Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Dear Uncle Ted

I have been in ‘show business’ for many years and have worked in most fields of this noble industry and I often receive correspondence from young people eager to make their way along the stardust trail that I have trod for more than forty years. I thought it might be a service to my younger readers to publish my advice to some of these supplicants.

Dear Uncle Ted

I have been trying to break into the theatre but as yet I have had very little success. My mother thinks it would be helpful if I were gay but I would find this life style change rather difficult as I already have a very active sex life with several girl friends, one of whom is carrying my unborn child. I am a very normal sort of chap, my hobbies are breeding pit bulls, cock fighting and I am a Millwall supporter. Do you think my mother is right?

Unsure of S. London.

Dear Unsure of S London

First let me reassure you that the theatre is refreshingly free from some of the prejudices that blight society as a whole, however your mother is right to a certain degree in that there are some specific areas of the industry where being gay may be an advantage. These areas are opera, ballet, drama, musicals, West End, provincial touring and rep, pantomime, summer seasons, direction, set, costume and lighting design, stage management, prop and costume making, stage door keeping and conjurers assistant. Theatre-in-Education is a field where a young man with your healthy out-doorsy interests can flourish. What can be more satisfying than driving a transit van load of props to a sink estate primary school in order to put on a two-handed version of Coriolanus to a room full of hostile ten year olds at nine-o-clock in the morning.

I wish you well in the future and good luck with your forthcoming happy event.

Dear Uncle Ted

I am a wardrobe mistress with several years experience in provincial theatre and have long yearned to get work on a West End musical. Recently I went to a party where I met a West End production manager. We both drank quite a lot and one thing led to another and we ended up in bed together. He has since made it clear to me that he would like to pursue this relationship and has implied that he could get me a job on a forthcoming production. He claims that this show, which is apparently based on a Haynes service manual, is a sure fire hit and that I could be in work for years. I have no morals whatsoever and I am keen to fast forward my career but frankly having sex with this man was so unpleasant that I may have to draw a line and head back up the M1. What shall I do?

Hesitant of Up North

Dear Hesitant of Up North

This kind of question comes up time after time and it’s never easy to get the balance right. Perhaps you should remember that the success of British theatre is based largely on the self-sacrifice of nice middle class girls like yourself and that you should just grin and bear it. That way you get the job and at least one of you has a good time in bed. I find that when I am engaged in an unpleasant sexual act concentrating on a beloved childhood pet sometimes helps.

PS: Be careful though, I know a bit about this ‘Haynes service manual’ musical and I am sure it is a solid gold turkey.

Dear Uncle Ted

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be a sound designer on musicals. When I was little I used to arrange our family hi-fi in the living room and make my Mum and Nan listen to ‘Godspell’ time after time. I plastered the walls of my bedroom with pictures of West End sound designers and their favourite mixing consoles. At school I set up the sound for every conceivable function and now I am about to go to college to do a Dip Ac/Dc MBD in Environmental Sound Theory. Last week by a lucky chance I was invited by an acquaintance to meet some West End sound crew. You can imagine my excitement. I made up my mind to keep very quiet and to just soak up as much wisdom as I could from these audio titans. We met in a pub, which was rather rough, and at once the conversation started to flow. At first I revelled in the acronyms, the numbers, the jargon, all the money that I had spent subscribing to ‘Audio Fittings Monthly’ seemed well spent but as the evening wore on the atmosphere changed and the talk moved on to other topics. There was a lot of discussion about something called ‘per diems’ and ‘half-day travel’ which I didn’t understand and towards the end of the evening they started to complain about the hotels they had been made to stay at. By the time we parted I had the niggling suspicion that these audio titans were perhaps rather shallow bitter people. Have I made a bad career choice? Please advise me.

Disillusioned of Chingford

Dear Disillusioned of Chingford

Thank heavens that you have contacted me in time and thank heavens that your acquaintance had the good sense to show you a sound crew in the raw. You seem to me to be a sensitive caring young man and I think that perhaps the theatre in general and sound design in particular may not be for you. Are you religious? If not perhaps something in animal husbandry would suit you better. You can fill the theatrical void in your soul by collecting West End musical soundtracks on CD and at least these will have some resale value at car boot sales in the future.

Dear Uncle Ted

I am so confused and so worried, I do so hope that you can help me. I am a widow, my beloved Hubert having passed on some years ago. It appeared that he had left me in comfortable circumstances but what with the credit crunch, the recession and so on I now find that I am starting to eat into my life savings. Recently I attended a play at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford starring Felicity Kendall and Penelope Keith. At the interval I was feeling a bit woozy with the niceness of it all and a charming gentleman helped me to a chair. Despite the fact that he had a slight Merseyside accent I rather took to him and we didn’t go back in for the second half, we just drank gin and chatted in the bar. After a while, the gin having had its way with my tongue, I confided my financial woes to him. It turned out that this man is in fact a theatrical producer and he told me that these days the West End is the safest place in the world in which to invest and that he could “let me in on the ground floor” of a production that he is about to put on, a musical apparently based on a motorcar service manual. It sounds rather exciting and I am tempted to take the plunge and invest my life savings with this man. Is this wise?

Mrs W of Godalming.

Dear Mrs W

Personal finance can be a worry these days, what with oily Canary Wharf hedge-funders and Colombian money-launderers, it’s hard to know what to do for the best but in this case I can give you some solid advice. I think that I know the man that you refer to and I know for a fact that he is honest as the day is long and that his word is truly his bond. He is also correct in saying that the West End is a safe bet for your life savings and from what I have heard of the ‘service manual’ based musical it sounds like a sure fire smash to me, so be sure not to miss this opportunity to join the Lloyd-Webers and Cameron Mackintosh’s of this world. Now is your chance to become a high-roller!

Dear Anonymous of Old Compton St

Contact me immediately! You must not proceed with this project. What the director is proposing for Act 1 is definitely illegal in all EU countries and I can assure you that the inappropriate use of agricultural equipment in Act 2 can only end in tears.

Friday, 14 May 2010

This Blog

As you already know the catchy heading of this blog is “Sex, Proust & Railway Modelling” and many of my readers have emailed me to say “Ted you have written absolutely nothing about Proust, very little about railway modelling and, please, let’s hear more about your opinions on sex in the 21st century” I will try and repair the damage.

Let’s deal with railway modelling. The first thing that I am going to say is “My name is Ted Irwin and I am a railway modeller”. There I’ve said it and I feel better already. For the last couple of years I have managed to restrain the destructive impulse to spend hours in the shed trying to create a life-like scale version an early German branch line station. I have stoically moved on to military modelling and have spent my spare time painting model soldiers which is the equivalent of a methadone course for railway modellers, but now I am back mainlining again, or branch-lining in my case. For the record those of you who read my last piece about the election will be happy to know that I got my heart’s desire a hung Parliament and several yards of track laid and ballasted in the shed. I did pop into the house to see how Kirsty Wark was getting on only to discover that the BBC had decided to dump her into the rhododendrons in Nick Clegg’s front garden rather than have her hosting witty banter with the great and good. Watch out Kirsty, I think they have a career move in mind for you, before you know it you will be hosting Celebrity Window Cleaning.

On a more serious note I am often approached by young people who, knowing of my addiction, ask me this. “Ted I am thinking about becoming a railway modeller but I have heard that in order to do so I will have to give up sex completely. Is this true?.” This is a common misconception and has no foundation in fact. However, if you are going to take up this hobby, I would strenuously urge you to make sure that you have a sexual partner, ideally on a legal footing, before you do as you are unlikely to attract a member of the opposite (or same) sex once you do.

Now let’s deal with Proust. As far as I know Marcel Proust never wrote a single word about model railways. Had he wished to, the source material was all around him, he was fortunate in living at the height of the railway age and in 1891 the German firm Marklin introduced the first train set, though of course toy trains had been around as long as the real thing. Earlier literary titans like Shakespeare and Chaucer would have struggled with the concept of railway modelling. Perhaps Leonardo is the only man of sufficient vision from pre-railway times to come up with the idea of railway modelling and perhaps, just perhaps, he might have made the big leap and realised that if his models were magnified by about 87 times (assuming that he was working in HO scale which seems likely considering that he was an Italian) they could carry real people and thus revolutionise Renaissance transport. But even an intellectual giant of Leonardo’s stature would not have come up with that apogee of the railway modeller’s art, an exact scale recreation of a Great Western Railway branch line terminus complete with the stationmaster’s kitchen garden, bean poles, cabbages and all.

How different Proust’s masterwork might have been had his young hero not spent his afternoons fussing about in the gardens on the Champs-Elysees waiting for Gilberte to turn up but had parked himself at the end of one of the platforms at the Gare du Nord with a packet of fishpaste sandwiches (lovingly prepared by Francoise), a bottle of Tizer and a notebook in which to record those vital loco numbers. One afternoon a grimy but kindly engine driver might say the dreamed of words ‘Hop up sonny and have a look in my cab’.

Or maybe he and his Dad, a rather authoritarian but sometimes indulgent figure, could have worked together on ‘le train set’ in a shed at the bottom of his grandparents garden in Combray. I use the phrase ‘le train set’ with some trepidation as it could well provoke a storm of correspondence from irate railway modellers pointing out that while children have ‘train sets’ they have ‘layouts’. But for the family in Combray there would be no more worrying whether to take the Meseglise way or the Guermantes way on those shower threatened afternoon walks because there’s always plenty to be getting on with when you have a model railway. I can imagine father saying to his son ‘Get your nose out of that book Marcel we have track to ballast’ or ‘Come on old chap there’s just time for a shunting session before tea’.

One character from ‘Swann’s Way’ who would certainly have enjoyed a shunting session before tea is Uncle Adolphe. Uncle Adolphe is the narrator’s grandfather’s brother and he has a study in the house at Combray which is used by the narrator as a quiet spot in which to read. Unfortunately this arrangement comes apart when young Marcel pays a visit to Uncle Adolphe’s Paris apartments while the latter is entertaining a courtesan. The young man doesn’t realise what the lady is and goes to some pains to try to impress her with his maturity and sophistication, much to the embarrassment of Uncle Adolphe. He even goes as far as to kiss the ladies hand, which as far as I am concerned is fine, I was always brought up to be courteous to everyone whether they are prostitutes or not. In fact since I was once rescued from a stone throwing mob by a prostitute I rather go out of my way to be polite to them. However when Marcel returns home to his parents and, despite being cautioned by Uncle Adolphe not to mention the afternoon’s events, tells them what went on, they are outraged and Uncle Adolphe is banished forever from Combray and his study locked up. How much healthier if Uncle Adolphe had spent his twilight years escorting young Marcel on tours of narrow gauge lines in Brittany or rack railways in the Swiss Alps rather than dallying with this sort of woman.

Sadly as a ‘boy’ young Marcel is a bit of a disappointment. Quite apart from his unmanly lack of interest in railways it appears that his pockets are not stuffed with penknives, string and conkers. I doubt that his knees are permanently grazed and scabby or that he could recite all the names of the Combray Athletique first team. Worst of all he likes playing with girls.

Mention of girls brings us to our final topic ‘sex’. I am of course more than qualified to pontificate on this fascinating and mysterious subject but perhaps another time.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Election 2010 - The Thrill of It All

“We should have an Election Night party” I announced at the supper table the other night.


“But we’ve got school the next day.”

“Who would we invite?”

“What’s an election?”

These were the rather dispiriting responses and I realised that a jolly evening with like-minded left of centre metropolitan folk, drinking beer and eating ‘Original Cool’ flavour tortilla chips while watching the results roll in from Billericay and beyond was not an option. “Who would we invite?” was the killer. In 1997 we still lived in London and had the Election night of a lifetime watching the Tory party crash and burn (and oh don’t we get moist when we remember Portillo going down), all courtesy of master strategist Peter Mandelson. Over the intervening years Mandy has had a truly appalling press and I dare say he is in many respects an appalling man but I for one would buy him a drink simply for putting the Conservatives out in the wilderness for 13 years. Basingstoke is different, apart from anything else it is a safe Conservative seat and there is the distinct possibility that anyone we invite might be a Conservative. Another problem is that I have a wife who is not English and she doesn’t ‘get’ the charm of the British electoral system. “why is it on a Thursday?” she asked the other night (every other western European state votes at the weekend) and I couldn’t come up with an answer. She also doesn’t think that it’s fun to sit up until dawn watching a lot of aldermen in full regalia reeling off the results in dingy civic halls in places that she’s never heard of. So what shall I do? Perhaps I will lock myself in my shed at the bottom of the garden and combine Radio 4’s Election Night Special with an all-night railway modelling session. I am currently embarking on a tinplate ‘O’ gauge layout which will be an outdoor affair with a terminus based on the veranda of the shed with branches running out into the garden. For those of you who are interested ‘O’ gauge is at a scale of 1:43.5. Why 1:43.5 I hear you ask. What a stupid question! It is exactly twice the size of OO which is 1:87.

You may think that I am being unduly frivolous about the fate of our great nation but if you think that for the last couple of years the default result for this election has been a Conservative win then anything less than total triumph for smarmy Etonian android Cameron will be worth celebrating. Should the Queen have to invite the Conservatives to form a government, perhaps this time in a whimsical moment, working on the basis that anyone who likes Charlie Parker can’t be all bad, she might invite Kenneth Clark to form a government rather than Cameron, in much the same way that she invited Alec Douglas-Home rather than R A Butler fifty years ago. Fat chance, but we can dream. A more realistic scenario is one in which the Conservatives don’t get an overall majority and that even after buying Sinn Fein lots of drinks they can’t form a government without the Lib-Dems, something that they will not do since the price would have to be the adoption of some system of proportional representation. Any system of proportional representation virtually guarantees that we would never have a Conservative majority in Parliament ever again and all the fringe groups who never get a look in now, Greens, BNP, Islamic, Sikh, Polish plumbers etc would get representation. “Oh my God! We could end up like Belgium or Italy” I hear you say. Well I’ve been to Belgium and to be honest it didn’t seem all that bad, their railways are a bit shabby but none of the Belgians that I met seemed particularly worn down by their endless elections. As for Italy! Well if this country could become like Italy who would complain. Not me. Great railways, a cabinet entirely made up of escort girls and great food.

The only downside of spending the night in the shed might be missing out on Kirsty Wark who will presumably be hosting some sort of TV Election night chatter. This woman bizarrely manages to combine being the worst dressed woman on television with being the sexiest and it’s a hard one to call, Kirsty or track laying? I suspect the iron road will win and if we end up with a ‘hung’ Parliament and I get a few metres of track laid and ballasted I will be a happy man.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map