Tales Of The City: Roast beef in the Caribbean sun

Click to follow

I'm just back from the Caribbean, so you'll excuse me if I have a little shivering fit back in f-f-freezing south London. I went to the Turks & Caicos Islands, because, quite frankly, I couldn't face turning 50 while working in the office. I'd heard the islands were the last word in swanky beach-life, and that British Airways had started flying there direct. It was, they said, the end of the hurricane season, and not quite spring just yet, so don't expect too much. They were seriously underselling the heat.

It was awesome. It was boiling. It was scandalously, unfeasibly, pointlessly cauldron-like. As an American dame on the beach said, in her sweet, I-ain't-cussin' way, "Jean-Claude Van Damme, it's hot". Sun-screen - indeed total weapons-grade sunblock -- meant nothing in this climate. The children still woke every morning, groaning about blistered shoulders, cooked knees, braised forearms, seared cheeks. The baby's lovely face was aglow with what could be either moisturiser or second-degree burns.

After just two days, I was not just tanned but bloody casseroled with rays. I was burnt in some interesting places. No, I didn't mean that - my lower lip, for instance, was burnt like a grilled scallop. Just because I fell asleep and let the sun steal, like an assassin, around the beach umbrella, my earlobe is now charred like a sliver of roast lamb. Although I'm used to cries of dismay at my stupidity in not taking precautions, I have to ask - how the hell do you slather Dr Hauschka's sun-factor 15 all over your head? Eh?

Oh I see. A hat. Yes, I suppose that would have been more sensible. We were staying on Providenciales, in one of those all-inclusive beach resorts where enormous north-western Yanks march up and down the pathways all day long or play volleyball in the pool with shrill cheerleader catchphrases ("Let's rock, Hackensack!") and consume platefuls of burnt bacon and hot grits for breakfast. How disconcerting to find the islands are British-owned. And that they're the most neglected destination I've ever seen.

They're a British Dependent Territory, whose head of state is the Queen, and whose governor is an Englishman who lives miles away on Grand Turk island. Two small political parties with interchangeable names battle it out at elections for the right to administer tiny amount of public-service funds supposedly earmarked for the repair of the atrociously pot-holed Leeward Highway. The beaches are utterly gorgeous, with soft white sand and transparent sea the colour of Listerine mouthwash, but they're the only appealing natural feature. Everything that's not American-hotel-related or American-designed is a big nothing. The island is a 27-mile expanse of English scrubland, deserted docks, broken cars by the roadside, half-finished private homes whose owners evidently ran out of money - and also of American hotels, the marble plaques and fancy marketing of US lawyers, realtors and accountants, not to mention the palm trees and exotic shrubbery they've imported for that "Caribbean-style" effect.

I've never seen American commercial imperialism so spectacularly naked, nor English governorship so hopelessly ineffectual. I've never seen a place so shamefully uncared-for by its owners. I've never understood till now what Gertrude Stein meant when she said, of an American town, "There is no there there".

If you canÿt take the heat get out of the kitchen

I'm not sure of the wisdom of McDonald's, in trying to improve its public image by inviting members of the public to check out its kitchens, root around in its freezer cabinets and inspect its hundred-litre drums of vegetable oil. What has the company got to show off? The state-of-the-art gherkin-slicer? The quality control department that ensures every slice of orange cheese that goes into a cheeseburger tastes of polystyrene? The device that sneakily blackens one French fry in every 300, to achieve that home-burnt look? Mmm, that should impress punters who harbour suspicious of the quality of the fast-food operation... But McDonald's would do well to remember what is alleged to have happened at the Café Royal some years ago, when Lord Forte took out quarter-page ads in the quality press inviting members of the public to come in and see how pristine his flagship restaurant was after a big clean-up programme.

Legend has it that one diner, returning to her table from the ladies toilet, saw a kitchen door and decided to take up his lordship's kind offer. She pushed the door open and found herself in the pastry-and-puddings end of things. She also found (it's alleged) a chap in a chef's hat draping some pastry over an individual fruit pie and crimping it with his teeth. "For God's sake," she remonstrated, "that's terribly unhygienic. Haven't you got some sort of tool you could use?" "I have madam," came the reply, "but I keep it for the brandy snaps."

The politics road show

The ultimate supergroup has been formed, I see. Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and the evergreen Italian actress Sophia Loren have all been signed up to appear on a new record by that wildly cutting-edge rock outfit, the Russian National Orchestra. Its conductor, Kent Nagano, has persuaded the goddess Loren to narrate Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, Clinton to talk us through another piece, Wolf Tracks, and Gorbachev to introduce both. God knows how Mr Nagano contrived to get this trio of ageing titans into a studio, but there's no reason for their musical careers to stop with this outing. They should go on tour, along the lines of the Three Tenors, performing light musical-comedy numbers in the style of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. I'm sure we'd all like to see the former leaders doing a lovely Cole Porter duet ("Have you heard/ the world's gone mad/ They're bombing the Red Cross In old Baghdad...").