Monday, 27 July 2009

Canvas Opinion

"I've been to a Marvellous Party, I must say the fun was in tents ...".

Misquoting Noel Coward is no way to skewer the canvas and plastic packaging of the Port Eliot Literary Festival except insofar as Coward is probably more in the age range of this festival's goers, than, say, that of Creamfields or Glasto. It's hilarious that the most common complaint received by the "People's Paper" generated by journalists during the course of the festival was that the music was too loud and they couldn't get to sleep. I mean, isn't that the whole point?

From the Ralph Steadman Oddbins-logo titling, to the CVs of most of the performers which largely recorded their previous exploits "used to be a major talent in London's Soho in the 1970's" being typical of those whose current achievements would fill fewer paragraphs - the material is beamed steadily at the already middle-aged. For here life is lived on the grassy edge but only in retrospect, mostly by comfortably-off thirty- and increasingly forty-somethings attempting to reclaim their lost youth.

Largely encumbered by buggies and similar wheeled contraptions containing a bigger selection of rug-rats than you'd find in the average Montessori kindergarten, this is a family-friendly event although without many activities for children and certainly nothing to keep them up late. In fact, Port Eliot needs to decide whether it's a festival, or a fete.

The 'Hog Wild Comedy Club' featured a number of smart and edgy comedians who were distinctly put off by the presence of beribboned eight year olds in the front row. Particularly the guy with the paedophile routine.

Too many of the poetry, music and cookery events were ruined by some noisily spoilt brat or crying baby - if you're going to encourage quite so many breeders to trawl their fractious offspring round a moist Cornish hillside at over £100 a pop, at least provide a creche. Preferably in Devon.

Rock headliner Evan Dando - former lead guitar with The Lemonheads (last hit album 1998 shortly before he became less of a musician than a full-time crack addict and a has-been if ever there was one), told me the trouble with this festival was "too many rich people", immeditately prior to passing out on the floor of the press tent.

Since a lot of the performances were quite dull, it became more interesting to observe the audience, and I began to take fashion notes. There's clearly a dress code for Festivals, but it mustn't have come in my information pack.

If you are a woman over 40 you will slacken the straps on your bra and wear a flowing, patterned, loose-fitting kaftan, muumuu or smock. If you are a lesbian, or a feminist, or Rosie Boycott, purple will feature substantially. Accessories will be chunky (your choice of celtic or crystals) but leave the Mikimotos at home.

Women under 40 (or trying to be) should tie a silk rag round the expensively-distressed John Frieda cut and their outfit must include a quilted body warmer as favoured by the Queen on moorland shoots, Hunter wellingtons in any colour other than black, and absolutely de rigeur footless tights.

Full length is stylish, mid-calf preferred by razor-shy munters, anything above the knee is pure chav.

Men over 40 should really try to be invisible, but if dematerialisation proves impossible after multiple pints of Trelawny's Old Speculum, visible attributes seemed to include bald patches surmounting greasy grey pony tails, unfastened waistcoats and sub-Liberty print shirts.

Younger men can adopt the by now traditional schoolboy-to-grave uniform of below-the-knee shorts, often in camouflage or linen and with sufficient pockets to mimic Virginia Woolf on her foray into the river Ouse, a wordy t-shirt crossbanded into illegibility by the strap of a canvas shoulder bag, and the chapeau of the moment, the Sinatra pork-pie hat (vegetarian option: straw).

Other accessories were equally predictable: when I lived in New York they told me I was never more than ten feet away from a rat. By the same token, at Port Eliot you're never more than ten feet from a Guardian-reading corporate dickhead trying to keep an unfamiliar roach alight.

There's a coloured wristband regime for festival-goers which outclasses the social stratification at the court of Louis XIV in its arcane hierarchy and accorded privileges.

Top of the tree are the pink-wristers known as 'Friends of the House' who seemed to get in everywhere whether or not they had followed the rules and signed up for a given event, joined a queue, or competed for a limited-numbered place. Universally Sloane-y, predominantly female, they made themselves enormously unpopular and paying festival punters labelled them 'FOTHs' for fear of being overheard using the full description.

FOTHs were housed, like the luckier artistes, either in the ramshackle 'Castle' itself, or in tidy tents erected in a walled garden high above the water table, and with dedicated toilets. The rest of the campers were abandoned to the wild and windy hillsides.

Some of them had been allocated 'jobs' assisting performers and exhibitors and to her great credit and personal charm, the wonderful Barbara Hulanicki confessed she'd been allocated two identikit FOTHs but persistently could not remember their names. 'I just call them the twins' she said.

I have to say that Hulanicki was, for us, the saviour of this event. Not only was she personally pleasant and approachable - she even shared her bag of chips with me on the first evening, and she made a dress out of Mylar reflective plastic for my friend Michelle which was endlessly photographed - she was clear-eyed and intelligent and, in terms of achievement or iconic status, towered over the rest of the rag-bag of entertainment lazily and cheaply assembled, it seems, through friends-of-friends of (Lady? Countess?) Cathy St Germans, chatelaine of the house.

the gorgeous Barbara Hulanicki stapling Michelle's dress (above)

and looking cool and serene eating a cone of chips (below)

Catherine St Germans, who became the Earl's third wife in 2005, is a sometime 'style director' of the Telegraph magazine and occasional contributor to Vogue or the Economist's pappy 'Intelligent Life' colour supplement of simpering puffs like this one on the work of hatter Stephen Jones (a nice enough man, but I think Philip Treacy might dispute St Germans' accolade of "the greatest milliner of his generation") or this one about her passion for expensive shoes. Deep and discoursive journalism, I think not.

Not all of the performers were paid, and many very little - the comedians earned £30 a gig which was quickly returned to the Festival through their purchases of food and drink, authors seemed to be attending for a chance to 'push' signed book sales, and the standard of talks and presentations was low.

A couple of highlights did surface - even in a septic tank the really good chunks rise to the top - and I enjoyed comic writer Ben Moor who was one of the few performers whose work looked planned and rehearsed, and authentic Mersey Poet Phil Bowen. It's not a proper festival if the top stars don't pull out, and true to form cancellations included comedian Arthur Smith and Monica Alli, who possibly had a sudden attack of good taste and though better of it.

Rosie Boycott was amusing and articulate but her I-used-to-be-a-druggy-hippy-chick-and-then-I-edited-the-Independent routine has not only become stale with repetition but conveniently edits out her wealthy family in Jersey and her schooling at Cheltenham Ladies' College, so that precarious risk of failure when she was starting up Virago and Spare Rib has a less convincing edge of danger than the anecdotes suggest.

I had high hopes of the food presentations by Rose Prince in the 'Big Kitchen' (which had only been cleaned up and decorated the day before the festival opened) - but with cramped seating and the inability of most of the audience to see what was being demonstrated - no mirrors over the demonstration table, and lots of pesky FOTHs crowding the front.

Like so much of the festival organisation (inadequate lighting, signage, catering, retail and ill-served exhibitors with no electricity or hand-fetched water) it was another case of poor Port Eliot event management.

Don't give up the day job, yer ladyship.

Trivia 1 : The Daily Mail last month made salacious fun of the marriage of Catherine Wilson to the 68-year old Earl, Peregrine Eliot, linking it to an equally tempestuous family row now raging over Earl Spencer's current courtship of Bianca Eliot, flame-haired temptress and the recent widow of the Earl's eldest son.

especially the second half of the piece.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Last night I dreamed I went again to ... Millendreath

in which I discover a childhood haunt and a turf war ...

Every Christmas, summer and Easter for our family holidays we went to my aunt and uncle's "private hotel" in Cleveleys on the Lancashire coast. I think this was because at the time my dad worked for a firm of builders' merchants and had done Uncle Bert some kind of favour on the cost of the bathroom fittings which was being steadily repaid in free accommodation ...

I went back recently. It's derelict.

There came a point in the 60's when my mother tired of repeated visits to the same place, plus we'd moved to Yorkshire and my dad got a Ford Zephyr 6 with his new job so we were somewhat more mobile. Which is how there was a dramatic sea-change in our holidaymaking the summer I was eight or nine and we went to Cornwall.

Quite why we chose a holiday complex which had been developed for use by Welsh miners and their families, I don't know, unless it's because my Aunty Dorothy - who accompanied us - lived in Gloucestershire and possibly knew some Welsh people who'd been there.

I hadn't really thought about this much in the intervening period until last Friday while plotting a driving course to the Port Eliot Literary Festival when I spotted the name of a beach on the map and realised it was barely five miles from our 1962 holiday destination.

Which is how, on a wet afternoon, I returned to Millendreath for the first time in 47 years.

It was derelict.

Do we see a pattern forming here?

What did surprise me was how easily I managed to drive there down a series of Cornish country lanes (mostly with high-sided hedges and no view of the countryside) without hesitation, deviation or repetition - using the same kind of instinctive radar as guided Luath the labrador in Disney's 'The Incredible Journey' which I think was filmed more or less the same year.

Channelling the second Mrs de Winter in 'Rebecca' and noting without irony how close this was to Daphne du Maurier territory, I remembered the shape of the high-sided thickly wooded valley, recognised the rocks to the right hand side of the beach where I'd played, and the layout of the valley floor with its scattering of cottages, cabins and lodges each in its own secluded clearing, which even then I recognised as cleverer than - say - Butlins rows of standardised chalets.

Then I sat on the sea wall, shed a few nostalgic tears, and the memories started to flood.

I remember we stayed in a log cabin called 'The Curlew's Call', surprisingly since they're northern birds and there are none in Cornwall. The one next door was "Gitche Gumee" which I think is what the Iroquois called the lake in 'Hiawatha' so clearly the naming was both fanciful, and random.

I remember waking in the top bunk of my bedroom and overhearing my parents and aunt having some conversation in which they were discussing how, in the future and I got to be 18, I'd leave home and probably not want to return. This idea so dismayed me that I burst into tears, and had to be comforted with reassurances and chocolate digestives.

I remember playing 'Telstar' endlessly on the jukebox, learning to dance - with girls - and even on one occasion on a billiard table.

I remember the Club House, to which we repaired each evening after tea, being run by a trim and spinsterish woman who would ring a bell and announce at about 9pm "I have some Cornish Pasties, sandwiches, and soup" as if the news had taken her completely by surprise. I also remember that one night the pasties didn't arrive and there was a near-riot.

I remember the soup of the day was almost always 'Stock Pot' which I tried to replicate when I got home by diluting the minced beef my mother had made for a shepherd's pie.

I remember my father being the life and soul of the party, at least when half-cut, and him teaching the rest of the happy campers to do the Twist. And knowing, from Juke Box Jury, that it had already been supplanted by the Mashed Potato.

I remembered going mackerel fishing and being so disgusted with the gaffing and gutting that when everyone else was having them freshly pan-fried with oatmeal, I had a cornish pasty instead.

Anyway, back to the contemporary dereliction. It really was sad to see how one side of the valley was now covered with those shabby flat-roofed prefab-looking bungalows which have fallen into disrepair in dozens of forgotten British seaside towns.

The valley floor where we stayed had been cleared of the original buildings to make a sizeable car park, in the far corner of which stood an Aston Martin DB9. Quite a new one.

Not far from it was a smartly-dressed man with Hunter wellies and a dictaphone who retreated into the trees every time I got near him with the camera.

With little else to do, I wandered about and came across the village notice board. Alongside the usual parish notices was a vituperative but unsigned 'open letter' criticising the actions of a developer company in shredding some of the vegetation on the less occupied side of the valley, and referring to the landowner as 'the self-appointed new God of Millendreath'.

Scenting sabotage, class wars and possibly the plot of a Cornish murder mystery, I spent an hour on the internet trying to find out what was planned for this once-beautiful but now shabby beachfront. It involves the usual nonsense of different vested interests vying to influence the planning authority in a distant town hall, but the proposals appear to be a clever re-interpretation of the resort which flourished in the 60's.

I guess they'll wait for some more of the inhabitants of the cheap chalets to die off, and the bulldozers can move in.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Overnight Failure

a quick-and-dirty review of 'Too Close To The Sun' - a new musical about the life of Ernest Hemingway. I have to be quick, and dirty, because if I'm any judge it won't be around for more than a few days ...

Following the West End vogue for calling theatres after relevant personages (Coward, Novello, Gielgud), I’m starting a campaign to have the Comedy in Panton Street re-christened the Bernard Matthews theatre, since it’s housed almost as many turkeys as the celebrated Norfolk poulterer.

I’ve seen bad plays. I’ve seen bad musicals. But this one manages to be both – it’s the script Max Biyalistock turned down as even less credibly awful than ‘Springtime for Hitler’.

The subject matter is the life and onstage death of Ernest Hemingway – author, hell-raiser, boxer, matador, big game hunter, fisherman, philosopher, womaniser, and witness to the whole bellicose drama of the mid twentieth century – both world wars, the Spanish civil war, revolutionary Cuba, and the Cold War and with a private life only marginally less dramatic including four marriages and dalliances with persons of all sexes from Scott Fitzgerald to Martha Gellhorn. Actually that’s not such a big range, but still – he was a serial shagger.

Somewhere there’s a show to be written about this picaresque and dangerous life, - but it was probably thirty years ago when his books were more popular and his life and suicide more recently memorable. By confining the re-telling to four unloveable characters and one cheap set, encompassing one boring drunken dinner and the morning after, Too Close To The Sun strangles the idea at birth.

No flashbacks, no back projection, no escape from the confines of Hemingway’s domestic dotage buried in a no-hope burg called something like Ketchup, Iowa.

Ranking somewhere between high and totally-off-the-fucking-scale on the ‘no legs, no jokes, no chance’ crapometer for measurement of unlikely musicals, the songs are total rubbish. Discordant, tuneless, unfinished snatches of ‘musique concrete’ are loosely attached to irrelevant lyrics which mostly don’t rhyme.

It’s impossible to tell whether three of the four singers are outrageously flat, or if the music just written entirely in minor keys. By a gibbon. The orchestrations are the musical equivalent of Tourettes’ syndrome, with sudden snare drum emphasis in places it simply doesn’t belong, all of course served up by the ‘orchestra’ of six who look understandably frightened by their task.

No choreographer is credited, with only four performers there are no big production numbers, the women don’t bother but when the men do move it’s like dressage in a knacker’s yard.

Mike Robertson’s lighting invites the great plains of Iowa indoors with a sunset as bright as Lion King’s, but despite the emetic revolve, the three rotating aspects of Hemingway’s house – interpreted in what looks like cheap fencing slats from Homebase – are beyond help, and the much heralded 'meteor shower' is about as exciting as a busy afternoon in Ryness's windows.

You could plug the Aurora Borealis into this corpse and it wouldn’t revive it.

This isn't really a production (no familiar West End producer is attached to it) so much as an exercise in vanity publishing for the show's creators Roberto Trippini and John Robinson. Both deservedly unfamiliar, neither has had a major success - have you heard of Robinson's 'Shipperbottom's Rocking Horses' or Trippini's 'Bad Samaritans Go Places'? Exactly.

The performance plods its weary way towards the inevitable, the moment when Hemingway puts the rifle in his mouth and blows his brains out, but it couldn't come soon enough for most of Tuesday's audience.

They really should have called it Ernie Get Your Gun.

Trivia 1 : Ernest Hemingway purchased the shotgun he used for his suicide from Abercrombie and Fitch, at that time a sporting goods and firearms supplier.

Trivia 2 : Gregory, the son of Hemingway’s second marriage was known to the family as ‘Gig’ and fathered eight children of his own , but at age 64 had an operation in which he became ‘Gloria’, and eventually died in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Tourist Trapp

I’ve got a bone to pick with Julie Andrews.

Ray, she trilled, a drop of golden sun ... well not from where I’m standing, duckie. We will come separately to her other criminal acts of misrepresentation because, for example, there hasn’t been crisp apple strudel in Austria since the invention of the microwave gave all restaurant re-heated filo pastry the taste and texture of a well-used wash leather, and the only ‘Doe, a deer’ you are likely to see is in a noxious casserole called Damhirschgulasch wherein the lumps of venison leg are cooked so long and so exhausted of flavour that only the gravy is worth consuming. It is universally presented with Salzburger Griessknockerl, a wet semolina dumpling I can only translate as ‘poultice’.

Returning to Dame Julie’s meteorological predictions for Upper Austria: in the last ten days we have had at least eight of rain, but in between clouds at eyebrow levels, chilling fohn winds which I used to think were a figment of my Geography master’s imagination, hailstones the size of mint imperials and, God help us, on Wednesday a tornado. But sun, no.

It was therefore with a slightly heavy heart I sploshed through the puddles towards ‘Bob’s Special-Tours’ minibus Sound of Music excursion, to be greeted by a driver-guide of approximately the shape and features of former home secretary Leon Brittain, in lederhosen and brogues, announcing ‘today I will be your Captain von Trapp’.

Actually, his relentless jollity and enthusiasm for the movie and the Trapp family history were wildly infectious and - once I managed to blank the bigoted religious California Republicans in the back seats (“The Amish are such beautiful people” which for me was really right up there with “The Fuhrer was a wonderful dancer” in its irrelevance to any discussion of dogmatic sectarianism) - the tour shaped up very well indeed as we were swiftly conducted from one film location to another, and in a group of just 8.

Obviously the tales of the movie have been re-told often enough to pass in to folklore, but a couple I had not heard included the suggestion that Maria – an orphan of uncertain origins and quite a feisty girl - was lured into the convent by a cute young priest who suggested he might be able to visit her occasionally, and secondly that her role there was as a teacher in the school run by Nonnberg Abbey, not as a postulant.

Of course we saw the venues of the wedding, the abbey, the gazebo, the gardens where the kids learn Do-Re-Mi, the white facade of Leopoldskrone Palace used – at Maria von Trapp’s suggestion – in place of their real and more modest house, and the alternate yellow wall of Hellbrunn against which for some reason Christopher Plummer is most often photographed even when apparently conversing with Eleanor Parker or Julie A outside the other building.

Our guide played us various snatches from soundtracks, including one direct comparison of Julie Andrews and Mary Martin each singing the same song which confirmed Noel Coward’s observation (I am reading his Collected Letters this week) that Ms. Martin’s voice was exactly like someone fucking the cat. We also heard a couple of tracks of the real Von Trapp singers, made in the 40’s and astonishingly clean and clear recordings. They really were quite good, although not remotely in an ‘Edelweiss’ way.

During the tour there was quite a discussion about the snobbishness of the Salzburg authorities towards ‘Sound of Music’ even though a recent survey suggested 75% of the city’s tourist revenues were derived from the show’s fans, preferring to cleave to the associations with Mozart despite the fact he left Salzburg aged 25 and never returned. This apparently includes refusal to grant a hotel license to the couple who have recently taken over the actual Villa von Trapp for B&B and corporate event purposes, although they omitted the step of applying for the license before holding their opening party. I am filled with uncertainty since I’d booked to spend the night there.

Which I did. The journey there was uneventful, the house is a reasonably handsome detached villa in about five or six acres of grounds but approached from an ordinary residential street – where apparently all the neighbours, many of whom are lawyers, are opposed to its use as a guest house. This is further complicated by the fact that the operators do not own it, but have a twelve-and-a-half year lease from the monastic order to which it DOES belong.

I arrive about 4.30, reception hours being 3-7pm and despite ringing various bells with the enthusiasm of Quasimodo, no-one comes to answer. The female taxi driver offers to wait with me in case I need a ride elsewhere, but I bravely dismiss her and phone the property whereupon a man who looks as if he has been sleeping in his clothes, but turns out to be the proprietor, says he’ll be down in a minute.

He isn’t, but I am eventually admitted and shown to the room of Maria's eldest daughter, on the second floor where the family moved to make room for paying guests after the Baron lost his fortune in the collapse of a private bank. Topical or what?

It’s austere but adequate and when I ask if it would be possible to have a room with a bath instead of just a shower, he tells me there are none because the monastery – which renovated the property – felt they would be too indulgent. This turns out to be a lie because the following morning on a tour of the place, I see unoccupied rooms with baths.

Since apart from breakfast no food or drink is offered – not even a cup of tea – I set off for an evening in Salzburg and return at about 10 to find the place again shut up like a tomb, and what few lights are available in the hallways are on impatient timers, so I am pleased to attain my mansard space and get ready for bed. It rains ferociously during the night, although unfortunately without the dramatic thunder and lightning sufficient to encourage the ghost of Fraulein Maria to come and sing to me.

There is an incident. The bed is a white-framed job which, although I am not an expert in its products, looks suspiciously to me like something from Ikea – and as I turn over in my sleep at about 2 a.m. there is a sharp noise and the bed-frame gives way, depositing some of the supporting slats on the floor. As there is no bell, no telephone, and no instructions of how to contact management in case of emergency, I sleep on a slope for the rest of the night. Management, by the way, is entirely unconcerned when this is reported in the morning.

Breakfast is a cheerless array of pre-packed portions of this and that, no hot food, and whilst the dining table is imposing the chairs have allen key connections betraying their flat-pack origins. I check mine carefully in case like the bed it shows a propensity to return from whence it came.

Eventually I meet the four other people staying in the house – a couple of charming Midwesterners you’d find anywhere on a tour of Europe, and a very bright Dutchman with his ten year old daughter. We have a lively conversation mostly about Hitler, and the day genuinely brightens.

There is, incidentally, no evidence to show that Hitler ever visited. The villa was requisitioned by Heinrich Himmler in 1939 as his own residence and headquarters for the war.

Management returns and we embark on a tour of the house which consists mostly of unfurnished public rooms which can be adapted for use in seminars and ‘events’ – apparently the liveliest so far was the arrival of all the candidates in the Belgian ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria’ search-for-a-star TV show. It’s all rather underwhelming – one of the bare rooms is a former chapel but the others are just as spartan, and then it strikes me that the place has no heart, physical or hospitable, and that this is a wasted opportunity in entirely the wrong hands. Suddenly, the attitude of the Salzburg city fathers doesn’t seem so unfair.

The somewhat under-furnished Trapp Villa interior

It turns out that the proprietors have no professional hotel experience, being journalists or somesuch, and the under-investment in making the place into a destination for Trapp family enthusiasts is palpable. With more imaginative and enthusiastic hosts, it could be modelled on the scenes from the movie, at least have a room furnished with sofas and drapes in the green and white pattern from which Maria made the children’s clothes. It’s possible to respect the monastic ownership of the property without turning it into a theme park, but somewhere to sit and have a drink in the evening, possibly with the DVD of the film would be a start.

They’re also, IMHO, going out of business. We have to sign an official register for the tourist authorities, at the rate of one page per room. The book is dated from 1 December 2008, and I notice my page is No. 78 – so about 150 guests in more than 7 months.

No wonder they can’t afford decent orange juice or real furniture.

Still to come – a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden ...

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The hills are alive ...

Trav'ling through the country is so thrilling ... belts Annie Oakley in the gun-getting musical. I'm not so sure about thrilling but I am enjoying the comfort of Deutsche Bahn's air-conditioned first class as the Fatherland speeds by from Frankfurt Airport to Bavaria.

Every country turns its backside to its railways, and so despite the fact we are coursing along the 'Romantische Strasse' and there are occasional glimpses of half-timbered houses or baroque churches in the middle distance, mostly it's inactive factories, dumb fields of wheat, empty superstore car parks and DHL transit depots full of idle vans. I know it's Monday afternoon, but Germany appears to be shut.

After a stop for coffee, and a breather, and a light drenching at Munich-Pasing station, for some reason chosen by my computerised itinerary as an alternative to the more ceremonially majestic and waterproof Hauptbahnhof, it's on to the breezy local train as we make for the mountains. Garmisch, from what I can see, is a bit of a disappointment - the high street looks like Hounslow's and the American army base seems as deserted as the Rheinpfalz on the way down, although I do spot a couple of crew-cuts and a sign for a lap dancing club on a building which looks inappropriately rustic.

However as we approach the final destination of Grainau, the scenery becomes authentically Alpine, the houses ever more cuckoo-clock, and the streamlets flow milky green grey from the limestone rock fortresses above. The Hotel Waxenstein is everything TripAdvisor has promised other than '2 km from the station' which turns out to be half an hour on a bus or 16 Euros in a cab ...

It's a rustic but very comfortable chalet in full and uninterrupted view of the Zugspitze, with staff who all seem to know my name from the outset. Smiling waitresses sport those I'm-wearing-a-long-skirt-and-apron-but-look-my-tits-are-on-a-shelf falsely modest Heidi outfits and, luckily for me as a single traveller, I'm given a great room and a nice table in the restaurant both with the aforementioned view.

I later discover this is because there are only 6 rooms occupied. How can mid-to-late July be 'low' season?

The other occupants of the dining room are middle-class German herr-und-hausfraus, one with a very well behaved but presumably bored shitless small boy, plus an English odd couple comprising a limp fiftyish further education lecturer from Sheffield and his mother who, I charitably assume, has recently had a stroke. Possibly on the way downstairs. Either that, or she has the original countenance for which the phrase 'po-faced' was invented. She doesn't speak to me all week, although I hear their urgent whispered conversations over dinner including 'I bet he's something in the theatre'.

All the Germans manage a bit of nodding and smiling, and by Wednesday the father of the small bored boy eventually summons up enough courage and English to ask if I am the famous author Ken Follett. After looking him up on the internet, I am not hugely flattered, but gratefully add it to the collection of persons for whom I have been mistaken including Rick Stein, Ian Holm and Anthony Hopkins (admittedly this last was by a cab driver on Long Island who clearly didn't get to the movies much).

The food is surprisingly inventive, and the chef has an especially fortuitous way with fish: in four successive days we have delicious fresh halibut, sea trout, salmon and some superb giant prawns none of which swam anywhere near Bavaria. Since four courses include compulsory salad, I'm feeling almost virtuous.

I also sleep nine hours a night and wonder why I can't at home.

There are few diversions during the week, as the rain is more or less relentless until about Thursday when it's fine enough to explore the surroundings by bus, train and anything available on my 10 Euro day ticket (14 if you go over the border into Austria which I don't because I've forgotten my passport) - so I race round Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein - two of the castles built for 'mad' King Ludwig II - have a quick saunter through Oberammergau, and back in time for tea.

This causes me to ponder the purpose of tourism - viewed from the restaurant and toilet complex at Neuschwanstein it appears to be to process as many Japanese as possible through wholly unenjoyable soup, schnitzel and strudel and back on to their buses ... and the experience of visiting the inside of the castle with so many dripping kagouls seems too dispiriting to contemplate.

My one evening outing is to the local Kurhaus - a splendid community centre with three enormous swimming pools, a dirt cheap massage practice, a cafe, and a small entertainment hall in which tonight is presented the local choir in tandem with a 'Children's Choir' from Florida which turns out to be all that is dreadful in singing, showmanship, children and America.

The vocal group from Grainau sing movingly and accurately, a capella, a short series of folk and patriotic songs. They look magnificent, all in carefully ironed traditional costumes, and I'd seen at least four of them coming out of the hairdressers in the afternoon.

Then comes the 'Gainesville Youth Chorus, Inc.'

Strategically limited to 'a busload' I'd guess there are about 45 of them, and as 43 are girls in varying stages of development from ten to eighteen, the two boys look understandably exhausted like Alpine calves subjected to forced milking.

They sing a selection of mountingly banal lyrics about music being the key to world peace and understanding but, on the last night of their European tour the kids are openly bored, the conductress is a moose with more product in her hair than L'Oreal turn out in a factory shift, and the choir is dressed uniformly in royal blue polyester satin which threatens to ignite with static. The girls also all have the pancake makeup and scraped back chignon beloved of Elizabeth Taylor in the early 70's which seems hugely inappropriate for pubescents. I am reminded of pageant moppet Jon-Benet Ramsay, only unfortunately these kids are still alive.

Two disgracefully fat teens emerge to render - I think that's the right word, in its 'melt down' sense - the solo parts of 'Pie Jesu' for some reason eliding the words without the intermediate 'y' sound which is bizarre but for a moment they are the least worst thing in it. They are, however, replaced by two even larger heifers who murder the next piece so cruelly that even the enduringly polite local audience begins to cough and fiddle with its dirndls.

I escape at the interval, watched enviously by the director of tourism having a crafty fag outside and who clearly wishes she didn't have to sit through the second half.

And so ends the first lesson. Austria tomorrow..