John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Gracelands Palace is no more. Not the Memphis shrine, but the Chinese restaurant on the Old Kent Road'
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The Independent Online

Thirty-two degrees. Holy mackerel. Cloudless skies and thirty-two degrees, and several days of it still to go. Now that's what I call a summer, the kind that pitches you back to school days when it was a rule to wear your sleeves rolled up, and your walk home on the boiling asphalt past all the scorched gardens was made bearable only by the promise of a pyramidal chunk of frozen orange squash enshrouded in cardboard and called a Jubbly. Thirty-two degrees, eh? I've known hotter (in a boiling car in Valletta, the Maltese capital, I remember the dashboard registered 43 degrees, but I, or perhaps it, might have been hysterical with sunstroke) but never in England. It's getting a little crazy. The eggs are starting to boil in the eggboxes without the intervention of water. You have to hose down the Chrysler for 20 minutes (whoops - I mean "watering-can the Chrysler" obviously) before you can sit inside. The children's bedrooms are like metal sweatboxes. There's not enough sunscreen in all the Sainsbury's in the UK to cover -- perhaps baste is a more appropriate word -- all the naked flesh so dangerously displayed at Brockwell Lido. In my local Café Rouge on Sunday, the glass of merlot at lunchtime was virtually steaming ("What do you expect me to do?" wailed the manageress. "Chill it?")

Everyone knows the British are psychologically ill-equipped to handle really hot weather. Bizarre behaviour patterns become apparent. City chaps start to wear their shirts outside their trousers. People start to believe Andy Murray will win the tennis. I've seen half a dozen women with parasols, as if they'd walked out of Seurat's La Grand Jatte. Thank God then for the Department of Health has responded to the current heatwave with some key advice on how to handle it all. It all boils down, so to speak, to:

Stay indoors.

Drink water and juice.

Don't drink tea, coffee or alcohol.

It's sensible, it's sagacious, it's blindingly obvious. And it would all work just fine if we were a nation that believed in air conditioning, instead of having homes which are now even hotter indoors than outside. Their advice about alcohol is sensible, too, and completely unworkable because we are hard-wired to believe the only thing that will quench the raging thirst of July is two quarts of dry cider, to be drunk while sitting on a patch of public common watching the girls in their halter tops and white shorts. What an incorrigible bunch we are. As they watch the thousands of lemming-like half-naked figures hurtling towards Brighton in their Mini Cooper convertibles, do the DoH's employees shake their heads sadly and say, for the 150th year in succession, "Well, we tried to warn them"...?

****

Something terrible has happened. Gracelands Palace is no more. I do not mean the legendary shrine to Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, but the no-less-legendary Chinese restaurant on London's Old Kent Road. The food was never exactly ambrosial, but that wasn't really the point. The point was the proprietor, Mr Paul Elvis Chan, 55, who, at 11.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays, would appear, clad in a skin-tight white jumpsuit, and sing a selection of Presley hits to his diners.

I visited one night with some friends, all of us expecting an hour of laughably kitsch embarrassment. Nothing of the sort. Mr Chan is an entertainer to his Las Vegas bootstraps, and belted through "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "The Wonder of You" with real pizzazz. He even managed Elvis' flared-nostril sneer rather well. It was a shock to discover from his between-song patter that he spoke in unreconstructed Chinglish ("We aw Elvis fan here, OK?") and came from Hong Kong rather than the Chinatown end of Memphis. At the end of a session, he encouraged women diners to come up and dance with him, and the rush of ladies eager to wiggle hips with this small crooner wiped the cynical grin from many male faces, as we subversively begged him to sing "Blueberry Hill" in a comical accent.

It was surprising to discover that Mr Chan had a sister restaurant, also called Gracelands, in the bourgeois heartland of Tunbridge Wells, Kent - but then Elvis-worship ceased to be an edgy activity some time ago. Last week, President Bush took Mr Koizumi, the Prime Minister of Japan, for a look round the real Graceland - in the course of which Mr Koizumi treated the President to a brief Elvis routine of his own. It's come to something when the guiding spirit of rock'n'roll is now impersonated by heads of state. When he opens a new place, Mr Chan must restore some edge to the King's reputation by feeding his guests the gigantic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that finally did for his hero.

****

The great newsreader Huw Edwards has been the subject of much affectionate ribaldry from my colleague Matthew Norman, for his supposed prickliness about his many talents, and how much he dislikes people thinking that being a "newscaster" (as it used to be called) involves simply scanning an autocue and vocalising the words thereon. Spare a thought, then, for Mr E when he attended a south London junior school to dish out the prizes last week. He introduced himself to the awestruck under-11s and asked them what they thought he did. "You're a news reporter," replied one. Modestly admitting that, well, yes, that might well have been true, once, Mr Edwards said he was a newsreader. "And what," he enquired, "do you have to be good at, to do that job?" Into an awkward silence, a subversive child replied "You have to be good at reading." A distracted Edwards took the news badly, spending the rest of his guest-star slot striding restlessly up and down the dais, as if anxious to prove that he had some legs as well as a top half...

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