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Neil Diamond

September 23, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tomorrow at this time my wife and I will be seated in Seattle’s Key Arena seeing Neil Diamond in concert. The tickets were an impulse purchase weeks ago. We rarely go to concerts. When we do, we are frustrated, or at least I am, by some aspect of the event. The acoustics, the impossibility of resolving the artist from a great distance, the annoying people next to us. All three. (Van Morrison, November 2006, but that’s another story.) Why, then, are we going to see Neil Diamond? He’s not even in my top ten list of artists. Or top one hundred for that matter. If I could think of a hundred artists. But I have a memory, a faint one now, and because of that memory, we’re going.

I spent a little over five weeks in Leeds in the summer of 1977 as a visitor at the School of Mathematics of the University of Leeds. I had recently completed my Ph.D., and Leeds was home to several of the leading ring theorists in the world. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my summer than to be in their company.

I learned a lot during my visit, about math, and about life in England. The heart of my acculturation was the Barrington Court Hotel, more rooming house than hotel, where I had the privilege of residing. It sat on Woodhouse Lane, one of the main roads north from downtown. After crossing the Inner Ring Road, Woodhouse Lane becomes the eastern border of campus, with campus buildings to one side and a series of once-imposing homes on the other. The homes must have been converted to commercial enterprises long ago. Banks. Restaurants. And the Barrington Court. I had a small room to myself, a half room really. What had once been a square bedroom of reasonable size had been split into two long rectangles by a thin wall. My rectangle was large enough for a single bed, a dresser, and a chair, plus the coin-fed gas fireplace. The mirror image room was home to a reader in History at the university, a prominent scholar I gathered, one who would spend evenings at the pub, returning every night a little after 10:30, when the pub closed.

There was little reason to spend evenings cooped up in my half room, so I would typically sit in the lounge on the main floor, across from the kitchen. Over the course of an evening, just about all the guests would pass through the lounge, sit and watch the telly, have a glance at the paper. The lounge was a great meeting place for all sorts of people: permanent residents such as the reader; weeks-long residents such as me; recurring weekly guests, salespeople perhaps; mothers and daughters in town to visit the university or family. Despite my shyness, I did get to talk a little with some of the guests. But mostly we sat together watching BBC shows. I remember making it a point, during any scene involving cars, such as the detective getting in and driving away, to focus on the side of the road the car drove on, and the side of the car the driver got into. I would practice visualizing it, trying to make it intuitive, so that I would know instinctively which way to look when I crossed the street in real life.

The hotel’s proprietors were an older Scottish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Pryde. Mr. Pryde walked with a bit of a stoop. And he was quite clear about the house rules. If the last person watching TV failed to unplug the set after turning it off, Mr. Pryde would let that person know. And he sure let me know when I filled the bathtub too high. The hotel had no shower, so I was forced to draw baths. The bathroom was just above the kitchen. I was filling the tub when he suddenly started pounding on the door, yelling at me to stop the water. What I hadn’t understood was that the drainage hole on the top of the tub wasn’t connected to anything. The water simply poured into it, went into the space under the floor, and poured down from the kitchen ceiling into the kitchen. I didn’t make that mistake again.

The highlight of every evening was our nightly tea and cookies biscuits. I didn’t even like tea at the time, but I didn’t want to miss out on the ritual. The lounge had a swinging door which we were to keep closed at all times. At 9:00 PM, Mr. Pryde would push it open with his back and walk in with a tray of biscuits. He would then come in with cups of tea, with milk or without. On a cold rainy night — and every night the first two weeks I was there was cold and rainy — there was nothing cozier than sitting in the lounge of the Barrington Court, sipping our tea, eating our biscuits, and watching the BBC.

I would make it a point each Saturday to do some touring. On the first Saturday, I took the train to neighboring York and walked all over the historic walled city. On another Saturday, I made a longer journey, north to Durham to see the famed cathedral and the city. In the afternoon, I returned to the train station, intending to return to Leeds, but when a train pulled in bound for Newcastle, just a little farther north, I decided to hop on. I wandered around in the environs of the train station, wondering where all the coal was (I had always been struck by the phrase bringing coals to Newcastle, and after a while, having seen nothing of interest, I headed back to catch the train to Leeds. And what a crowded train it was, filled with families, many eating their carry-on dinners on the tables that separated the facing bench seats from each other. The trip back seemed to take forever. I was relieved to return to the Barrington Court after a long day.

My reward was an evening of fabulous television. That Saturday wasn’t just any Saturday. It was July 9. The final day of play in the 1977 Open Championship, the day that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had the greatest one-on-one competition in major golf championship history. I had missed it all, of course, while touring. But the BBC had put together an edited re-broadcast that showed every single shot the two played in that round. Mind you, others did play that day, 85 others. But the day before, Jack and Tom both shot third rounds of 65 to distance themselves from everyone else, so it was possible to focus on just the two of them, paired together, to see all the action that mattered. In that famed final round, the 27-year-old Watson stood toe to toe with Nicklaus, hole after hole, ultimately shooting a second 65 to Nicklaus’s 66 to win the championship. The rest of the leaderboard was a who’s who of men’s golf, but they were way behind. Hubert Green was 3rd, 11 strokes behind Watson and 10 behind Nicklaus. Then came Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, George Burns III, Arnold Palmer, and Ray Floyd. The broadcast of that round, condensed to an hour (or was it 90 minutes), was the most exciting sporting event I ever watched, and one of the two television highlights of my Barrington Court days.

The other highlight? Neil Diamond, of course, in concert. My memory is probably faulty on this point, but I have come to think that I saw his taped concert on the very same evening, right after the golf. Maybe. I can’t say for sure though. What I can say for sure is that I couldn’t take my eyes off the set. He was spectacular. Did I like the music? Some, yes. A lot of it, not particularly. Which still sums up how I feel about his music. But he was a magnetic performer. And I thought I’d sure like to see him some day. Well, some day has come. It’s tomorrow. And I’m ready. I won’t get to see a re-match of Nicklaus and Watson. But I will get to see Neil. I’m a lucky guy.

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