On an otherwise rather drab Sunday afternoon towards the end of last year, Rory and I were fortunate enough to attend one of David Sedaris’ recordings for Radio 4. Having never sat in the audience at the BBC Radio Theatre before, I was surprised at how much fun it was. Up until then my activities in that room were limited to either performing in some shows or producing others. The first of those two is the more enjoyable but neither is really a barrel of laughs and so nestling down in our rather uncomfortable seats to watch a show being recorded felt a satisfyingly snug and smug treat.
I looked around at my fellow audience members and they seemed, by and large, ordinary enough – just people out to enjoy themselves with their free tickets. Up until this point I’d regarded radio audiences with some suspicion, and so this ordinariness caught me a tad unawares. The type of people who attended recordings of radio programmes had been the subject of some mockery by those of us who were involved in the making of them, I recall. Not entirely unfairly either. In the very first audience show I produced at the Paris Studios in Regent Street one of the retakes I was obliged to get from the cast was due to extraneous noises emanating from the front row. Two elderly ladies had been arguing in loud whispers with each other as to the order in which they should eat the picnic they had brought along with them. Settling on a first course of hard-boiled eggs they made quite a noise as they cracked the shells by rapping them with a knife one of them produced from her handbag. They then passed a rustling twist of tinfoil between them containing salt with which to season their meal. Twenty years later, this audience seemed a far better behaved group, and certainly not a discernibly hungry one. Although possibly, as I have arrived within a decade or so of the age of the average Radio 4 listener, 56, I’ve now merely become just like them and so can’t see anything odd in it all.
In one of his stories David Sedaris talked of the acquisition of a guest room as being the principal consolation of middle-age. In one of his many wonderful turns of phrase the washer on his penis might have worn out he explained but at least he had somewhere people could sleep. And in his case, as he was eager to inform us, he had two such rooms. In my mid-forties I don’t have even one, let alone a pair, and a wave of ennui coursed through me as I reflected on this particular failure of mine.
“Do something sensible with the money,” my father had said to me when I told him of the quite generous redundancy settlement I received when I left the BBC back at the start of this century.
“Of course I will,” I replied before embarking on two years of long lunches, Paul Smith suit-buying sprees, several holidays, not earning a penny, and building up an ocean of debt. If I’d spent the money on converting my cellar into an office-cum-guest room instead of booze and schmutter not only would I have somewhere people could stay but I’d also have been able to laugh along with the rest of that Sunday’s ordinary audience at the next bit of the story rather than missing it by being wrapped up in this particular chapter in my life’s story which I’ve entitled This Is Where I Went Wrong.
I state the bleeding obvious when I say that the disappointments of middle-age are manifestly more pronounced than the consolations, but at least they often arrive in unexpected forms. What I’m about to tell you, I’m afraid, is actually a bit disgusting. You might want to stop now. Well into my early forties one of the principle pleasures of bath time was to see if there was skin on the soles of my feet that could be picked at and peeled away. On a good day, once or twice a month if I was lucky, after a reasonable soak, pads of whitened dead skin would puff up like prawn crackers in hot oil, revealing themselves ready for detachment. But for some time now my feet have seemed less enthusiastic in relinquishing their carapace to my prying fingers. Instead of coming away in satisfyingly large pieces they must have found an alternative method of saying farewell to my feet, and frankly this saddens me as picking away at our bodies is one of mankind’s genuine solaces. (If you have got this far and actually do feel disgusted I’m compelled to inform you that you are a hypocrite as deep down we all enjoy this stuff.)
Getting sunburnt, therefore, is a mixed blessing for me. Horrid though sunstroke surely is even in the depths of nauseous despair I remain conscious of the reward to come. I once made the mistake of being persuaded by a native of Guernsey that a few days on his island might constitute an enjoyable break. Prior to going, I had visions of merrily cycling about on my own, reading books in sandy coves, and spending the evenings eating reasonably priced seafood. As it turned out the island was far too hilly for cycling so my daylight hours were spent trudging along country lanes pushing my rented bicycle past polytunnels of tomatoes, whilst anticipating yet another evening of being stared at in restaurants for eating alone. So embarrassed by my presence were the restaurateurs of Guernsey I was usually sat in a Bermuda triangle between the toilets, a coat rack and the thing with spare napkins and cutlery on it. After a couple of days of this grimness, I was desperate for a change of scene and so attempted to book a ferry ticket to Sark. Sark is an island that prides itself on not having moved beyond the nineteenth century although I had visions of the inhabitants being delighted by my arrival with news of the post-atomic age.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing available,” said the man in the ticket office on the quay after he’d checked his computer.
“Really?” I exclaimed almost close to tears at being denied a chance to visit an even smaller island and look at the no-cars that were there.
“It’s a busy time of year, you see. The busiest.”
“But why?” I cried.
“Spoon festival, isn’t it,” he said, “the world and his wife don’t want to miss Sark’s spoon festival.”
Despite it being June, the sunshine isle that my friend had promised me was shrouded in rain and fog. Until that is my very last day when suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun came out, the Nazi defences on the beaches were exposed in all their concrete glory, and I decided to soak up some rays. Never have I been so ill in my life from the effects of too much sun. At the airport that evening, I was close to curling up on the floor and willingly dying so grim did I feel and the next day at home I could barely move with the pain. Worryingly, later in the week I was due to fly to Lisbon for a holiday with my friend Caroline.
“I’m really not sure I’ll be able to make it,” I said to her on the phone. As she pondered contingency plans I focused on the considerable tracts of my body that were pulsating with a heat suitable for browning a joint of meat. But by a miracle, a antihistamine-based miracle, I did manage to get to Portugal and on about day three I started to be rewarded for my pains.
“Come and look at this,” I shrieked with delight from behind our hotel room’s bathroom door one evening. Caroline, who we’ve always called Deaf for a reason now lost to any of us, sounded dubious at my offer.
“It’s amazing.” I confidently reassured her. An offer to look at anything that is produced behind a bathroom door is unlikely to be a universally appealing one and so “you’ll really be amazed at what I’ve done” is what I said in my softest most reassuring tones as she nervously poked her head in. Proudly I was holding aloft a length of dead skin. The years since have lent this piece of charred leg almost mythical proportions. In my mind’s eye it is longer even than the leg that had produced it, although at the time Deaf demonstrated less a look of awe and rather one of a woman who would experience not a scintilla of regret were she to reach the end of her days without seeing such a thing.
After Lisbon we travelled on to Sintra and despite ogling the lunatic palace there I was in a greater thrall to the skin my slowly recovering body was shedding like a snake in a hurry. Deaf, however, had learned to avoid my siren call and would instead sternly ask me to clear out from the bed we were sharing the bits of me my body had chosen to discard during the night. Finally we wound up for a two-night stay in a small fishing village. Standing on our apartment’s balcony one night we looked down at the street below at a group of women wailing and genuflecting around a badly painted wooden statue of a saint and I wondered if the spoons of Sark engendered such enthusiasm amongst the locals? Later on, eating yet another Portuguese meal that seemed mainly to be made of salt, we talked about what we’d both most enjoyed about the holiday.
“Peeling all that dead skin off has been the best bit for me,” I boasted. For a good few days afterwards back at home my body still kept coming up with the goods. From my shoulders and upper arms and most tantalisingly from my back – an area so hard to reach I rang Deaf to try and persuade her to come over and help. Several years later a doctor explained to me that I’d probably experienced burns to my skin of a degree the number of which I’ve now forgotten but do remember wasn’t to be recommended. For a decade there were marks on my ankles where my socks had been (not with sandals but trainers I hasten to add) and I felt a modicum of disappointment the day I realised they weren’t there any more. Like scars I could no longer share from a battle I was proud to have participated in. And now here I am, far more careful in the sun than I was back in the days when I was blowing Licence Fee payers’ money on holidays, and the only skin-peeling I’m left to enjoy is that of an onion as even the stuff on my feet after a bath doesn’t seem to come up with the goods any more.