Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kurt in German

In August (or thereabouts) I shall make my debut on the German-language page. No, I haven't suddenly become expert in the language of my fathers: I actually wrote this piece in English and it has been translated, tenderly and with suitable Gänzlische esprit, by my friend Kevin, who is the editor of the book 'Glitter and be Gay'.
In this book, too, I make my debut as an 'elder statesman' and an 'eminence grise'. Gone are the days when I was a 'young wolf' leading the pack in the compiling of musical theatre histories. Kevin and Christophe are, in the 21st century, the future of the world in which I made my career, and I am enjoying myself immensely being, now, the venerable one who is asked to write sage Introductions instead of vast volumes.
This Introduction, I have to admit, is not exactly 'sage'. You will see - even if you don't read German - that the book is about Homosexuality and Operette. Chuckle. No wonder Kevin asked me to be his 'expert'. But it's the sort of subject which could provoke, in hands other than those of the likes of Herr Clarke, some frightfully Kraft-Ebbische and learned theorisings. Not the Gänzl style at all. Never has been, much to the disdain and horror of certain professorial postureres. Those adepts of the footnote.
So my little piece for 'Glitter and be Gay' is, shall we say, in good humour ... a tiny case history of two almost modern musical theatre gentlemen, by names Ian and Kurt, who were, shall we say, more gay than glittering. Whose love for the musical theatre wasn't that of the clichéd 'glamourverliebten Schwulen'.
And if you don't know what that means, buy the book. It is going to be full of good things. And the introduction isn't bad either.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Kurt the cartoon

Look what the brilliant Allister Hardiman has come up with! Now I can audition for ROGER RABBIT Part 2!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Kurt in the Isle of Wight

I’ve talked about the Isle of Wight for ages. I’ve had it in my head since I started working on Victorian English subjects, and then we saw it on a couple of occasions on A Place in the Sun and it looked really ‘me’. So it was always supposed to be a part of this voyage, somewhere, sometime. But, somehow, it kept on slipping out of the programme. It was the date that was always going to happen, but never quite did.
Until yesterday.

Andrew and Wendy determined that – especially as my time in England had been unscheduledly extended - I WAS going to ‘do’ the Isle of Wight, and on Saturday morning – in spite of grey skies and an unfavourable weather-forecast -- at 8am we set out, with Wendy at the wheel of the Lamb family BMW, and headed for the South Coast. At 10am we boarded the Wightlink car ferry, the ‘St Helen’, at 10.45am we berthed at the village of Fishbourne, Isle of Wight, and by 11am we were in the island’s main town of Ryde.

Ryde was not quite what I had expected. Except that I am not sure quite what I had expected. It seems, from the short glance that we bestowed on it, to be a curious mixture of rather splendid, large upper-middle class Victorian houses, a few once grandish hotels, and a decidedly plebeian sort of ancient holiday resort on the familiar British lines of a century ago. The whole set on quite a steep hillside. It also seems nowadays to be rather in need, notably in much of its main street and foreshore, of a jolly good wash and paintbrush-up.
I photographed the long pier, which carries the local train right out over the sea to meet the incoming passenger ferries, I photographed a few of the Victorian architectural features, we ferreted around a little arcade which claimed that it sold Victoriana and found the sort of almost-junk shops that used to be so plentiful in British provincial towns and which you rarely see nowadays, and finally we paid a visit to the local cemetery. I had hoped to find there the tomb of Maria Billington Merest, the celebrated contralto, who died in Ryde, but had to be contented with that of Michael Maybrick, baritone and songwriter (‘Stephen Adams’) and sometime mayor of Ryde. He could do with a brush-up too. Maybe its all that salty sea air.

Our next stop was Sandown. I was in search of a cemetery there, too, for it is in Sandown that the singing Alexander sisters from Smithfield (otherwise Enrichetta and Adele Alessandri) are buried, and I was keen to find their memorial.
Sandown is smaller than Ryde, also where Ryde seems to tumble down the hillside towards the sea, Sandown runs what you might call alongwise, one layer up the cliff above the sea. Until, that is, you descend the winding road to the actual beachside where you get a large and bright pink amusements pier, a rather splendidly curving beach, and all the usual fixtures and fittings of a British holiday resort.
Sandown seemed to me to have rather more character than Ryde – the bit of Ryde we saw anyway – and to be distinctly less scruffy. But it is equally olde worlde. As I hurried to the local library, in search of cemetery info, I passed a ‘novelty’ shop (postcards ten for 80 pence) which featured proudly displayed in its window ‘The original fart machine’. I don’t think even Blackpool has stocked such ancient comic merchandise since the 1950s. As for the baker’s shop, it boasted shortbreads made in the shape of the Island. I lost count of the fish and chip shops. And the guest houses, large and small, ancient and modern, and utterly ubiquitous..

Alas, all the cemetery records for Sandown are kept … in Newport, so in spite of visiting the pretty church and cemetery of Christ Church we didn’t find Harriet and Adelaide but I am fairly sure that – even though they were Jewish – they are probably there somewhere. I shall research better before I return.

From Sandown, we skittled along the coast – more or less bypassing new Shanklin, but taking in the very pretty old version of the town – and as lunchtime-ish feelings began to be felt, arrived on the seafront at Ventnor.
In spite of an electric blue luminescent amusement arcade plumb in the middle of its beachside promenade, and other such ‘popular’ items as the pie’n’mash bar, the something-or-other museum (entry: two pounds) and ‘the diner’, Ventnor seems to be distinctly ‘one notch up’ from the two towns we’d visited so far. It was certainly much better cared for, and one could not miss the very new and rather aggressive block of apartments which are a modern feature of the promenade. Someone has spent a lot of money here. Probably with reason..
Drolly, right next to the new apartments, stood what is probably one of the oldest houses in the town: a dilapidated and literally crumbling Victorian villa which someone has painted up in bright red and yellow. It is for sale, so I imagine that by the time I return it will be history.
We walked – with the assistance of a very stiff breeze -- the length of the promenade and, following the crowd, settled on the Spyglass Inn, a large, cobbled-together but evidently in part at least ancient hotel, for our lunch. The crowd obviously knew its stuff. We sat in the sun (yes!) and wind, out on the jolly terrace overlooking the bay, with the best ‘beer-n-sandwich’ imaginable -- Andrew had fresh crab, I had what they promised was home cured ham and certainly seemed like a quarter of a Wightish pig, and for the first time in my life the barmaid asked me if I wanted my Guinness chilled or otherwise. Chilled, of course. Ah, yes,all felt extremely right with the world.
And from where I sat I could see two ‘holiday flats, lo let…’. I wonder if they have wi-fi.

Beyond Ventnor, you get out of the fairly solidly built-up area of the east part of the island and head out into some attractive green countryside. Well, it’s attractive most of the time. Sadly, the route is punctuated by a few modern equivalents of the aged and traditional ‘resort entertainments’ that one can look over rather fondly in the main towns. The para-gliding looked marvellous, and there are apparently some other sweet spots off the road, but a couple of the fabricated ‘Sights’ and ‘Resorts’ along the way had me shuddering. There are just occasional moments when you feel that the Isle of Wight is in danger of becoming nothing more nor less than one huge and too often tacky Playground or Entertainment Arcade. But then you come across the secluded (except from the hordes of what seemed to be Japanese tourists) and lovely former home of Lord Tennyson (Farringford House)...

At the very western tip of the Island, however, there is a sight which is largely natural and very much worth seeing. The Needles – the rocky spires from near which Marconi made some his earliest trials in wireless telegraphy – and Alum Bay with its cliff of variegated red, yellow, black and white sands.
To get to these sights, one has to park one’s car (3 pounds ‘for the whole day’), and weed one’s way through a small but freshly-white-painted old-style funfair (entrance FREE, but 9 pounds a book of tickets for the rides,) which clearly must do the business ‘in season’. From there, one descends by a chairlift (4 pounds, but only operative ‘in season’) or by a set of 188 new, wooden steps to the seaside. Its worth both the 3 pounds and the descent – and re-ascent! A genuine ‘sight’ and one with historical significance as well.

The Needles was the turning point of our trip. We headed back via the attractive Freshwater area and the outskirts of the yacht-filled Yarmouth to the edge of Newport. Newport is apparently not so large as Ryde, but it looked to me very much like the Island’s commercial and administrative centre. The vast and very new and spotless buildings on its perimeter contrasted very much with what we’d seen on the east coast. Here, it seems, is the Isle of Wight of the 21st century. So we skipped it, and instead set off back to Fishborne and the 4pm ferry.
By half past six we were back in Shirley.

Well, its perfectly possible that I haven’t given all parts of the Isle of Wight fair and equal consideration. It’s quite certain that I’ve made snap judgements on instant impressions all the way round. And, of course, we didn’t take the time to look at Cowes, for example. But I came out of our trip with a distinctly different idea of the island to that with which I’d gone in.

And also with the feeling that I could very happily take myself back for a little while, before too long, to Ventnor.

I am not going to London

It was all planned, like most of the rest of the past couple of months, well in advance. I was coming back to Britain for the last part of this section of my voyage, to spend some few quiet days with my old friend Andrew Lamb, outside of London, whilst awaiting my departure on the SS Tikeibank, from Dunkerque via Tower Hill, on 13 May.
I was not going to brave London. I knew it would all be horribly changed, since the happy days of the 1970s and 1980s, and that I would not like it at all. Nor was I going to rush around trying to catch up with friends, old and newer. Not this time. It was just going to be a gentle fade into my five weeks of otiosity on the ocean wave.

I arrived in England in the middle of a rainstorm, negotiated the voyage Waterloo-Clapham Junction-East Croydon with suitcases and also with now practised ease, and arrived chez Andrew and Wendy in Shirley duly draggled and damp.
My ship ticket was awaiting me. And a surprise. The departure southwards of the SS Tikeibank was now scheduled for 22 May. Now, cargo ships often – nay, usually – sail later than originally planned. Mostly a day or three late. But … nine days? Oh, dear. Two full weeks of gentle fading?

Andrew had arranged some suitably gentle activities.
First of all, of course, a visit to Emily.
Well, I don’t suppose everyone knows about me and Emily, so I’d better explain.
Emily Soldene (1838-1912) is the subject of the very large and important theatrical and musical biography which has occupied much of my writing time over the last twenty years and which was published in Wellington just before I left New Zealand. I’ve tacked in some copy about it and her (and me) alongside this item.
And you can, of course, purchase a copy for $390NZ (postage and packing included) from for I suspect the form in the blog doesn’t work.
Anyway, Andrew was my ally in uncovering the story of Emily Soldene, from day one on, and by one of those rare coincidences in life, one of the things he discovered was that Emily sleeps her last long sleep in the graveyard of Shirley Church, within walking distance of the house where I now sit writing this. He has visited her, of course, on a number of occasions. I, only previously, once.
So a second call, post publication, with photograph of course de rigueur, was in order.

After Emily, we lunched with Tony. Tony Locantro, EMI producer, whom I had previously known at the period when I was writing my Musical Theatre on Record. I don’t know what I’d been thinking. Had I thought that our lunch dates of the days to come were to be in Croydon? I suppose so. But they weren’t. I, who had so firmly concluded that I ‘wasn’t going to London’, was doing just that. And more than that, I was going back fairly and squarely to ‘home ground’.
Waterloo, Embankment … a walk up the road where the old Players’ Theatre used to be (and where the new but different Players Theatre is now, under a railway arch which used to be a dust-heap), past Charing Cross Station, Coutts’ Bank, Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery to .. Cecil Court and David Drummond’s ‘Pleasures of Past Times’ book-and-ephemera shop. Still there. And David too still there. And not noticeably older.
And London too. Or this part of London anyway, which I have known so long and so well. Not noticeably older. Maybe even younger. Everything looks lighter somehow. Cleaner. Is this possible? Improbable, I know, but yes, it IS.
The theatres too. They all look in fine fettle. A bit dispiriting to find that, twenty or thirty years on, so many of them seem to be housing revivals of the smaller musicals of my era, but at least they are open, and seemingly healthy. More healthy, perhaps, than Paris.
Across the road to the Palace Theatre, avoiding a bendy bus (ah! something new!) which decides to stop bang on the pedestrian crossing. And something else new. No “Les Miserables” at the Palace. “Spamalot” instead. “Les Miserables” has shrunken and shifted down the street to the Queen’s. Imagine, I never thought there’d be a musical in the little Queen’s again.
And into Soho.
Soho. Oh, my God. I’m 21 again. But Soho is different. To start with, there doesn’t seem to be any rubbish in the gutters. Or piled up against walls. In fact, Soho looks more like Shepherd’s Market than the grotty old Soho where we used to come to shop for our vegetables in the 1970s.
We lunch at Bistro One, a semi-Turkish place where Tony is ensconced like a Pacha in the corner accepting the homages of all. He clearly eats here daily. The food is good, the company delightful, the bill amazingly small (28 pounds for three in Soho!), and the gents’ loo is the most wonderful I have ever seen anywhere in the world, including the old State Theatre in Sydney.
To get to Victoria Station, we take a bus down Shaftesbury Avenue, along Piccadilly, past where Jackson’s used to be, past Green Park tube station – for twenty years of my life, my ‘home’ tube station – past Albermarle Street where I loitered for half an hour prior to my first ever luncheon with Ian, thirty-one years ago, afraid of arriving early and looking .. um .. too keen. Past Apsley House, and ex-St George’s Hospital from where Emily wanted to watch King Edward’s Coronation go by, and Park Lane where I lived in 1969 with Cliff and Hilda Paray. So many places, so many memories. And they didn’t bring any pain with them, as I’d feared they might.
Perhaps partly because it all seemed a little unreal. Everything, but everything looked so bright and fair. Not grey nor dingy at all. Did it use to be dingy? And if it did, why isn’t it now? So maybe it didn’t.

Wednesday we ventured to the big city again, this time to meet up with Chris Webber. Chris and I have corresponded intermittently over the years about his speciality, the zarzuela, and about our shared interest in horses, but we’ve never met. Suitably, we met up in a Spanish tapas restaurant. Which was something new for me, at least. Also it was down The Cut, past the brand new Southwark tube station, which may again have been new for me. It’s not an area where I ventured very often in my past life. No further than the Old Vic anyway. The Old Vic was, today, at least not playing an old musical.
Tapas, especially when preceded by manzanilla sherry and accompanied by fresh Basque white wine, is an experience definitely to be repeated! Down The Cut, for heaven’s sake. Whatever next…

Thursday I was on slightly better-known ground, for Thursday we ventured to Richmond to lunch with Patrick O’Connor, another friend whom I have not seen for longer than either of us would care to remember. Patrick is moving out of his long time home in Richmond as it turns itself from something that was always a little special into just another suburb. I could see that he was right. Green Park and Soho may have been given a fresh life, but Richmond ... maybe it was because it was raining, but it seemed less lovely.
Our conversation was such as you might expect when three connoisseurs of ancient musical exotica get together, and resulted in the triumphant exhuming of a handful of facts concerning a minor northern-British tenor by name Ronald Murgatroyd. You see, I knew you wouldn’t be interested, so the rest of the conversation can go ‘unrecorded’.
On the way back from Richmond to home base, we took a little time out to visit Barnes Common. Why? Because it’s a place with a significance for Emily Soldene and thus for me. We wandered from the station, to the common, to what we are now pretty sure was the ‘Mill Hill Cottage’ (it’s a vast Victorian mansion) where Emily’s sister and brother-in-law lived, paid our respects and squelched back to the train.

Friday was our farthermost venture of all. Following a quick re-visit to Emily (in our earlier photo, she was fine but I had blinked), we went on to have a look at what we think may very well be the only remnant of a Gerogian to early Victorian pleasure garden extant in modern London. It is the gatehouse and carriage entrance to what was known as the Royal Beulah Spa. I photographed the house (which was billed as ‘1830’ but seems much more modern) and we wandered down the leafy tracks where the carriages of the 1830s would have rolled on their way to the various enjoyments the Spa offered. A strange and rather peaceful feeling.

From Beulah Spa, we continued on to the vast Norwood Cemetery. There are quite a few theatrical and musical folk buried in this cemetery, and in fact the subject has a website devoted to it. But the person I was interested in hasn’t made it that far. Probably not famous enough. Except to me.
The bad news was that Norwood Cemetery has undergone a ‘cleansing’ and many, many, many of the gravestones (including the one I wanted) have been swept away. So no gravestone, which meant no hoped-for date of birth.
But there was good news. The registers of the Cemetery are beautifully intact, beautifully preserved, beautifully accurate .. and therein was to be found my man, sharing a grave with an eight year-old boy. His illegitimate son by a celebrated vocalist of the nineteenth century. Well! I’d wondered, I’d suspected .. and now I knew. It’s things like that that really make an historian’s day!

After a somewhat struggleful car journey via the South Circular Road, we arrived at Greenwich and lunched at the Mitre Hotel. The barman was French, the Guinness was warm and frothy, and you can’t get an ordinary sandwich. Nowadays its all ciabatta which, to me, is the name of one of my Victorian Vocalists. I now know its also a very nice, light theoretically Italian bread, which on this occasion was stuffed with roasted peppers, goat’s cheese, olive tapenade et al, and served with a vast plate of almost hot enough chips. A veritable 21st century pub lunch, but perhaps a little vast for someone born in the first half of the 20th century.

After lunch, we visited the local market, which is the natural habitat of a gentleman named John Carter. Mr Carter runs the sort of market stall business which certainly isn’t characteristic of the new century. He sells recordings, music, libretti – all the stuff Ian and I once collected so avidly – but with a speciality of C19th English opera. My own personal new passion. I lashed out a tenner for a home-made, taken-from-the-1960s-Irish-radio recording of Wallace’s “Lurline” which was irresistible (and which, predictably, was pretty mediocre, but who cares?).

We peeked at good old Greenwich Theatre, the Greenwich Observatory, Blackheath, and my eventful day in Kent also took in one more and unexpected ‘Victorian experience’. I never knew that you could walk under the Thames. But you can. Those enterprising Victorians dug a tunnel between Greenwich and ‘the other side’. Later and lazier generations have installed lifts at either end, but we took the staircase. From the other side you get the classic view back towards the Greenwich Naval College and the place where ‘Cutty Sark’ ought to be (were it not being restored) and where ‘Gipsy Moth’ used to be. Now there is just the pub of the same name.

Well, For a man who was not going to go to London, I seem to have got round a good part of it, don’t I.
And now that my stay on British soil has been extended – till the 18th May, according to the latest revision, rather than the 22nd – I daresay there may be more memories due for revision.

Who knows?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Kurt's new book

'The most monumental biography of a theatrical performer ever written . . .'

from the author of The Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre comes


'I don't suppose the name means very much nowadays to anyone but a handful of music and theatre historians.

'Emily Soldene was a singer and, for a couple of nineteenth-century decades, a star among stars on the English-speaking stage. And I'm about to devote a sizeable part of the next goodness-knows-how-many years of my life to compiling her story . . .'
When first I put those words to paper, a good fifteen years ago and more, for a rather carefree magazine article, I had no idea that the search that I was announcedly letting myself in for would last such a very, very long time. Nor that it would take me all the way from London to the Hertfordshire countryside, to New York, San Francisco and Sydney, to Gundagai, Australia and Christchurch, New Zealand, not to mention - more conventionally - to Emily's final resting place in Shirley, Surrey, England.
Nor did I then imagine even half of what I and the many, many folk who have helped me during the vast length and breadth of my grandiose quest, would find during what ended up being nearly two decades of searching. For Emily Soldene was, as I was quickly to discover, a woman of very many parts indeed. And not all of them obvious or well-known. She was a singer, of course. That was her main and public claim to fame. A singer who shared a concert platform with such vocal and operatic stars of the Victorian era as Sims Reeves, Carlotta Patti, Ilma di Murska, Helen Lemmens-Sherrington and Charles Santley; who introduced Bizet's brand new Carmen for the first time to the British provinces; and who stunned audiences and critics on both sides of the world with her vivacious, voluminous and sexy performances in opéra-bouffe and comic opera. For Emily Soldene was the single outstanding Offenbach and Hervé leading lady of her time and, indeed, more likely than not, of all English-language time.
She was a star of the heyday of the British music hall, too; for several years a principal boy of the best of British Christmas pantomimes, from the East End to Glasgow; and, ultimately, even, a huge headliner on the American burleycue stage, all as a part of a colourful career as a performer which lasted through more than quarter of a starry century and gleefully ran the gamut of theatrical styles from Trovatore to the Tivoli. An actress, a producer and a director, a theatre manager, a Broadway-produced playwright and a published novelist, a journalist and for twenty picturesque years a high-flying and intermittently daring gossip columnist in each of the world's hemispheres - all of these was 'Madame Soldene' and, at the same time, a wife, four times a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. And, most enduringly, the author of the most colourful and scandalous memoir of the Victorian stage ever written.
The innocently-titled My Theatrical and Musical Recollections by Emily Soldene, published in London in 1896, turned out to be the high-society shocker of the last years of the nineteenth century. 'Each and all she puts them to bed', gasped one critic as Emily reeled off with casual but precise bonhomie the names of the long list of aristocratic and moneyed gentlemen who, in everybody's youthful days, had dallied where the girls were, behind the scenes of the theatres where she had starred. 'Even the succession could be in danger', cried another, as Emily gaily grinned out the story of the birth of a 'royal' baby to one of her prize 'five foot ten all in proportion' chorus girls. And, in the wake of all this Victorian aghastness, her book - needless to say - sold like King Alfred's cakes. Scorched bits and all.
It was those three hundred merry pages of Recollections which I, then all unknowing, chanced upon on one 1980s day, hidden deep among the turrets of old volumes tottering on the floor of a now extinct second-hand bookshop just along from the Brighton Theatre Royal, that launched me on this project. Because I fell in love with Emily's book at first read. But it wasn't just that. Not just a simple coup d'amour. I was a bit annoyed, at first read, to see that the previous owner of my precious book had scribbled his personal comments in its margins. They were in pencil, though, so I would be able to rub them out. Fortunately, before I started wielding my iconoclastic eraser, I noticed the bookplate inside the front cover. Ex libris Clementis Scott. My book had been originally the property of no less a personage than Clement Scott of the Daily Telegraph: the most important, accurate and intelligent theatrical journalist of the Victorian age. Not to mention an intimate acquaintance of Madame Soldene. And those scribbles were his comments on what she had 'told'! And an idea crept into my head.
Originally, it was my intention simply to republish the long-out-of-print book that Emily had written, holus bolus, along with Scott's little bundle of revelatory remarks and a helpful home-made dose of explanatory notes on who was who and what was nineteenth-century what, for the benefit of twentieth-century readers. But, having begun, I very soon realised that that sort of thing wasn't going to be anything like good enough. In next to no time, I discovered that there was much more – so much more – in the way of truths and tales, personal and professional, that for one reason or another Emily hadn't seen fit or wise to elaborate on in her book, that needed to be in there if we were going to have the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth'. And, being younger than I am now and just as foolish, I decided that, a century down the line, I would be the one to help her out a bit. And that's how and why I began my mighty search.
This pair of volumes - with Emily's original, loosely-printed three hundred pages and dozen pictures now grown into some fifteen hundred tightly-packed pages with almost seven hundred illustrations - is born from all that I found once I started looking. Digging. Asking questions. Going back to primary sources to check out from the ground up what were supposed to be 'known facts'. Coming at the whole thing sideways when the Victorian world wasn't looking, and finding things I am sure the Victorians never thought anyone would ever go looking for or checking out. There will be a few red faces in the depths of a few old graveyards tonight.
But enough said. Here it is, the finished product. It's a double-volumed and also a double-headed piece of work. You have, on the one hand, the tale of my search for my singer - the where and how and with what energies I and my friends dug and chased in pursuit of Emily's hidden verities
- but on the other hand, and much more importantly, within these pages you have the fullest life-history that I have been able to reconstruct, a hundred and forty years after Emily Soldene burst on to the world's stages, of a most truly remarkable woman and of her years in that incomparably vigorous and variegated world which was the Victorian musical theatre.
I hope you'll enjoy both stories.
As for me, now that our long 'affair' is - I suppose - over, I can safely say that I reckon 'Madame Emily Soldene' has been worth every minute of the one-third of my life that I've devoted to her. I hope you will think so, too. Boswell did it for Johnson, Holroyd did it for Lytton Strachey, but Emily and I have (with only a few disagreements) done it together. And at comparable length!
As the song goes, "This is my monnnnnn-ument". Hers. And mine, too. Not my two volumes of British Musical Theatre nor indeed my three tomes of Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre. This one. This one I get buried with. Which will make a change from being buried underneath it, as I have been for so long.
Read. Enjoy. She's all yours.
Kurt Gänzl, April 2007

Steele Roberts proudly presents



packaging and freight included

click HERE for our order form

or email

* * * * * * * *

Opera singer, wandering minstrel, theatrical agent, West End casting director, broadcaster, theatre critic, and sometime amateur harness-racehorse driver, Kurt Gänzl launched his writing career in 1986 with an award-winning two-volume history of The British Musical Theatre. A further dozen volumes of multicoloured theatre history have followed, including the three-tomed Enyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre, Musical Theatre on Record, Gänzl's Book of the Musical Theatre (with Andrew Lamb) and, most recently, biographies of British burlesque queen Lydia Thompson and Australo-American comedian-playwright William B. Gill.
© Kurt Gänzl, 2006

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The President of France having been elected

I have moved on to England.

Christophe, Pierre, Berenice and I spent the evening of Election Day with Olivier and Fred, at their apartment in the Beaubourg area – imagine, an apartment with a view of … the Pompidou Centre! That’s kind of classy, don’t you think?

Anyway, there we foregathered, as the evening closed in and the voting offices closed, along with Jean-Marc, with Clark, and with Martine, for a gently convivial evening centred, of course, around a television set from which boomed several versions of the events of the day and night, plus an endless stream of – of course – talking heads of French politicians. Most of whom, bar the infernal and inevitable Tapie, meant little to me.

However, the evening was placed under a slightly unfortunate star. Of the six Frenchmen (Clark is American, but only just) and one Frenchwoman present -- and I omit for the present the New Zealander, five plus one were possessed of political convictions ranging from the crimson to the scarlet to the very pink indeed. And it had been very obvious, for some time before our foregathering, that Nicolas Sarkozy, the decidedly conservative candidate of the right, was going to win this election by what in racing we would call ‘a distance’.
So five plus one people out of eight started the evening in a rather less than joyfully equi-animate state of mind. No-one actually seemed disposed to look at the situation with head rather than heart, and this resulted in rather a lot of sometimes witty and sometimes bitchy bon (and not so bon) mots being flung at those various functionaries of the victorious blue persuasion who passed endlessly across the screen.
I say that ‘no-one’ seemed disposed, but that is not fair. The one Frenchman present who had indeed backed the winner, and backed him most enthusiastically, was our Pierre. Now, Pierre is a highly intelligent man. And not only intelligent but cogent of argument and logical and persuasive of discourse. He also had the wind of victory in his sails. And he had also shared a bottle of white wine with me at lunchtime, and I suspect a least a bit of another on his own while I was having my pre-election siesta. Well, as he said, ‘why not? it isn’t every day that you back a presidential winner!’
Now I, who of course am politically as royal blue as Pierre if not even perhaps more so, saw very clearly that tonight was undoubtedly a night to keep my mouth shut. To make nice, conciliatory rose pink comments. And if necessary even to play ‘je ne comprends pas’ (and some of the rougher bons mots I actually didn’t). But Pierre wasn’t of the same opinion … and not inclined to play that sort of game. So ……..


Although we were not far from the centre of all the action, when we emerged at ten something pm in search of a taxi, the streets were surprisingly empty. It seemed as if all the stray Parsians who’d dared the streets that night had been gathered up to take part in the party in the Place de la Concorde that was so necessary for God TV and which had looked for a bit as if it wasn’t going to happen. (Well, when the result has been obvious for hours .. where’s the fun?)

So we got a taxi, and we got a merrily chatty driver with distinct political opinions (he mainly hated anything centrist!) whom Pierre proceeded to more or less demolish with well-lit political logic. Except that the taxi driver loved the dialectic, and bounced back with delightful ‘street logic’ of his own.

We ended this rather strange evening at – where else – Le Chineur. I had been on my best ‘boisson’ behaviour all night (necessary under the circumstances!) so treated myself to one of those millionaire whiskies in guise of celebration, after which we all trundled off to beds …

God’s in his heaven, and all’s right… all’s right with the wo-ooooo-rld! I quoted to myself.
Except that the morrow I had to traipse my bags across the English Channel…

And, after a fond farewell to France, that’s what – calmly and without incident -- I did.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Kurt at Vincennes


Its 10pm Saturday night. I should be asleep, especially given that I have to elect the President of France tomorrow. And also that I was dead on (or off) my feet at 7pm. But …. Well, I wanted to get today’s happenings down on what passes now for paper while the memories are hot. Hot, hot, hot.

So, surmounting my post-Metro crise of 7pm, I downloaded the day’s pictures, showered, changed, and – having survived the whole day on one rather tough baguette, 2 coffees and a few glasses of champagne -- popped across the road for a quick cous-cous and a bottle of Moroccan gris. You don’t ‘pop’ in Paris on a Saturday night at 8pm. Also, much as the smily Moroccan in the cous-cous place seems to like me, a ‘single’ is, in the restaurant trade, a liability. Nevertheless, he brought me a glorious merguez cous-cous which seemed to me to be the same size as the lads had had for two people yesterday, plus those nice little liqueurs that preface and end a couscous meal, and my only problem was to persuade him that ‘yes!’ I did indeed mean I wanted an entire bottle of wine all for myself. He came back twice to ask again! Honestly, these ‘Frenchmen’…

So. That is why its 10pm and I’m only just back in room 5 Hotel Plaisance, where I’d intended to be an hour ago.
And ready to go.


A day at the races with Kurt and Jack.

I imagine that anyone who has anything at all to do with harness racing, anywhere in the world, has heard of it. Maybe even seen it on television. But as of today I’ve been there, seen it in the flesh, from just about every angle you can imagine, and I’ve had a fascinating and truly exciting time.

Vincennes is not utterly easy to get to. From my pied-a-terre in the 14th arrondissement, it took a 10 minute walk, a healthy tube trip, followed by a shorter suburban train trip, followed again by an even shorter bus trip. Something like an hour, and I wouldn’t like to have done it without a guide! We did it grey and early – for alas the day had dawned damp and cool-breezy -- and got to the course with plenty of time to have a good look around before the action started.
It is impressive. There is no other word. The colossal, modern, tiered stand looms over all, from the open bleachers and vast betting halls at ground level up – in traditional manner -- though the glass-encased private club and dining areas to the champagne-drenched eyries of national and internatonal officialdom high above.
The horse accommodation, which slopes down the side of the track so as to half give the impression of being housed in a vast bunker is as impressive here as it has been on every course I have visited. More than 130 handsome, well-fitted-out boxes, set on courtyards and with direct access to the track.
And the track? Well, that is something else. It is actually two tracks, a smaller one for night racing let into the great, swooping 2000-metre oval, with its famous ‘descente’ and ‘montée’ – not quite as dramatic as the Great Northern Steeplechase, but on the same principal –which serves for days like today. See Vincennes and die, say I to the constructors of all those piteous half-mile saucers which pass for racetracks. I’ve never seen anything to compare with it. And just to add to its drama, it is black. Coal black. And with good reason. The whole surface is of cinder, staunch, muesli-sharp cinder (I dug my hands into it joyfully) of the kind we had in sports grounds in the days before track athletes became pin-cushions.
The visual effect is stunning. The black, black track, the green, green grass, and away in the distance a misty view of the towering roofs of Paris.
And the giant screen. I’ve seen a few of those in my time, too, but nothing like this one. Not only do you see everything that is going on on the track – warm-ups, races, replays – you also get all the betting and racing information prior to the race, the sectionals during the race, and the results after the race (amazingly, they give each placed horse’s time, but not the distances and not the dividends .. they even have their priorities in order!). Perhaps the greatest thrill for an owner is when each horse’s details go up. Owner, trainer, driver ... and your colours in great and glorious full technicolour. But the salient point about this screen is its clarity. In the grey part of the day, it shone out like a beacon, when the sunshine latterly came, it was equally clear to read. Clear? It positively leaped out at you. Every home should have one.

I’ve chatted a lot in my other tales from the French racetrack about what goes on here. The Them and Us thing. This time – the last before I head on to places where, alas, there are no harness races – I’d like to say just a little about the horses. Because today I saw some magnificent horses.

Race one was a three-year-old fillies 2175m monté (stand start), and I glued myself to the rails with my Kodak in hand. Queen Bird, with two fast-finishing wins from two country starts, was the favourite and she shot to the lead. Shot? She ran her first sectional in 1.11 -- faster than the adults and stars would do later in the day – and simply didn’t stop. One by one her would-be competitors, unable to keep up, galloped as their gait went to bits, or simply fell off the lead bunch exhausted. On the last turn, the foremost of the virtual stragglers started just perceptibly to close the gaping hole to the leader, but Queen Bird was just playing as she cruised to victory in a very fast time. A stunning start to the day.

Before Race two, the Marion Hue contingent – Jack’s Porto de Bootz and the Querido des Baux of Mons Plancqueel, the one which had won here last week at 60-1 – arrived from Les Baux de Breteuil, so we ended up watching race two from the owners and trainers bar, sensibly situated among the horseboxes. From there you have a great view of the runners as they dive down the hill after the front straight.

Race three was the big one. Yes, race three. Here, the feature of the day is habitually not left until everyone has run out of gas or money.
This big race has had the pundits spilling ink by the gallon. Pages and pages and pages of analyses in the press. But all saying the same thing. The race was a gimme. The ‘best horse in the world’, the filly Pearl Queen was a shoo-in. Out of fifty or so pundits – press and professionals – who paraded their picks in the PARIS-TURF, not one dared disagree. Pearl Queen 50, the rest: none. Even the young trainer Laurence Baudron grimaced ‘we are running for the second place’.
I didn’t necessarily see it that way. But what did I know, apart from what I’d read in Paris-Turf? However, this is a race like the Grand National or the Melbourne Cup when even those of us who ‘never’ bet, have to put a couple of dollars on, so I did. Bypassing Pearl Queen at 1.40 to win, I plonked my 2 euros on the proven best of the colts, Prince d’Espace, who –thanks to her – was showing at 14-1.
All looked straightforward to start with. Pearl Queen dropped into the one-one, behind her eternally helpful stablemate, as an outsider set what looked to me like just a steady pace. But when the star of the occasion finally pulled out to take over the lead it took about two seconds to see that this horse was not going well enough to win. On the turn – in typical French fashion – the well-liked colt Pitt Cade put his shoulder into it and skipped clear. Surely he couldn’t be caught! But champion driver Bazire had finally got Prince d’Espace, out wide, away from the back of the bunch and, as the field thinned he suddenly dived – with a daring I’ve rarely seen -- at an impossible angle for a rails run. Then, as he closed like a whippet on Pitt Cade, drama struck. The leader galloped, and at the same time a flash of white appeared under the outside rails. It was the unconsidered Pirogue Jenilou, a little sit-sprint filly of undoubted value (actually the fourth largest stake-winner in the 16-horse field), trained by the same 21 year-old Baudron who had thought he was running for second. With Pitt Cade, and the huge outsider which finished fourth both being disqualified for not trotting correctly in the final stretch (you don’t even have to break!), Pearl Queen finally finished fifth. The hordes of fans dolled up in their Pearl Queen promo caps were shattered. ’The best horse in the world’ myth was dead forever. Pirogue Jenilou was the heroine of the day, and my 2 euros hadn’t quite turned into 28.

Race four, we watched from the bleachers. A good view, if somewhat chilly. This too was a group race and once again the ‘fans’ were out with their pancartes. The object of their passion, this time, was a good 5 year-old named Opus Viervil whom I’d seen finish nigh on last the other day at Enghien. Opus Viervil, however, is not loved for himself alone. He is loved as the best first-crop son of the once idolised trotting star Jag de Bellouet, and the cardboard signs refer to him as ‘son of Jag’. Well, Opus Viervil sent them away happy as, in a remarkable turn-around of form, he stormed home to victory.

Race six, we watched from above. Way above. Far from the chilly winds, sipping champagne in the official eyrie in the company of Mons Jacques Chartier, chief executive of Le Cheval Français and shortly to visit Christchurch for the World Trotting Conference, and Mons Maurice de Folleville, the doyen of the association. Not to forget a number of the kind of elegant ladies whom I’d been disappointed to see no evidence of down on level one. In fact, level one of the ‘owners and guests’ area seemed to be largely populated by strange little men in shabby black, clasping racecards close and effortfully mateying up to every jockey or trainer who came near. As well as one distinctly crazy member of the species, in a bright red shirt, who spent the entire day shouting insults at the objects of his desire.

Up on level umpteen, however, one was far from such curiosities, and we had a magnificent view of the race won by a horse suffering from the name of Magnificent Rodney, a horse which a few nights earlier had represented France with some success in Finland.

With race eight, we got to personal things. Jack’s Porto de Bootz was number 11, and 18-18 in the betting in a field of 18. Well, yes. First up since December, he was ‘going round’ as part of his preparation, with the tiny hope of breaking into the first seven and thus the money. And he did it! Marion kept him snuggled in amongst the field for the first 2400 metres, and he ran home nicely down the straight, passing one horse after another and sneaking into seventh by a nose. $600NZ in the kitty! And a decidedly promising run.

For race nine we had higher hopes. Querido had, after all, won with great ease on this very track just last week. But today was Criterium day, and the field for the Prix de Dreux was a pretty hot one. ‘Whatever wins this’, I was told, ‘will race thereafter against the very top three year-olds’. For the public, it was a virtual two horse race, with Quaro, who had won with huge ease on my day at Enghien as favourite. Querido was 18-1 in spite of being picked here and there.
There was no fairytale. Quaro went to the front, went for the doctor, and found him. But Querido, kept relaxed back in the field throughout, powered home for third (and $15,000NZ!) when the bird had flown, in most impressive style.

It was a splendid finale to a splendid day, and as we sprinted for Jack’s train (to England) and my tube (to the 14eme arrondissement), I thought – ‘they do this five times a week here in the winter!’. But I suppose every day isn’t Criterium day. If it were, I guess I’d be doing my house hunting somewhere round Vincennes.

In spite of the buttercups.

Sad footnote: It appears that the wonderful black track of Vincennes is condemned. Cinders are apparently these days deemed unhealthy by those who pontificate on such things, and they have to go. In a country where every second person puffs semi-permanently on a cigarette, this seems to me vaguely ridiculous.

IAN BEVAN (1919-2006)

On his birthday
with my everlasting love

(click on picture to enlarge)

My Last Days in Paris

My last days in Paris?
For now, of course.
You’ll have guessed, I’m sure, that from now on this city is likely to be a fairly frequent feature in my life. If I can stand the pace.

Wednesday, I said goodbye to the Mayenne with the greatest misgivings and boarded the TGV back in the direction of the Gare Montparnasse and the Hotel Plaisance, Rue de Gergovie. And, needless to say, within hours, to the irreplaceable Café Chineur, Christophe and Pierre.

Christophe – and I’m sure no-one else could have done it – had, during my absence, bearded the ticket folk at the Gare du Nord and he has resuscitated my theoretically ‘invalid’ Eurostar return ticket! So, after all, I’m off to England on Monday at no extra expense.

We dined, en famille, at the Rue Alésia where Pierre had prepared a Breton dinner – a really superb piece of pickled pork accompanied by baked potatoes bursting with butter in the traditional Breton way. Bugger the blood-pressure, it was dé-lic-i-eux! The immediate price to pay, however was … political. For this was the night of the great TV presdiential-election debate between Monsieur du droit and Madame de la gauche, and twenty million Frenchmen (and women) were glued – for the first part of the show, anyway – to their oblong screens.

What did I think? Well, for all that it matters, I thought the whole thing a bit of a set-up job. Monsieur, apparently known for his fiery and trample-em-down style, had decided to be the soft and charming destroyer for the occasion. Madame, normally expected to be on the defensive, had clearly been advised to go in with all guns firing. And she did. To start with, she did it well, but during the course of the evening cracks started to show. She confused attack with rudeness … interrupting almost every time her opponent began to speak, and finally falling into what I’m sure was a trap and losing her cool. He, meanwhile, cruised along with perhaps – for me -- rather less éclat than might have been effective … but I suppose that the French people have seen him in many more dramatic flights over the years and such a display was not necessary.
Suffice it to say, that had I a vote, a vote for the hugely important post of President of the Republic of France, the figurehead (apart from anything else) of France for the rest of the world, there would be, without question, only one way to go. But I haven’t, and whichever way it goes (and, surprisingly to me, there does seem to be some doubt) I don’t suppose it will make any difference to me, so ….
Go for it, France.

I didn’t quite make it to the end. I shuffled off when they – finally – got on to the few minutes devoted to foreign policy, and sought the seclusion that the Hotel Plaisance grants…

Thursday went, to begin with, a little more quietly. My wi-fi session at the Café, a pleasant and super-light Japanese luncheon, some 1920s French opérette music with Christophe, plus a little sortie in search of the one item on my ‘French musts’ list that I’d so far failed to turn up: les espadrilles.
I popped into Monoprix (a lowish-price general store). No espadrilles. Out of season, it seems. But I – who for reasons of suitcase have staunchly refused to buy anything en voyage – came out with two flyweight white shirts and two pairs of paperweight trousers. They will be perfect for the ship, and anyway I’m afraid that in spite of repeated washing, the small wardrobe which I have with me is getting kind of stained (horses, Berenice, grandstands etc) and shabby. That’s my excuse anyway. I hope it will all fit in to my valise and not break my back on my virtual ‘last leg’, Paris-Croydon.

In the evening we proceeded uptown to another Café, Le Cavalier Bleu, in the Beaubourg, right opposite the Centre Pompidou. When I remember how grotesque we all thought that building when it first went up .. well, it seems one can get used to anything. Today, I didn’t mind it at all. But there was a better sight nearby: just around the corner I spotted the Bistrot Beaubourg ... my tripe restaurant. In spite of the name, I hadn’t connected that it was ‘here’.
At the Cavalier Bleu we met up with my favourite Alsacien, Jean-Baptiste, with his colleague Isabelle, and with Olivier (theatre director) and Fred (theatre designer), and spent a lively evening during which I managed mostly to hold my own in spite of a bass-n-guitar serenade which made hearing, especially for me, something of a contest. Drinks, supper, lots of chat – theatre at one end, business at the other, me in the middle – before we walked with Fred and Olivier through the chic shops of the quartier, taxi-wards. On the way, Christophe mentioned ‘espadrilles’ and in ten seconds Fred (who lives nearby) came up with .. a shopwindow simply bursting with the damned things! Only trouble is, given my morning’s purchases, I’m not sure I’ve left room in my baggage for anything else. But at least now I know that they exist … within walking distance of the tripe restaurant!

Friday should have been easy. But I have to face it: it seems I have tried to go a little too fast a little too often … two months into the first part of this ‘grand voyage’, I fear I am weakening somewhat.

We lunched at the cous-cous place opposite, along with Franck Cassard, a well-known French vocalist (everything from operatic primo tenore to revue in a Mother Superior habit), actor and all-round homme du theatre and de la musique. Free-flowing, voluble, amusing, interesting… I mean when did I last meet anyone who has actually played in Fra Diavolo, Jean de Paris, Ba-ta-clan, M Choufleuri and the like? Alas, I really had to work to keep up. It’s not the French. Mostly, apart from the exceptionally literary and the specialist slangy, I’m right in there. It’s my damned ears. If someone is speaking directly to me, one to one, that’s fine. But if it’s a case, as today, of said person entertaining a tableful of folk, even without background muzak mulching up the sound, I miss a bit here and there – a bit that’s been volleyed out in a different direction -- and then I have to hurry to catch up, and the whole thing becomes a frantic catch-as-catch-can. Well, its not going to get better, is it, so I’m going to have to learn to live with it. Which probably condemns me to a life without jolly times with ‘les gens du théâtre’.

After lunch I crept up to room number 5 and spent three hours on my bed. There’s no getting away from it, for one reason or another, I am just plain weary.


OK. I fell down a hole. I had a fit of the blues. Whatever. I suppose it’s surprising it hasn’t happened before. But I bounced back, and spent a delightful, not too long evening with Chris and Pierre in a friendly corner of the Chineur restaurant (as opposed to its bar), with a yummy mixture of fishy things – from smoked salmon to lumpfish – served with blinis and rather too much lettuce, some nice white wine, and – as a treat – a little whisky as a goodnighter.

Which it was.

Oh. One more and final thing I did today, which has imperatively to be related. With my breakfast I took Paris-Turf, the famous French racing newspaper, and therein I saw exactly what is in store for me tomorrow: just about the best and biggest day of high-class French harness racing imaginable!
So, if I unfortunately collided, in my last days in Paris, with that exhausting saga called the election, I do have my reward. And my next bulletin will be dateline .. Vincennes.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Marion Hue unloads Polina des Baux

Quitus du Seuil

The bluebelly fluffy

A Visit to Hokitika-dans-l'Eure

We travelled to the course with Marion and Polina in one of the stable’s horse-transporters, a glamorous little side-loading two-horse affair, with comfortable seating for half a dozen people as well as the horses, and labelled ‘Vans Barbot’ (‘made in Lisbon’). Have to say I wouldn’t mind exporting one of those either!

Evreux racecourse. Well. It’s a country track all right, with all the atmosphere that one gets from a day out at Nelson or Reefton. Especially on Mayday holiday raceday. Green lawns, huge trees, friendly buildings, a modern but characterful little grandstand, a grand crowd, and some cheerful chappies touting half-a-baguette dripping with mustard and stuffed with those delicious spicy sausages called merguez at 3 euros ($6 NZ) and Amstel beer at $5NZ a large plastic beaker. It’s a long way from the sixpenny race-course pie that (without beer) was a highlight of racedays in my teens, but every bit – oh! every bit -- as good.

Still, as I’d noticed elsewhere, it was the facilities for the horses that were the most remarkable feature of the course. Evreux racecourse – for its one trot, two gallops race-year -- sports forty brand new horse boxes, built in two long, spick-and-span rows, with all mod cons, including washdowns at one end and a staffed vet’s office in what is virtually box forty-one at the other. The whole lined out with fresh straw for race-day. Impressive.

The actual Evreux track – unlike Enghien and Argentan -- is grass. Lush, ankle-deep grass. A 1600 metres oval of grass with, needless to say, long, long, super-long straights which make for fabulous spectator sport, and which encloses sufficient space for five soccer grounds and a rugby pitch in its middle. It is also, however, in regular country fashion, and in spite of no crossings, rather evidently … as one driver described it ‘boom-py’?

The programme was of eight races, a divided three year-old race with 12 starters per heat (and 23 had not got in!), and everywhere else full, over-subscribed fields of 15. More than 100 horses in total had failed to get a start. And the ‘country’ meeting had attracted the most metropolitan of trainers, including a large contingent from the celebrated Dubois team.

The Dubois contingent, needless to say, helped itself to a good, short-priced share of the day’s spoils. And ‘our’ team? Well, ‘mixed fortunes’ all round. Polina (no. 8), first up after a spell (in a country where Trials, as we know them, do not exist!), flew out from the start, straight to the front.
I should pause here to say that the ‘no 8’ is irrelevant. Standing start races in France do not have a draw! You can start from wherever you like. So the start of a race is rather like the start of a yacht race, with everyone jockeying for the position they prefer as the unstoppable countdown goes ‘5-4-3-2-1-top!’ Again like a yacht, you get it in the neck if you go too soon. Obviously, some drivers are better at this rather intimidating war of nerves than others, and it is very clear that Marion is one of them.

Polina got taken on, handed up to the hottish fave, and duly got the trail right up to the final bend. At which stage she collided with one of Evreux’s ‘boomps’, galloped for the first time in her life, and that was that. Verdict: Will do better before long.

Quitus went out at long odds. The commentator didn’t seem to rate his Caen qualifying performance hugely. But Quitus didn’t know that. Marion again shot his ‘yacht’ away into the lead, and this time he did not hand up.

Quitus strode away in front of a stretching field until calming the pace going into the back straight, but still comfortably holding out the horse at his shoulder. He looked so good! As they got to the final turn, he looked to me like a good thing and then ... he galloped. Just a stride or three, but enough to lose 20 metres and the lead. He was a gappy fifth when he recovered. Into the straight with the favourite clear, and Quitus … where? Why, powering back into it down the outside to finish in a clear second, and at healthy odds too.
I didn’t know whether to feel thrilled or frustrated, and decided on thrilled. This is a nice young horse. (‘The price just went up’, grinned Jack in my ear). Ah well, that’s racing.

It was a great day out. I’m getting the same feelings I had when I first rediscovered New Zealand trotting, a decade ago, and covered the country circuits following the fortunes of Davey Crockett and co. I hope it lasts, but anyway, at the moment, I am thoroughly head-over-heels with the French trotting game.

Like all good ‘journalo’s, I took my little notepad along with me today, determined to write down, for your edification and amusement, some of the unfamiliar (to us) things that I spotted. Starting of course with those interesting no-draw ‘yachting’ starts. I can live with them. But they perhaps could be subject to the sort of ‘school bullying’ that we’ve all seen too often in our races.
There’s the no trials business, too. Trials here are only for qualifying, and for re-qualifying. Yes, re-qualifying. For if a French horse gets disqualified for galloping in three races in a row, it has to start over. Very salutary. And typical of a country which trumpets its determination to keep the game and the breed at their highest level. I can think of a few Kiwi trotters which would be spending their lives at the trials.

Then there are the gear ‘eccentricities’.
How about classic tie downs used over and as well as the quick hitch. The swivelling quick-hitch, of course, which helps swing the cart round the corners and, I am assured, saves you up to a second per bend. On a saucer track, you are talking a lot of seconds.
And how about an overcheck equipped not with a clip but a ratchet on the saddle. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
And – could I believe my eyes? – a horse wearing a big blue fluffy not under the saddle but .. under the girth! Maybe he had a delicate belly? I don’t know. But I took a photo (above) to prove I am telling the truth.

Most of the horses, I noticed, spent much of their non-racing time with their ears plugged with cotton wool, and once put into a the box many wore a bucket-mask to stop them eating the straw. An interesting variation on this was to tie the lead several rounds through the horse’s mouth. Effective, but unattractive and rather ruinous, I imagine, on leads.
I also noticed, with considerable alarm, a trainer openly syringing something down his horse’s throat just before the race. With certain recent NZ proceedings in mind, I made discreet inquiries. It is, it appears, a mixture of ordinary salt and water, and a general practice. Well, OK, then…
Amongst the other gear items – and oh! how I loitered around the French equivalent of the Morrison’s Saddlery truck, dreaming what I would buy if I weren’t travelling the world with just one small valise – I liked particularly the ‘gear bag’. It isn’t a bag, it’s a plastic chest on wheels. A five year old can (and does) push it, and it holds a helluva lot more than our classic bag.

I’m learning hand over fist about harness racing French style —the whys and wherefores as well as the hows. I’ve come a long way since my debut at Enghien with its jaw-dropped reactions to everything I saw (and in the odd case – sorry about that -- got a bit wrong!). And I hope to go further.
Come Saturday, it’s my fourth and for-the-moment last day at the French races. No country meeting this time. Oh no. I’m off to Vincennes where, it seems, I am likely to see ‘the best horse in the world’, the little filly Pearl Queen, run.
All I can say is, I can’t possibly enjoy it more than my day out at Evreux in the Eure.

Twilight des Baux

Les Baux de Breteuil

Kurt Gänzl reporting. A slightly footsore reporter after a thirteen-hour Mayday spent, once again, amongst the horses and horsemen of France.

With my visits to Enghien and Argentan, I’d so far taken in two ‘levels’ of French racing: today I was promised a visit to a real grass-roots country meeting. A meeting on a track that only hosts one day of harness racing a year. A sort of French Hokitika or Omoto. Those of you who know me know that there’s nothing I like better. So Jack and I set out at 7 amin the direction of Evreux, more than two hours away from home base, in the department of the Eure.

Stop one on the day’s itinerary, however, was a visit to Jack’s team, his family of largely home-bred trotters which is based at the stable of Marion Hue in the tiny, picture-book village of Les Baux de Breteuil, Eure. It is almost misleading to say the stable is ‘in’ the village. It is really its principal feature. Give or take a school which looks to me like an ex-manor house. The homes of three generations of trotting Hues – father Bernard, son Marion, and his son David -- take up a whole corner of the village green, the stables, paddocks and training track line one side, and the villagers – including gentle, balding Pascal who sports a jumper proclaiming rather surprisingly that he is ‘Rough Trade’ -- supply help and support ad libitum to what looks like the place’s main enterprise.

The Hue stable is a long-established one and it looks like it. It is set up on thoroughly traditional lines, with its vast hangar of boxes (and interior walking machine!), its circle of day paddocks, its training track and rather less in the way of used bits and pieces lying around than I’m familiar with in some New Zealand stables. Marion is, these days, the most up-front person in the business, but Bernard is the paterfamilias. Thanks to one of France’s less agreeable rules, however, he is now – having reached the age of 70 -- sidelined from race driving. He took his farewell last December, running Jack’s Orlando into the money in a group race. Is 70 too late to learn English? Wow, how I’d like to export this top-notch trainer and driver from France to Canterbury, NZ!

We did the rounds of the equine Dowie family, from M to T. For, as you probably know, all French horses born in a particular breeding year have to have names starting with a designated letter. So Jack has the outstanding Orlando aged 5, Polina and Porto aged 4, Quiwi and Quick aged 3, Rosa and Rosko aged 2, Snowball and Sierra the yearlings, plus baby Twilight, daughter of the good mare Moonlight des Baux, and a very T-pregnant foundation mare, Festina des Baux.

On the way round, I mumbled something about one day racing a horse in France, and – of course – it just so happened that there was one available. Very available, for the handsome 3 year-old colt named Quitus du Seuil was actually making his debut today at Evreux. A few figures later, I had to mumble something about talking to my bank manager. For, in spite of the rumour I’d picked up, smart or not, the cost of buying and racing a horse in France is not the same as in New Zealand. Let’s say ... double? But, nevertheless … soonish …?