Saturday 23 July 2011


Dark Lady had a birthday the other week. So the brains were wracked as to what would be a suitable gift for someone so young and discerning.  With presents I have always found the easiest way to work our what is best and what would be most welcome as a gift is to listen to their conversation; many unconscious tips can found in everyday discussions (this is as opposed to dropping clonking great hints in the vain hope that these will bear fruit come Birthday or Christmas). 

Maybe this is why my whispered "Lamborghini Lamborghini Lamborghini" or "aeroplane aeroplane aeroplane" have so far proved fruitless. I say so far because, although my birthday came and went with this fabulous laptop (on which I am writing this blog), Christmas is but a few short months away (as you will discover in a couple of weeks when the fake snow appears in the Arndale Centre, as the Elves start to build the grotto ready for Santa to inhabit from the end of August until early March next year) so maybe there will be something parked in the street with a ribbon round it which pertains to something I have muttered into the DL's sleeping ear.
So...what to get her.  Whilst I was puzzling and thinking back to all those conversations we have had over the last few weeks (they usually began, as I recall, with her asking me something like: "Another drink, dear?" or "Another helping?" or even...actually, I am not going there in a public blog.)
The children beat me to it with the best gift of all.  Tickets.  DL loves music of all kinds and has broader taste than me.  So she had muttered something about wanting to see Take That on their current arena tour and - for some reason - I must have overlooked that.  I think she may have broached the topic and I had doubtless - in my usual charmless way - retorted, "What do you want to see some aging boy-band for?"
As her birthday happened to be on a Saturday, the night of the gig, it was family and friends BBQ time. Lovely people turned up in the back garden, including ex-husband - and the children's father - Barry.
People often ask if we "get on".  The answer very simply is, "yes," and I like him very much.  He is also a man of many talents notwithstanding his ability with a BBQ.
At my place I have a BBQ.  However, it is a cheaters' device as it is a gas powered one.  The one at the DL's house is good, solid, old-fashioned charcoal.  This separates the men from the boys.
I have tried over the years and have always ended up with under-done sausages with over-done chicken.  Although occasionally I have managed to create under-done chicken with over-done sausages.  If everything is going well though, I can cook up a feast of sausages, chicken, burgers and shrimp.  All either over or under-done.  Just stipulate which and it's coming up!
Barry has no such problems. On goes the charcoal; a fire-lighter or two later and the food is being shovelled onto plates and shovelled into mouths.
"Does this not make you feel less of a man?" people ask, the ex-husband taking surely your rightful place as man of the house at the BBQ?
In a word: No.  I would far rather watch people doing the work and eat the results than stand around in a comedy apron sweating whilst all around people talked among themselves and enjoyed the fruits of my labours.
I imagine the job of the lone BBQ-ist is akin to that of the cocktail pianist: You give your all for your arts and everyone talks all the way through and ignores you.
Wonder what the serial killer rate is among background musicians.
Burger-ed to the brim, it was time to cadge a lift off Barry down to Wembley Stadium.  I had to remember to be on my best behaviour and not act like a sullen adolescent.  For in truth - and the Dark Lady knew only too well - I am not a big Take Thatfan. I had to be positive, happy and smiling, although without that faintly creepy edge you get when you are stopped in the street by beaming religious zealots in dark suits asking if you are "happy".
Producer Dr Strangelove said he was going, although we thought the chances of meeting up with him in a stadium that seats 90,000 or so was going to be a bit of a tall order.  He suggested we went there and back on the London Underground.  However, as we are in North London and had a free lift it seemed more sensible to us to get a lift there and order a cab in advance to collect us at the end.
Many of the DL's mates had been and said that most of the action took place by the walkway between the main stage and the island stage way out in the arena.  So we elected to see if we could worm our way to the front as DL and I are not the tallest; I have mentioned in previous blogs how annoying it is at standing room-only venues to see anything with a lummox or two plonked in front of you blocking all available light and view.
We did a little worming but frankly it was obvious that this was a hiding to nothing and, whilst I said nothing and beamed so as not to spoil anything, DL noticed my bottom lip trembling so we grabbed some seats near the side of the main stage. 
In fact we had a great view and what shortcomings there were were made up for by the huge screens.
We also had free tap water courtesy of the security.  Result!
Pet Shop Boys were the support act and did a greatest hits set complete with dancers/backing singers dressed like hybrid Lego/Humans. They were spectacularly camp and given Strangeo's love of all things of this nature, I sent him a text asking him if he was enjoying the show and where was he...
Interval time and all that free water had gone straight through me so I headed off to the khazi.  Everywhere I went the Gents had been turned over to the Ladies and long queues stretched around the block.  Eventually I found ours.  In I went and discovered one other bloke in there.  Then it struck me: we were dealing with a boy band here.  So 99% of the audience were women and of the remaining 1%, well, there may have been the odd bit  of uncertainty, hence the tone of the applause.  I wondered why it sounded like high-pitched shrieking!  Bit like a kids' party where Boko the Clown has just accidentally bitten the head off one of the doves he had hidden in his huge comedy trousers.
On came the band and the screaming started in earnest.  "This could be a long evening," I thought as I beamed at the happy DL's radiant face, hoping that I wasn't spoiling it for her with some half-understood passive aggressive body language.
Two tunes in and I was hooked.  They were great.  I am still not a fan of their music but the show was spectacular.  The lads came on without Robbie at first, did a few tunes, then on came Robbie Williams.  I am told he suffers from stage fright and this means he adopts a rather bizarre persona which involves a lot of hectoring and totally unnecessary swearing.  He came over as a bit of berk, frankly. 

Then they were all on and the shrieking reached an even greater pitch.  They did all the hits and for the doubters, such as myself, they were totally professional and well-drilled,  each number was choreographed with spectacular effects: explosions, great sheets of flame, fake snow effects and an enormous robot which stood up and moved into the centre of the arena.  Reminded us a bit of the robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Friend of mine recently saw Kylie Minogue and also commented on the high quality of the effects.  Cynics can argue that this takes away from the perhaps poor quality of the music, but frankly we went to see a show and that is what we got.  Certain things demand certain procedures.  Explosions flames, dancers and a 100ft robot certainly worked for Take That.
An evening of Lute classics with Julian Bream would probably not benefit from having the maestro lifted up and spun round on a gantry at the Festival Hall..
It was an exhilarating evening and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dark Lady could sense I was too as we filed out of the stadium in search of our cab.  We found it and then sat in traffic for 2 hours taking us the five miles home.
Dr Strangelove said he had no difficulty getting back to his place after, although it was considerably further than we had to travel.
He has been strangely silent about how he managed it.  Putting two and two together as he was in the VIP section he probably travelled back with the band or by helicopter.
This may have something to do with his new status as an "executive" which I will touch on in my next blog.

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Sunday 10 July 2011


After a night in Mesquite and another night in a Casino watching people struggling to enjoy themselves (and by the look on their miserable faces, failing), we set course back to San Francisco.  Having seen the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film, Paul, about two nerds who find an alien in the desert, we knew what to expect when we arrived here.  We were wrong; it was deserted. Totally geekless and try as we might - despite skirting the Van Ness airbase - we saw no sign of aliens, military activity or even the famed Area 51.  I am sure conspiracy theorists would have a field day.  My view is that - due to the invisibility ray that the US Government have obviously been given by the Venusians in exchange for halting the Space Shuttle programme - mere mortals, without the special implant, can't see the base!  (Wibble tweet!) 

The road went on forever as we crossed the basin, eyes peeled for even the slightest glimpse of anything out of the ordinary. 105F heat as we headed for "Warm Springs". A big mistake dawned on me as I checked the hotel booking reference when we stopped for lunch at a diner. The Warm Springs we were headed to was a ghost town.  The Warmn Springs where I had booked the hotel was, erm, actually in Georgia!

 DL is used to my ways and didn't even bat an eyelid when I told her that if we wanted to go to the hotel I had booked in Warm Springs, it was over 1,900 miles away so it would be a rather a long day. So we carried on until we hit Tonopah way up in the mountains which boasted "America's best sky-watching". Think they meant stars rather than anything alien. Although, judging by the looks we were getting from the locals in this half-horse town, struggling to survive now that the mining had long since ceased, we may as well have just parked our capsule outside the town's only bar. We headed for the Mexican restaurant which was the only other thing open. Swore we heared banjos playing as we tottered back to the motel full of beer and refried beans awhile later. Not too much of a while as everything shut at 9pm!

Hot footed it out of Tonopah and headed for familiar territory, Lee Vining (which was one of the first stops on my very first American Adventure back in 2007), the Gateway to the Yosemite National Park and situated on the shores of Mono Lake.  Last time I had stayed in a guest house which smelled of coffee and cinammon.  Nice, but I shared a bathroom.  Not something that I wanted the DL to endure.  She would have been fine with it but I wanted something special.  So via the internet I had booked us into the Tioga Lodge.  Overlooking the lake, each room was an individual cabin.  The website boasted a "Saloon" as well as a fine restaurant.  When we arrived we were informed that the Saloon and the restaurant were not open for the season yet and they had not bothered to mention this on the website; as it would opening in a few days it didn't seem worth it.  We checked out with dire mutterings from the manager about cancellation charges.  We pointed out that they were selling something that wasn't actually available to us so frankly this was mis-representation.  Popped in to the tourist information centre which also doubled as the Chamber of Commerce where a very nice lady directed us to a motel across the street which was opposite a fine bar, diner and restaurant.  She also sympathised when we explained about Toiga Lodge and revealed that ours had not been the first complaint they had had about the place.

Bright and early next morning we headed for Yosemite National Park. DL had wanted to see this so much. Rather than hire a Sat Nav we bought one in San Francisco before we hired the car. This actually worked out cheaper than hiring one with the car. Plus, we can use it again on future visits.

We swung right out of the car park headed down the hill past the Tioga Lodge. Thumbed our noses at it, skirted Mono Lake and starting climbing. Fairly soon we were seeing snow capped mountains and the 105F of the previous day was a more managable 66F.

"I'm sure we are going the wrong way" said the Dark Lady.

"Nah, GPS definitely said turn right"

"It just seems that where the sun is we are heading South rather than West."

"Nah, just the road takes the easiest route through the mountains"

"Perhaps we should ask someone"

"Well, if you insist," said I wearily stopping at a Ranger station.

A couple of minutes later I exited having spoken to a very nice and clued-up young man.

"Well?" asked the D.L

"Er, seems we should have turned left, not right, out of the motel parking lot. Erm, the GPS was obviously finding its bearings," I muttered sheepishly.

"So how far off-track are we?"

"Well, the entrance to Yosemite was 150 yds from, er, the motel, apparently"

"How far are we from our starting point now then"?

"Er, 25 miles"

"So we will have added 50 miles to the total journey as a result of you turning right instead of left out of the car park?!"
"Looks that way"

"Well the scenery has been spectacular so it will be amazing to see Yosemite when we get there"

Now you know why I love this woman so much.

We retraced out steps and carried on climbing, reaching around 10,000 feet above sea level. 55F the Sun was shining and the views took your admittedly-rather-thin-breath away. We were above the snow line at the end of June and the ice was still two-feet thick in the lakes.

Sonora was our next stop, and a wonderful creaky old hotel with verandas overlooking the street along the front of both storeys of the hotel. Each room had his and hers rocking chairs and a table outside.  The skies had darkened as we left Yosemite and, as we wandered hand-in-hand down the street of this historic old town, the heavens opened.  When it rains in the US, it really rains.  We hid in a doorway until it abated for a couple of seconds and rushed into a rather elegant French-themed restaurant.  DL had suggested we splash out a little and insisted she was paying.  We squelched into the place which was pretty popular so had to wait a couple of minutes before a table became vacant.  Like many small towns they roll up the streets at 9pm so we only had about 40 minutes to eat.  The food was good and I plumped for the meat loaf ("plumped" is a word favoured by restaurant critics).  It may not seem very French, but there were other more Gallic dishes on offer.  I fancied some vegetables so meat loaf it was.  Only slight hiccup in the plan was there was no potato left as it was near closing time, so I had to have the nearest thing: spaghetti.  Let's face it, starch is starch!  Oh, and the other, I set light to the menu.  It was an honest accident! I had it open and didn't notice that one corner was dipping in and out of the flame.  We doused it before we were flambee'd.  (Told you it was French themed)!

By mid-afternoon the following day, we were back in San Francisco. We wanted to have a full day to relax and do some more sight-seeing, as well as having a bit of a walk. The road trip had been great fun but you tend to forget your legs work after a few days despite us having a swim most evenings when we checked into a motel with a pool, which most had. Checked back into the original hotel from whence we had started ten days before and I went to return the car. Because we had upgraded from the Eclipse to the muscle car that was the Camaro, there was some more to pay.

"Er, Sir, your card appears to have been stopped"

Itchy fingers clutched at my heart. I knew I had enough money on the card as I had secretly booked some concert tickets earlier that morning online whilst the DL was abluting.

The lady behind the counter patiently went through a lengthy telephone conversation with my bank.

"Yes, he is here with me now. Yes, it is him, his passport and credit card signatures do match, yes. Yes, as you say his date of birth and other information is accurate."

She replaced the reciever looked at me and said: "I am sorry, Sir, your bank say they won't unblock your card!"

So, purpled faced with embarassment I called the Dark Lady and she came rushing down with alternative cards and cash and beads and gifts of furs, fire, water and anything else we thought was needed. Another card went through without problem.

I was furious. Needless to say the helpline for my bank never answered and their website was not functioning. I tried the card in the ATM in the hotel; it was refused. A few minutes later I tried it again. It worked!

Since my return I have had a rather testy exchange with my bank who claim there was never a stop on the card and they had no communication from the car rental company whatsoever. So who to believe?

The following day we set out on a nice long walk round the city. It is a great place for walking (despite the hills). The heat is bearable and the views are magnificent. We went to the Castro district, which is a famous gay hangout. We had recently watched the film, Milk, with Sean Penn who plays Harvey Milk who became the first openly-gay Mayor and was promptly assassinated. We photographed the sight of his camera shop and had a late breakfast at "Harvey's", a streetcorner diner and by-night comedy club. As we were eating the waiter wafted up to us and aksed if we would like a drink as a man at the bar wanted to buy us one. We were puzzled but politely declined. I wondered if it was going to be a scene from Indecent Proposal and the guy wanted to sleep with the Dl for $1m. Either that or, as we were in the Castro district, some desperate bloke seeing me wanted to do something similar!

When the bill came the waiter told us that the fresh orange juice had been paid for by the "gentleman at the bar".

We went over and there was a bloke about my age. His name was Mohammed. His sister worked as a nurse in London and he had the softest hands I had ever touched. We thanked him and asked what had prompted his generosity?

"You look such a sweet couple"

We floated out of the place on gossamer wings. What a superb gesture. We had noticed how kind folks were in San Francisco. Further down the street I turned to the DL and asked, "Do you think he meant 'You looked such as sweet OLD couple'"?

The final night and the final surprise. I am a hog for surprises and I love watching the Dark Lady's face when I spring one on her. In Sonora, I had been having a sneaky peek at what was moving in the City on our final night. DL had met a guy in the laundry room of the hotel who had just moved from New York and was saying how, even compared to the Big Apple (see, I am practically a native!), San Francisco had more culture.

We had meant to go down to have a look at City Hall and UN Plaza before we set off on the road-trip part of the holiday, but didn't have time. I suggested we walked down there and, as we strolled gently past legions of bums (San Francisco does seem to have a terrible homeless problem, never seen it as bad anywhere else), I gently pointed out that we were on our way to a "cultural event".

I guided her gently up the steps of the opera house to the doors where the posters announced "The Ring by Richard Wagner".

You know only too well I can't abide Opera and DL is not a fan either.

"Here we are I said...culture"!

"Well if you have tickets for it I am sure it will be wonderful," she said, bottom lip trembling slightly.

"Actually I thought it would be better if we crossed the road to the Symphony Hall to see the San Francisco Symphony."

DL has as broader range of musical taste than myself; although not a Classical music fan I do like a good orchestra. This one was even better as they were backing Pink Martini who I have played many times on the show as part of "Lesters Library".

They were fantastic and had a whole host of music guests including Ari Shapiro, who is the Washington Correspondent for National public Radio, who came up with a wonderful gag which I shall steal next time I make an appearance anywhere and Joey Arias. To call him a drag act would be a disservice. He was dressed as a bloke and his forte is singing in the style of Billie Holiday. He did "You've Changed" and brought the house down. Mid-way through the song he stopped and said to the audience:

"I know what you're thinking....yes I AM!"

It was the perfect end to a perfect holiday. Although there was one more surprise to come....

We had most of the day to kill on the Friday as the flight didn't leave until 7pm. So we wandered around. Had breakfast at Mel's Drive-In on Van Ness. Good old fashioned diner although it wasn't a drive in. Food was excellent. Service was incredibly slow, mind. By the time we had finished there was time for a gentle stroll back to the hotel to collect our bags and wait for ther cab to arrive.

When it did we had lucked out! (Or is it lucked IN. Never sure about that) they had no ordinary taxis left so they had to send a stretched limo for us.

I told them I suddenly felt very famous.

It was an all too-short drive to airport and, as we handed over the fare (including a generous tip!), we thanked the driver and her companion for their hospitality and the Chauffeur said to us: "It is a pleasure driving such sweet people"

There we go again. "Sweet old couple"!!!

Sunday 3 July 2011


Here's a few snaps from my holidays...

First day in San Francisco and we bagged a couple of superb seats on the cable car from Powell St to Fishermans wharf.  We did big breakfast with the best Orange juice we have ever tasted.  Sea Lions, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge on a boat trip round the bay. Then we did a long walk around the City in the sunshine.

Saturday night and to the Oakland Colisseum to watch the "A's" play the San Francisco Giants. Near capacity family crowd. Home and visiting fans all mixed up together.  Giants fan shouted "A's suck!" and was told to stop being rude by nearby spectators. Football fans note. This beats sending bombs to managers of opposing teams.

Collected the car. Managed to swap with another couple who thought that a Camaro was going a bit muscle too far! They had the Mitsubishi Eclipse and we had this beast.  Yaaay!

Headed down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Big Sur. Stayed in a coastal bar/motel/shack. Reminded us of the film The Fog and The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Bar/Restaurant crammed with bits of driftwood and dead whale. Chowder was ace.

Across Death Valley in 118F heat. To Las Vegas.  Booked into a casino and were upgraded. The new room had a water leak above the jacuzzi. So upgraded again to a suite with a bigger Jacuzzi as well as a full kitchen and laundry facilities and a huge sitting room with L-shaped leather sofa and marble topped table with seating for 6.  The suite also boasted 5 TV sets including a pub style overhead projector.  Dark Lady lost $1 in a slot machine so our gambling spree started and ended there! 

Left Vegas behind and headed east.  Blew into Williams (this is what you do when you don't have a reservation).  Fabulous one horse town on Route 66. Now the interstate has opened it is a backwater.  Arrived just in time for a Wild West evening. Lot of shouting and shooting.  Fabulous BBQ then on to a bar the walls lined with shot stuff. When you live out in the sticks. Guns are obviously one of the only sources of entertainment.

Boggled at the Grand Canyon then drove through the heat to my favourite location, Monument Valley. "The View" is the only hotel in the National park.  Owned and operated by Navajo's, it boasts Native American cuisine and no alcohol.  So nothing to dull the senses.  Set the alarm so we could wake in time to watch the sunrise.  This is what we saw from the balcony of our room. Already a week had flown by.