Thursday, 26 September 2013

26th September or How They Met My Mother

My mother, Marian, was born on this day in 1921. 

She was born at home, during the day, in an upstairs bedroom in Army Road, Clapham, according to Uncle Eddie, who took me for a walk around Clapham in about the year 2000. I think the road has been renamed but the house is still there. Later on they moved around the corner to the house my Mum remembered.

Auntie Mary is still alive and fabulous in South Africa. In 2001 she told me about how she met my mother. This is the story:

The midwife came in and turned the dining table upside down on the carpet. She put Mary (who was three and a half) and Eddie (who was about 18 months old) on the table top with some slices of bread and butter and told them "This carpet is the sea and this table is a boat. If you get off the boat you'll fall into the sea and drown, so stay where you are." Then she went upstairs. 

It worked. Mary and Eddie stayed on their boat floating in their imaginary sea, eating their bread and butter rations, while upstairs the baby was coming into the world. Later on, their big sister Gladys, aged 8, came home from school and looked after them until they were allowed upstairs to see their new sister.

My family has always been susceptible to the power of stories.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Random Thoughts about Nick: Cars, Vans, WOMBATS

Cars, Planes, WOMBATS

I once thought of writing the story of a relationship in terms of the vehicles in which and by which it is conducted, over several years. This seemed plausible to me even though I can't drive and have little idea what goes on under a car bonnet.  

Clearly it was Nick I had in mind.

In 1985 he was still in his young executive slimline briefcase phase, although, in his own words, had just fucked his career at American Express.

He had gone to his bosses and demanded they remove him from a jetsetting job running training for Amex agents all over French-speaking Africa, to doing any available work in the massive Brighton offices that could be dropped like a hot brick at 3 each afternoon in order for him to pick Jess up from nursery. He then spent the next hours playing with her and getting her tea before dropping her back at her Mum’s at seven pm.

I think there had been some additional deal about him returning to the AmEx office for another few hours work after that, or at weekends, but I’m pretty sure it seldom occurred. But pick up and spend time with Jessica he did, every weekday.

The car was a Cavalier: a model much loved by advertising execs and sales fleet procurers. It was metallic looking – very popular in the 80s – and the very first car I’d ever been in where the music system played CDs instead of battered cassettes that got stuck and spewed loops of tape.

CDs! The very cherry on the Black Forest Gateau of 80s sophistication!

The sound quality was very good indeed: in fact there was a James Last CD in which Nick could make out a metallic little clink. After careful listening he concluded it was the sound of the flute knocking against the music stand.

In-car listening was not quite what you’d associate with Nick of later years: Eurythmics, Level 42, Simply Red, and bloody Dire bloody Straits, who were everywhere at the time. But also Dr Hook, whose surprisingly rude songs may well have influenced subsequent donkey-based humour, the delightful Roche sisters, for the Plum to sing along to from the Plumseat in the back, and Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage, as soon as Nick knew I had been a Roman Catholic. 

Blasting along between Birmingham and Leamington Spa, or from Brighton to Drusilla's, or through Southern England on the way to Glastonbury, we sang The Freaker's Ball, Ireland Soon, and many another. 

Later came Vanessa, a VW camper van. I think there were at least two Vanessas, one with a popup top in which there was a little den for Jessica to sleep in at festivals.

The final Vanessa, in the mid 1990s, became a bit of a nuisance, which Nick decided to solve by arranging for it to be “stolen” and disposed of while he was away visiting me in Thailand.

He was outraged on his return to find the thing still gently rotting where he had left it. ‘Where can you find a thief you can trust these days?’

Finally there came a succession of vans and trucks, in various states of repair, many of them fitted out with ingenuity, often full of musical paraphernalia, old t-shirts, and even worse, musicians.

In one WOMBAT - Waste Of Money, Brains And Time - covered in rust and patches, he drove up to Norwich for August Bank Holiday 2003. We had both just returned to England from elsewhere – he from France, me from the United Arab Emirates.

The van pootled along fairly reliably once it got going, but starting was complicated. It involved pulling out the cover behind the steering wheel – revealing a spaghetti of different coloured wires - and Nick diving down into the footwell with a large pair of pliers while at the same time keeping a hand, or occasionally a foot, on the wheel. He could not see where he was going and get going at the same time, and the tangle of wires became ominously longer each time.

At one point as we potttered along the Norfolk lanes we passed a convoy of rather splendid glittering vintage cars coming the other way, out for what was probably their ‘once a year if the weather is right’ excursion away from the deep oil, bubble-wrap, and temperature-controlled garages in which they were usually preserved. The drivers were vintage too – some of them dressed appropriately in deerstalkers, capes, big hats and so on.

Nick fixed his eyes on the drivers, took both hands off the wheel and applauded wildly, nearly causing the leading driver to swallow his meerschaum pipe.

‘It’s nice of them to make all that effort just to entertain us,’ Nick said. "Think of all the trouble they’ve gone to so we can look at them.

And they  have to look at us! "

Monday, 12 August 2013

April Fool: Random Thoughts about Nick

April Fool

Nick always claimed he was an April Fools’ Day prank.

The story was that after his big sister Lesley was born his father said, “One’s enough”. So Nick’s Mum sabotaged the marital condoms. Before noon on April 1st she was able to say “April Fool!” 

Sure enough, Nick was born on Boxing Day 1950.

I have no idea whether that was true or not, but remembering Romee, Nick’s tank driving, Nazi-escaping, Japanese-Prisoner-of-War-camp-surviving, multi-lingual German-Dutch-Jewish matriarch mother, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.  

(There’s a memorable vignette of Romee in A Liars Autobiography, by Graham Chapman, the deceased Monty Python member. Chapman and other Pythons used to drink at The Monarch in Chalk Farm Road, the pub that Nick’s parents ran, and attended Nick’s wedding some time in the 70s).

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Tales for Weddings

A couple of storytellers have asked about tales suitable for weddings or engagement parties. 

There are millions of stories on a theme of marriage, some more, some less appropriate for weddings, though weddings are traditionally places where inappropriate things can be said too. 

However, I'm not sure many newly weds would want Dave Tonge, the Yarnsmith of Norwich, to tell his startling tale of the husband, the wife, the angel and the magic ring just in the middle of their celebrations... (Not that it isn't a great story: you must hear Dave tell it some time! Just not exactly wedding fare, no matter how rude the best man's speech).

Anyway, here's a tale which appears in Jewish (Ashkenazim) tradition but also in India and North Africa (Mahgrebi) tales. 

* * *

Back in the days when young men and young women did not mix much socially, people still used a matchmaker to help them find a husband or wife. 

The matchmaker was called to a family where the son was thinking about getting married. 

Did he have any specific woman in mind? asked the matchmaker. No, said, the young man, but she has to be a kind-hearted girl - I couldn't live with a wife who was unkind.

The matchmaker thought about it and suggested some suitable, kind hearted girls, and the young man thought about it and said 'Fine, but what do they look like? I want a beautiful wife, obviously.' 

So the matchmaker thought again, and came up with a list of kind girls who were also beautiful. 

And the young man said, Yes, but are they intelligent and well-educated? I couldn't possibly marry someone who wasn't.

The matchmaker gave it some thought and brought a list of girls who were kind and beautiful and intelligent and well educated. 

And the young man said, You know what? It would be ideal to have a wife with a bit of money put by. 

So the list got re-jigged again. And this time the young man said, I forgot to mention cooking. A woman who can cook well - that's so important for me.' 

So... finally the matchmaker brought a list of suitable girls who were kind and beautiful, and intelligent and educated and had some savings and were good cooks. 

And the matchmaker and the young man went through the list, and this one had a brother the young man disliked and that one, well, the young man had once heard her use a swearword in public, which of course put her out of the question for him, and this one sometimes wore a dress the young man felt did not suit her ... and so the list got shorter and shorter, until there was just one woman left on it. Surprising there was anyone, really. 

And try as he might - and he did try hard - the young man could not find anything to object to. She was, by his standards, the perfect woman, and he thought she would make him the perfect wife. 

So... great excitement, the matchmaker set up a meeting between the two.

The young man went off to the meeting looking very pleased but he came back looking like a wet weekend.

What's the matter? said the matchmaker. Wasn't she as perfect as we thought?

No, said the young man. As far as I can tell, she's the perfect woman.

The problem is, she's looking for the perfect man.

Ah, you didn't think of that, said the matchmaker, and walked away.

* * *

Friday, 9 August 2013

Practice seminars today.

Students discuss rival candidates to become visiting lecturers and try to agree who to choose.

One student's vote went to Semen Cowell.

Surprisingly apt.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Language of Disagreement

Preparing students for a seminar exam, recommended language for expressing disagreement includes:

- I'm afraid I'm not convinced...

- Well, you may have a point, but...


- I'm sorry but I really don't go along with that.

No mention at all of the most commonly used expressions in my household:

- Bollocks!

- Tummy rubbish!

and the diplomatic, not to say literary

- Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It seems a shame that students do not tend to get exposed to the actual English expressions used by people like me (by which I mean habitually foul-mouthed people, of course).

Which reminds me I have totally failed to introduce the expression 'bolleme' into everyday English. Based on lexeme, meaning a unit of lexis (or as we say in English, a word) bolleme means a unit of bollocks.


Phew, that management meeting had a particularly high bolleme count, didn't it?

Looks like 'synergy' is bolleme of the day.

I thought that article was pretty good except for the bolleme on page 4

Adam Smith supposed that all participants in the market are rational actors and have all the information they need to choose rationally at all times based on their own best interests - which is a bit of a bolleme, when you come to look at the evidence.

There is clearly a need for this handy expression, but so far, alas, no takers.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Random thoughts about Nick: Shooting stars

One August and another.

Early August, and the Perseid meteor shower swings past the planet again.

Nick and I crept out to one of the Downs, to a wheat field, nearly due the cutting, well over the brow of the hill from the city glare.

Gradually our eyes began to get used to the night sky, and then flickers at the edge of vision, fugitive glitters which seemed sure to be – nothing, just eyes playing tricks – intensified, brightened, and resolved themselves into long striations of light passing over us, here, then there.

Finally a speck of light appeared, grew brighter, bigger, closer, hurtling towards us, and instantly winked out. We both jumped, blinked, shook our heads.

I swear we could feel the star grit in our eyes.

Later, as we got up to go, collecting the rugs, Nick looked at the imprint we’d left in the field, which I’ve no doubt has been extra fertile ever since.

“Ahah! A crop oblong!”

‘Shooting stars,’ became a code between us – a secret password.

Now the Perseids are passing  by us once again, on their ineffable journey, as I head south to see him off  on his.

Shooting stars.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Random Thoughts About Nick: I dreamt about my Dad

In Sussex staying with friends and preparing to commemorate one of my oldest friends, Nick Clyne, who died on July 25th. I've been jotting down some random thoughts and memories about him and thought I'd post one or two as they occur.

I dreamt of my Dad.

I’ll explain.

Meeting Nick for the first time, in December 1985, the initial impression was strongly, and rather alarmingly, reminiscent of my father, who had at that point been dead for 11 years.

There were resemblances. Both were witty, affectionate, highly intelligent, fat men with - as I discovered the next day, when Nick invited me round to tea with him and Jessica, then known as the Plum - a much-loved daughter.

Physically, apart from the fat, they were not in the least alike, but their emotional and intellectual signatures were remarkably similar. So much so that, when Nick and I were beginning to make a leisurely progress towards the inside of each other – a journey which began almost immediately  - I found the resemblance off-putting, and told him so.  (I’ve since made peace with the liking for witty, affectionate, highly intelligent fat men – men with curly ginger hair - that seems to have been imprinted on my psyche ever since. I’m married to one, but back then it had not occurred to me that I had a type.)

On Wednesday afternoon, 24th July 2013, I started to feel ill at work – dizzy and nauseated. I went home early, and the next day stayed off work and off line, feeling the room spin round.

Early on Friday morning I dreamt my Dad was sitting beside me. In Nick’s voice, he told me, ‘I’ve been alive again for a few years, but I’m going to have to be dead for a bit now. Sorry.’ 

I told Barrie what I’d dreamt, went to work and logged onto a computer to check messages.

And there was the announcement of Nick’s death.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

What kind of job is Pope?

Last week’s most unexpected story was the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church. When I say unexpected, I mean it. A number of sources - mostly traceable to the Ur-source, Wikipedia - reported that it’s the first time a pope has resigned in 600 years, but it’s actually rarer than that. In 1415 three popes (or "popes") resigned simultaneously, because none of them could convince the rest of Christendom of his legitimacy. The RCC seems to have decided in retrospect, I don’t know on what basis, that one of these three, Gregory XII, was the proper pope and shouldn’t have needed to resign after all, in spite of his having been elected by a mere handful of cardinals, but at the time it was one of those historical deadlocks like the Schleswig-Holstein question to which nobody knew the answer. (The history of Anti-Popes, from the same University of Wiki, is most entertaining, by the way).

But Papa Josef Ratzinger has no rivals to the title. There are about five popes currently heading small denominations (two papacies became vacant in 2011), but there is not currently an Anti-Pope in the running for top Catholic. The last undisputed pope to resign was poor old Celestine V, in 1294, and Dante put him, or someone who looks a lot like him, into the ‘limbo of the futile’ for his pains. Celestine’s immediate successor as pope showed his gratitude by imprisoning the old man and then not feeding him, but he was canonized almost as soon as he was cold, which was probably not as much consolation as a few buns might have been. Celestine’s only other Papal act was to proclaim the principle that popes can resign.

Anyway, we are witnessing a one-in-800-year event. The Italians have a saying ogni morte del’ Papa (every time a Pope dies) meaning once in a blue moon, but compared with resignations, popes’ deaths are as common as mayflies’ and blue moons as mundane as midday.

There are a lot of strange things about this story. One of the strangest is how quickly it has been normalized, as it dawned on everyone how apparently sane and sensible this astonishing decision actually is. The Pope is 85, in fragile health, and has reportedly been advised not to travel. In any other line of work, retirement at this juncture would be remarkable only for the fact that the soon-to-be-retiree had gone on for so very long already. Pope makes sensible announcement, shock, horror.

But it’s also curious to consider the line of work he is in. The Pope is not simply a priest and a religious leader, but also a head of state. An absolute head of state, for all that he’s elected, and you don’t get many of those any more. Vatican State is the last absolute monarchy left in Europe, and the only theocracy.

Citizenship in this micro-state is determined by religious affiliation, which is true of a few other states in the world. But simply being a Catholic does not in itself get you a Vatican City passport. You have to be a high-ranking member of the clerical hierarchy – and therefore, male. Vatican City is a state which has no native-born citizens, and citizenship rights are granted purely on the basis of occupation. It seems to have few female citizens, as far as I can tell: the language of the Vatican website, which notes that in certain circumstances, citizenship may be extended to employees’ spouses, is carefully gender neutral, but one somehow doubts the Vatican is an equal-opportunity employer. Of its 800-odd citizens, three-quarters are celibate male clerics and most of the rest are members of the in-house mercenary army, the Swiss Guards.  Lose your job, and you are quite likely to lose your passport with it. If you find yourself stateless as well as unemployed after a particularly hard day at the Holy Office, the Italian state is treaty-bound to take up the slack. Citizenship does not enfranchise you to vote for your absolute monarch, either: that’s done by Cardinals (so long as they’re under 80) who for the most part are not actually citizens of the state whose ruler they are electing.

By far the oddest thing of all is that this bizarre theocratic uni-gender statelet sits on numerous international bodies and commissions, and has voting rights on many of them (not the UN, though, in a rare example of someone being sensible). It uses its position to affect international agreements on laws which govern all of us – notably those which affect women’s lives - and to avoid jurisdiction in matters, such as banking transparency, which most normal states are supposed to abide by.

This is as strange as if Barclays Bank or Tescos had managed to get a few acres of land to hoist their flag over and managed to persuade everyone to agree they were states. But citizenship in BarclayCity or Tescopolis would not be available to the employees, not for shelf-stackers or counter staff or even for the regional managers, and certainly not for the depositors or the customers, even those with loyalty cards - but reserved for just a very few top members of the board, holders of some kind of super Clubcard. Then imagine that this ersatz statehood gave the bank or the supermarket a seat on the international organizations who make decisions about, lets say, tax laws, or town planning. 

In the meantime, a million Pope jokes have succeeded and combined with those about horsemeat in burgers, Chris Huhne and his marriage, and so on. My personal favourite is that when Ratzinger ceases to be Pope he will return to being known as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger: and Ex Benedict, in fact.

NB 'A Hard Day At The Holy Office' is the title of a novel which was published, I think, in the 1970s. I've never read it, or seen a copy, but based on the title alone I'd love to.