I’ve been in the land of cheese and novelty dildos, a land where a man in a Paisley cotton frock and cardigan can get on a tram, put a plastic colander on his head and attract no attention whatsoever . This is Amsterdam – where anything goes and frequently does. On my first night I go to Drag Central to play Deal or No Deal in a bar. Noel Edmunds is played by a he/she called Amy Housewine. The banker is played by Deirdre Barlow in a peach velour tracksuit complete with some very dodgy padding in the back AND front bottom areas. She’s obviously going for the prolapsed womb look which, I think is quite pioneering in the world of drag actery. Anyway, we play the game for a while and I win some suspicious looking unguent, following which, for no reason whatsoever, I join with a pocket-sized Asian gentleman to sing ‘Climb every mountain’. I’m here to celebrate E’s birthday. He’s got a house full. One small friend, a mother of three, has flown in from Majorca, another, a recently retired trolly dolly (also quite small), has jetted in from Minneapolis and we’ve got a law lecturer lady (of normal size) from Bury St Edmunds to boot. We are very pan-global. Unfortunately, with five people and only one bedroom, we are having to be creative in our sleeping arrangements. We stick the trolley dolly in the big bed while the girls hunker down on the put-me-up. There’s some talk of lying sideways on which means we can toss and turn without losing anyone over the edge but unfortunately, my legs are way too long so we agree to keep all wriggling to a minimum and snuggle up for the tightest night’s sleep ever. Our host offers us the choice of two teddies but we have to say no – like Jesus, there is simply no room in the inn. By contrast, at a recent jazz night in a Brighton basement, there is plenty of room. The night outside is Siberian raw and the performance is by a bunch of wannabees. Consequently, only a handful of peeps have made it to the gig. In the dim light, we huddle around our cups of cocoa while a girl with bed hair scats, ‘dooby, dooby, doo, wah, wah, wah’, accompanied on the double bass by a man in socks and sandals – very impractical footwear considering the weather I think. There’s a woman on a piano freestyling like a good ‘un but her solos seemingly have no end and the languid lady in a mini-dress who’s taken over the mike doesn’t know where to come in. Thankfully, a man from the back comes looking for the sugar bowl and somewhere in the midst of the ensuing kerfuffle, another man with a saxophone jumps on stage and starts hooting. I can’t write anymore, otherwise I will have to kill myself.
It was a dirty night on the east side of Brighton. I’d been hanging in a bar with some Swedish chick and her pooch – a scraggy canine with a shot jaw. I’d not eaten so my gut was growling and something about the bar that night was fraying my nerves. Maybe it was the weird Asian guy in a duffel coat who kept pacing up and down in front of our table, eyeballing me, the dog and the Swede in a way that spelled trouble. At any minute I felt he was gonna dive in and start stroking one of us. Anyways, I was ready to cut the joint when Miss Sweden asked me back to her place for a cup of joe and a go on her Wii. The joe cleared my head but the Wii gave me the jitters so I split. Once outside, I straddled my sit up and beg, pulled my beret over my eyes and headed down St James Street into the driving sleet. I knew I was acting crazy, cycling the wrong way down a one way street but I just had to get home and I didn’t wanna freeze running the gamut of the seafront with its sleazy gay bars and chip shops. Damn my stupidness. I barely saw the arm thrust out of the car window ahead of me. Sure, I saw it wave up and down insistently and through the sleet, I saw the car had markings but thinking it was a cab with an angry driver, I ignored it, cycled around its rear and sped up a side street. ‘Stoppppppp’ The guttural cry pierced the ice cold night air, followed by the urgent pat, pat, pat of rubber on tarmac. Someone was chasing me and they were wearing sensible shoes. Suddenly, she was there in front of me – a small police woman with a podgy nose and cheap streaks. Did I know that failing to stop for the police was a criminal offence? Did I know I was cycling the wrong way down the road? No and no I answered, choking back the urge to laugh. I pleaded ignorance and threw in my mistaking them for a taxi line of defence, at which point they wanted to know ‘had I been drinking?’ By now, a motley crowd of assorted winos and crack heads had gathered around us (who else in St James St?). ‘It’s a fair cop guv’ I shrugged or words to that effect at which point big nose said she wasn’t going to breathalise me but would be issuing me with a £30 fine for irresponsible bicycle riding. What a drama. Mea culpa. Lock me up and smack my bottom with a large hairbrush.
Step, step, cha cha cha, step, step, cha, cha, cha. Bear with; just practising my ballroom – for I have been dancing with lesbians. I didn’t mean to – it was an accident. H, who has a Gold Medal in Rumba (from the Gay Olympics in Vancouver) invited me along to see his ‘show dance’ at the Same Sex Ball. ‘Oh, I don’t mind if I do’, says I, thinking I’d be doing a Darcy Bussell on a panel or at least be part of an hysterical audience. But no, I was expected to partake of the quick-step, the Vietnamese Waltz et al. Heaven help the lesbians thought I, glad that I had sensible shoes on and trousers so that I wouldn’t show my knickers when I got thrown between someone’s legs. My first foray under the glitter ball was a fast and furious line dance that involved some quite complex leg wiggling. After that, I was approached by a very stern lady in a three-piece with Brillo Pad hair who kept shouting at me that I was taking too many steps. Just as I was about to punch her, I was rescued by a vertically-challenged Asian lady in an off-the-shoulder spangly confection who tried her best to guide me around the floor but as I was going backwards and she couldn’t see over my shoulder, we kept barging into the other dancers and scuffing up their brogues. After just one circuit of the sprung floor, Madame Butterfly hastily dropped me back at our table and ran off to do an American Smooth with a woman with big boobs. H then came on and did his famous rumba with a man with a shiny head. Dressed in tight black frilly shirts, they strutted around the floor, pouting, squinting and flapping their arms every which way. Oh how the lesbians whooped. Following this, I was approached by an exceptionally tall ‘lady’ who I suspect, by her splayed legs and stoop might have once worked on a building site. In her capable arms and lulled by her throaty whisper, I mastered the cha cha cha. With the spirit of Strictly coursing through my body, I decided to have a stab at Zumba the following week and am proud to say I can now perform a rudimentary Gangnam Style gallop.
Another curious idiosyncrasy about the Germans – they don’t like you going the ‘wrong’ way in an art gallery. Take my visit to the Brucke Museum in Berlin; on entering I’d assumed the gait of your typical museum flaneur, ie take a few tentative steps towards a painting, stop, adjust handbag, fold arms, cock head, hitch hip and purse lips in casual contemplation, then cross legs, lean perilously to one side and at the point of toppling, slide into an 180 degree turn, collide with a short Italian, mumble an apology sotto voce without gaining eye contact then head off with purpose to a reclining nude. Repeat. Except I was going backwards. Now when it comes to German Expressionism, I can take my Kirchners before my Muellers or vice versa and since there was no chronological element to this exhibition, why follow the herd? Because I was in Germany, that’s why. Starting at the end and working my way backwards was not an option. I was told in no uncertain terms by a very severe floor walker that I should resist my urge to swim upstream and go with the flow. Later on that day, I mercifully resumed a more jaunty walking speed, pushing a clothes rail with one hand while carrying a pot plant with the other along a busy main road in East Kreuzberg. C’s play had finished and I was helping clear the theatre of random props – half eaten cheesecake, comedy meat cleaver, forensic overalls etc. although with no car, we had to shift it all by hand. Like theatrical refugees, we plodded along the cobbles, heads down against the winter drizzle, skirting the dog dirt and the crusties with their Netto trollies full of cheese balls and New Year’s grog, past the burly dope dealer and the Turkish takeaway. This being New Year, we celebrated with a cheese fondue then went outside to the River Spree to watch the pyrotechnic carnage. Here I was given the biggest sparkler I’ve ever seen, dodged horizontal fireworks and got caught up in a street fracas involving van loads of German riot police, a mini bonfire and a couple of very shouty Turkish women. The next day, nursing a banging headache, I went to a very rousing performance of Ode to Joy at the Berliner Philharmonik. For a finale, on the way home, a man on the U-bahn played Careless Whisper on his mouth organ. That was nice!
Ladeez und gentlemen, wilkommen in Berlin, a city of grand grafitti and decadent dog dirt, big cakes and long sausages; a city that loves to shove a stiff finger at the establishment yet tut tuts if a pedestrian crosses the road willy nilly on a red Ampelman. Other paradoxes: it’s bad form to woop like a demented banshee at the Berliner Philhamonik but absolutely de rigeur to let rockets off in the hand or better still, chuck them at unsuspecting passers-by. Shabby chic is very big in Berlin, although, I have to say, in East Kreuzberg, it’s more shabby than chic and quite often, positively dangerous. Take C’s apartment; we had to stick rows of Handiman pocket tissues on all the door lintels because obviously the Berliners of 100 years ago were Liliputian and big strapping gels from England had not yet been invented. C’s bathroom was quite a challenge too. The toilet and wash facilities were, for some odd reason, separated only by a waist high wall and a plastic curtain and, since the shower was accessed via an uncloseable door to the kitchen, it was possible for three people to simultaneously eat, poo and wash while keeping up a lively conversation. The ‘bath’ was also obviously designed for a person of reduced stature, quite possibly a gymnast. It was a little like a hip bath but as there was no plug, the only way to wash was to lie back with bent knees and wave the hand-held shower up and down until all bits were cleansed. Unfortunately, I never worked out how to turn over safely to do my back parts and I couldn’t stand up because my size 8s wouldn’t fit into the flat part of the bath unless I had one foot in directly in front of the other, Egyptian style, which rendered me unstable and likely to topple over the small wall and into the toilet. The sleeping arrangements too were a tad unconventional. While I was sleeping in the living room, C’s bed was a bunk bed in the walk-in wardrobe next door with a high up picture window that overlooked the living room. For privacy, C had festooned this handy portal with a nifty little curtain made of J-cloths which he took great pains to draw every evening and open every morning. My first morning in Berlin, C and I went on a wander through the local park to marvel at the drug dealing, to the Tempelhof where they’re growing vegetables on the disused runway and to admire a rather fine urinal that was wonderfully clean and had some intricate tiling on the splash back. Later on I took a bite of C’s Currywurst (anaemic sausage drenched in chemical sauce) which is quite possibly the WURST thing I’ve ever tasted – if you don’t count the ‘pizza’ I once ordered in Turkey that was so inedible, it made me gag although being British, rather than complain, I folded it over and walked out of the restaurant with it under my arm like a clutch bag. More to come…..
A few weeks ago, at about 4am, something landed on my head. It was lighter than a hamster but heavier than a sequin. Still half asleep, I batted if off and returned to my dream where I was making chelsea buns with Kevin Costner in the celebrity version of the Great British Bake Off. In the morning, I found a small green stick on my pillow that on closer inspection, looked suspiciously like the LEG OF AN INSECT. Ages after, I was rummaging in my pant drawer and found a ruddy great cricket nestled in among the gussets and yes, it was one leg down. All of which posed the question, don’t insects who’ve sustained massive injuries such as loss of limbs bleed to death? Also, what was sustaining the cricket in my pant drawer? Later that week, I was in France at a drama workshop, killing time before the cheese market opened. There were 15 Sarah Bernhardt wanna be’s and a couple of Maurice Chevalier’s but there’d been a mix up with the rooms which meant the philosophy debating society had taken the big room and we were relegated to a walk-in wardrobe. Having endured a near-death experience in an Icelandic sweat lodge, my present predicament, being sandwiched between a rotund individual called Florence, an industrial sized filing cabinet and a sloping ceiling all felt perfectly fine. Even when we were invited to do something spontaneous with a feather boa and a cricket bat, I somehow managed to be creative without taking anyone’s eye out. However, after an hour or so of some very energetic improvisation, the lack of air had catapulted some of us into giddy hysteria. Sebastien, a slip of a lad with a pigeon chest and Chinese slippers, started singing ‘Fly me to the Moon’ at the top of his voice and when we played blink murder, my screams and the ensuing kerfuffle almost caused a stacked chair tsunami, at which point the head of the philosophy debating society burst in, complaining that they weren’t able to hear themselves think. Talking about disturbances, I went to see the very French film, Rust and Bone at the cinema the other night and during some post-coital murmurings between a woman who’d had her legs bitten off by a killer whale and a man who punched gypsies for a living, a lady in the row in front trumped loudly. Well that makes a refreshing change.
On the final day of my Icelandic sojourn, the girls suggested we go to a sweat lodge. Now this is not a particularly Icelandic pursuit but in the spirit of doing everything once, apart from incest and drinking your own wee, I agreed to take part. The sweat lodge was located in the back garden of a ramshackle bungalow, down a cinder path just off highway number 1 on the outskirts of Reykjavik. On arrival, we were greeted by two old queens and a herd of rabbits (I know this isn’t the correct collective noun but they were seriously en masse). Everywhere I looked there were bunnies – around our ankles, under the cars, in the bushes. Why there were so many and why they were so tame was never explained but this is Iceland – a country that believes in elves and trolls so let’s say no more. The house itself (which was thankfully bunny-free) was a labyrinth of small interlinked rooms, each one festonned with fairy lights, lurid murals and various eclectic nicky nacky noos. No surface was untouched by the hand of kitsch.
The first stage of the sweat involved putting on some cheap plastic sunglasses that corresponded to our date of birth (I was turquoise), having our pulse points dabbed with a melange of suspicious smelling unguents and then going inside for some wild dancing in the disco room. Here, 18 barefoot men and women in various stages of undress moved, grooved, shimmied and flailed to the likes of Frankie goes to Hollywood, bongo from the Congo and something by Madonna involving the lyrics ‘kill the bitch’. It wasn’t exactly spiritual but we did all get off on the raw energy of ‘Relax, don’t do it’ and I had tremendous fun shaking my maracas. After we’d worked up a light sweat, we put our cozzies on and went out into the chill night air to the sweat lodge itself, a low-level yurt type construction covered with tarpaulin and blankets with no windows and only a small entrance. We had to bend double to get in – scrabbling to find a space in the dark, smoky interior. There we sat, cheek by jowl in a circle around a fireplace waiting for the sweat to start. Then the hot stones came in, the flap went down, the water went on, and the chanting began. ‘ooooooohhh I’m not claustrophobic, I’m not claustrophobic’, I chanted to myself as the Mexican lady with the big legs next to me keeled over. In between each 15 minute session of wailing and panting, the flap would open and someone would throw a wet flannel and a bottle of water at us. By the end of the fifth session, one girl had had a panic attack and legged it and I was rolling around moaning and wiping my face in the dirt – the only piece of cool in the whole ruddy place. Then Nonni (Master of the Flannel and ecstatic dance DJ) said we were done and could leave. I crawled out and collapsed on the grass, a quivering wreck. Nonni came over and threw a bucket of cold water over me and we all got in a hot tub. Later on, around midnight we had some watery soup and Nonni read my rune stones. He said I shouldn’t travel the next day as something would happen. I felt like slapping him.
After Akureyri, we caught a boat to the small island of Hrisey. Think Hitchcock’s The Birds but without the pecking – although there were a few irritable ptarmigans owing to my rambling off-piste into their nesting area. Things to do on the island (population 120): admire the herring drying racks, go on a tractor ride with a fisherman called Ragnr, get all steamed up in a hot tub then lose your footing and roll over onto a very small person called Julia. ‘Ha, ha’ we laughed as we sprawled nonchalantly in 40 degrees of Volcanic bathwater on the summer house verandah, waving at the birds and passing whales. One night, Annetta tried to impress me with her roast lamb signature dish. Sadly, the bbq was playing up and we ended up with a plate of charcoal. Luckily for us though, Helga’s dad, who comes from Nottingham, had given us his homemade pork pie which we enjoyed with a side salad of sausage, so we didn’t starve. Moving on from the island, we drove to Myvatn , the romantically-named ‘Lake of Midges’ – an area dominated by volcanic landforms and lava caves. Here, while fighting off the flies, we cosied down with a touchy-feely type called Gutti. Gutti was a man of tools and a pair of false knees. This hadn’t stop him building a b&b in the arse-end of nowhere. His ‘house’ was a health and safety nightmare – there were axes, jigsaws and chainsaws galore – but most pressing on Gutti’s agenda was showing us his crack! And we’re not talking buttocks. Gutti’s crack was a secret hole in the ground that housed possibly the hottest water I’ve ever swum in. After climbing down a 30ft vertical rock face , we stripped off and swam in semi-darkness taking great care not to kick too wildly for fear of shredding our toes on the submerged rocks. Annetta and Helga took this opportunity to wash each other’s hair while Gutti and Elin sat on a rock petting. You don’t get that in your local baths! Well ok, maybe you do. Must be something in the water.
Russell Crowe is currently in Iceland filming Noah and his Ark – the movie. Apparently, when not escorting zoo animals up and down the fjords, Russell likes cycling around town with his beard and eating Skyr yoghurt. He has not punched anyone so far. This was the shock news that hit me when I landed at Keflavik airport last weekend. It seems Reykjavik can’t get enough of bad boy Russell; in fact, they’d even put on a Festival of Bacon in his honor. The streets were awash with sausages and the Icelandic equivalent of Mumford and Sons were playing their banjos under a gazebo on the high street. Later on that night, we were treated to a firework display and some Kosovan contemporary dance on a theme of domestic violence. The next day, the girls and I packed our chunky socks and sleeping bags, popped a couple of sheep’s heads into an Eski and piled into the car for our northerly road trip. Husafell was our first stop – a collection of summer houses and a campsite surrounded 360 degrees by mountains. Interesting facts about Icelandic countryside: blueberries grow wild and free; there is no discernible dog dirt or stingers (so pulling down your drawers for an al fresco wee is a relatively stress-free occupation). Oh yeah, and there are lots of opportunities to kill yourself: you could fall down a crevice into a scaldingly hot geo thermal pool, slip into a raging torrent of glacial melt, get run off a single lane dirt road by a tractor or get lost in a lava cave. At Surtshellir, I opted for the latter. There was a gaggle of chattering Italians around the mouth of the cave making ‘ooh, aah’ noises but no-one was man enough to go in. This was my Indiana Jones moment. ‘Stand back’ I announced to the lily-livered Latinos as Annetta (my trusty Viking companion) and I plunged into the maw of the deep, dark cave with only our head torches to light the way. After an hour of clambering we were ready for a cheese and Icelandic pickle sandwich but on reaching the other end of the tunnel, buggeration, we couldn’t get out. Twice more, we had to plunge back into the cave and clamber through another tunnel (the ice-cold glacial melt dripping down our sweat-sodden backs) before we were finally able to climb out and to safety. On the way to Akureyri, Iceland’s northerly second ‘city’ , we passed a film crew at the side of the road. Was this where we would see Russell striding out over the lava field dressed in a sack pursued by a couple of elephants? No, it was an Icelandic TV special about horses. That night in Akureyri, we went to a bar where I met a climbing instructor from Crewe and an aspiring opera singer who, with his cousin (a 20 something twat in a tie) kept grabbing hold of each other and breaking into song. ‘O sole mio’ they wailed, magnificently off-key, eyes glassy with fraternal adoration and a surfeit of Icelandic vodka . Christ, where are the Italians when you need them?
After the tear-jerking and pant-wetting that was the opening ceremony I popped down to Horse Guards for some beach ball action. Top tip: do not put your dirty knickers in your mini manicure bag because a small soldier with pimples will want to examine them in case they contain a bomb. I have never had a bomb in my pants but I guess I could have hurtled down the grandstand onto the court and stabbed one of the volleyballers with my tweezers. It’s funny because I did get the urge to stab someone with my tweezers when I was queueing at the portaloo prior to going into the arena. Why do some women take so long to have a Jimmy Riddle? A wee is something you do chop chop - in fact if you push hard enough you can get it all out double time. It didn’t help that some Japanese ladies had got berserk with the toilet paper and created a big blockage. Once inside the arena, we were entertained by a bunch of orange dancing nymphettes and a very shouty man on a mike who kept urging us to do Mexican waves and perform complex clapping routines. I complied but then my buttocks lost contact with my pop-up seat and I fell on my arse. Meanwhile, in between games, for some inexplicable reasons they played Benny Hill’s theme tune while a group of young lovelies chased a man in Bermuda shorts up and down the aisles. Oh yeah and then there was an incident over by the Post Office tower involving a lot of black smoke – probably someone else’s pants had exploded.