Blog of International Travels

The Thursday before last, just after tea-time, I was floating around like a forgotten Elastoplast in the council pool in my orgy-sized Jacuzzi in my suite in an Andorran hotel. When you operate a saxophone for a living, the perks can be strange. So can the un-perks, if that’s the right word. In order to get to the tranquil bliss of the aforementioned aquatic leisure facility, I’d had to get up at 4.30am, drive from the Gables to Gatport Airwick, down the mandatory 6am super sizzler and two pints of Strongbow in the departure lounge, fly to Barcelona and then get on a coach for three hours. Whilst something of an adventure, it was hardly relaxing.

The reason for this roller coaster of alternate high tranquility and grinding discomfort was a concert in the Congress Centre there with the BBC Big Band. Her Indoors had been booked as the main turn, and by co-incidence, much later on in the day, I’d been asked to go and operate a baritone sax in support. In our line of business, we refer to such an engagement as a Commando Raid, since we are flown straight in to the job, are then required to play the concert, and then flown straight out again. So you can see it’s a bit like The Guns of Navarone, only more brutal and with cheaper flights. As with all foreign trips, by the time you get back to the home airport, it seems to have gone on for months on end, and any memory of Life Before The Trip is but a dim glow. In the dim romantic glow of the passenger lift in the multi storey back at Gatwick, Her Indoors remarked that we’d been away for a grand total of twenty-seven hours! Andorra lies on the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees- right here-

Just like Monaco, it is a small independent principality, or tax haven, and just like Monaco it seems to have been substantially re-developed in the early 1960’s with early 1960’s concrete architecture. Just like Monaco, because of the tax situation most people who live there are gazillionaires, the 1960’s concrete architecture is maintained in spangling pristine condition, very much in completely the opposite fashion to, say, Croydon, which means that just like Monaco, it looks a bit like a set from Thunderbirds. Often on one of these trips, the actual concert part of the activity is so eclipsed by the sheer fatigue of getting there and back that one forgets altogether about the actual point of the journey. On this occasion, the gig itself went very well. We were there to play an Ellington programme, so there was little to go awry. Consisting mainly of Ellington’s original scores, the concert also included some arrangements of Ellington material by other writers. After a version of Rockin’ In Rhythm to open proceedings which, with its rock-steady beat and incredible high note trumpet antics from young Louis Dowdeswell, raised the level of excitement in the room to a nearly unclean level, we played them an arrangement of Take The A Train by the German arranger Jorg Keller, which took an expanded and contemporary look at the old classic. Maybe a shade too expanded and contemporary for the good concert going folk of Andorra, as, in his conversation with conductor Jay Craig afterwards, the Mayor said something along the lines of “Wonderful concert- simply wonderful. Congratulations to all. You did have us worried with that second one, though.”

After the gig, there was a brief opportunity for a beer back at the hotel, before it was time to climb the wooden hill to blanket fair, or given the colossal size of the bed up in room 402, which had clearly been designed for a similar amount of folk as had the Jacuzzi/dry dock thing in the bathroom, blanket amusement park, to enjoy a nice nourishing, rejuvenating three hours’ sleep before climbing back on the coach and enjoying further slumber on nice comfy coach seats, as the sun rose over the Pyrenees right in our faces to help us to nod off. This all sounds like carping, which it isn’t intended to be- the gig was great. I am a saxophone operator, and I got to operate it on a lovely stage with some great players, and on some of the best music ever written for band. The sunrise to which I have just alluded, although hardly the friend of rest, was of breathtaking beauty, which is why I started off this whole rant by making the point that the perks of this job are many, varied and strange.

Further perks have ensued this week. I am currently sitting here tapping this into the Mobile Command Centre Information Portal, or Laptop looking at this-

A few days after the Andorra Caper, Her Indoors, The Volvo and I found ourselves back at Gatport in order to enjoy another early morning Cider and Super Sizzler special, and then to get on a great big aeroplane to fly out to Barbados. Unlike the Commando Raid of the week before, the deal was that we’d do our gig on the first day, and then enjoy a further four days off by the sea. A completely splendid plan in anyone’s book. On the flight over, I watched that new film “The Wolf Of Wall Street”, and whilst I found it to be a thumping good story, and at three hours long, a good use of a large chunk of the journey, I was quite surprised that Mr. Branson and his pals at Virgin HQ has left all the many and varied naughty bits in. Especially given the fact that you are sort of on display in the sleepy public arena that is a long-haul flight with your viewing choice. Sitting as I was on the aisle seat of the big central block you get on huge intercontinental aeroplanes, I became concerned that the two nuns one row back across the aisle might notice I was feasting on a rich portion of high-priced Hollywood smut, but as I couldn’t hear the rattling of rosaries, I reckon that they either didn’t mind, or didn’t notice. Deciding to clean up my act anyway, once the film had reached its inevitable grubby denouement, I spent the rest of the flight becoming addicted to a video game called Bejewelled, in which hours would pass while I played a kind of psychedelic naughts and crosses. Proper opium for the mind. By the time we touched down in Bridgetown, I had been exposed to high-level rudery and then subjected to three hours of cyber-hypnosis. And I loved it. I had turned into Winston Smith at the end of 1984. If you’ve never been out this way before, few things can prepare you for the sensory overload that is stepping off a plane and out into the Caribbean air. The warmth burrows straight in, and all those little muscular aches and twinges which our climate loves to foster just evaporate. Grantley Adams airport is also partially open plan, with great swathes of Caribbean flora to break up the concrete. Driving across the island reveals a topography which is comprised mainly of rolling hills and thick woods. From a distance, it looks rather like Cornwall, until you look a bit closer and spot that the vegetation is mainly palms and huge great leaves which would not look out of place hanging out of the mouth of a Stegosaurus. Once again, the travel element has nearly made me forget about the gig. We played to a mixed audience, with a lot of Americans present. I’ve never really had an American audience before, and it was immediately apparent that they really were clued up on their jazz. Nodding sagely when the differences between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were being discussed in one of the links, It felt like more of an English university audience than one of the general public. As a result, I didn’t have to do quite the usual amount of jumping up and down and shouting as normal to try and sustain their attention, and as a result of that I ended the evening merely very sweaty, instead of, as I had feared in the tropical heat sporting a jacket and tie, absolutely drenched. Perks here were quite a lot of free Banks’ Beer, and best of all, a talking parrot backstage. It’s incredible what you can find if you look.

Since then, there have been a few other luxury perks, the most startling one being the effect of enough sleep. I can think and walk around now without feeling as if parts or all of me has been made from recently chewed bubblegum. Night falls quickly here in the tropics- at around 6.30 the sun retires behind the horizon in a blaze of oranges, blues and greens, and then it’s night time, which is thick velvet black. Home tomorrow though, taking off here at around tea-time, and landing back at Gatport with the time difference just in time to plough round the M25 in the rush hour. Smashing.