Archive | April, 2014

The Baron’s Court

16 Apr
1977.  St James's Park? Battersea?

London 1977

In the early-to-mid-70s, Earl’s Court could certainly lay claim to being London’s first ‘gay village’, but back then, the expression ’gay’ was in its relative cultural infancy – and the Red Tops were still putting-out clichéd stuff about paedophile vicars and teachers – some of which, unfortunately, was true, although the vast majority were evidently warped closet-cases.

Generally, however, gay men were perceived by the media as being some kind of low-life-ne’er-do-wells who apparently wore brown, suede hush-puppies, tight, white trousers and minced around like Larry Grayson (shut that door!), Liberace or Charles Hawtrey.

What forbidden planet were we allegedly on?

In 1974, RCA had released my first solo album Messages worldwide (see my sleeve notes to Messages – The Reissue, 2009 ) when I was just 22 and I mistakenly thought that my career was on an upward trajectory after receiving some excellent reviews and plenty of press attention – not to mention the absolute joy of having played a Steinway Concert Grand piano live with a full orchestra on my 11-minute piece-de resistance ‘Messages From Heaven’ at the old AIR Studios on the top floor of what is now Nike Town at Oxford Circus.

It still sounds pretty good today, although a touch over-elaborate, in my humble opinion. Perhaps that was something to do with me being 21 at the time of the recording and the fact that Mark Edwards, my erswhile manager and producer, was an upper-class gay, alcoholic junkie who looked just like Gandalf, as later portrayed in by Ian McKellen in the film cycle of Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings’.  Just to over-egg the traumatic pudding, he was also obsessed with me, but was firmly rebuffed (why on earth would I be attracted to someone who looked like that?). Then came the violent abuse. Physical and mental. Sometimes in public.  Fleeting, horrible memories linger in my brain like rancid leftovers in a broken-down fridge which was disposed of at the local dump a long time ago. I’m not in denial at all, but why should I invoke traumatic memories – what’s the point?  He was just a fucked-up, grade-A bastard who for some reason sported a ludicrously creepy beard featuring two 8-inch plaits.

Messages

Messages

One of the songs on ‘Messages’ is called ‘The Earl’s Court Case’ which was me imagining myself as a judge of the sleazier side of what was then a fairly run-down area populated by transients, back-packers (mostly Antipodean), junkies, hookers and rent boys and their punters who filled the cheap hotels. At night it became a mecca for gay males, who were, back in the day, almost exclusively caucasian. So, if you’re familiar with this slice of West London,  I guess that ‘The Baron’s Court’ (the title of this true tale that you’re perusing. Keep up!) could have been a sequel song to my Messages song ‘The Earl’s Court Case’, if I’d ever written it.

This makes me pause for thought: has anyone ever actually written a sequel song? I imagine that such a thing could have occurred in the crasser quarters of American country music – with all its tear-jerking bathos and commercially-led emotional arm-twisting. Not that I could steel myself to cynically write something so contrived. That’s not to say that there are not great songs in that genre – one of my favourites is ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston, albeit in its beautifully-sung Pop/R&B incarnation. It was written by Dolly Parton, and her original version proves what a great song it is. Willy Nelson and his tremulous stoner voice gives ‘good song’ though, as did Glen Campbell, via the fantastic songwriting talent of Jimmy Webb.

After falling into abject poverty in the second half of 1975,  I suddenly found myself becoming fairly successful in early ’76, having been recommended for the job of keyboard player in the top pop group Pilot by their former keyboard player Billy Lyall, who was a friend and a fellow gay man.

Billy had co-written their biggest hit ‘Magic’, which had been a top ten single on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as being the music for a Coca Cola advert. So it was not like he was going to be short of cash any time soon. Sadly, like so many of my friends and lovers, he was to die from an AIDS- related illness over a decade later, in 1989. R.I.P you sweet man. Thanks for the friendship and the props. I got the gig with Pilot on the spot and was soon recording all the keyboards on their album ‘Two’s A Crowd’ in Abbey Road’s legendary Studio Two (The Beatles’ second home, before their untimely demise) with the equally legendary Alan Parsons (who had famously been the sound engineer on Pink Floyd’s multimillion-selling Dark Side Of The Moon) in the production seat.

Suddenly, I was on a retainer, which was a bit of a first. As I recall, it was the princely sum of £60 a week (plus expenses and session fees), which was not bad for someone who was essentially broke, but it was hardly generous, coming from a very successful pop group.

If you put it into historical, economic perspective, the rent for my scummy basement ‘flat’ (I use the description loosely) at number 9, St Luke’s Road in Notting Hill – which basically comprised of one room and a very basic kitchen, with no bathroom and an outside toilet (outside!) – was £7 a week. Meanwhile, the members of Pilot swished around respectively in a Lotus Esprit, a Porsche and a vintage Rolls Royce. I didn’t drive – not that I could afford to. Still don’t.

Pilot with myself (top left) and my dog Sam.

Pilot in 1976 with myself (top left) and my dog Sam.

Pilot’s catchy little ditties frankly left me cold, although the musicianship was of a high standard. I’m a pretty proficient player myself. Alan Parsons was a big fan of the uber-producer-of-the-60s (and convicted murderer of the future) Phil Spector, who had famously multi-tracked many of the instruments on his recordings – especially the pianos. Alan made me play the keyboard parts over and over again – even solos (I had to duplicate every single note) – then multi-tracked them at ever-so-slightly different tape speeds (thereby putting them ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune) to create a big fat sound, using a new-fangled 16-track (16 track!) tape machine.

We also did a few TV shows – traveling only in vintage, black Daimler limo’s –  and then we had to run the gauntlet of hundreds of screaming girls, which was a whole new surreal experience for me.

My extraordinary dog Sam (rescued from the Battersea Dog’s Home in 1974) came with me everywhere, appearing on stage sitting next to my keyboards wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.

He absolutely lapped-up all the attention and everyone fell in love with him – he was also a complete, polysexual doggy-slag – he’d shag anything that wagged its tail.

However, the ultimate ironic contrast was being dropped-off after a show by a big old Daimler limo outside my dingy home – and slamming the door loudly so that the neighbours would notice (although that was actually a bit of post-modern – or most-podern, as alter-ego and pretend-friend Thom Topham would say. I didn’t actually give a shit what the neighbours thought, apart from my dear friend Caroline Guinness, who lived in my old flat on the first floor upstairs. But we were so close and in-tune that everything was doubly ironic and therefore thrice most-podern.

Unfortunately ‘Two’s A Crowd’ was to prove to be Pilot’s swan song, so suddenly, at the beginning of 1977, I was out of a job. Ian Bairnson, the guitarist, and David Paton, the bassist and singer, got absorbed into what became the massively successful Alan Parsons Project. Needless to say, I didn’t. Not that I was a big fan of prog-rock anyway. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t perform it with aplomb, if required – I was really good at the twiddly-widdly bits – but my real love was soul music and soulful rock, and therefore, by default,  creating the soulful, singer-songwriter rock music that I was now starting to write in earnest.

By far the best gay hang-out in Earl’s Court at the time was called The Catacombs, where the DJ Chris Lucas would play the best American soul, funk and disco imports from the US.  Sometimes, the very talented and latterly legendary DJ Talulah would guest on the decks too.  This was a cramped, low-ceilinged basement which was essentially a glorified coffee bar. The only available seating was in the booths in the  the vaults under the pavements, as the building was on a corner. These were arrayed in an L-shape around the stone-flagged dancefloor, with its central pillar. It was kind-of crypt-like. After 11pm, when the pubs closed, it became a seething mass of gyrating, sweaty bodies, dancing their asses-off to the fabulous music, many sniffing poppers in the badly-ventilated (air-con – are you kidding?) smoke-filled gloom. It was also massively ‘cruisy’ and the atmosphere literally stank of man-sex. In those days, night clubs had to offer membership, or some form of ludicrous  food-with-temporary-membership deal (a bit of coleslaw and a cocktail sausage roll anyone?) in order to serve alcohol after 11pm, when the pubs had closed.

The Catacombs was not a licenced premises (how formal and 70s does that sound?), but I, like many others, would have often nipped into the off-licence around the corner earlier in the evening and bought a quarter bottle of vodka, or whatever, to smuggle-in later. Also, this was when the gay scene started discovering recreational drugs – and the main, cheap drugs of choice at the time were barbiturate pills which were branded as mandrax (or ‘mandies’ as they were better known) and purple or blue amphetamines – usually slimming pills aimed at women – which were known as uppers or blues, or simply ‘speed’.

In November 1975 I had been thrilled to find myself at Bruce Springsteen’s debut British gig at The Hammersmith Odeon – a friend of mine at his record label had blagged me a free ticket. There had been feverish interest in ‘The Boss’. I owned all his records and was already a massive fan. This was more than vindicated by his incredible performance with the magnificent E-Street Band, which left me elated and inspired. No more semi-prog-pretense for me – I felt that I was now confident enough to start writing and singing from the heart and soul, rather than the head – which was exemplified, I hope, in my 1980 album Fresh Blood (which was reissued on CD in 2009 and is on iTunes and all the usual online outlets). Reviews at the time compared me to Bowie, Costello and Springsteen and I was beyond thrilled.  Rolling Stone Magazine had described Fresh Blood as ‘a sparkling debut’ (not that it was – it was my second album) and the review concluded with the line: ‘And BOY can this guy write lyrics!’.

After Springsteen’s brilliant show, I headed for The Catacombs, feeling like I was walking on air with a metaphorical woolly THE BOSS hat on my head. My good mood must have been infectious, because within an hour I was heading back to my grungy basement with a beautiful, masculine Spanish painter. Now, this may well be an urban myth, but the next day, one of my friends called to say, somewhat breathlessly, that post-gig, Springsteen had been seen slipping into The Catacombs.

I had heard rumours that he was bisexual, and certainly his performance suggested, subtlety, that he was in touch with his homo-erotic-emotional side (porn in the USA perchance?). I guess I’ll never know if that was true (unless I come across him on Grindr).

After the Catacombs closed at around 1.30am, most of the people who’d been in the club would ‘cruise’ around the block – probably much to the annoyance of the local residents. There was also an endless stream of cars whose drivers were looking to pick someone up. I was a regular pavement-pounder, as it were.

On one occasion, in the summer of 1977, I became aware that the driver of a vintage racing-green, convertible Bristol (a beautiful, very expensive. hand-made British car that is no longer built) seemed to be shadowing me as I ambled along, probably singing to myself – no doubt slightly high on a mandie and what was left of my quarter bottle of vodka. The driver was a bearded, bespectacled and respectable-looking man of around 40 – not my type at all. He looked like something from central casting for an old-school movie about the English aristocracy – probably starring David Niven. Eventually he stopped the car and smiled, leant-over, opened the passenger door and indicated for me to get in. I was intrigued enough to do so, despite my better judgement.

‘Well, good morning you handsome fellow! Would you care to accompany me for a drive to somewhere wild and exotic, like the Essex coast? Asked the driver in a ludicrously upper-class, cut-glass voice; but with a twinkle in his eye.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, laughing, “mind you, it is a beautiful night. And I do fancy some bracing sea air.”

“Excellent!” Said the posh man, then added, “shall we drive around the corner and take the roof down, so as not to draw attention to ourselves?” We were already drawing curious looks from the cruisers promenading by like poorly-paid extras in a film noir, porn B-movie. “Sure, why not? I replied, taking a swig from my quarter bottle of vodka, then making a roll-up. I asked the driver his name as the car purred-off towards Old Brompton Road. “It’s Cuthbert, I’m afraid…” he said (I stifled a chuckle) as he turned into the uber-posh, residential enclave called The Boltons, “but everyone calls me Bertie.”

“I’m Stephen, but everyone calls me Steve.”

He pulled-up outside a huge, white, stucco-fronted mansion set in what was evidently a massive walled garden, and stopped the car. “This used to be Douglas Fairbanks’ London home.” He said, turning a handle above the windscreen.He then got out and folded the fabric roof down.

The wonderful scent of night jasmine assailed my nostrils as I turned and asked: “So Bertie, I know this fabulous motor is a Bristol, but how old is it?” “It’s a Type 407 from 1961. It was the first production Bristol to feature a Chrysler V8 engine.” He said enthusiastically as he got back in. “I’ll bet it’s fast.” I said, sinking deeper into the luxurious, soft, cream leather seat. “Indeed it is!” Said Bertie, as we headed off in an Easterly direction, the warm summer night’s air ruffling my  longish hair. “I’d have to drive you to Germany to really show you though!” I laughed and started to sing in a vaguely German accent: “Fun, fun, fun on ze autobahn…”

“What song is that?” He asked, as we passed the gaudily-lit Harrods on our right. “Or did you just make it up?” “No I didn’t make it up, although I do write songs… it was a big hit by a German electronic band called Kraftwerk a couple of years ago.”

“Electronic?” He looked puzzled. “I’m not familiar with such a thing. I’m more of an opera chap myself.”

At this point I was tempted to sing in a cod-operatic fashion: “Opera, oh ha ha ha, how are you-hoo-hoo?” But decided against it.

“So…tell me Stephen…”

“Steve!” I interjected, “no-one calls me Stephen… Bertie.”

“So, erm, Steve, is that what you do for a living – write songs?” He asked, as we swung around the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham place – the flag was flying, so her Maj’ was at home – then turned into Birdcage Walk. “I try,” I replied, “but my last, well my first, album came out nearly three years ago. Are you going to drive East along the embankment?” “Yes, the romantic route.” Said Bertie. “So what do you do in life? I asked him, building another roll-up. “I’m a surgeon.” He replied, matter-of-factly. “I see,” I said, wishing I had some grass to add to my smoke ‘that’s impressive.’

“And where do you live?” I asked. “Baron’s Court.” He answered, “My late uncle Peregrine bequeathed me one of those wonderful studio houses on the Talgarth Road.

“Wow!” I said, “with its vast, double-height studio room – that must be fantastic; lucky you, but what about the traffic noise?

“I installed a form of double glazing.” He replied, turning on Radio 3 on the car radio. Fortunately, we were regaled by some of my favourite composers (Debussy, Delius, Satie and Ravel – as opposed to some dreary, pompous operatic histrionics) as we headed through The City, then the wastelands of the East End, on our way to the Essex coast, which I’d never visited before, not least in a vintage Bristol convertible. Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn… or at least the A13.

Bertie was full of what appeared to be genuine curiosity about my creativity in songwriting. He was asking: did I write the lyrics or the music first?

A somewhat predictable question based on lack of knowledge. Answer: neither. But… mostly music first, then singing ‘nonsense’ words along with musical improvisation on the piano to form the bones of a song. Unlike Elton John – who always works with the words first, apparently. That’s not to say that I don’t do that either. Sometimes what I thought what was a mere poem becomes the basis, or the complete lyric to a song. “You write poetry?” He asked, as we skirted the grim industrial wastelands of  Dagenham and Tilbury, having turned-off the A13 and headed South-East. “Yes, I do,” I replied, “I have a potential collection which, perhaps ironically, is called Songs Without Tunes.” “Why ironic?” “The clue is in the title. Most of my poetry is too abstract in its meter to be a lyric, but sometimes poems do become lyrics, and on other occasions, they can inspire, or kick-start lyrics with a title, or a poetic fleeting memory or an emotional impulse…”

“I’d love to read some of your poetry.” Said Bertie, as we headed towards Leigh-On-Sea. The sky soon started to glow with a silvery pre-dawn light as the ever-widening Thames Estuary started to reveal itself in muddy reflections as we bowled along with the sea air in our hair listening to ‘The Walk To The Paradise Garden’ by Delius, which is one of my favourite-ever classical pieces.

Leigh-On-Sea seemed to have a certain, faded charm in its old town, despite the endless swathes of post-war chalet bungalows, mock-tudor semi-detached houses and ugly little sixties boxes with beyond-tacky, mock-Georgian’ features’ which threatened to strangle its almost soulful heart with their architectural mediocrity, like an oversized, cheap nylon scarf.

Now the salty sea air and the open-top breezes were becoming an ever-more sensual pleasure as we purred through Southend-On-Sea, with its kiss-me-quick, low-rent ambience and closed amusement arcades, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. There was not a soul to be seen on the streets.  Hardly surprising, as morning was only just beginning to break. Yes, I know. Cat Stephens’ ‘Morning Has Broken’ (a singer-songwriter that I always admired, before he found Allah and started to look like a member of the Taliban). He had been such a beautiful man.

After we passed the last of the ubiquitous caravan parks (“South African-style townships for the Cockney holiday makers”, I quipped) the endless mud flats and shabby industrial buildings near the shore were beginning to give way to sandy inlets and hidden coves as the rising sun started to glint on the calm waters. Colourful boats bobbed benignly as seagulls soared above us, squawking triumphantly, as if to challenge the supremacy of the serene and sensual music emanating from the car’s powerful sound system.

“Steve…eve…eve…” A disembodied voice was resonating and interrupting my dream of renovating an imagined art-deco beach house in Leigh-On-Sea. I blinked and opened my eyes to find Bertie gently shaking my shoulder and saying: “Stephen –  I mean Steve –  you fell asleep. We’re back home now, well, at my home, in Baron’s Court.” The pleasingly abstract fog started to clear.

Evidently, I had succumbed to the heady combination of sea air, vodka, a mandrax and the late night… to a soundtrack of classical, impressionistic music. Nice.

Bertie certainly hadn’t bored me to sleep.

“Come in for a while – have a drink,” said Bertie in his ridiculously posh voice, “then I’ll drive you home later if you like.” There was a slightly plaintive edge to his voice, I noticed, as my brain started to revive. “Sure, sure,” I mumbled, as he closed the convertible’s fabric roof, then opened the passenger door for me in a gentlemanly fashion.

The rush-hour traffic thundered by on Talgarth Road. I followed him up the stone steps into the imposing Arts and Craft house and asked him “When were these studios built?”. “1891.” Bertie replied, as he opened the front door, revealing a rather grand hallway, complete with an ornate terracotta-tiled floor, “and they were grade-two* listed just recently in 1970.” He added, checking his mail on an Art-Nouveau console table. I couldn’t help noticing that the letters were addressed to Sir Cuthbert Donaldson.

“So, you’re a sir!” I said. “Yes, I’m afraid I am, a life peer, or a Baron, if you prefer, courtesy of Her Majesty.”

“How come?’ I asked, as he led me into the wonderfully proportioned, North-facing (of course) studio room, furnished with relatively modern antiques, mostly by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. “For services rendered by cutting-up members of the royal family, apparently.” Said the Baron dryly, rather like John Cleese in a Monty Python Sketch.

“How deliciously apposite that you live in such chic splendour in Baron’s Court.” I said. He chuckled as he poured large – very large – measures of vintage Remy Martin into huge, crystal, balloon glasses for us: ” Yes, isn’t life grand sometimes? 1961 was a pretty good year,” he said as he swirled the brandy in the glass then inhaled the fumes as if they were from a pipe of the finest opium, then added: “and it also marked the birth of my beloved motorcar.” He clinked his glass against mine.  I was somewhat concerned that  the no-doubt, priceless Sevres Chrystal glasses might shatter if our mutual toast was over-enthusiastic. Luckily, they remained intact as the Baron continued to spoil me with vintage cognac for what was ostensibly… breakfast.

1977. Me on a borrowed bike by the river in Saltford, where I grew up.  Visiting the family.

1977. Me on a borrowed bike by the river in Saltford, where I grew up. Visiting the family.

‘Baron Bertie’ was true to his word and dutifully drove me home to Notting Hill (or Westbourne Park, to be more accurate). I asked him to drop me at the end of St Luke’s Road, as I would have been embarrassed for him to see the shabby basement that I inhabited.  Naturally, we exchanged numbers.

A couple of days later the phone rang, and Bertie rather shyly invited me to dinner the next evening, adding that cooking cordon bleu food was one of his passions – and that he would like us to sample a different glass of vintage wine with each course.  Mmmm – that would make a change from my home-made shepherd’s pie with half a bottle of plonk, I thought, as I accepted his invitation.

He asked me to bring along some of my poetry, so, the next day I photocopied a selection from ‘Songs Without Tunes’ at the local print shop for 5p a copy. I obviously wasn’t expected to bring any wine, so took the ten poems as a present for his Lordship, or whatever you call a Baron.

I arrived at the appointed hour of 7pm and Bertie greeted me at the door with a glass of champagne. “Barons De Rothschild 1952 – a very good year for this delicate blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noire and Pinot Meunier from their best terroirs!” Enthused Bertie as I followed him downstairs into a smallish, yet ornately decorated dining room (“Original William Morris Wallpaper above the oak panelling.” He told me later) which overlooked a charming, patio garden (“Gertrude Jeckyll designed it – she had an affair with my uncle Peregrine.”).

The evening sun poured into the room along with the heady scents of honeysuckle, jasmine and roses which wafted  through the open French Windows on what was a splendidly sultry summer night.

“1952? What a coincidence!” I exclaimed, between sips of the precious, effervescent nectar (how much was a bottle worth?), “The year I was born! A toast to the Barons De Rothschild and to the benevolence of Baron Bertie!”

We clinked our glasses and he smiled shyly and led me to an ancient stone bench outside. I then presented him with my selection of photocopied poems in a manilla envelope on which I’d inscribed: To Bertie, a selection of my humble verse, from Steve Swindells, with affection. “What a charming present! Thank you so much.” He said, obviously touched, as he opened the  envelope and pulled out a page. “Broken Roots – that’s an interesting title. Would you read it for me?” I took another sip of the exquisite champagne and answered: ‘I’d like you to read it, if you don’t mind. To see if you catch the meaning and the meter.’

‘Of course, I’d be delighted.’ I built a roll-up as he started to read aloud:

“I waited for my beverage,  the meter let me down. I sank into my silent room and tried to make some sounds.

But nothing would come easy on that misty, autumn night, I forced my hand, to make a stand but soon gave up the fight.

The consciousness of number one, my inspiration would not come, emaciated, like a tree, in barren autumn, fallen leaves.

The tree did not draw in its roots to show the world its fresh, green shoots. I wanted to forget my past and find myself some greener grass.

I pondered my organic dreams and tried suppressing primal screams whilst waiting for a fateful quirk, I tried to make my thesis work.

Confusion caught me in my prime, though I was guilty of no crime, I ‘kept thinking of the way I looked instead of hiding in my books.

Scientific abstract art is like an artificial fart. I wanted to combine extremes, but traumas break your roots, it seems.”

He paused and said: “The last line is very good, and the one before made me laugh –  at its irony, of course.” He coughed lightly and continued.

“I want to climb out of my brain and sing the world a sweet refrain. My old dilemma won’t sit down, my feet are firmly off the ground.

The summer of my discontent, I hope the winter might relent. I’ll make the autumn circumvent the barriers that heaven sent.

I want to plant a row of trees, to take my pleasure when I please. My bird in hand gives me a push; two hands are worth more than a bush.

My broken roots will surely mend, my season will come ’round again. I’m really longing for the spring, to find what fate, or nature brings.”

He  smiled at me, raising his nearly empty crystal flute.   “Does that indicate that you approve?” I asked brightly: “you did spontaneously pull out a rather appropriate poem.”

“Indeed I did, and I like it very much,” said Bertie, “particularly the seasonal and horticultural metaphors. Pleasingly adept, yet filled with allusions to frustration and loss. I see by the date you typed that it was written last winter. Evidently, you were somewhat depressed, yet…” “… looking forward to a fresh start… this year.”

“That’s the spirit!” Enthused Bertie, leading me to an antique, oval table, which was elaborately set for two. Several pieces of very formal-looking, antique silver cutlery – rather like what one might see at a royal banquet – were placed on each side of pale red leather place mats which were inscribed with Bertie’s monogram in gold – on a crisply starched, white linen tablecloth.

He lit the tall, red candles in a large silver candelabra, which looked Georgian.  Each table setting featured five (five!), crystal glasses of various shapes and sizes. “One for each course…” said the Baron, noticing my slightly raised eyebrows and hint of a smile, “I must adjourn to the kitchen.” “Can I come?” I asked, eager to see what level of culinary professionalism he might aspire to. “I’d rather you didn’t, as I’d prefer each course to be an – ahem –  epic… epicurean surprise for you.”

I was evidently about to be spoiled rotten with gourmet delights and fine wines , but couldn’t help wondering if he had secreted a culinary assistant in his kitchen who’d had to take an oath of silence, like a Trappist Monk.

“Firstly, knock back the last of your shampoo, and I will pour you a fine glass of South African Pinot Grigio from my aunt’s vineyard in Port Elizabeth. She bought it off that awful painter who was known as the King Of Kitsch and incredibly successful.” “Tretchikoff?” I asked, “I wish I owned one!”

Bertie looked slightly puzzled a he uncorked a half bottle then showed me the label (Trechtikoff Estate, Port Elizabeth, 1967), poured me a glass, then placed the bottle in a silver cooler.  I pondered what the first course might entail whilst I savoured the wine, until he returned two minutes later with two small plates – they looked like antique Royal Worcester – and placed one in front me saying: “Allow me to present an amuse bouche of a home-made blini with sour cream, Beluga caviar and a chopped, hard-boiled quail’s egg.”

I visualised an imaginary menu spinning around like the newspaper headlines in the  classic film Citizen Kane and dutifully slipped into an epic, epicurean dream which I only woke up from the next day, in Bertie’s bed, which he’d earlier revealed had once belonged to Napoleon.

Over dinner, he’d also imparted the rather juicy information that in the early sixties a certain European Royal’s sister – for whom he’d been appointed surgeon – had been having a lesbian affair with a chorus girl in the world of musical theatre.  In a curiously  misplaced form of noblesse oblige this particular Queen had banished her sister’s lover to a small, Caribbean island (with a generous allowance and a charming house)… for life.  And this, added The Baron, was why the Princess, who was still very much alive and notorious for her love of gin, was still such a regular visitor to said island.

As I prepared to leave, Bertie casually remarked that Dame Joan Sutherland, the famous Australian operatic diva, was coming to stay with him that very day. Perhaps I’d like to meet her? He continued to invite me intimate, gourmet dinners for a few weeks, until I felt obliged to rebut his amorous advances.

I might well have immensely enjoyed the extravagant meals and vintage wines in his wonderful house in Baron’s Court, but I was unwilling to be caught in the Baron’s clutches like some sort of pet, bohemian poet by whom he wanted to be fucked rotten, or had even entertained fantasies of romantic involvement with. Baron’s Court was not for me.

Earl’s Court was more my thing.

© Steve Swindells. 2014. All rights reserved.

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