The Singer, October/November 2008
Having just profusely thanked the boy in Spanish yet again (I am so definitely in Italy) for my double espresso, topped with hot milky froth – my gratitude bolstered with the habitual, vaudevillian eyebrow-arching, head nodding and friendly gurning that always accompanies my British Jazz Singerman Abroad episodes, I'm basking in mid-morning shady repose, underneath a mammoth date palm on the terrace of my beautiful hotel, high in the lush hills south of Ancona, on the Adriatic coast.
I'm here to perform with Claire Martin, the jazz singer, at the Festival di Londra - an open-air concert in the piazza at Ripatransone, a sixteenth century town perched atop a precipitous hill. Claire has her partner and young daughter with her and they have been beach slaves since they arrived. I loathe the beach thing but love everything about Claire, the "Sharon Stone Of Jazz". Her foxy blondeness has often been at the root of many an international incident. Like the time she was with her band in a five star hotel in Tel Aviv. Innocently bikinied at the hotel pool she was suddenly surrounded by boys. "Sharon Stone, Sharon Stone," they clamoured, surrounding her sunbed. Claire grabbed her Mulberry sarong and fled into the cool confines of the Marriott. I guess it's marginally better than being mistaken for Ricky bloody Gervais in Boots, Piccadilly though.
We are being regally looked after by the supremely named Raewyn Blade and her partner Mike. Raewyn is a Kiwi, ex-actress, and they divide their time between their Southbank flat and this peculiar hilltop paradise. She reminds me of Joanna Lumley and calls me darling. Perfect.
The concert is a joy, magical under the clear Italian dusk. After the gig, we are treated to two days' sheer holiday. And it is this short stretch of nothing that throws me into a panic. I cannot holiday, try as I might. The amble, flop and loafing fill me with abject horror. I can't even walk in the flip-flops that I bought at Stansted. I've finished two of the three novels. My mobile has no signal and I can't find a New Statesman anywhere. Help. I'm captive in a four star enforced relaxation workshop. Help. I can't even let go enough to get squiffy on the wine. Cheap as it is, I would far prefer to be paying three times the price with my neurotic London friends in a Soho bar. They, funnily enough, would far prefer to be… on holiday.
I do love my working life and I mustn't ever complain. Maybe it was all meant to be, this nomadic life. Forever on the road, forever with the wrong plug adaptors, forever with no internet, forever in luxurious hotels… and therefore forever yearning to be in my funny old cottage in Kent, my rented room in Waterloo, or in Zurich where my partner is.
The gypsy in my soul is, according to my sister, for real. My mother is a "Lee". I imagine garish gaily painted wooden caravans, pulled by handsome mares, trundling along the north Wales coast in the nineteenth century. My great grandfather, a robust, Welsh speaking giant of a man would work from tin-mine to tin-mine, while the women would make and sell hand-painted, straw-haired dollies, decorated wooden jewel boxes and lucky love spoons. They sang in the taverns and washed in the rivers. They travelled, like my father travelled, and as I travel. All for work. The refuge of the roads. I sing in halls and clubs, piazzas and fields. I don't wash in rivers (although I do my smalls in hotel bidets). Home was… where they happened to be.
Home is a strange place. For me it lies in the shabby old members bars in Soho. From the moment I tiptoed into The Colony on Dean Street the day after my twentieth birthday, I knew I had to make this world my own. The rich green walls, trinkets and epithets of a post-war London, the tatty old upright piano, the paintings and drawings, and the incredulously rude barman, Ian "Ida" Board imparting such bile and campery, all drew me in. It was in this little first floor bar that I met, in my early twenties, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Daniel Farson, Jeffrey Bernard and George Melly… all nomads, gypsies, and all in "for the one", a wonderful Soho phrase I still hear today. Ian died years ago now and the other barman, Michael Wojas, is running the place. Michael closes the bar at 11.30 promptly and it's all down to Gerry's… for "the one". Gerry's, a similarly green bar, is in the basement of an office building the south end of Dean Street – and it is here where we may yak and bray, vodka-fuelled until the dustvans rattle around the dawn streets of Soho. After twenty-five years of pinballing around the world, singing for my supper, these watering holes are welcoming hearths for me. There's always a familiar face… always little Kenny, Tony Bennett's friend… always Marie, the stripper… and always my actor buddy, Tim Woodward, who can drink and carouse us all into breakfast, magic himself home to south London, and deliver a faultless, pitch perfect Sir Toby Belch at Regent's Park the next afternoon.
And so, back to this hilltop paradise then, with its two pools, eight terraces, dashing young waiters, Egyptian cotton linen, organic cuisine and oleander and lavender on every landing. I've counted seventeen mosquito bites, run out of contact lens fluid, finished my books and have hardly touched a drop since I arrived. We fly back tomorrow. I packed last night. Where's next? Frankfurt. Two concerts with the radio big band and my pal, the trumpeter Guy Barker.
Hope he's finished his detox. I have.