Thursday, 15 October 2015

My failed stand-up comedy career

What Tinky Winky taught me about audiences with a smoking gun
© Steve Palmer 2015

Flyer from 1994 - Includes Dave Thompson and yours truly
The Bearcat Club in Twickenham was the second worse place you could perform as an aspiring stand-up twenty years ago. The club’s website says that these days it’s one of London’s best-loved comedy venues. Not to me it isn’t. It’s been gut-wrenching even looking the site up. I never want to go there again. I’ve no idea if it’s still the second-worst one to play or whether Up the Creek in Greenwich still has that dubious honour.

The Bearcat. Back in the 90s, they had professional hecklers, who sat in the front row. These people said things to the comedians that the audience behind them couldn’t hear. But the performers could. The hecklers got the volume just right.

It was terrifying.

So. The open spot. Try-out. Open mic. The bit in the show where newly-starting-up comedians got their five minutes. Like an apprentice gladiator being thrown to the lions, it was rarely a level playing field. If you pay £30 to go and see Michael Mcintyre, you’re going to want to enjoy it, including to justify the expense. And I hope you do. However, as the try-out in a line-up of several comedians, you’re fair game.

The night I did the Bearcat, Dominic Holland, who I’d spoken to a couple of times at gigs and who was very encouraging and helpful, went on stage and stormed it. If you stormed the Bearcat you were a professional comedian who was not only funny, but who also knew how to control an audience. Holland had them eating out of the palms of his hands; and cheering from the rafters.

Then it was my turn.

No. I don’t really want to talk about it. Except I will. A bit. I wasn’t funny. The audience humiliated me in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined. I’d much rather see my trousers fall off in Piccadilly Circus. I was, of course, relieved to get off. They’d had their pound of flesh. I’m almost in tears writing about it.

So: why? Why did I do this awful thing? A hobby as a stand-up comedian on the try-out circuit? Well; it all started when loads of people fell off a stage during a student play.

Stand up and be counted

Bradford University. 1983. A musical, which was a tribute to Scott of the Antarctic, with the bizarre but perhaps imaginative title of ‘Scott bears all in polar regions.’ For some reason, the producer thought I was funny and got me to do five minutes of stand-up. OK, I was billed as ‘The worst comedian in the world’ but I could hardly sue under the Trade Descriptions Act. 

Rehearsals went OK. We were due to perform in the Communal Building; what everyone called the Commie.

Ah, the Commie. Fond memories of appropriating barrels that were destined for the Beer Festival; then rolling them down a grassy verge that Bradford students will know well – it starts at the library and Shearbridge Green / Bradford Halls, and swoops down towards the Commie. The barrel-rolling, and other larks, were played-out with my friend Ian.

Ian couldn't resist, every time he was in the vicinity of a phone, picking it up and shouting: "Get me the White House. Brezhnev's still dead." The reference to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, recently deceased, would get me laughing every time.

Ian and I got to introduce John Cooper Clarke, the poet. Not this time at the Commie. This time in the Great Hall, no less. The story goes that we were on stage in front of 2,000 people and were enjoying getting ‘air time’. All we had to do was to say a few words to introduce the great punk wordsmith. We stretched the concept of ‘a few words’ as far as we could, hogging the limelight. We just talked and talked to the audience. Because we could. It was great. 

Apparently Clarke then said: “It looks like I’m already x!*!x well on.” And then started making his way onto the Great Horton Road. He was dragged back. We were dragged off. Short of getting one of those curly sticks and yanking us from the stage, we were dispatched to the sidelines.

The social secretary was a guy called Neil Smith. He was always suspicious of me and Ian. With good reason. In 2013 I discovered him online and he was very generous, and funny; and he was so forgiving about our misadventures from the 1980s. Because Ian and I were right wind-up merchants. I had to break the news to Neil that Ian had died in 2006.

Old friend

Ian was killed on his motorbike and I saw him on too few occasions between the end of university and the day he died. Ian would have been my consultant for this chapter. He didn’t mind being embarrassed; he stood for university president on the ‘criminally insane’ ticket. And nearly won. He wound up the political student types. I said in an article I wrote for the BBC Bradford / West Yorkshire website: “Ian’s love of life and ‘no strings attached’ approach to friendship liberated me.”

At the funeral, the crematorium building was packed with people and they needed to use both rooms. I obviously went to the ‘overflow’ room, not being close family or having any pretence to being a regular friend to Ian any more. Then: “First up to remember Ian is his friend from Bradford, Steve.” 

I had to run at breakneck speed around to the main crematorium area where the service was being held, as the truth dawned that I was to be the first to speak. Ian was having the last laugh on me. So I arrived, breathless, taking gulps of air as I was about to start talking.

And there was Karen, his wife; and his three young boys. And his extended family. And loads of friends. And I’d come prepared to talk about how Ian and I used to muck about and treat life frivolously. A bit risky, I suppose, being first up to speak. But then I thought: “Sod it. It’s what he would have wanted.” This might have been deeply embarrassing but I went for it and talked about how we ran amok on campus. 

Stupid things like going into the Union shop and pretending to get the wrong end of the stick. We asked for onions. Silly things like organising a speed-eat-all-you-can halls of residence dinner. Ian did it in four minutes, 20 seconds. 

Childish things like jumping over the postbox on the Great Horton Road that was still, when I was last there, slightly at an angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then I looked up and wondered if they were about to all chase me out of the crematorium. 

But folks at the funeral were appreciative, because they all knew what Ian was like. Of course, there were many more, important speeches, but I was glad I was able to celebrate Ian’s zany approach to life. 

Ian. Thank you. As your best man, Simon, said on the day we said goodbye to you: “Shine on you crazy diamond.”

Staged disaster

Anyway; back to the Commie. I was playing the part of the failed comic in the Antarctic romp. And I was a minute into my routine (OK, perhaps it’s best to describe it as a ‘bunch of terrible jokes’) when I heard an almighty smashing sound behind me.

The Commie could be used for discos, gigs and shows. And a raised performing area was assembled for the latter two. Actually, this ‘stage’ was really just a bunch of glorified and rickety trestle tables that constituted a performance area. On this occasion, as I stood there, behind me some hastily-erected polar scenery was swaying. Then the stage buckled and the entire cast – there were loads of extras – fell about four feet onto the floor. One guy broke his leg.

The audience burst out laughing, not knowing how gruesome it all was back there, because the falling scenery shielded them from sight of the full carnage. But this was my moment. Sensing just the right amount of pregnant pause, I grabbed the microphone in its stand and said: “Well, you can laugh.” 

Appalling. What a wasted opportunity to get a bona fide laugh. But I couldn’t think of anything else in the heat of the moment. It got a moderate chuckle. Yeah. Thanks. 

Somehow, though, my appearance as a stand-up was encouraged. That summer we took some theatre productions to the Edinburgh Festival, and ‘Gandhi: The Panto’ was going particularly badly. We were filmed for Joan Bakewell’s ‘Pick of the Fringe’ on BBC2 and so my first ever TV appearance as an artiste was as an extra, dressed in a dhoti, walking bearfoot in the streets of Edinburgh. 

But the same guy who cast me in the role of comedian in the Antarctic escapade suggested that I repeat the exercise in Edinburgh to ‘save the show’. Talk about high expectations. So, I did a routine and I can’t remember if it was OK or not. Actually, I was probably crap.

Not as crap perhaps as when, back in the Commie, we performed ‘Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street’. As the policeman, I had to shoot Sweeney, played by a guy called Alex. The gun wouldn’t go off – there was a firearm malfunction - and instead I had to stab poor Alex with the broken gun, much to the delight of the audience, who fell apart. So did I…

And then I forgot all about stand-up. And I left university…and grew up a bit.

Mid Nineties

But the urge returned. I had been in a career job for a few years and I was just about to get married, so perhaps I was having a 30-something ‘life crisis’. Working in the travel industry had its benefits, but day-to-day on the desks could be dull. And I started thinking of trying to do stand-up again. 

A friend, who hadn’t just messed about with theatre in Bradford like I did, but who went on to be a theatrical big-wig, was down in London. She encouraged me to do something about the comedy bug. It was 1992.

A few months came and went and I did nothing about it. Until my stag do. We were in a pub in Crouch End. I knew that they had comedy in the basement every Saturday night but this was the last thing on my mind as I sat there with devil horns on, with writing across my forehead in lipstick and with party streamers dangling down. And I was wearing a plastic fireman’s helmet. 

Suddenly, at about 10.55 pm, as the comedy evening downstairs was coming to an end, I decided it would be a good idea to go down there. In disbelief, my stag friends followed me, and arrived in time to see me grab the microphone from the compere, who was winding up the evening’s entertainment. I pushed him to one side. And I told a joke from hell. Remember; I was near the end of my stag do and the joke sort of mumbled out. A drunken spilling forth of an inaudible punchline. 

But it had an effect on me.

Typing this, I’m sitting in a bar not far from the venue where this happened, reminiscing about my first ever gig. It was a crazy, wild and impetus thing to do and the worrying thing is, it wasn’t the least embarrassing or awkward at all. At that point I had no fear of being on stage. 

Then I started doing stand-up properly. Oh dear...

Tinky Winky’s school of comedy

Mrs Steve had seen an article in the Observer about a stand-up class at Jackson’s Lane Community Centre in Highgate. She wishes she hadn’t. I enrolled. We were lucky to have, as our tutors, the likes of Andy Parsons (a regular these days on Mock the Week), John Hegley the poet, and Dave Thompson. The Dave Thompson who also doubled-up as Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies. 

The ‘students’ all tried out our material in front of each other. Wow; the egos in that room. We were taught microphone technique – it’s very important. You don’t want to fumble before an expectant (or non-expectant) audience. We all encouraged each other. It was like therapy. But, ultimately we were on our own, as our own agents, to book our own gigs and to try to make audiences laugh.

The thing is that the first time I did a gig for real I was funny. It was actually at the same venue as the comedy course – Jackson’s Lane. There were about 15 people in the audience but they all laughed. I was terrified. But, according to family, that petrified look apparently makes me come across as funny. So I thought my golden new career was about to take off. All I had to do before a gig was to work myself into a frenzy of fear; and then shit myself. 

But once I started getting into the zone and trying to take on an audience, it was like I became a machine and so I lost that look of terror. And, on top of that, my usual outward-going personality seemed to abandon me on stage as well. After that first gig, I sort of lost my mojo and never recovered it. So my success didn’t last long! Psychologists would have a field day. Anyway, after that, I can’t say I ever really enjoyed myself as a comedian. Apart from one gig. But read on…

I’ve calculated that between the early summer of 1993 and January 1995 I did about 200 gigs. This was on top of the day job. One hundred and fifty shows went OK. Pretty non-descript. I even humiliated a heckler once. Result. Of the remaining fifty, forty were pretty disastrous. That leaves ten. 

About five were abysmal and about four were so bad that I find it totally awkward and humiliating writing this. This included the Bearcat Club.

Do the maths and you’ll see there’s one gig left. More of that in a moment. Because that was good. That was very good.

First though, some lowlights from those bad gigs: I was ignored by a bunch of students in Harrow, who snogged each other through my act. Mrs Steve was there and when I came off stage, she was so upset she had to be consoled by a very nice Rhona Cameron. I asked my sister to a gig once and I was appalling. I won’t get that time back again. 

My try-out slot at the Comedy Store was everything it shouldn’t be. Lee Evans came into the changing room and was very encouraging, but it didn’t help me. I was shocking and the compere rubbed salt in the wound, afterwards coming up to me and telling me that he thought I was terrible. I’ve harboured a fantasy that somehow he was trying to beat me down and that it was his way of waving off the talented up-and-coming opposition. But now I think it was because I was just crap and because he was just a nasty person. Name withheld.  

If the audience were revolting and you did badly, at least you could say: “Tough crowd.” But once I drove to somewhere in Surrey and they were lovely. And I was terrible. The audience were so kind that they were actually embarrassed for me. I found that experience much worse than being booed off. I also drove to Brighton and the gig was going OK with the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of. But one section only of the crowd really turned on me and I’d had enough. So I shouted at them and stormed off, despite that section being in a minority. I knew in my heart, though, that the whole venture was coming to an end.

But there were some amazing evenings. A guy singing “Only You” whilst wearing welding goggles; an American comedian shouting, in reference to the London Underground safety messages: “Mind the gap. YOU mind the gap.” However, I never saw the farting comedian, Napoleon Blown Apart, and that’s a major regret.

And one hot summer night Mrs Steve joined me for moral support at this pub in central London. The pub, like many others at the time, used its upstairs room as a comedy venue. But this one was different. It billed itself as London's only smoke-free comedy spot. This wasn't a lie; every other venue was really smoky. Your clothes always stunk after a gig. Now, at the time, lots of people liked smoking, and so no one came to this particular gig. The audience no-showed. I don't think the organiser even bothered to turn up. But another performer did.

This other comedian sat outside the pub with me and Mrs Steve, waiting and waiting. We had a pleasant enough chat but he was affecting lots of different accents (comedians are often 'in character'). Then I realised that his hair was skew-whiff, and that in fact he was wearing a toupée. In the end, this up-and-coming comic ripped the rug off and threw it on the wooden table for comedy effect. In his normal, London voice he proclaimed: "I've had enough of this." He said goodbye and walked down the road, proudly bare-headed. 

That performer was Matt Lucas and he’s gone on to bigger things. Well, that wasn’t difficult; there was no one there. But you know what I mean. 

What was in my act? I really just told crap jokes and didn’t feel that I ever had a chance to work on a persona, as there was always another gig coming up shortly – so I wrote more crap jokes, that weren’t funny. These days of course, I live with a son with a learning disability and I’ve got a blog and book about it to draw on for material. But I wouldn’t want to do it now. Now perhaps I’ve got the material but not the desire. Twenty years ago I had the opposite. Damn. 

I’ll tell you about that great gig in a moment, I promise. The chapter’s almost over. The punchline’s coming. But first, to a fantastic evening when I got gonged off after about 40 seconds. Yes. It was great. The Gong Club was at least what it said on the tin. When the crowd had had enough of a comedian, they went “woooooooo” until a crescendo moment forced the Gongmeister to rattle that gong. I had my own beautiful gong moment – it really was quite liberating – and then foxed the audience afterwards by telling them that I loved them and by doing an encore. How did the promoter let that happen?

But what the promoter did was to put the gong victims up in the first half and then have an established comedian do a set in the second. That night, Harry Hill was on, and he was so kind and generous to all the comedians. He turned up in his comedy bubble car and we all had a really good chat in the waiting / changing / shit-yourself room. A fond memory and something most people don’t get to do.

Highbury high jinks

So. To that night. I was set to do the Hen and Chickens in Highbury and Islington and my desire to continue this comedy hobby was seriously waning. So I felt more relaxed about the whole thing. And remember Tinky Winky? That’s Dave, who had that other career as a Teletubby, and who was also one of my comedy teachers. I once spent a great afternoon in his flat, with another new comedian; we organised for Dave to give us a private titter tutorial.

Dave was great company and he also gave us his view of what stand-up really is. Yes, you have to be funny but, crucially, you have to be able to control a crowd, like Dominic Holland did at the Bearcat. And Dave went further. He talked about the ‘loaded gun’. The idea is that a crowd want blood. And they’ll let the gun off if they smell that blood. So, Dave reckoned, even the most established comics can struggle if they are on at the wrong time in the running order.

It was, at the time, a cut-throat world and sometimes a bit harsh, and dare I say it, nasty for the sake of being nasty. It was you against the world. Dave Thompson advises that some people who run comedy venues are: "Proxy comedians”.  ’ve spoken to him recently and he tells me: “If you succeed, they suck up to you and bathe in your status. If you fail, they play power trips with you. They like to see comedians humiliated at their venue. They feel it raises their status to see someone, who tries to be creative, lose status publicly. The audience picks up on this vibe, and the gun in the room is manifested.”

I was once approached after a gig by a couple who said they thought I was funny, but that because everyone around them was out to get me, they felt they couldn’t laugh. They said that there was a ‘comedy fascism’. They came up to me specially to say this and it’s perhaps one of the kindest things any stranger has ever done for me. Imagine that happening.

And, that night at the Hen and Chickens, in October 1994, it was carnage. Relatively established comedians were close to getting bottles chucked in their direction, and the loaded gun was more like a gatling gun let off its moorings, with every comedian getting rudely booed off. About four of them in the first half, which didn’t last long. The audience were merciless.

And then it was my turn. First up after the break.

I tried a couple of jokes and got nowhere. But sometimes unexpected things happen in life. They didn’t boo me. They’d done their booing. I thought about what Dave had said and realised that the gun had gone off. It was now simply smoking. This was my chance. 

The day before, a man had broken into the lion enclosure at London zoo and was chewed to pieces. I said: “Sod it. This morning, on the tube, I wrote these jokes about the bloke breaking into the lion enclosure. Do you want to hear them?” I got giant appreciative cheers. They actually wanted to hear my crap jokes. And so I got a piece of paper out of my pocket and read these awful puns out. Jokes like: “Before they ate him, they had a pair of teeth”. Actually, that’s the only one I now remember. Aperitif. Get it? Well that audience did, and they laughed; so there.

I’m typing this on the same tube line where I wrote those jokes, about twenty years after the event. Fond memories. Because, at that gig in 1994, they practically carried me out on their shoulders. One guy asked when I was next playing. I tried to explain that if I’d had gone on earlier, I’d have been treated like the enemy within and he would have hated me. It was probably the moment when I realised that I definitely didn’t want to do this anymore, because Dave was right. 

Audience-control is important. And I don’t find that particularly exciting. But I enjoyed that one night.

The evening got better. After I was on, this act called Jimbo performed. Now, I’ve checked online and there appears to be at least two other comedians with the same name. But this is a story about the Jimbo I saw that night in 1994. Meticulously researched, this essay.

Jimbo never spoke. He always went to the microphone and went as if to speak, but always got distracted and that was his act. His mouth opened; nothing. Another attempt; again, nothing. He was often distracted by one of his props, which he examined in close detail. I’d seen him do this several times before, but on this particular evening it was hilarious. 

The audience, by now tamed to being mouse-like recipients of any comedy, loved it. If he’d have been on any earlier, they’d have swallowed him up.

Jimbo did the whole ‘I’ll speak in a moment’ routine; but then he took it one stage further. He flung open the back door fire exit, leaving his props on the floor, and then boarded a 73 bus. The audience were still laughing as he took off on the bus, and as he was clearly visible sitting on the upper deck.

Cassette carnage

About a year ago I took all the audio recordings I had of me doing stand-up and listened to them (in anguish). Then I then pulled the tape out of the cassettes, and placed all the bits in a bin outside Baker Street station. I kept one small recording, captured just after I’d started off as a comedian. The tapes had to go.

And all I’d say is that I feel sorry for comedians these days. You get to be heckled, not just whilst performing, but also after the show. Going onto the Bearcat’s website, I saw this on their ‘latest tweets’ feed: hi I really enjoyed your set last night at the @Viaductpub @bearcatquiz but I think you could've done jokes 5 & 12 better...

Funny ha-ha. And funny peculiar. And funny awkward. Bloody awkward. But what a night in the Hen and Chickens in October 1994.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Family

A bumpy ride in childhood on the ground and in the air
(c) Steve Palmer 2015
Singapore in 1971
Wikipedia describes the ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ series as a collection of humorous novels of children's literature concerning the escapades of J.C.T. Jennings and C.E.J. Darbishire; schoolboys at Linbury Court preparatory school. 

But to me, they were evil.

When we were kids, my sister Chris and I went to boarding school. From 1971 to 1975 our parents lived in Singapore. Chris and I were in different schools in the UK and we only saw each other in the holidays. Not good. And I was encouraged, by the school, to read about Jennings and Darbishire, who were also in boarding school, but who featured in stories from the 1950s. So, it was even more draconian and depressing than the real thing.

And it was a strange childhood. We were a family of ‘expats’. Expatriates. Those that have gone to live abroad. As expats, we were members of the Tanglin Club. Opened in October 1865, its website says that for many years the Tanglin was one of the “pillars of social life in Singapore, for successful members of the European community.” This is embarrassing to think about now because in the 1970s we were segregated from Asian people. Not that any Chinese people wanted to go to the Tanglin Club, I’m sure.

These days we shop in Aldi and fly on Ryanair, but when I was eight until I was 12, I was a member of a club that wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in the British Empire. I’m sure there was even one of those hessian fans that gently wafted warm air around. Not that Chris and I cared. We were there for (a) the swimming pool and (b) the tuck shop.

But actually getting to Singapore. Well, that was another thing…

Wobbly journey

I still think it was challenging to expect your kids to get on a plane and fly out to Singapore when they were aged ten (Chris) and in my case, eight. But as an adult, I’ve had therapy. No; it was a challenge. Especially when no one had told me what airplane turbulence is. No one. Nobody. Not a jot of pre-flight information on that one. Nada.

The first time I ever went on a plane had a big effect on my future airline travel experiences.

So it was 1971. We flew to Singapore and the first leg was from London to Rome; and there was bad turbulence. I thought the plane was going to crash and shouted, really loudly, words to that effect. My sister was with me on that occasion and I think was so totally embarrassed about my reaction that she’s blocked it out of her memory. She says she can’t recall the incident. I can. “We’re going to crash and we’re all going to die!” A bit dramatic. I was eight. Oh; I’ve already said that.

Even now, I’m no good with turbulence. My brother-in-law Andrew has explained about different types of clouds and how turbulence doesn’t just happen when it is, per se, cloudy. But that incident prepared me for a life of what the family like to describe as me possessing ‘sweaty palms’, because my hands do get clammy for take-off.

There are some YouTube videos that can help - but they don’t help me. Although, Mrs Steve and I had a very frightening incident flying from Costa Rica to Houston – the plane was sent careering off course, twice, during ‘clear air turbulence’ – there were no clouds. People in front of me were all propelled towards the ceiling in one big Mexican wave. And, afterwards, part of me felt it was actually quite comforting. For all the times that I’d had irrational fears of turbulence, here was the occasion when my fears were correct. A stewardess broke her arm. It was the real deal. I felt justifiably terrified.

Isn’t it amazing what an incident at an early age can do to someone? And how it can mess with them forever and ever and ever…

Horror ship

Alton Towers. 1985. The day I discovered that I’m terrified of – no, scrub that – allergic to, pleasure rides. A day out with Girlfriend Steve (as was), plus her sister Ruth and Ruth’s then boyfriend (now husband) Andrew. Soon I was on a big dipper, being carried upside down and around and feeling my heart leave my mouth - and then getting suspended in the air. However, the thing about a big dipper is that you can at least have some concept of when the ride’s going to end. So in a way, the big dipper was nothing.

Because then we got on a ship. Yes; a ship that was a ‘pleasure ride’. This ship went back and forth, leaving you with a feeling of horrifying whole-body discombobulation. And not an end in sight. This time, my heart was hovering above this pirate ship, as if the evil spirit of a treasure island character was about to snatch it away. And I turned into an eight-year-old boy, screaming for my life at the enforced and totally unnecessary turbulence.

And Andrew thought it would be hilarious to turn round and tickle me under the neck and to, you know, keep reminding me of how terrifying it all was. This made it 100 times worse. I screamed and screamed – the ship went back and forth, back and forth – and then I screamed again. Actually, it was worse than turbulence. That pirate ship was a silly, stupid, ridiculous terror machine.

Anyway, after it stopped I felt particularly relieved, but then I felt queasy and then I had to have two weeks in bed; with vertigo. Never again. I’m shaking now thinking about it. The others had a lovely time and bought some candy floss.

I think I'd better leave right now...

In the summer of 1982 the Headmistress from my sister's school retired. The family were invited to the leaving do and it was chance to look back on our rather strange childhood of expatriate living and bumpy rides. 

But the do wasn’t our ‘thing’. There was a stage. Another dais if you like. It had potted plants, classic drapes and frilly lampshades. It was as if my Grandmother had kitted it out. I quite expected to see her 78 record player there. And there were three instruments: A cello; a piano; and a violin. My sister really hated one thing about her childhood: Her cello. She had to lug it everywhere. Mind you, it meant that she always got a lift everywhere from our parents, whereas Muggins here had to always get the bus.

So my sister hated the Headmistress’s event because it reminded her of a life and a cello she thought she’d left behind; and my Mum hated it because it was like an afternoon in my Grandmother’s flat, where the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to tick very loudly because we’d run out of things to say. Personally, I was just bored. And, anyway, this recital was only set to last an hour and a half.

Then, some perfectly charming and nice older ladies came onto the stage to play their instruments, with the Headmistress appreciatively sitting in the front row. It must have been members of the music department who were providing the entertainment.

Anyway, it started. All went well. But it reminded me of Hinge and Brackett. Hinge and Brackett, for those too young or too disinterested, were female impersonators. Wikipedia describes them as follows: “Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket were the stage personae of the musical performance and female impersonation artists, George Logan and Patrick Fyffe. Active in theatre, radio and television between 1972 and Fyffe's death in 2002, this comedic partnership entertained the public in the guise of two elderly eccentric spinsters, living genteel lives in the village of Stackton Tressel; and seemingly celebrating their former ‘careers’ on the provincial operatic stage.” Just Google them. Or don’t.

And then it happened. I leant over to my Mum and whispered: “They remind me of Hinge and Brackett.”

Mum giggled.

Chris laughed.

I giggled. It was infectious. Before we knew it we were stifling laughter, bodies shaking, tears running down our faces. All at the Headmistress’s leaving do. The woman who had given so much to this school and who was presumably appreciating the style and manner of her send-off, had, a few yards away from where she was sitting, a family of extremely ungrateful Palmers, by now shaking their shoulders and desperate for the show to end so that they could go outside and get the laughter out. And then we laughed more. And more. We laughed for most of the 90 minutes.

Have you ever been placed in a situation where, to laugh would be the most inappropriate thing? It was excruciating and funny. Excrutiatingly funny. And pretty awkward. So many emotions; so much value-for-money. We were waiting for it to end so we could go outside and laugh properly. But, of course, by the time we did, we couldn’t laugh any more.

Penny drops on the Tube

But, writing this in 2015, I’m on the Piccadilly Line and it’s hit me like a bolt from the blue what was really going on in that room. As a family, we were split asunder in the 1970s. I lived in the same country as my Sis but only got to see her on holidays in Singapore. We were placed in boarding schools and in many ways they were formative years. Example: I go to gigs and other events on my own. Why? Because, from an early age, I had to learn that the person who I could most rely on……was me. No one’s blaming anyone. I’ve had therapy. 

Mum still feels terrible about leaving us, but Dad’s job prospects were worse in the UK than the great offer he had to work overseas. And it’s made my bond with my sister strong.

But, I’ve just realised on the Tube, and wow, what a moment (welling up – slightly awkward) that what happened at Chris’s school was a moment when the three of us had a good laugh at the whole boarding school experiment and yes, stuck two fingers up at it. I’ve now realised it was a moment when the tension broke and, quite frankly, we didn’t care what anyone thought. It was a golden moment with my Mum and Chris.   

Don’t you want me baby

So I blame my parents. Oh, get over it Palmer. My family was unbelievably close once we’ve survived the Singapore experiment. I even got to actually live with my sister from 1975-1980. And then she went to University. And I was there at her 21st birthday party in Oxford.

It was 1982 and Human League were in the charts (although my sister thought their hit was about unwanted pregnancy: “Don’t you want my baby?”). Chris’s coming-of-age party saw Mum and Dad do that thing where they came along to say hello for the first half hour. We were all desperate for them to leave. These days, our kids wouldn’t allow us to be there. Too embarrassing. So, in a way, my parents were lucky to be present.

My sister’s friend Mark was on the DJ decks, pretty impressed with his own selection of music, including cool bands like Scritti Politti. And Dad said something disparaging about the music. Mark should have put two and two together and realised who this middle-aged couple were, and then realised that they were my Mum and Dad. Instead, he shouted: “Well, you come over here if you think you can do any fucking better, mate.”

To my Dad. To. My. Dad. Let’s not talk of this incident again.  
Although, let’s keep it activity in the early eighties and move from Oxford, to Rugeley in Staffordshire. Let’s talk about Mrs Steve.

Midlands mayhem

Mrs Steve was at a dinner / dance. They were all the rage as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love topped the charts. Mrs Steve and her sister Ruth grew up in Rugeley.

Rugeley isn't well known. The town probably doesn't see the producers of property programmes turn up and do up people's houses. There was always Dr Palmer (no relation), the Rugeley poisoner. Or, as Wikipedia describes him: ‘William Palmer (murderer)’. Anyway, he was hanged and it sort of put Rugeley on the map; in 1856. It's been pretty sleepy ever since. So, we were watching the comedy 'Raised by Wolves' recently; set it Wolverhampton, the single Mum goes out on a less-than-glamourous date and, on her return, says rather ironically: "He took me to Tesco in Rugeley - and back."

These days the town hosts a massive Amazon depot; across the road from the power station. A sort of old days / new days snapshot of modern Britain. Mrs Steve freely admits that until her sister - Ruth’s - husband Andrew turned up and started to take them to clubs and gigs in Birmingham and Stoke, her social life was pretty mundane; it was either house parties, the social club at the power station or a conference suite at a nearby hotel. Edgy stuff.

This hotel’s function room had to have a shiny parkay floor.  It was mandatory. Or should have been. It was the eighties, after all. At a sixth form party in the function room, in front of her peers, Ruth went to the loo and returned to the table, only to turn on a heel and go arse over tit on the heavily-polished floor. Everyone laughed. The entire sixth form. Then Mrs Steve went to the loo and, on her return, did exactly the same thing. Arse. Over. Tit. Everyone laughed. Again. It’s the sort of déjà vu development that sisters don’t ever want repeated. They were forever remembered as the sprawling pissed sisters. But they weren’t pissed. They were just unable to negotiate that slippery floor in heels. 

How dare I write about my wife embarrassing herself? Well, for the record, she saved me. Have you read the book (or seen the film) One Day, by David Nicholls? I was Dexter. I was in danger of turning into a right royal wanker. And this book would have been five times bigger; it would have been an encyclopaedia. To stop this happening, all Mrs Steve had to do was commit to spending the rest of her life with me.  In return, I’ve embarrassed her on a daily basis. X.

Rich world, poor me

Around the same time as the Staffordshire slip-up, down in Hertfordshire, I was becoming increasingly upset and frustrated by what was happening in the Third World. I was idealistic and determined to do something about how the rich world was worried about petty things…when people were dying in developing countries. So I did something very radical and joined the Welwyn-Hatfield branch of the World Development Movement. I know. Edgy stuff. Except when I arrived for the first meeting, at someone’s house, with people who were all probably at least 20 years older than me, I said the wrong thing.

Instead of saying: “I’ll take my coat off”, I mistakenly said: “I’ll take my clothes off.” Well, it wasn’t that kind of meeting, in a house full of people that, I would, at the time, have described as ‘middle aged’. It was, though, like a premonition of events at the massage parlour thirty years later. I’m not sure I went back to another meeting. And I didn’t save the world.

Also circa 1981, I went around with a condom in the pocket of my jean jacket. Looking back, that’s a really embarrassing memory. I mean, really: jean jackets? Well, it was 1981 after all. It got worse. I tried to buy an album at J and J Records, Hatfield and could only recoil in horror as, instead of a five pound note, I produced that (still unused) condom out of my jean jacket pocket by mistake. I think the shop assistant, who was aged perhaps five years older than me, laughed mainly because the condom looked like it had passed its sell-by date. I think the outer wrapping had worn down to the rubber. Which Hatfield girl would pass up a chance for some action with me? I wanted a girlfriend. I didn’t get one.

Going swimmingly

Back to family life. I’ll finish this chapter with a story from around the time that I was writing the draft of my book about my son Stan, ‘Down’s with the kids’. I like to go for a run at lunchtime once a week. Occasionally though, I pick up a sports injury and I have to go for a swim. This one time, I was determined to get from my desk at work to the pool and back within an hour. I hopped on a Boris Bike (one of the shared cycles you can rent that are scattered over London).
 
To succeed, the mission involved running from the cycle drop-off point to the pool and changing in double-quick time. All so I could prove a point. The trunks, I have to say, felt a bit tight. I swam up and down, had a shower, got dressed, ran to the bike rack and was back at my desk. In 59 minutes. Result.

When I got home Mrs Steve quizzed me on the trunks. They weren’t mine. They had to be my eldest’s. Harry was fifteen at the time, and it was slightly inappropriate for me to wear them. Yes? But no; it turns out they were actually my youngest’s trunks. Stan was twelve. And they had hardly covered me – anywhere. I was in such a rush that I didn’t notice.

The pool I go to has historically been one where quite a few of the clientele are very fit - and good-looking - gay men. Now; I’d put on a few pounds due to my injury and subsequent lack of activity. I must have looked like a desperate fat old man in a mock g-string, on the pull.  Of course, my family made me re-enact the event, a number of times, with Stan’s trunks on, much to their mirth. I’d imagine the masseuse from chapter one would have whipped them off in a second, although she may have had to use a can opener.




On our travels

Broad-minded house-hunting in Sydney and broad bottoms in Sudan

© Steve Palmer 2015

Kenya, December 1990
BTK – Before the kids – Mrs Steve and I travelled. A lot. As soon as we finished uni, we were off. We spent a year in Australia and then travelled back through Asia. I then spent eight years in a travel agency. We climbed Ayers Rock, ate grasshoppers in Mexico and stayed in a hotel in China where the cockroaches staged a sit-in to complain about conditions. Yes. We weren’t tourists. We were proper travellers.

Take the issue of going on safari.

Not for us some unnecessary and pompous luxury camping trip with fine dining. In Nairobi in 1990 we signed up to go with a company called SAVUKA, who offered a discount tour of the Kenyan game parks. I seem to remember it cost about £150 for both of us for a week. This was doing things properly. This was how you get about if you’re after an authentic experience. On the first day we saw the same animals in the Maasai Mara game reserve as those posh people who’d spent £1,000 for their all-inclusive plastic experience. They were wasting their money and we had it sussed.

And then we got to the first night’s campsite. Well, I say ‘campsite’ but that’s perhaps an exaggeration, especially given the state of the toilet. Well; I say ‘toilet’ but it was a massive hole in the ground. Well, I say ‘ground’. And that’s what it was.

Lion eyes

Within minutes of arrival I’d christened the tour company SAVUKA ‘Such A Very Uncomfortable Kamping Arrangement’. Actually, the tents were permanent and pretty good. No; it was probably unfair that I gave the tour company this acronym. There was nothing they could do about the hole in that ground that constituted ‘facilities’…a few yards from the campsite’s kitchen. Slop-out in the mess?

We weren’t the only ones to suffer. I remember seeing a Japanese tourist, obviously at her wit’s end, running into an open field, dropping her jeans and parking a large one then and there in front of me, twenty yards away. People have asked how I could have possibly have watched, but, Your Honour, it all happened so quickly.

The problem for Mrs Steve is that she too wanted to ‘go’. At night. You know, that time when your fears - that hungry lions may be roaming around - are that much more accentuated. So we left the tent, clutching a rudimentary torch, and then Mrs Steve had to make like our Japanese friend and basically let go a few yards away from the canvas. It was practically touching cloth.

And I couldn’t resist shouting, just as things were coming to a nice conclusion: “Lion!” The result was that Mrs Steve panicked and trod in it. She was wearing flip-flops and poo squelched up her leg. I told her that she had to stick the leg out of the flap of the tent all night. I said it might even give the lion something to gnaw on.

Here in 2015 I’ve just searched ‘luxury Kenya safari’. It’s ridiculously expensive. And it looks gorgeous. Damn.  

Well, I can dream can’t I? Because on the same trip we had to wash in the sea for three days. The reason? We were told by our hotel owner that an elephant had cut through an essential cable with its tusk and cut off the water supply to the city of Mombasa. I love the way that a hardship can be dressed up in such a dramatic way by a local trying to give travellers an authentic experience of their country. We stank of seawater.

OK, the Mombasa hygiene situation did actually force us to upgrade. We went for some luxury. In nearby Malindi, we took refuge from the backpack circuit and booked a few nights in a good hotel. By which I mean there was a pool. The thing was, the hotel really existed for package tours. So the people holidaying there were having a totally different experience to us. We’d been walking around with back-breaking backpacks; the tourists expected mosquito nets to be draped from ceiling to floor…and a buffet breakfast. But we deserved this. We were experienced travellers who had, in fact, really earnt this temporary holiday lifestyle. Well, that little fantasy didn’t last long.

We headed straight for the pool and a couple of British families were there. I did that thing where you duck under water and just before your body disappears, you kick a football to show off your skill. This bloke was standing by the side of the pool and the ball I’d kicked smacked him right in the face.

As I surfaced, he was shouting: “You fucking bastard! I can’t fucking believe it! What the fuck do you thing you were doing, you fucking wanker?” I said: “I’m so sorry.” He said: “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” And a kid from the other family asked me: “Is that your Dad?”
Now, our friend Simon wouldn’t entertain the idea of slumming it. He likes a degree of comfort on his travels. Oh, what am I saying? He craves - and gets - luxury.

Do disturb

A few years ago, Simon was in a hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, enjoying room service. Simon’s job has meant that he’s travelled the world for the last twenty-five years. He’s always emailing updates from North Korea, Albania or New York. But it’s the African continent that he most loves. We met in the travel agency but he didn’t stay long. He’d rather live it than talk about it.

On this occasion in Lagos, Simon was immersed in the full room service experience. Somehow, as human beings, if we arrive in a hotel room, the most decadent thing to do is to have our dinner with a towel draped around us, fresh from the shower. We wouldn’t perhaps do that at home. I gather that the towel in question was just about ample to drape around Simon, but he was all alone, so who cared if a bit of flesh was showing? We’re none of us getting any younger.

Then he decided to put the tray outside the door. He reckoned he could do this in his towel. Simon was a seasoned luxury hotel guest who knew all the tricks. He opened the door and put the tray down, with its contents sloshing around. He tried to manoeuvre the tensile strength of the towel and the tray-sloshing at the very same time, in one swooping downwards movement.

It involved Simon bending down to an acute angle to place the tray on the floor - and at the same time trying to hold onto the towel. He managed this rather successfully, but men can be bad at multi-tasking, and he soon realised that although the job was indeed performed copiously, the room door had slammed shut. But that was OK. He had a towel on and could call for help. No such luck.

The towel was jammed in the door.

Now, I’ve told you that the towel was adequately fit-for-purpose in the room, but in the corridor it now became a millstone around Simon’s neck; or should I say – a loose garment that didn’t quite cover everything around Simon’s body.

So, he was standing in the corridor in the all-together; and this was all together a tricky situation (a) to get out of and (b) to explain. Then the good news. The lift door went ‘ping’ and surely his rescuer was on the way. Again; no such luck. The person coming out of the lift was one of the prostitutes that frequented the lobby of the hotel. It was a very long shot, but Simon asked her, politely, if she’d be kind enough to go down to the front desk. You know, and speak to the people that she’d rather avoid talking to, because that would draw attention to her presence (and her profession). But she misunderstood Simon and offered him the best rate that day.

I can understand why. Simon was standing in what looked like a ‘come on’ position. “Yeah, yeah. The old ‘towel in the door’ routine. Why didn’t you just say?” However, he did then manage to explain the situation meaningfully and, not surprisingly, the prostitute politely declined his request to report the incident. She didn’t want to be embarrassed. That was Simon’s job.

I know how he feels. I was accosted by a lady wanting money for services in Nairobi. The thing was, Mrs Steve was standing with me when it happened.

But this isn’t about me. Simon’s still in the hall, nearly-nude. This is where the story could become embellished; he could have been made out he was standing there starkers for hours but I’ve pressed him heavily on this and he maintains it was only twenty minutes. But, really. That is a very long time to be naked, in a hallway, with only a smallish towel rammed in a doorway for modesty-covering.

Eventually Simon was saved. When he checked out, he tried not to engage in any conversation with the reception staff (who surely had to have known what happened). He felt paranoid. Quite rightly. “Did you have room service? Anything from the mini bar? Did someone come along and save you when your towel was jammed in a door?”

Now, perhaps it’s because he moves about the world a lot, but Simon seems to get into more scrapes than most. And, apart from the above example, those scrapes seem to usually involve bodily functions. OK; I’m going to say it. Excreta. Plops. Jumbo jobbies. Shit. That’s better.

Let the train take the strain

Simon’s love of Africa in general is only eclipsed by his love of Sudan in particular. He just adores the place. Here are some facts that I looked up on the internet for you: Sudan was home to numerous ancient civilizations, has recently seen rampant ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflicts, including two civil wars and fighting in the Darfur region. Thousands of years ago, the area of north Sudan was extremely volcanic. And Simon was, one day, feeling pretty volcanic himself.

As I’m writing this I’m smiling because I saw Simon last night. Good timing because he was in London on a rare trip and we had a great catch-up with friends. He was in high spirits as he’d just been to his beloved Sudan. Of course we all reminded him of his story about the train…

Sudan has 4,725 kilometres of narrow-gauge, single-track railroads that serve the northern and central portions of the country. But, to put it frankly, travelling by train in Sudan can be erratic. And quite uncomfortable.

Now, personally, I’ve never been one of those people who can hold onto a poo. When I have to go, I have to go.

Mrs Steve’s the same. We’ve had our moments of embarrassment, from Indonesia to India, where the need to take a dump pretty sharpish, has become increasingly pressing as the minutes tick by. I remember trotting rather quickly around a museum in Cairo, searching for a serviceable toilet. In the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Mrs Steve made it to the loo, again just in time, only to then got locked in that bog. The guy with the screwdriver was very pleasant. When you’ve got to go, who cares if the lock’s working or not.

Simon, however, can hold on for days. Maybe it’s his history of international travel, mainly in developing countries. He knows that it’s always worth the wait, to finally let it all out in the luxury of a five-star hotel.

But on this one occasion, maybe he held on, well, just too long.

On a Sudanese train, he opened the door to the loo on a speculative visit. A family was living in there. He really didn’t want to interrupt or ask them to move out - so that he could move his bowels. So he held on. Finally the train arrived in a station, where it was to remain for an indeterminate amount of time. That happens in Sudan.

It sat beside another train in the searing East African heat. That other train – a freight locomotive - had apparently been there for days. Days and days and days. With no toilet on the station, Simon was by now dancing around in agony and he had to grab this opportunity. He ran around the back of the second train, out of site; and pulled down his trousers. And just as relief started washing over his body, that second train started pulling out of the station, rather too astonishingly quickly for Sudanese rolling stock that had just been rusting on the rails for so long.

And so the passengers on Simon’s train got an eyeful. He now had the dilemma about whether to finish his ablutions and get back on the train; or not to finish and get back on the train. I don’t know about you but I like to linger, when possible, with a book or magazine. Simon had no choice. He had to ‘squeeze, release and say please’… “Please let me back on the train”. I bet even the family in the toilet turned their eyes away when they saw him perform the walk of shame across the tracks.  

But Simon tells me that he loves an article by fellow Sudanophile Iain Marshall, written in 1990. So, about 15 years before the rest of the world started blogging.  Iain says: "The concept of transport is based on the principle of moving from A to B in Sudan. The comfort of the journey is of little importance. People overcome the hardships of such travel by a wonderful act of will. They simply ignore all the signs of pain and irritation. During the course of that journey I was treated regally by my fellow travellers. A handful of dates extended from the press of bodies; a house in a tiny Nubian village providing tea; countless offers of water from roadside houses.”

Iain also goes on to say: “The Sudanese proverb ‘Ar raffig gabl at tarig’ - travelling companions are more important than the journey itself - has rung resoundingly true on every trip I have ever made in Sudan.” That’s lovely, but Simon’s travelling companions got a radical re-interpretation of this saying. And I’m not sure Simon should have accepted any dates. Iain’s now made that 1990 essay into a blog. tinyurl.com/pxwyypq.

And Simon only let me write all about him if I included this YouTube tribute to Sudan. No Third World disaster here. A lovely film with a strong message. bit.ly/1GPVsPy.

Tassle hassle

In 1983 our friend Judy was with us at Pickwick’s nightclub, Bradford. She was, on this occasion, particularly pleased with herself. She’d done her make-up in the loo and then couldn’t believe it as she hit the dance floor, as guys and women seemed to be staring at her. She tells me she thought she’d really nailed it as U2 thrashed out ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. She’d arrived. She was young, beautiful and an undergraduate in charge of her own destiny.

Then Bert, the doorman who’d seen generations of students make fools of themselves, tapped Judy on the shoulder and said in his Yorkshire accent: “Sorry love, but you’ve got your skirt tucked into your knickers.”

Mind you. It’s not just Judy. I was at a disco in Freshers’ Week, 1982. I was wearing my red corduroys - they were very tight - with white baseball boots. Jeanette Robinson asked me to dance and well, with Junior / ‘Mama used to say’ on the decks, a new student couldn't go wrong. I really went for it. Sure enough, after the song finished, Jeanette took my hand, escorted me off the dancefloor and said: "Can I ask you a question?" I thought: "This is it. This is what I came to university for." She then said: "Will you promise never to dance with me again?"

Judy’s like Simon in that they’re both sort of drawn to embarrassing situations. When she was a teenager, Judy’s family lived in Mexico and one day she was making her way back to the UK. Alone. She was at Guadalajara airport.

Breaking off for a moment; there’s a great Audioboom clip from a recent radio show where sports reporter Ian Ramsdale just can’t pronounce the word Guadalajara, when talking about a Mexican football story. The clip has him attempting the word several times and I think it’s very funny. He tries: “Gwajalahara’. The following hour, during the next sports bulletin, he says: “Gwala……Oh, I’m rubbish at this.”

And then, later: “Gwalahara.” However, he does get the pronunciation of German side, Borussia Mönchengladbach, faultlessly correct. He just can’t pronounce Guadalajara. They even play in a bit of a Steely Dan song, My Old School, which is a tribute to the Mexican city.

Presenter Danny Kelly describes it as a “legendary night’s broadcasting”; and forces poor Ian to try it again. And again. And again. But, in the end, Ian gets it spectacularly right. Wonderful and at bit.ly/1AzVFZM. So, back to Guadalajara airport.

It was the late 70s so young women were obliged to wear tassled suede jackets. The internet says that there are two spellings (tassled / tasselled). But no one’s sure because the jackets have been so decidedly uncool for so long. They’re also called ‘fringed’ jackets and basically have bits of suede material hanging down. Think of the two cool bikers in Easy Rider (1969). Man. A colleague tells me that they are now, in fact, back in fashion, so this actually really really matters.

You read about the knickers incident in the introduction - that particular elastic embarrassment happened a few years after Judy was sitting at Guadalajara airport. But, just like in the Bradford disco a few years later, Judy realised that lots of people were staring at her. At Guadalajara airport. Judy believed that she was a stunning, attractive and clever eighteen year-old young woman with her life ahead of her.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the only thing (or things) that were ahead of her, poking out of the tassles. Before she left for the airport, she’d neglected to button up her blouse. Excess baggage. The tassled effect only added to the airport-themed soft-core porn surroundings of potted plants and artificial light. Poor Judy. She was blissfully unaware that the admiring looks she was getting were because she was expressing herself in more than just a couple of languages.

Until someone approached her to tell her about her teenage wardrobe malfunction. Somehow it’s funnier when the news is conveyed, as in the Bradford incident, with a broad West Yorkshire accent. I don’t know what the Spanish for ‘exposed’ is (OK; a quick search suggests it’s ‘expuesto’) but I’m sure it’s hilarious in Mexico. Pablo and Miguel are probably sitting around in the Hacienda right now saying: “Almost 40 years ago, the poor British girl in the tassly jacket flashed more than just a cheery smile.”

The airline phoned ahead and there were packs of teenage boys waiting to great Judy back to Heathrow, shouting her name. OK. That didn’t happen. But, these days, before landing, it would have been all over the internet and news crews would be waiting at the airport to see who all the fuss was about.

I can hear Judy telling this story and LOL’ing, even though it was totes awks. OK, that’s the sort of language that she would have used if she was a teenager in 2015. She’d have tweeted: OMG just showed off my best side GDL airport #totesawks #totesembarrass #wardrobemalfunction #buttonitbaby !!!

Embarrassing bonbons

More Judy in a moment, but here’s another quick humiliation for me, some years before Judy was bearing all in Mexico. I was on a day trip to France with school when I was about thirteen and I was really embarrassed by everything in…well, in life really. Why do French people need to say that they ‘have’ hunger; why can’t they say that they are hungry? Because I went into a sweet shop in Calais and said the latter. I am hungry. Je suis faim. The assistant started laughing and, as a teenager, I found it excruciating as she eventually composed herself enough to tell me that I’d just proclaimed that: “I am a woman.”

Here comes the sun

We spent a lovely holiday with Judy when she was, once again, living in Mexico, in 1995. She did all the talking in Spanish and took us to places off the tourist map. She knew all the local tips on how to have a great holiday. She called us wimps for staying by the pool; she went to the beach knowing full well that the coastline at Puerto Escondido has the most volatile rip tides. But she was practically a local. She knew Mexico. She could tame those tides.  

Then, poolside, I suddenly heard this: “Steve! Steve!” This phantom-like figure came into the pool area with her hands out in front of her in what looked like a bad impression of the ghost from Scooby-Doo. A ghost called Judy.

It turns out that she had layered on too much sunblock and a freak wave had come in-shore and washed over her whole body. The seawater had done its business and mixed with the sun-cream to produce a nasty concoction that temporarily blinded Judy, like a melting action figure that’s been got at by a naughty boy with a magnifying glass.

Do you know what? Judy’s decision, to ask me to make a speech at her wedding, was a terrible idea. Because, guess what? All the stories got mentioned. The knickers, the tassles and the sunblock. Oh, and also the time she burnt down a beefburger van that she was working at. I want to tell you more but she won’t let me. The wedding was in Madrid. Half the guests were Spanish, though, and so didn’t understand me - and consequently have no idea that Judy’s such a fart. Love her.  

And I’ve had my own fair share of overseas awkwardness.

Sticking out a mile

Between 1986 and 1987, Girlfriend Steve (later Mrs Steve) and I spent a year in Australia. And when we arrived in Sydney we met up with Norman, a guy we’d first met in Bali. He was so welcoming and introduced us to all his friends from the local gay scene. We were at Norman’s flat and we met his mates, who were all very charming, but secretly, Norman told us later, they were writing notes to each other as we sat chatting. These days they’d be texting or private messaging as we sat there.

What had happened is that the December heat down-under had got to me personally ‘down-under’ and I’d acquired a sweaty infection in a difficult place, having never had a simple childhood operation that would have avoided it happening in the first place. So I put on the cream and kept my underpants off. But this was 1986 and of course I had very, very short shorts on. Norman later confided that the note said: “Flashing an uncut nasty.”

Just after the foreskin faux-pas we were flat-hunting and answered a promising ad in the Sydney Morning Herald, which mentioned that 'broad-minded people' were encouraged to apply. When we got to the house it was like the Rocky Horror Show, with lots of good-looking young men in shorts dancing around. On one such resident, just below his belly-button, the words 'virgin's delight’ were tattooed with a downward arrow.
Then we were ushered upstairs to meet the boss man. This large – and larger-than-life - guy checked our 'broad-minded' credentials and apparently we passed with flying colours. We were gay-scene-ready. But he also said he needed to read our tarot cards, because he had to be 100% positive. After all, he said that we had to be prepared for him to burst into our room at any time if he wanted to chat, have a party of anything. Even at three in the morning. The chemistry just had to work.

We went along with it because this was a cultural experience. He rang us a couple of days later to say he really liked us but that the tarot readings just weren't right. After that, there was nothing at Mardi Gras in Sydney that would ever shock us.

But two friends of mine do truly have a shocking travelling tale to tell.

Someone left the cake out at the bottom of the bed
This wonderful couple have given permission for me to use this story, but only if their names aren’t used. I mean, you can understand why: deeply in love, and, quite frankly naked in an Amsterdam hotel room, there was much confusion as a cake was delivered. It was Queen’s Day in Holland and that’s a big deal in the Netherlands; it was also the woman’s birthday. So the hotel wanted to show its generosity by delivering a cake to my friends, via room service.

Except, the cake arrived as they lay asleep – and starkers after a particularly robust session of lovemaking - on top of the covers. Awake, no cake. Wake up again: a sodding great cake at the end of the bed. Whoever delivered it didn’t get a tip. I mean, they probably wanted to give a tip: “Don’t lie asleep on your bed, naked, on Queen’s Day, when quite naturally there’s a big chance of a cake being delivered.”

But my friends aren’t the only people to sew confusion whilst travelling. I used to do it for a living.

International fateline

Working in the same travel agency, Simon and I conspired, out of ineptitude rather than malice, to put the long-term health and wellbeing of an eighty-year-old woman in danger.
Let’s talk about computer systems 25 years ago. There’s no doubt that with advances in technology by 1989, more people were able to get booked in more quickly and to travel to more places than ever before. But systems weren’t without their disadvantages. If a flight took off at 23:00 and arrived at 06:00, the computer system defaulted to +1, as in, the plane was due to arrive the next calendar day. It worked well for a flight from New York to London, for instance. Dep: 23:00. Arr: 06:00+1.

But when someone flew from Los Angeles to Auckland in New Zealand, you had to manually change this setting to +2, because on that flight route, you cross the International Dateline and time goes a bit weird. You arrive two calendar days after you took off.
Simon hit it off well with this one woman, who’d booked a trip-of-a-lifetime to see the true Kiwi countryside and to catch up with some distant family members.  And she was set to arrive, with a night in a hotel, before taking off on her ten day tour of both North and South islands. Lovely.

When it was being booked, I was charged with the task of checking the reservation over, a procedure that acted as a backstop to make sure that mistakes were avoided. Um…Simon and I both missed the +1 / +2 thing. It was booked as +1 and it should have been +2. The tour was booked in a day too early. And this perfectly charming woman arrived at Auckland airport half an hour before her excursion was about to start. No hotel time.
Anyway, she showed a great deal of guile, got her bags in a Kiwi taxi and, effectively got to shout: “Follow that tour bus”. The taxi driver apparently grasped the gravity, and the excitement, of the situation and took on his new responsibility with relish. They caught up with the bus just after its first North Island place-of-interest stop. And, as the coach left the car park, the taxi driver straddled his vehicle in front of the bus, forcing it into an emergency stop.

She had a lovely time.

Even in my 30s, I would not have enjoyed the feeling of starting a tour with horrendous post-dateline jetlag. But this woman was made of sterner stuff. On her return to the UK, she sent Simon a thank-you card with a present of a book voucher. She brushed off the incident - which could have led to a multi-million pound lawsuit with Simon and me standing in the dock in our suits - as a mild and quite exciting deviation. What a woman.

Hatchet job

Simon’s got a whole series of stories about his travels. For instance, when he had to remain in a plane on the runway during a sandstorm. When the storm had abated and the passengers got off, his Sudan Airways 737 had been stripped of its livery and was a perfect, beautiful, silver, the paint ripped off by the swirling sands of East Africa.

Or when the cabin crew couldn’t get into the cockpit and had to smash the door down with a hatchet. Or plenty of flights where there’s been standing room only.

All I know is that Simon carries with him, wherever he goes, things that bung you up. He apparently used some this February in the north of Sudan. Although the communal loo had a great view of an ancient temple, Simon says: “I popped two Imodium to avoid ever having to go in that bog whilst staying there!”

If you want to feel embarrassed, then go travelling, because it can throw up the most bizarre and awkward situations. And you get to remember them fondly.