Monday, October 01, 2007

Some Fantastic Place, The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Three

September 2nd, 2007, con't.

I have been standing in the queue for my flight to Perugia for approximately 13 years now. The last time I experienced this little movement, I failed to call the next morning.

I have been passing the time attempting to identify my potential co-writers on this adventure. The scattering of wearily held guitars and the occasional hat that only a musician would wear give a couple of them away. I myself am wearing a dyed black hair and patchy beard combo that should ping the SingerDar of the others with the force and ferocity of a flicked nipple.

I had hoped, at one stage, that some friends of mine whom you may have heard me mention - Mr. Melvin Duffy and his partner-in-crime Ms. Vivien Scotson - might be attending the retreat. They live, in varying directions, some distance from me, so it would have been lovely to spend some quality time getting to know them better. On the other hand, I think it will be good for me to queue amongst strangers and strange conversations. (Ed. Note. Seriously, it's not big and it's not clever. Pack it in.)

I'm not a social animal. Not really. I feel comfortable (ish) around my band, and my family, but even then I do have moments of doubt, where I just don't have the energy to fake ebullience, to throw jokes out at the risk of tumbleweeds cascading through the room in a picture of choreographed shame and humiliation.

I'm rather hoping that I don't make a complete fool of myself. But then, part of me is rather hoping I do. It's been a very long time since I had a chance to really figure out what I'm about - outside of relationships, outside of the band and our preconceived notions of each other. To be amongst people who don't know my stories, who haven't appropriated my name as a byword for clumsiness, non sequiturs and a general lack of common sense.

I have spotted a couple of people whom I recognise from various internet researches into potential attendees. I run into Geoff Martyn, with whom I have been trading emails about the outrageous price of plane tickets and he points out a couple of more. It's a strange sensation.

Eventually, we all shyly - well, I can only speak for myself on the shy question, the others may well have simply have been avoiding speaking to a rumpled Canadian with a rather odd look in his eye who keeps scribbling in a notebook every few minutes - begin to introduce ourselves. I meet Amber from California, via New York, Helen from London, Danielle, again NYC. I see a young Scottish gentleman of outrageous height - compared to me at any rate - in the queue next to mine. We will hear much more of Riley Briggs later.

After what seems like an age (37), I have finally checked in and we make our way into the beautiful and spacious departure lounge. (If they are going to flood our internet world with fucking icons, where is the one for "dripping with irony"?) I have seen abattoirs with a more welcoming air.

I chat with Amber a little, proving once again that whatever I might think with a bottle of vodka inside me, I am not a charming man. I am a babbler of some accomplishment. It must be damn near impossible for people to tell my jokes from my attempts at serious conversation as it all comes out at about 300 miles per hour, punctuated by utterly demented laughter of my own making.

In the departure lounge, I recognise Dorie Jackson from Mr. Difford's solo band. I had recently been to see them, with Jay Burnett our producer, at the Jazz Cafe in London and we had been very briefly introduced. That night, however, was most memorable for me for the following exchange between myself and Chris, to whom I was also introduced by Melvin Duffy.

Melvin: This is Kenton, the singer I was telling you about.

Kenton: fantasticgigbigfanblahblahbabblebabble

Chris D: Nice to meet you. Yes, I saw you at the front. You knew ALL the words, didn't you?

Kenton: cringecringecringeshameshame. (attempts to pull self together). Interestingly, we're playing Guilfest on the same day as you. Only this time, WE'LL have Melvin. hahahahacringecringe

Chris D: Oh, WILL you?

Kenton: (dies)

Actually, having spoken to Chris since, it probably didn't happen like that at all, or else he's an even nicer man than previously noted. On the rather spurious grounds that Melvin had joined us on some tracks, but really seeking acceptance from someone whose work was at least partly responsible for me writing songs in the first place, I began sending him MP3s of tracks as we finished them.

He was very complimentary, which both soothed a little of my raging self-doubt and also made me realise that I really couldn't do any other job. So, twice, once from the speakers of my stereo over many years and again from a few lines of kind text on a computer screen, he had been instrumental in my career.

He'd demur at such a proclamation, I'm sure, but it's true.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Dorie and the soon-to-be-introduced Mr. William Topley.

She and her companion, one William Topley - a fine, fine solo artist and former lead singer of The Blessing - are sitting across from me.

"Dorie?" I say. It seemed the thing to say. "Esther?" would have been confusing.

"Yes," she replies, with a startled look that suggests that random people knowing her name was not likely to top the list were she to cover Julie Andrews. "How do you know that?"

Fantastic, I think. I look like a stalker. The fact that I know that I look like a stalker does not ease the pain of the situation.

In my babbling way, I explain that in fact, I was one of the writers on the week and that, as it happened, we had a good friend in common. The tension eased. Slightly. I still LOOK like a stalker, after all.

Somewhere in the background of all this, lurks a man in an excellent hat and sunglasses whom I eventually recognise as Mr. John Bentley, also of Squeeze.

Stansted has proved equally unpopular with Dorie and William as it has with me, and at bitch factor nine, we begin to discuss it and its flaws. William appears tired and a little grumpy, which endears me to him almost immediately, as I am finding it difficult to catch my breath from laughing.

We are, once again, standing in an enormous queue waiting to show our boarding passes and horrific passport photos and join BobAir Flight 1 3/4 to Perugia. Alongside us are about 25 people who have paid extra for "Priority Boarding", so that they may, one assumes, cherry-pick the seats which come with free cocaine and blow-jobs from the flight attendants. You get the distinct feeling that some of them are just waiting to be told that there is a Super-Extra-Gold-Priority Boarding system of which they can take advantage.

From the BobAir website: "Super-Extra-Gold-Priority. Upon payment of an extra £1500, you will be able to board the plane at least twelve minutes before any other passenger, you will given time to try various seats until finding one to your liking, you may choose five passengers you would like kept away from you at all costs, claim three free drinks and 15 minutes in the airplane toilet with a flight attendant of your choice, you can ignore the safety procedure demonstration without being told off and, in fact, you will be chosen to make all in-flight announcements."

On finally boarding the plane, for fear of increasing my stalker ranking, I make my way from my new-found group and sit alone towards the front. I have a book, you see, and I am comfortable with books. I would hate to begin annoying everyone else before we even make it to Italy.

Happily, however, I am soon joined by the tall Scottish gentleman of previous paragraphs, Mr. Riley Briggs.

Riley, as you may or not know, is the frontman and songwriter for the excellent Aberfeldy. He also proved my theory that wherever you go in the world, you will meet someone who knows Gaz Birtles, who plays alto sax for ist with his group The Swinging Laurels (currently Gaz, John Barrow and Dean Sargent).

Gaz was also in the brass section for The Beautiful South for about 19 years, until their split earlier this year, and Aberfeldy had done a support tour with them. We both agree, as people usually do, that Gaz is, indeed, the man and then Riley bought me gin. I like him immediately.

Over tonic-lashed booze and the ocean, we speak of the music business with bared teeth and much cursing. He proves to be a fan of Strange Brew, a very Canadian comedy film of my youth. I prove to be a fan of his band. Everyone is happy.

The flight goes quickly and, before long, we are landing in Perugia.

After an entertaining interlude with a demented sniffer dog, and the various hoops one must jump through before one can find even an OUTDOOR area in which one is allowed to smoke, we are met by Mr. Difford and the gentlemen from the studio. It is all very pleasant and I feel welcome, if tired, grubby and babblesome.

I am only slightly disappointed that there is no one holding a sign with my name on it. I have waited all my life to feel that important. I once took the National Express to surprise a girlfriend, returning from holiday, at an airport, just to hold a sign with her name on it. Of course, within an hour of her arrival, she announced that she had become engaged to someone else while away.

So, I'm still waiting for the movie moment.

It wasn't exactly necessary here in Perugia, however. The airport is about the size of a postage stamp.

I am in Italy, I think. I have no idea what's going to happen, nor how I will handle it.

We are bundled into cars and whisked to Monestevole, in the mountains of Umbria.

It has been a long trip - especially for me - and I'm ready for anything, frankly.

We wind our way through mountain roads, and I am stunned to see how Italian everything looks. Not a McDumbass or Starfucks in sight. It really is a beautiful part of the country. Enough to take your breath away, if you hadn't already accomplished that by smoking twelve cigarettes simulataneously to make up for the lack of nicotine during your airport travail.

I am in Italy, I think again.

Then we come up over the rise, and I am in Heaven. (Ed. Note I'll let that one go, but watch yourself.) A beautiful 15th century farmhouse, with horses running in nearby field, the very model of inspiration for someone who has lived in Leicester for five years and is toying with the idea of burning it down.

We are shown to our rooms, introduced to our hosts, offered the chance to purchase prebought cases of beer and, suddenly, after much waiting the week begins.

We sit down to lunch together at a long table in the sunshine, Mr. Difford at its head, and I really don't know what to do with myself.

But this is some fantastic place.

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