Thursday, July 11, 2002

A friendly word to anyone who shops in the Islington branch of Sainsbury's and should find themselves in the unfortunate position of being in front of me in the queue.

Please do ensure that you have your money ready when the check-out girl totals your bill.

Please do also have your Reward Card ready, and do know well in advance whether you want Cashback or not. And exactly how much.

Please don't wait until you have received your change, before even thinking about packing your purchases away in that pathetic little plastic carrier bag of yours. Which will break.

Please don't suddenly realise that you've missed out on a sensational and unmissable Two-For-One Offer. This will only necessitate the cashier calling over a colleague to track down and bring to you the offending article which, if you had half a brain, you would have picked up yourself first time round.

And then please do not query your bill, and stridently demand that the cashier ask the store manager to come and check the amount.

And please do not turn to me and ask me for my opinion.

Believe me.

As you found out this evening, it really isn't worth it.
I speak a couple of European languages and understand three or four more, (ooh, but I am such a cosmopolitan type!). This makes me something of an oddity among my fellow Brits on the Island. Now that there are talks to phase out regular foreign language classes in our schools, I'm resigned to becoming even odder still.

Hey, that's OK. Who wants to talk da Foreign, when everyone speaka da Engleesh anyway?

Sorry. Not an argument. Trying another language isn't just about finding your way more easily around the menu (which it is). It's not just about gaining a deeper understanding of another culture and tradition (which it is).

It's about respect.

Whenever I go abroad, I make a point of knowing at least a few phrases in the host language. Even for a stopover at Osaka airport, I could come up with the Japanese for "please", "thank you" and "another two bottles of beer". And that little bit of Swahili I made myself learn earned me entry to a Kenya tourists rarely ever see.

But then our Little-Englander refusal even to attempt another language either at home or abroad borders on the arrogant. It starts as soon as you step out onto the tarmac. Arrive at any European airport and you'll see signs directing you to the Ausgang/ Sortie/ Salida/ Exit. What do you get at Heathrow? Way Out. Welcome to the UK.

Hey, but that's OK. Why have multilingual signs in the world's busiest airport when everyone speaka da Engleesh anyway?

Not all of us have a knack for languages. We can't all be fluent speakers, slipping effortlessly and accentlessly from English to Italian to Thai to an obscure dialect of Serbo-Croat (although I bet there's a Dutchman out there could prove me wrong). But all us can make a little effort.

Try it the next time you're in a taverna in Rhodes, or on the Eurostar to Brussels. No, you won't make a fool of yourself. Yes, Johnny Foreigner probably will reply in English. And believe me, your feeble attempts at speaking in the local lingo will be warmly appreciated. He'll probably be so taken aback he'll even buy you a drink.

Because even a "Parlez-vous anglais?" shows you're trying.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Renaissance Man is a good mate of mine, a really nice bloke. He's an actor/ singer/ dancer/ director/ producer/ writer/ poet - well, you get the idea. But he's most at home on the West End stage. So it was a treat last night to see him playing the role of Scar in the London stage production of Disney's The Lion King.

It goes without saying he was great (hey, all my friends are great), so I'll say something about the show itself.

You know the plot. King's Wicked-Brother (Renaissance Man) kills King and takes over. Exiled Nephew comes back to reclaim Rightful Place as Lion King. Not something I'd normally see, immune as I am to Disney's saccharine sentimentality. Happily, the show is low on cuteness and high on honest-to-goodness spectacle.

What sets it apart from most other big-time shows isn't the exuberance of the cast (playing tonight to a noisily appreciative audience of tourists and brats children) or its occasionally knowing self-parody, but Director Julie Taymor's dazzling back-to-basics direction.

There's hardly a hi-tech gimmick to be seen. What you get instead is honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth theatrical spectacle. The sort you might have seen a couple or so decades ago before Musical Theatre stopped being fun. Before it discovered computer-generated Special Effects and Helicopters and Chandeliers threatening - and unfortunately failing every single bloody time! - to decapitate those corporate clients who can afford to sit in the front-stall seats.
Before we all forgot about Talent, in fact.

The Lion King is a feast of colour, and an inventive juxtaposition of ages-old African masks and costumes with puppet-theatre and shadow-play and with modern-day Western choreography and showmanship. It also provides the most effective use of stage lighting I've ever seen, transforming a blank backdrop into a scorching savannah sky, or into a mysterious night-time heaven pin-pricked with billions upon billions of stars and promises.

Best of all is the score: traditional-based South African and Zulu chants and rhythms forming a perfect counterpoint to the rock-influenced sounds of Tim Rice and Elton John. They have the Tingle Quotient, which is saying a lot these days.

It may not be the greatest musical currently playing the West End – Chicago is wittier and darker, Blood Brothers is cheaper and requires more Kleenex, and Les Miz still has the best tunes, but for a genuine, feel-good time, you can't do much better.

And my mate's in it.

Monday, July 08, 2002

Last Saturday saw London's lesbian and gay Mardi Gras parade and party take place in central and not-so-central London.

Like many other gay Londoners I know, I didn't go. The first time I've been a No-Show in almost fifteen years. I had personal reasons for not joining in the march in Central London, which I regret, but I knew that the main Party was going to be a flop. From all the feedback I've had, I wasn't wrong. I don't know the official figures yet, but I do know that two weeks before the event, ticket sales were way. way down from the expected 90, 000.

But then from the beginning, the whole event smacked of commercial desperation. First of all we were told that the Mardi Gras party was taking place in the Millennium Dome. Then, when it was discovered that the Dome was now owned by homophobes (you should have checked first, guys), the venue was rushed to Brockwell Park, home, a few years ago, to one of the best Pride parties ever. And then, when the rival Purple in the Park moved their September dance festival to early June (that effort another damp squib incidentally), Hackney Marches was decided upon.

Queens, eh? Couldn't organise a dose of the clap in a brothel.

Now, I like Hackney but it's situated in an area of London several thousand light years away from the end of the parade. It's a place where Nellies fear to tread, unless they're accompanied by a bodyguard of left-wing-cat-owning-2CV-driving-vegetarian lesbians (only joking, girls). It's an area of London with a reputation for violence, crack-heads, gangland killings, and a lack of tasteful interior furnishings.

And Underground Stations.

The nearest station, Stratford, was a forty-five minutes' walk away from the park, for God's sake. It's hard and potentially life-threatening to make that Bad Trip in drag and stilettos, especially when Old Compton Street is only a five-quid cab ride away. A few free coaches to ferry the attendees would have been welcome but, if there were any, then there weren't advertised.

Paying 20GBP on the gate on the day doesn’t help either. Especially when I'm not into G.A.Y. kiddie bands on the main stage, a staggering lack of good dance tents (clubs who played at Purple weren't allowed to play at Mardi Gras apparently), drug-fuct bungie-jumping, and paying well on three quid for a can of Red Stripe. Even the coup of having Brett and the boyswasn't enough to get me over to Zone Three.

So in the end, I stayed at home, watched the first four episodes of the marvellous Six Feet Under , then went out later for a fantastic night out with Party Boy, Bread Monster and the rest of the Posse at the ever-reliable Mothership .

I'm getting old. Or disillusioned.

Let's make it better next year, boyz. If you want, I'll help.