“My tongue has a mind of its own, which is more than I can say for my mind.”
An aphorism must be witty, but must also contain a grain of truth. I like to think that the above, which is all my own work, contains more than a grain – perhaps a peck or even a bushel. Of course, I shall expand.
I have, from time to time, come out with the odd zinger (he says modestly), many of which I have become quite proud, some of which still bring shame and a blush to my cheeks – we’ll come to them.
For starters: “Life’s too long to have enemies”. I’ve never understood the “too short” of the original. If life were indeed too short, then a few enemies would not be too much to bear. But having enemies takes some effort and having them for a lifetime is too much hard work.
Next: “I’ve stopped going to nudist beaches; I can’t stand those slimy, sidelong glances I keep giving everyone.’ Enough said. (The Nudist Beach Rule: the uglier the body, the more clothes it removes.)
OK, so maybe I have been a witty young thing from time to time but the following modest examples come from the years after I had left our girt-by-sea shores.
A bit of a set-up is needed here.
In 1969, along with several other poofs, I stayed over Easter in a hotel in Tangier, Morocco. We’d gone for sunshine, it rained for twelve days. Our downmarket hotel was run by two rather fey Englishmen, Tony and Michael, who passed themselves off as uncle and nephew. Sure, sure. Michael, the “nephew” was charming enough, but “uncle” Tony was a stuffy old quean, very up himself.
One wet Friday evening it was agreed we’d go to the local French restaurant, La Grenoille. We’d meet in the hotel bar for an aperitif, then make our way under umbrellas to the restaurant.
We were tardy. We were on holidays. All dressed up, arriving late in the bar, we found a testy Tony finishing his martini, chiding us for our lateness. We ordered drinks and things only got worse when Tony announced that he was off to the restaurant to be on time and we could please ourselves. Mike thought the whole thing too silly and we had more drinks.
Finally we arrived at the restaurant. Tony sat at the head of the table, steam, it would seem, emanating from his ears. Menus were distributed. Tony finally broke the silence.
“I take it you all read French”, he said.
“Correct”, I replied, “on both counts.”
There was an intake of breath, then someone laughed, then Tony laughed. The ice was broken and a good time was had by all.
In Knightsbridge, London, there was a very camp restaurant called La Popotte , very popular with the gay crowd, especially on Sundays when the pubs were open only from noon to 2.00pm, reopening at 5.00pm. I dined there often. Though the food was generally ghastly, the atmosphere was great. One Sunday I was there and at the next table were an obviously straight couple. Having had a litre or two of Moroccan plonk, I leaned across to the male of the pair and said, for no discernable reason, “May I borrow your mascara?”
“I’m not wearing mascara,” he replied, not unreasonably.
My brain was on autopilot as I said, “Oh, sorry. It must be your nose that’s running”.
What a stupid thing to say to a total stranger. However, again everyone broke into laughter, including the straight couple and more drink was taken.
The next one wasn’t funny, just downright bitchy. I was dating a good-looking boy called Simon. He had a swarthy, rather Spanish complexion and a broken nose which actually made his face look more interesting. We arranged to meet up at a friend’s party.
“Guess what,” he announced excitedly, “I’m having my nose fixed.”
“Well,” I replied, again on autopilot, “if it worked for Shirley Bassey, it will work for any black woman.”
He, understandably, slapped my face and a budding relationship died. He walked out. How silly. How cruel. But I was the centre of attention for the rest of the party, everyone wanting to know what I had said, what I had done. Certainly brightened up an otherwise dull afternoon.
OK, better redeem myself, if possible.
Many years later, back in Sydney, I was having dinner with my mate Tim in Potts Point at the Barrel Inn (formerly Vadim’s, for those of you in the know). I regularly played piano there but this was my night off. A cold stormy night it was and as a result there were only two other diners in the place – father and daughter, as it turned out. We could hardly ignore each other, said hello and agreed to join them for coffee.
When we did so the father introduced his daughter and I shook her hand.
Time became suspended. As I held her hand, I realised that all her fingers ended at the first joint. In what were no more than three seconds I had all of these thoughts: What do I do? How do I react? Do I just say nothing? But I felt that would be dishonest. I can hardly say, “What happened to your fingers?” Time resumed its inevitable progress.
“Well,” I said, releasing her hand, “you must save a fortune on nail polish.”
She laughed like a drain. So did her father. Of course she was a thalidomide baby and of course she played classical guitar and could touch type. She was so relieved with my reaction to something she’d lived with for a lifetime. They told us stories of embarrassing moments and I was pretty proud of myself.
Now I’m going to finish with the downer. All the more down because the night was so up. Christmas Eve in the Tilbury Hotel, Woolloomooloo in Sydney, then owned by my great friends Geoffrey and Michael. The tradition was that after the cabaret, I appeared at the piano in my Santa suit, song sheets were distributed and carols were sung. They were a lively crowd, well fuelled and watered and a great time was being had. After finishing one carol, a young girl in the audience asked if I could play her grandmother’s favourite carol.
“And what is it?” I asked.
“Away in a Manger,” she replied.
“Oh, I said, “that’s one of my favourites. How old is your grandmother?”
“Oh, she died three days ago,” was the reply.
“Gee,” I said, ever tactless, “I hope you hadn’t bought her a Christmas present.”
“No,” she said, and she laughed and I smiled smugly.
And the entire room fell into the iciest silence…
“All together now, away in a manger…” I sang, in a desperate attempt to revive spirits. But it wasn’t easy. It had become one tough room.
I think this is the first time I’ve got up the courage to tell that story, but I did promise you previously that this is a warts and all thing.