Blog about my Dad – Syd in Venice

I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”

At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences

There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:

To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.

Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.

It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.

Ah hah, I see….  The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…

As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.

Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.

However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…

I never saw her again.

 

Woman’s Weekly – Dealing with Bores.

Derek, who lived a couple of doors down from us, introduced himself to me and my girlfriend Jane one evening in our local pub and we invited him to join us. As he sat down he said, ‘A really funny thing happened to me at work today.’ This was nine o’clock. Two hours later I looked at my watch to see it was nine-fifteen. Three years later closing time finally arrived, whereupon Derek invited himself back to ours for a drink. I told him firmly about our early starts but somehow he ended up on our sofa anyway where he told more ‘funny’ stories from his repertoire. It was only when I had put my pyjamas on that he finally released us from the torment. ‘It’s nice to have met some new friends’ he said ominously as he lingered at the door on the way out.

 

We are all capable of being tedious (except his Royal Highness Stephen Fry of course) but Derek was a bore of international stature – long-winded, self-absorbed, repetitive and hard to shake off. He was as opinionated as he was ignorant and, although he seemed to have no sense of the anguish he was visiting on me and Jane, he had developed a way of breathing that made him impossible to interrupt. If you did somehow manage to interject a sentence, it served merely as a reminder to him of some further hilarious episode from his life.  Within days I was ducking behind hedges to avoid him.

How to deal with the bore without being arrested for murder? Most are quite genial people who make it hard for you to be rude to them, but, on the other hand, I feel aggrieved that they never themselves seem to want to hang out with fellow bores. My attention span is short and I am genuinely pained to be pinned in a corner by a bloke (and it usually is a bloke) telling me about his car or his latest round of golf. Having appeared on TV in Grumpy Old Men I sometimes get accosted by drunks saying, ‘I’m a grumpy old man too!’ ‘In that case,’ I want to say, ‘you’ll understand when I invite you to sod off and leave me alone!’ but I don’t. You can turn down invitations, invent sudden phone calls you have to make, feign heart attacks but, short of never leaving the house, you can never be fully guaranteed against the bore.

And in the end who is to say who is boring? Maybe I’m the boring one. Certainly I was surprised by the way I finally got shot of Derek. He ran off with Jane.

Written for the Guardian Travel Section

I had gone to a friend’s place in the South of France intending to forget my broken heart by writing a comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Arles, as occupied by Romans and painted by Van Gogh, is an exquisite little town but, for 3 days, all I had done was to moon joylessly around the house sipping brandy. I felt little enthusiasm for France, life, comedy, or anything really. Disconnected. On the third evening it occurred to me that I needed to get out.

So the next day I crossed the Rhone, hired a bicycle and set off South into the broad, even, watery Camargue – home to horses, bulls, mosquitos and many breeds of bird, most famously the flamingo. The flat terrain suited my mood and empty roads smoothed my way. After a couple of hours I spotted a spire on the horizon and turned towards it. The crooked old church was now a crooked old bar, dark and gloomy after the bright blueness outside.

Inside an old lady in black with a sad, distracted air served me a cold beer and a sandwich jambon. Poor old girl, she seemed even glummer than me. I decided to try my French out. ‘Do you ever get flamingos come into this bar?’ I enquired.

She stared at me, totally baffled.

It was not much of a gag (though I was planning to follow it up with a question about them falling over) but it seemed to pole-axe the woman. Flamingos in the bar? What was this peculiar foreigner talking about? Then I saw it dawn on her – it was a joke! She broke into a broad if toothless smile. The thought now tickled her. She started chuckling and I could see that this silly remark by a passing tourist had suddenly, somehow reawakened in her the memory of laughter, that I had, by chance, unlocked something in her. The chuckling gave way to cackling and full bloodied hooting and her bleak introspection seemed to dissolve to reveal a wrinkled but open and beautiful old face. After my lunch she came outside to wave me off as I set off cycling again out into those broad Mediterranean skies. Arriving back in Arles later I sat straight down and started writing.

It is now fifteen years since my cycle in the Camargue and I am preparing for another tour of my solo show (the ‘gentleman’s tour’ – a handful of dates in agreeable places) and I will, wherever possible, stay over after the gig in a nice hotel, breakfast on porridge and kippers the next morning, then spend the day rambling in the surrounding countryside (note to self: get OS maps for Abingdon, Frome, Stratford and Barow). And, at some leafy point along the way, I will no doubt remember once again the encounter with the lady in black, which has become mythic in my mind; that marvellous old woman, laughing, laughing, laughing.