most part the place is self-catering.

It transpired that a malfunctioning gear box preventing Joe from reversing the “Disco” out of the chalet driveway was a two ton boulder strategically placed in the soft landscaping to protect the pedestrian footpath. Engaging “Drive” liberated the trapped vehicle which shot forward leaving part of the back bumper as a souvenir for the dumbstruck neighbours who narrowly missed losing their front porch and part of the veranda. The assault on their trash can was hardly worth the animated response.  One finger would have sufficed in retaliation. Italian heritage was little excuse for exiting the country park on the right hand side of the road, particularly as she was supposedly following the lead car, driving on the left!

S320 first outing to Italy – 1997

The week before setting off to Italy for a late summer break, an unexpected work commitment arose yet again. After safely delivering “Bubble” and with only a day in Pesaro, Enzo drove me to Bologna airport for a flight back to the UK via Heathrow. Trains and taxis got me to Cromford for about four in the morning. I slept in. It was Bank Holiday. Princess Di was killed that night. Joe knew before me and rang early to tell me so and thereby ruining my siesta.

I did what had to be done in the office in Sheffield followed by a couple of days in London to sort out a project with a partnering practice based in Knightsbridge. The memorial flowers submerging Kensington Palace brought on an attack of hay fever sufficient to impact on the Friday morning’s board meeting , either that or the consequences of the previous evening spent in Soho celebrating a successful conclusion to a design completion for an Emergency Hospital in Zurich.

The office arranged the car to take me from Richmond to Heathrow. I was still hung over when I boarded the afternoon flight back to Bologna but sufficiently awake on landing, to hire a little Lancia for the return drive to Pesaro to be repatriated with Bubble and her Mercedes.

I watched the state funeral for the Princess in a beach bar located next to the abandoned Children’s home.

Italy was becoming so passé that I have little recollection of what happened in 1998 although we have photos to prove we went. I do recall the year when a guy in lime green speedos spent a lot of time preening himself on the beach to an ever-increasing gaggle of voyeurs. His self-admiration knew no bounds. I was most impressed at the young man’s cat-walk confidence. He was there to be seen and “be seen” he would! We came upfront and personal when the police called me off the beach for parking on the sea-front boulevard being cleared to make way for the “Giro D ’Italia”. Under the gaze of an unforgiving crowd of spectators I gingerly approached the sliver barge, resplendent in all its shininess in the midday Italian sunshine. The lime green youth was in the beach bar sat on a moped. He couldn’t fail to miss the GB plate on a Merc the size of a small 747 diagonally parked conspicuously in splendid isolation on a previously thronging, double parked one way street. I sheepishly returned to the car accessing from pavement on the right hand side. The boy’s attempt to upstage back-fired when a “wheelie” sent him backwards, skyward into a sun awning and his bike sideways into the passenger door of a presiding police car. His dismount from the canopy was a quality “five-point-nine” yet failed to impress the lightly armed, extremely agitated traffic cop. A tactical retreat was called for. Regrettably, the street artist wasn’t seen again.

All motorways were finished. All borders were gone. In less than a generation we had dispensed with green cards, petrol coupons, customs posts and passport checks. Credit cards replaced the need for monopoly money issued by a half dozen national banks. Soon, the Euro would provide common currency for bars, tolls and tipping. Belgium had discovered sign posting and Italy fairly level tarmac. Germany failed to discover speed limits. The French had reluctantly discovered Calais and with a little persuasion from the EC and shed loads of hand-outs had connected the ferry and fishing port to both Paris and the Belgian border. Long crossings to Ostend and Zeebrugge to take advantage of the motorway link to Brussels after half a night in a bunk bed became distant memories almost overnight. Without easy targets at Belgian traffic lights, the Irish had stopped shooting at us.

From Calais there are a choice of routes to the Adriatic.

Heading south is supposedly the quick route to Italy but you face the French road tolls and also draconian speeding restrictions on par with the rest of the civilised world. France is also full of the French.

Heading North East to do the dash through Germany, offers the option to turn off the coast road at Dunkirk towards Lille or head further North to catch the AutoRoute from Ostend to Brussels. The concrete pave road surface has long gone and with it the rhythmic osculation of the overloaded suspension bouncing in time with the double beat from front and rear axles as the tyres rode the expansion joints occurring with the frequency of a Victorian train track. Remaining straight as an arrow with unrelieved boredom for the full flat, meander-less journey, the formerly two lane dual carriageway has largely been converted to three lanes doing away with the need to switch all lanes with the aid of manually operated lift arm barriers into alternate single direction travel during national holidays.  Making use of the hard shoulder might have been better use of Belgian ingenuity.

We developed a preference for the Lille route to avoid Brussels. The motorway creates a ring road around Lille on par with the Paris “Periphique” but on a smaller scale and altogether less bloody. The signage jumps out unexpectedly so don’t bother switching lanes after joining the new main road after “gate seven”. You’d be in and out like a monkey’s two stroke orgasm. Following the signs to Brussels to miss out Brussels is a locally devised initiative-test but quickly give way to the signs for Mons and in quick succession, Liege. Resist the temptation to assume that the signs to Charleroi are the correct detour to avoid the Capital unless you want to come up behind a vintage Hillman Minx you had passed at twice his speed forty-five minutes earlier!

Liege was once a city you couldn’t find or when you had found it, you couldn’t leave. Now, you can fly right passed on a motorway where there is really only one way to go. The Belgians had never been big on signage, probably fearing a third world war and being trampled on by a timely neighbouring jack boot flattening yet another seasonal crop of prize poppies. My text-book starter pack in speaking French during the 1961 attempt to escape Liege got us nowhere with the Belgians other than to raise Walter’s blood pressure to a level rivalling Krakatoa in full eruption. I blamed the reciprocal incoherence on the discovery that half the population speak Flemish assuming their French to be worse than mine but also in asking for directions to Aachen when, to this day, .the Walloons call the place Aix-La-Chappelle. So much for European harmonisation!

Other than that the tarmac is much smoother and that the lane painted markings are pure white, reaching the sanctuary of the Federal Republic of Germany is hardly noticeable.  It is a lifetime ago since the border guards checked passports offering advice to turn-around whilst you had the chance as snow drifted under an already clogged front axle.  It is longer still, since visas were waived but the boot and glove boxes still checked for contraband butter and coffee. The former border post is a now a motorway service area.

Timing is everything. The roads North from Calais are largely toll free. If you tank up in Dover you don’t need to spend anything in either France or Belgium other than the exorbitant cost of the increasingly frequent pee stops that go with old age and blood pressure pills. Generally, French toilets out-smell British toilets and rarely offer soap or discretion. Both German and French toilets demand a ransom for prisoner release with Germans using the extortion to keep their facilities spotless. Italians resort to what amounts to a prisoner exchange scheme through the imposition of turnstiles which swap one going-in for one coming-out usually involving pre-bought tokens, the proceeds from which disappear more efficiently than flushing an EU grant.  Austrian toilets are so much more civilised benefiting from highly rated hygiene standards maintained by underpaid migrant workers uninitiated in the art of extracting protection money and rarely more than a few metres away from a portion of fresh apple strudel served with a generous dollop of surprisingly unadulterated  free range whipped cream.

Immediately following the border crossing, East of Liege, the turn off for Aachen is signposted “Brand”. Avoid the temptation to head for Aachen “Centrum” to access the city by motorway as this entails heading half way to Cologne and back. The road through Brand has always felt like going home and takes us North, along Trierer Strasse, past the old homestead at “133”, down the hill veering left at the swimming baths where shockingly, uninhibited strangers showered naked and after which Walter bought us “Twei IKA” because he couldn’t pronounce “Zwei Eis” in German, then onto Kaiser Platz before overnighting in a choice of hotels on Peter Strasse just beyond the “Quellenoff”. We stopped using the family-run, Haus Press in Upper Brand after the booking screw up in April 2003.

We’ve come a long way since the penny bus ride from school to the Ripley market place, a week at Butlin’s and sleeping on Oma’s couch.

From Aachen, the road to the Adriatic is simple. Head out to the east bound motorway that starts on Europa Platz, approached from town via Julicher Strasse and turn right just before Cologne. Head south up the Rhine Valley on the West bank, cross the river near Ludwigshafen, and fly straight through to Heilbronn. Turn right to Ulm and then left to Munich along the Stuttgart Motorway. Before Munich take a right to Garmische and a few miles of urban traffic. The highway through Garmische leads via Mittle-Wald to Seefeld and in turn, over the mountains to Innsbruck. The Seefeld stretch is a relief from Motorways and gives a last chance for a bit of shopping and topping up with fresh ham and home pressed pastata even if you don’t intend to stay the night. Down a steep hill into the valley of the River Inn and up the other side via a motorway, it’s across the Europa Bridge, straight through to Brenner and the border between Austria and Italy. The customs queues and curious border guards are history but, curiously the money exchange on the central reservation has survived. Leaving the mountain pass characterised by a winding road peppered with alternate tunnels and bridges, just south of Verona, the road across the Po Valley to Modena is flat and straight and marginally less boring than those in Belgium due to the erratic confrontation between Italian cars and East European trucks.

Buuble’s favourite stop over – Brenner Pass Decemebr 1997

At Modena, marvel at the lack of Ferraris, turn left to Bologna, survive the ring road heading east with caution due to average speeds now approaching the low “Hundreds”, to ensure filtering right at the Moretti brewery. The Moretti brewery was once named “Prinz Brau” on the theory that German sounding beer would sell best. Fortunately, the original, enormous brass brewing vats remain a landmark, visible from the motorway through four storey high glass walls, and thus averting an involuntary detour via Ravenna the year that the signs changed.  Attention! …Don’t miss the Moretti brewery otherwise its straight through to Ravenna and Ravenna is not a place you want to be.  From the Moretti Brewery, it’s straight all the way to Rimini where the motorway hits the coast mutating into a rattle snake of twist and turns. Within a few miles south of hitting the coast, the exit to Pesaro is skilfully disguised by a tunnel approach giving some 800m to change lane and throw out the parachute brake.

Easy! Pay a road toll with a small mortgage and arrive at your destination desperate for a brandy or two and the occasional new exhaust pipe or timing chain.

Forget trying to use the Karlsruhe and the Stuttgart bit of the German Autobahns. Far too many commuters. As an alternative to Garmische there is always the Fern pass via Kempten but the journey is usually longer. Give the motorway via Salzburg a miss as it’s tolled, always busy and such a long way around the mountains.

December 1998

There were so many summers coast to coast with Calais to Pesaro regularly in the same day or via Mont Blanc in around twelve hours. Winters were an altogether more sedate affair.

The French “connection” is Calais, Paris, Lyons, Dijon, Chamonix and Monte Blanc, by-pass Milan using signage for Alessandria, Bologna and don’t forget the Moretti Brewery! Downhill all the way! Somewhere along the line avoid the temptation to succumb to poor signage by steering via Turin. It’s always rush hour in Turin. Remember the advice of the traffic cop dressed in a facsimile of a Boy Scout uniform who stopped me for speeding in 1982 that going via Luxemburg is not a sensible option and possibly avoid a two-hundred Deutch Mark, or equivalent Euro fine in today’s money.

The tunnel under Mont Blanc is a marvel when it’s not practising self-cleansing through mass incineration. Geneva is pretty and if you park in the Bank on a corner overlooking the lake you can exit through a rear door to do a little shopping whilst the attendant thinks you are still inside doing some wheeler dealing… He graciously assisted me in offloading my bags of booty and Toblerone into the boot of the ever-so oversized, hand finished Mercedes 500SEL with the conspicuous GB plate mounted back and front for good measure.

Peter and Bubble – Farcahnt – December 1999
Christmas day Italy – 1999