Living la dolce vita, in Liverpool


Last week in this column I ventured that, as far as one can generalise, the British command of foreign languages is somewhat on the limp side, a limpness exhibited particularly when we go on holiday. This, I asserted, is a particular shame in countries such as Italy, where the local lingo is so much more pleasing on the ear than our own.

Well, responses were many and varied. One reader informed me that his own relatives, albeit some years before the Starbucks revolution made us all familiar with Italian words for coffee, had sat in a Venetian piazza asking, in all innocence, for "a cup of cheeno". But I was also upbraided by others, one of whom pointed out that we English are far too quick to diss our own language, overlooking its marvellous flexibility and constant evolution (eg, diss), and that while Italian might have nicer vowel sounds, English is actually far more expressive. After all, I was reminded, English is still the language of Chaucer, Donne, Milton, and above all, Shakespeare. We should cherish it.

Later that same day, coincidentally, I went with my daughter Eleanor to see a brilliant production of Macbeth at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. It was indeed a masterclass in the power of the English language, but the inescapable fact is that most Shakespearian idioms and flourishes belong firmly on the stage. When a drunk stumbled across our path on the walk back to the city centre, I didn't tell him, as Macduff might have done, to "avaunt, foul caitiff".

We were staying at the Hard Day's Night Hotel, which I thought would be more fun than a Holiday Inn or B&B, although Eleanor was worried that it might be a bit "cheesy". It wasn't. The genuflection to the Beatles is actually very classily done, with pages of their music discreetly suspended from the ceiling and "I Saw Her Standing There" playing quietly when we were checked in by, in the circumstances, a rather disappointingly attentive female receptionist. Admittedly, there's nothing discreet about the gigantic photographs of John, Paul, George and Ringo that festoon the lobby, the bar and the stairs, but the effect, as Eleanor acknowledged, is "cool". And there are some witty touches; the card that you hang outside your bedroom door if you want to be undisturbed, says "It's been a hard day's night". The reverse side, should you require attention, reads, simply, "Help". I suppose they decided that "Please Please Me" sounded a little too suggestive.

The next morning I showed Eleanor the Cavern Club, round the corner in Mathew Street. A book published this week, called 100 Places That Made Britain, includes the Cavern along with the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral as one of the locations that shaped the nation. There will doubtless be those who feel that a Liverpool cellar, an egg-packing station before it became a music club, does not deserve such exalted company. But my Liverpudlian double-header of the Bard and the Beatles reminded me of Britain's extraordinary wealth of cultural influences, and made me realise, too, that I probably shouldn't have knocked the English language last week. Never mind Shakespeare, Italy could never have produced Lennon and McCartney.

How we nearly never got Pan's People

Some names are more evocative for not being able to put a face to them. For instance, the name of Flick Colby, the choreographer of Pan's People who died a few days ago, whisks me straight back to my childhood in front of Top of the Pops. I didn't know which one of the dance troupe she was, but her name on the credits was seared so powerfully into my mind that it still unlocks a whole host of memories. Biddy Baxter is another example. I never knew what she looked like, the long-serving editor of Blue Peter, but her name is practically a nostalgia fest on its own.

Anyway, speaking of names, this week's obituaries of Flick Colby told us that she flirted with calling her dancers Dionysus's Darlings before settling on the indubitably more catchy Pan's People. This raises the question of whether Dionysus's Darlings could ever have become a Thursday evening institution as Pan's People did? And in turn makes me wonder how many times a flash of inspiration or the stroke of a pen have transformed an entire generation's terms of reference? Sitting with some friends on Wednesday evening, I asked how many iconic names they could think of that were almost something else entirely. They came up with Joy Division (Warsaw), Queen (Smile), Pink Floyd (Teaset), Radiohead (On a Friday), Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Sherringford Holmes and Dr Sacker), A Streetcar Named Desire (The Poker Night), Gone With The Wind (Mules in Horses' Harnesses), and Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). In every case, and perhaps especially that of Pink Floyd, I think it's fair to say that the right decision was made. On the other hand, I suppose we might hoot, in a parallel universe, at the idea that Sherringford Holmes was so nearly Sherlock.

My head votes for Rafa Nadal

A letter to The Independent this week expressed amazement that of the eight sports writers invited to predict the outcome of the Champions League final last Saturday, five (including me) tipped Manchester United to beat Barcelona. The correspondent suggested that we had voted with our hearts rather than our heads, and in hindsight, maybe he was right. So this time let me make no such error in judging the chances of the best of British against the most sublime of Spanish. In today's semi-final of the French Open, I expect Rafa Nadal to beat Andy Murray with ease.