On tour one develops air-conditioning paranoia. (I’ve just returned from a two-month Pet Shop Boys’ tour of North and South America, from Montreal to Lima.) You approach your latest hotel room with dread. How noisy is the air-conditioning? Can you turn it off? Is your room on the top floor directly under the main air-conditioning unit and therefore literally vibrating? When you check into your room during the day you often don’t notice the noise, but returning late after the show, the street noise having died down, you can become cruelly and sleeplessly aware of it. It’s time for the early-hours room change. The charmingly helpful hotel staff can never hear the noise but gently indulge you. Then there’s the freezing air-conditioning in dressing rooms. Are they trying to give you pneumonia before the concert starts? You learn to take something warm to wear backstage and always have ear-plugs by your bed.
Latin America has become ‘normal’. On our first tour there in 1994, in each country the promoter met us at the airport gate and whisked us straight into a car, customs formalities apparently nonexistent. Fifteen years later, getting into Peru or Mexico is no different from getting into the USA. I take this to be an encouraging sign of the development of their civil societies. Lima is a gastronomic capital. We were there for three days and every meal we ate was outstanding. Peru is blessed with high-quality ingredients and excellent chefs whose influences are both local and Asian. Apparently, there are 35 weather systems on the planet and Peru has 28 of them, hence its immense variety of food. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Was Pope John Paul II anti-Semitic? Or just tactless? One of the books I read on tour was Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known, a memoir by the distinguished Jewish-American historian who grew up in pre-war Germany and emigrated with his family to the US. The five Germanys are Weimar, Nazi, capitalist West Germany, communist East Germany and today’s unified Germany, and he provides an insider’s account of his experiences of all of them and America’s interaction with them. In 1987, he met Pope John Paul II and enthused about the large number of bright Asian students there are at American universities these days, remarking, ‘They have taken the place of the Jews.’ The Pope’s response was a little chilling: ‘Yes, but they [Jews] still control the media and finance.’
Is music the point of pop concerts today? Or is the taking of photos and videos on mobile phones where the enjoyment lies? Walking on stage, you’d easily assume the latter. At most concerts you’re dazzled by camera flashes and distracted by the glow of video-recording lights. In Atlantic City, I was trying to give a heartfelt performance of our ballad ‘Jealousy’, while directly in front of me a woman was getting a friend to take a photo of her standing in front of me, then checking the shot on the screen and, with much laughter, reshooting it. I felt like kicking her.
I return home from touring to a pile of the various magazines I subscribe to, including this one. That David Cameron will soon be prime minister is now a given. No doubt a Tory government is on the horizon but I never meet anyone who shows the slightest enthusiasm for David Cameron (I haven’t seen Dylan Jones for quite a while). Not even Tory sympathisers. The consensus seems to be that he’s inevitable but that he’s a lightweight with no serious programme. In the past there was a fascination with, even a horror of, the emerging Thatcher and Blair. Cameron, however, seems to be regarded as depressingly unavoidable, the beneficiary of the weary failure of the New Labour project, arousing no strong feelings. I’ll be voting Lib Dem and wishing that Vince Cable was leader.
I apologise in advance for bringing up a much-discussed subject but I’ve been away. ‘Under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see’ creates such a surreal and ghastly image, almost Dali-esque, it would make an excellent title for a contemporary artwork. One reason for the outraged reaction to Jan Moir’s article about Stephen Gately is that it was written in such a powerfully creepy style. The reality is that after the break-up of Boyzone, Stephen was a hard-working show business survivor with a modest way of life. The carapace was a cheerful smile, the reality uncertainty and hard work. In my experience, it’s true of most performers.
We’ve contributed a song called ‘The performance of my life’ to Shirley Bassey’s new album. It has a relevance to Stephen Gately, being about the gap between the celebrity surface and reality, and the consolation of work:
‘A brave face, stiff upper lip,
Will do the trick
Look, the mask is firm,
The face is mine
It seems fine
Until the final day,
I’ll play this part the only way I can
For to live
I have to give
The performance of my life.’
It might look a bit corny written down, but the Dame breathes into it a thrilling pathos and the authenticity of 50 years of show-business experience.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 31, 2009