Monday, October 01, 2007

What's Wrong With This Picture? - The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Ten

September 6th, 2007

It seems inconceivable to me that we should have passed the half-way point of the week. I’m trying not to think about it, other than in idyllic daydreams of sending for the band and the family and living here instead. Perhaps some manner of commune could be formed. I could grow my hair and my poor imitation of a beard even longer and wait for Interpol to arrive with the tear gas.

Ah, a boy can dream.

The children could learn Italian, I’m sure. I mean they spend half their time making languages up. Also, they have a despicable Leicester accent which needs to be driven from them somehow… The Power of Christ compels you!!

Today is a day off and we are headed to Perugia to see the sights. Over the last few days, the idea has been mooted that perhaps, some of us, early this morning, could attempt a walk to the top of a large hill nearby. I had my usual reaction to any idea which sounds ridiculous on paper.

“Hell, yes,” I said, “I’m in!”

“No other group,” says Chris “Cheeses of Jerusalem” Difford, in his sultry way, “has ever managed it.”

“Even better,” says Kenton “Won’t You Shut the Hell Up, You Demented Canadian Bastard?” Hall.

William Topley sums up the feelings of many of the group on hearing of this idea in his usual succinct style.

“Fuck that,” says the gentleman Topley. And he means it.

I go to bed the night before dreaming of the morning, smoking that first, extremely necessary cigarette, looking out over Umbria and strumming a guitar gently in the morning breeze.

When I wake up at 11, a good couple of hours past the projected time of departure, I suffer from a momentary pang of guilt, laziness and regret. All my new friends are, undoubtedly, stood on top of the mountain, plotting world domination, and laughing in a carefree, F. Scott Fitzgerald manner at the decrepitude of Canadian songwriters in general and myself in particular.

I can see it, in my mind’s eye.

“I’m very disappointed with that boy,” Difford is surely saying, “I’ve half a mind to demand all of his Squeeze albums back for this treachery. And to think I was going to introduce him into society.”

“And we,” the women of the group respond, shivering at the very thought, “were intending to drink enough for him to become moderately attractive. My God, what a lucky escape.”

Of course, when I drag myself to the breakfast table, it turns out that the virginity of the hill, in terms of climbing songwriters remains resolutely intact.

Still, we have our day out to think about.

Here is what I know about Perugia:

Perugia is the capital city of the region of Umbria and the province of Perugia in central Italy and is near the Tiber River.

It is a notable artistic center of Italy. The town gave his nickname to the famous painter Pietro Vannucci, Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, the Renaissance Artist.

It is twinned, for some unholy reason, with Seattle.

God bless the solid ten minutes of research I did on Wikipedia before leaving Leicester.

We pile into a variety of cars, vans and 4X4’s and head off to the station, from where we will catch our train to Perugia.

Now it is a matter of record amongst those who know me well that I adore trains. Not, I hasten to add, in a train-spotting fashion. I couldn’t give a good goddamn what number is plated to its side, where it was built, who designed it or its historical relevance. All I need to know is that it serves coffee and will travel past fields. I find travelling past fields enormously soothing. I have written many of my best songs while passing fields in trains.

Also, I find trains deeply erotic. To this day, it is still my most trenchant sexual fantasy. I might be slightly hamstrung by the aesthetic qualities of Midland Mainlines, but with a sufficiently willing partner, I’d still give it go.

I remember an ex-girlfriend once telling me of a sexual escapade in which she had engaged, on a train, with a previous partner. Obviously, this was a story I wanted to hear about as much as I wanted to have hot knives flung at my groin by an embittered ex-NASA chimp, but I can honestly say I was as upset by the fact that she’d done it on a train and I hadn’t as I was by the thought of her with someone else.

(What is it about the beginning of a relationship that prompts men and women to talk of their previous sexual partners with abandon? We think, “Well, they want to know the real me, and these people have been an important part of my emotional and sexual make-up, so where’s the harm?” Okay, some of you are probably very grown-up about these things, and I certainly wish I was, but, frankly, while I understand she didn’t just pull that trick from last night out of thin air, I don’t want to know about the guy who taught it to her. I’m a child. I’m sorry. I’m working on it.)

The train we board is a short journey train, so it is lacking in some of the necessaries – not to mention an utter lack of willing participants for my pass-the-time-on-the-train game – but it has the benefit of being in Italy, and in good company.

The first problem we encounter is that we have been hurried on to a soon leaving train by our hosts and left to purchase our tickets onboard. We have been informed of how much they are going to cost, but most of us are banging our poor and bloodied hands mercilessly against the language barrier and the conductor appears to decide to take advantage of us, by imitating a character from Lewis Carroll.

A more surreal experience purchasing tickets, for any manner of public conveyance, I have yet to undergo.

There’s about nine of us travelling together on the train. Danielle gets landed with the unenviable job – particularly as she has spent the last few days not feeling terribly well – of conversing with the conductor while we scrabble in our pockets for the milled-edged shrapnel that is our unfamiliar European change.

The conversation, which is conducted through a bewildering combination of mime, Italian, English and modern dance, translates roughly into the following exchange:

Danielle: Nine tickets to Perugia, please…

Conductor: Oh my God, you are all musicians. Now, under Italian law, I am perfectly within my rights to hurl each of your struggling, transient bodies from this moving train and laugh heartily as you thud to the ground in a maelstrom of broken bones and gore. However, I am feeling whimsical today and will therefore sell you tickets.

Danielle: Am I right in thinking that these tickets are two euros each?

Conductor: It knows too much. (He quotes a random number) 12,000 euros, please.

Danielle: Nine tickets to Perugia, please.

Eventually, he hands out some tickets which are all marked with varying prices, ranging from one to three euros. Danielle distributes these to the group. The conductor then immediately begins to go round us, taking them away again, saying something that appears to be the lyrics to “I Should Be So Lucky” by Kylie Minogue, translated into the Italian by particularly gifted sheep.

He bids us farewell, and I spend the rest of the journey waiting for another conductor to appear and warn us of the dangerous madman who is prowling the train, masquerading as a railway employee.

On our arrival, we meet up with the remainder of the group who have travelled over in Chris’s car.

It is clear that the majority are less interested in the sights of the city than in finding a bar that serves beer with actual alcohol in it, but Rich’s eye is caught by the National Gallery of Umbria, and feeling as though a bit of culture will do us good, myself and Mr. Bentley decide to join him.

After a brief and touristy foray into the gift shop, where John and I thumb through a coffee table book of paintings the size of a dining room table and I laugh out loud at an appalling children’s book – in poorly constructed English – called, “Hi, I’m Raphael!” we make our way upstairs.

The gallery itself is guarded by a small, shrewish woman who is clearly serving out a sentence of community service and appears about as pleased to see us as she would a bout of genital warts. She clearly expects us to be trouble.

Upon entering the gallery, we are confronted by eighteen rooms depicting scenes from the life of Christ, alongside his favourite saints and martyrs. The Madonna and Child and Crucifixion are represented no fewer than three hundred times a piece, across several hundred years of Italian Christianity.

It soon transpires that Rich is a student of art history, although not of any of the periods we are viewing, and that my religious upbringing is good for, if nothing else, blaspheming my way around Umbrian art galleries at a good old whack.

The first piece in front of which we gather is a near life-size wooden sculpture of Christ on the cross, with heavily stylised pectorals, and what appears to be a large erection. This pose occurs frequently through the first few rooms. In most of the renderings of the baby Jesus and Mum, Mary looks positively hacked off, like a council estate mother on the receiving end of an ASBO, and Jesus is portrayed as a pint-sized middle-aged man who is more than likely about to be caught up in Operation Ore.

There appears to have been little or no room for personal artistic expression, likely for fear of excommunication and warmish pokers in the most nether of one’s regions.

Other recurring figures in the paintings include a very tiny nun, lurking about the corners of a great many works (There’s a tiny nun in the painting… a tiny nun in the painting) and a small black devil on a chain. The latter appears to symbolise either the constant struggle to keep Satan at bay and under control, or else an Italian predilection for mutilating cats.

Nonetheless, a fine time is had and Messrs Brown and Bentley – the latter always my favourite bass player in Squeeze, with no disrespect intended at all to Messrs. Kakoulli, Wilkinson or Penda – prove to be fine companions.

On the train back, in fact, he blesses me with stories of his time in the band, his feelings on his return, and an absolute magic story – for me especially – from the making of East Side Story, the first Squeeze album I ever bought.

Elvis Costello and Roger Bechirian were producing, and I have made my love for both the album and Mr. Costello quite evident over the course of the week, so he handed me a gem.

He related returning to the studio after a break, having purchased a handful of records, and having the bag taken from him by EC, music junkie that he is, for inspection. After discarding a number of Mr. Bentley’s choices, he eventually pulled out one and not knowing the artist, or at least well, enquired about it.

The artist was Robert Wyatt, and Costello ended up borrowing the record.

The next year, “Shipbuilding” was released. (Obviously, there’s no doubt a lot more to have happened in the interim, but I think even having ANY part in introducing Mr. Costello to the work of Mr. Wyatt is something of which to be forever proud.)

Now that is a story I will hold close to my heart for some time to come.

We arrive back at the train station, and are once more collected by our fine hosts from the house and whisked to Valeria’s parents’ restaurant for what now feels like a family meal.

The day is only just beginning. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m crossing my fingers for spontaneous nudity and, just perhaps, frolicking.

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