I was en route to the O2 Arena to see Barbra Streisand. I had come that morning from Sicily, changing at Milan, flying on to London, going straight from Heathrow to Baker Street, and from Baker Street to North Greenwich on a Jubilee line train filled with emotional Streisand fans, applying and reapplying lip gloss every few minutes. And that was just the men. Some children near me were playing “Rock-paper-scissors-sausage” and roaring with laughter.
An elegant tweedy American couple were strap-hanging next to me. They were the sort of Americans who have a great deal of expensive education in their voices, and possibly every single issue of The New Yorker. The man had seen Streisand in Boston in her very first show in 1961 or 1962. “Do you know how old that makes me?” His partner shook her head. “Want to hear my version of ‘People?’” he asked hopefully.
“No,” she said. “Please not now. In fact, not ever.”
On the tube I leafed through the Alitalia in-flight shopping magazine, which I had somehow failed to ditch. The advertisements for scent particularly caught my imagination. What choices! One fragrance set its cap at “women who invent their lives at every moment”. Is that even possible? Who shall I be today? Charlie Chaplin with notes of a unicorn? Talk about hard work. This scent was for women who are “audacious down to their contradictions and excesses”. It’s not for me, I thought. I like the delicate citrus notes suggestive of the risk-averse.
The next one aimed to conjure “a woman full of ambivalence, elusive and obsessive, powerful and troubling, ingénue but dangerous”. Crikey. Does one really want to smell “disconcerting”? It’s a mighty bold strategy. I thought of my friend Cerith, who used to wear Dettol as a scent when he was a punk. It was so soothing. Everyone loved it. Cheap, too.
London, surprisingly, was hotter than Sicily that day. When I arrived at Greenwich I had to whip off my tights behind a post next to WHSmith. There was a pleasing static crackle. “How would Barbra compare to Mount Etna?” I dimly wondered. They are forces of nature, both.
I am not a Streisand fan exactly. She does what she does extremely well, but I like my singers to have more ... to be more ... what’s the right adjective ... embattled? (Embattled: the heady fragrance for the woman destined to drive herself nuts.) Streisand doesn’t go against the grain of herself in her performances. There is a straightforwardness of purpose. To borrow the word Leigh Hunt so admirably coined to describe Keats, Streisand is “unmisgiving”. You will never hear her open a show saying, “You’ve probably read a lot of dreadful things about me in the papers. Well, most of it’s true.” I think her lack of misgivings is linked to her healthy outlook, her strong sense of self and her supreme control. You can almost hear steamed vegetables and an embargo on cigarettes and alcohol – and probably milk and even toast – in her voice.
I sometimes go and hear singers I am not wild about to do a show-business stock-take of what the available reality is out there. Something like that anyway; something faintly janitorial. Yet things started very well. There was an instant poignant memorial quality to the show’s opening. A montage of pictures of the Streisand family over the years going back to the turn of the century accompanied by her singing, “You’ll never know”. Almost everyone was crying, for if you’ve ever lost anyone – and who hasn’t? – you could not help thinking about it then.
In the second half, Streisand’s 46-year-old son came on stage and sang loud and sincere love songs straight into his mother’s remarkably unfurrowed visage.
“How many times a day do I think of you?” he crooned. I felt a little over-included. I love my mother – for a long time she was the love of my life – but as the teenagers say, “AWKWARD”. Even the ghost of Dr Freud, who sometimes accompanies me to such events, winced slightly, biting his thin lower lip. Yet another part of me tartly self-scolded: “What is your problem? Give her a break. Wouldn’t all parents like their children to pledge undying love to them in front of 13,000 people, every now and then?” I know I would.
The sweet scent of being adored may be cloying to others, but on ourselves it smells gorgeous.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt