Johnnersintheraw's Blog

June 8, 2010

MySisterEileen

Diary of a Mangy Hare named Pad as Re-Written by Bernard the Goose

Eyev bin axt tae riot hey feeiou tinz aboot meye sister Eileen.  Eye axt Bernard da Guuz tae hep mee bud hee sez fekkov heez god beddur tinz tae du. Leik shitin onder nu carz. Soz hear goze.  I eevun stowlt hey dikchuneiry fae da liberry sowz eye whunut sound leik wonodam fekkin illitruditudes fae da udder seit uf da eylunt ware they fekks dere houn sheeps tae saev munny on da studfleas fae da coopt.  Meye nayme iz Pad ur Paddy iffa ewe leiks, witch iz – az ya  noze but probly  duzn –  wot dey kallz Padraig wen dey’s nowan ya all yer laef or wen dey’s fambly or wen dey’s so dronkt fae drinkn dey can’t be boddered tae call youz wot dey should be callin’ ya only dey cunt meyek demselves to rememblerait id.  Eyem sumteiumz wunderun wye da gut Lort boddered tae gaevt us wot dae callz hay Chrischun nayum t’all.  Itz not aziff noboddy rebembleraytz it, haccep perraps da Blessit Virgin wot prayz fer youz wen no one elze iz after doin’ it.  A bonny lass, dat Blessit Virgin.  I wundur wye shes nevvur god herseff merriet proppurin da Kirk?  Insted of geddin herseff nokkert up da wey shee didn’all. Mein ya, deirz somtin goin’ on dere wot doun smellz tu gud.  Meye sister Eileen god herseff hay bonz in da hovvun an du yu tink dey’d ledder bak intae Kirk?  Noooo.  Ezpeshllee hafter shee wentin god herseff pregnunt five yearz runnin’.  Somtin uvva rekurt eevun heir wares dey ushallee taiks adleest hey fiyeev mont whollydee buttween prigunansiez. Nodda whoor sheez haint, ad leezt nodso yewed nodiss – nod like Hagnuz Macilluddee overn da council hustaitz wot heps oud widda sheepdippin evur sprink an shee charjiz a shag per ewe and a snatch likk fer evertoo lambleez.

Eileen haz wot u callz a wonderin’ twat.  And twaznt by her owun doon.  Shee god wonna dem holez wot wanderz off by idseff wen sheez asleepin innur bed.  An dontell hur nuffin aboudit.  Not leikly. An cuz I seen hur peeza furry bit sneekin down da boreen aftern da gud Lardz all tukt up in bed and Eileen sheez never evvun oudda da house, eye bleevz ‘er. Nooo, meye sister Eileen waz wot yud callz a gud lass an never did tuk off nuffin wen shee wentae da set-dansun ad da Tree Blind Feckerz on da turd Sunndy uf evree mont  – Ride aftur da fella in da black dress wid da wite collar round iz neck gaved hur wot fer fur lettin Jimmy O’Grady pud is sausage roll up er gloreebee tae god tae keepid warm fer im tae eets afturn da udder mens wit di udder black dress sprinklz da peepuls wid wadder an dey all runz fae da Kirk haffor he axt dem fer munny fer da widdy MacFarlin overn da bat sait ov da eyelunt ware nobuddyz god shoos. 

Wot ayem sayin iz dat dey gotz das Kirk all wireed up wid wonna dem electricacal barbt wires sos wen Eileen triez tae sneek in aftur mass tae robbles sum beer munny fae da collecshun plait, shee getzer hare all perummt up in dem little curlz an shee doun even has tae go tae Muddur Sullivanz beeudee den hover beehine da pier wair ya gets da fairee tae go tae da udder side uf da sea onwotz callt da manelan.  Hackexcepp on da Lortz dae, wen da lad wot runz da ferree iz still inna ditch somewherez wiv won uf the choirboyz heez been heppin hisseff tu after da mannin da black dress (da won wot trowz da wadder springkutz on everbodeez heddz aftur trettenin gum wid da Faddur handa sun handa holeee spurt

Maebeez eyel be hafter haskin’ hymn da nex taeum  heye goaz tae Kirk wye dey doun led Eillen in da Kirk wen dey letz da Blessid Virgun laedee hin.  Afur hall, da Blessit Vurjin’s sun waz setch hey sorry sun uv hay bitch dat dey strungut im fae hay tree. Han dey still ledz er in han heevun maekz hey statoo uv hur an puds hey liddel bokkz unner id soz da owld widdeez can givez er munny soz shee wone hafta bee goin whoorin’ at da Tree Blind Feckers ever Sabbidy night. Laeukk meye sister Eileen duz. 

Eyebin tinkin eye shud ax da menz inda Kirk wid da bleck dressus anta wite collers wot dey hez agin Eileen. Bod mebee not.  Nowin howtingz bee workin eyeull only bee amakin tings hay hoel lodworsted fur owld Eileen.  Enwot widher bein’ noctd up agin wid a cupla twins, sheel nodbee wantin da fellas in da blackdressuz tae remembrate er.  Id wudnut did dem twinz o’hurs enny fayvurs iffn dey sendz er straytoffta tae da fiers o’hell, wudit?  Infack, dey juss mite mayk mee taix cair o’da wee fekkers.  Eyekin hartlee kin tice meyun houn shoos, led aloun skrub alodda shite oudda hey pyel o’nappies. 

Ennyweys, heye noze beddern tae ax da fellas in da black dresses fer enny fayvers. I tryut tae gown axt him sometin wun taeum.  Bud honlee whonst.  Heye woz hay wee ting – hardty big enuff fer hey poacher tae bodder wid.  Bud da fella in da black dressus hee tought I waz sunsorta rat an hee beated me wid a broom.  So hiffun mae sister Eileen sheel bee wuntun tae ged bakk intae da Kirk han eetz dem free wayfurz leiuk wot ewe eetz wid eiuz kreem honlee ewe godsta paez fur dem in da co-op shop widder  eyeuz kreem kornutz, sheeul haff tae bee bye herseff.  Sheez hay cheep byatch iz Eileen.  Shee cud saev hall sortza munnys bye byeun wayfurz bye da caisuz bud shee doun wanna be spendin da munny shee gedz fae da soshul.  Sheez allaz hexplaning tae mee dat shee neetz da dosh fur nu close tae ware wen shee seez da mans inda blakk dressus.  Shee doun noz wich wonna dem iz da faddur hov er twinz han shee wonz tae luk bonny fur bod o’dem.  Wich eye kin hunnerstant.  Heveree slag neetz tae no ware tae spredda budder on da bred.  Heevun iffn shee dowen no whoz god da rite bred.  Hor hinnd dis case da rite wotzit.  Eileen sez shee preyz tu da Blesst Vurjin dat da faddur iz da short prees on accowntae him havin hey peenucles da sighez o da Sinnandrewzdae haggus han sheez god too boyz innur bump thad shee once tae givez hem hevury advantayge hin leyeuf.  Meye sister Eileenz after sellin dem offfur rent boyz han shee doun wandem tae taek aftur da udder prees da tallur faddur won on accown tae him hartlee avin nuddin aetall buttween is legs bud hare.  Fur hay hooer meye sister Eileen nose wod iz wot bud shee shuda thunk o’dat particyoularizt sittiashun afore shee wennen hopunt er legz tae da prees wid da wand uvva maoose.  Shudna shee.

Tangz uz happulink allovah da plaice sinz yisturdy.  Meye mam shee wentzun showert da wurl wid anoddur batch uf baybeez.  Han nowe heye godster shaerz mae roomwid anodder twenny fiev nu broddurs en sisters.  Eileenz seyez tae mee da girrelz haintso huggly ez da last lod wot wee soult tu da butcheroveron da manelan fur tree powns nyen pence per pown soz wee cud havvda ekstra munnies tae goes tae da set-dansin dat Sunndy nites ovur ad da nu Sivin Fat Hoorz fae da Bog Gedz tae Heven pob overrun da udder seit uv da heyelunt neer ware da widdy MacFarlin sheel bee kukin up summa dem moweldee tatties ansellz them tu da tooirits as trudichunnel heyelunt grub.  Dem tooirits buleevz henytink day duz.  Mae sister Eileen cellz her wanderink twat too hey busslode odimm evureee Sabbidee nide beehyuint da Tree Blayunt Fekkurs oud ware dey haztae goes tae smoak an emtlieez deyre bleddurs hafter drinkin’ too moch o dat tikk blakk beer wot dey callz Bowel Blaster. Coorz dey cannoo duz motch afturn hey cuppla dem Bowul Blesturz bud Eileen shee gets da munnys oudda dem ennywayz bye tellingum dey fekkt er ubwonseitendoundaudder on da weyz intae da pub onlee wid all da Bowal Blesseder dey cannoo remburait wot dere naimz iz motch less da seiz an smelly uv mae sister’s Eileenz twatole.  Sheed bee geddin richshe wud iffn ownleez she wudna keepz geddin moar baibees ever month or soz.  Ever pennee gouz tae neppies fur dem bratzo hurs.  Owenlee shee doun maikz er beybeez wares nuggun ate all.  Nod heevun wen shee clamez all dat muuny fae da soshul fur babbee fud hand nappeez han fur her nu connterry scepticles wot she fergits tae taik an cells em tae da prees tae pud inniz morning cawfee.  Witch iz wy he growun dem bigg duggz ware ushullee menz owenlee godzt hemply nipplezze en wye hiz wotzit haint hartlee dere adall.  Hee cannud unnerstan id bud meye sister Eileen wot nowz wotz wot tinkz itz funnee.  Han sheel still bee wundurin wye dey duzunt bee leddin herseff intae da Kirk.

Miy sister Eileen shee onest tae gouz tae beeutee skool han work fer owld Muddur Sulleevinz beeutee den ovvur en da udder seid uf da heyelund ware shee tinks noobuudy nowz hoo shee iz.  Wich owenlyn shewz wot a dumfek shee iz, cuz shee halwaiz wares hur nu pinnee da won wot seyz “Eileen Da Hair best blowjaps inda wurlt” ride hup onder bakk hinn neeongalaited leddurs.

Dis mournin me han owld Burnut da Guze haduz a reeal suriuz problumasticle sittooz wen we waz hichun hey rite onda traylur wot dey puts enbakko da cummoonidee buz tae kerry alla de shappin o da owld widdiez wen dey goze across da fairie tae da maneland hon turzdeez tae da supyrmarkut dey klalz Soopur-Seyev ur sommit leik dat.  O coarce de widdies gitz moasta dare fud ovur hat de co-opt wid dare munnie fae da soshul hen cooponz bud day lukz more posher iffn day getz evurtinkat Soupr-Seivorz soas wen dey goze tae da coopt hon da udder seit otoun neer da abber toiletz wae moasta my famblee hentzop wurkin dey leiks tae pot dare choppin in da purmananticle hevvydoodee choopun begs fae da Saloopur-Savior.  Soz dey evurbotee tinx deyz choppun leik da ryatch fokes fae da bikhowz.  Koorce evurbiddee gnowz dey steelz evurtank ennyweyz eevun da sheit dey gidz onndere sochul munny.

Me hen owld Burnurt da Gooce shed hourseffs hey reel circius diskushun hon da wey intae da toun.  Bernart wur allz wurreed bee hon akkownda his mam shee godsta jobb hat da Abbertoilet plaice wot iz abnut da honlee playce ware foaks leil hus wot haint binna skooel kan gits owerseffs a deesunt job wot eevun peiz hey cuppla pence spur pount.  Hey funee wey tae du biddyness bod az day seys munny iz munny nowadeyez.

Furstatall I axt im tae gose ovur da dis hear arkucul haboud Eileen heye bin ritun fur da coopts free weaklee nuslettur wots writ bye dosov us wot wurkz innda frondlion uf farmin.  Owld Burnart he tuk eot eye sed hant hee rerited hit in currek henglush. So naw yew nose whoo tae tank wen yew reedz dis han kin unnerstan hit.  Cuz bernurt hees bin livin hin bekk uv de shooel hen ee larnt reel gud by lissonink troo da windees.  Ennyways tank yew Bernert yooz a gud fren heven do yooz jessa stoopud dumprfekker uv a goose wot heint godda brane hacsepp hin is sfinktur hoel.

Ennyweyes heftur Bernart hee rerites hevurtin eye sais heevun do heye didnu tink heyud dun so bad az ee saiz heye dun, oui started intae talkun aboot his mam han how shee nevvur kompts hoam ennymore han eez afeart cheese runned off wid won odim travvler cokkrils wotz haftur bin gud ad sweetakkin de brichuz offn da laydees.  Han sumteims day cellz da laideez dey gitz incida da britches uv tae won odim ill eegul frintchiez wot duz allsorts odings tae da gooces din knowbuddy hevver ceez dem aggin.  Pursonabuloee heye tinkz deys entsup in dat dare Eegiptshun plaice heye keepz hereun aboot but heye doun reely nose wot it iz.  Doan sown neice tae me but wotdu heye nose.  Soze nodda gid owld Bernurred hall wurriedafiled heye didna sey nuttin aboot eegip oownlee dat hiz mam waz probabbably havin hersell a reel smashin teim.  Warevver sheel bea sentofftae.

Bud tingz doan allayz work oudfur da bessed espeshullee fur gooces han dokks.  Fur hon hour wey tae da aberytoydel da commoonidy buss id stopt infrun tuv da Souperymakut and wot duz yew nose but rite dare in da windy rite ware evurbuddy hincloodin hall de widdies hand me han Bernut han evun da Blesst Vurjin iffn sheed bin widdus honly shee wurnt cuz shee woz hanggin oot inda Kirk cowntin alla da munny sheez bin rraikin in dare woz da pooer owelt widdie Gooce.  Han da pooer owld muddur of Birnrut shee waznt lukin so gud.  Heye dint led owld Burnurd taek a skkond luk han tol im shee woz probiblee havin won ov dem bad deis wimmin gits fae teim tae teim evun gooce-wimmun.  Hen dat sourtae pacifuceitud owld Bernurt hen we deseededt tae luk hup meye sistur Elieen han teik her outta hear an gidz alltree uv us reeelly drunkipaitet hon Boowwul Blastur han sum odat cheeb hoamait wiskee dey cells hon da eyellun.  Honwly oui wonzna hon da eyelun bud onda manlan soze we hadda hole offa da gud stoff fae da shebeen hontil hanuddur teim.

Puer Bernut he tuk tae bein ehextreemnlee dipresscipaud hon haccownda is muddur bein hagun ap indae windee uf da Soupermarcut han ee wannut tae go bekk han rezcew her hans taikz er bekk tae da eyelun inwonna dem gif fud bagz yew steelz fur free in da liddel rakk owtsida da orflicentz.  Ee tunkt prappz hey liddel golt bag widv a ret ribbun wud bee naiz hon haccownda is mam allas lovvt dem colurz da bezt.  Han soz tae hoomur hisseff eye sat im dowun hinseid da Tree Jolly Rentboyz pob jezz him bekk uv da shob wid da durtee viddees hon da tobb shelfsez han eye brunkt imma bikglaz uv choklit han hasperugus wot iz da kynda dring dey leiks tae drinkun inda Tree Chollee Rentaobyz.  Han den heye tuk meseff orf tae da soupermarcud han axt da mannyjer abood a gooz inda windee heye sez id waz da muddur hova fren han ee wannit tae gaves id a proppur funyral ovvur onda heyelun wiv maebee da too menz wid da blekk dressies sayin olive dare gud wurts ovvur hur corpusclez.  Han den aldough heye wudna seiz nuffin tae Burnart onnaccownda da corpusculate bein is muddur han hall bod twean yew han me eyeud tuk owld Burnart intae da bekk rum wyul da menz inda blekk dressus hate owld Missus gooce fer dare tee. Han den dey wud giftus wid da chart remaynez in da golt gifted bag han we wud taik it doun da boreen han trow id inda waddur.  Han den weez cud ged drankz leik yer spozzt too wen yew muddur dyez hand is eeted by a prees.

Burnert han me god so dranked we fergetzt allbowd miy sister Eileen han heye nevvur sawed hur ennymores.

Oar mebee heye did honlee heye dint recogneize hur gud onaccownt uv olive uz harez luk alike eevun moorn gooces han we kunt telluz hupard nod eevun inda daelite.  Soyew cee id wudna dun know gud eevun tryun tae lukz fur hur onaccownda weed nevvur nowed wot we waz lukin fur.

Sum bunny heye waz fukkun hey fiw dais laedur wen heye ad eevun furgotz dat heye ad evur hadda sister namblet Eileen seid sheeud nowd hey hare wot waz a prastitutlee onda manelan wurkun inda hooorhowz jezz dounwinda da arbeetoyur han dat shee waz nod lukin tu gud onaccownda shee kepp onnhavin turdy or fordee babbees evur udder weeks.  Fur hey momuntz eye tought abowd goin tae luk dis hoor inda heyes hand axtin hur iffn shee waz mai sister or anoddur prostituticuleees bud den owld Birnurt ee axt me iffn wee woz goingtae went tae da pikchurz ware dey wiz showun da fillum abowd da were rabbit han wee deesidud dat iffn we wenda cee dis hoooor han shee waz mai sister Eileen weeud heftae taik hur tae da fillum wid oss.  Han Eileen shee allas dit tauk inda middle uv mooveez han ax wot waz goin hon han wot dey woz sayin onaacownd ohur beeun two laezee tae lissun hanso heye seiz tae Birnerd fekk hur wid a tyre eyeron ledda owld bich axt herseff iffn shee woz reeallee da reeul Eileen weez bin taukuin abowd han iffn shee iz shee cuntbye hur owen tikkut han sid way dowen infrond wid all da deff peeplees han me han Bernurt cunt sit indae bakk row han wach da fillum bye owurseffz.

Han so weedid.  Han den wee leff da cinenema urlee han wentz bakk taw da eyelunt hand god drunked at The Three Fekkerz hand avturwurdz wee woz wokun doun da boreen wen wot du yew nose but a grade big sputtz car runt uz overn.

Idz nodso badatall bein in hevvun.  Da fud iz gud anda girlz iz purdy han derez hey neic younk mens wid longhare henda beert wot stopz bye ever nouhanagin han passus da teim. De udder dais ee seiz ee sawd mai sister Eileen wich sirpeizt me a liddel onaccowend uv heye hadna hurt shee woz in heven espeshullee sinze shee woz never allout intae da Kirk.  Da fella wid da beert seyez sheez knot hegactully in heven but shee wurkz upstares fur the top menz han wen sheez wurkun fer dem deyz dae woz in hevvun.  Heye axtud hymn abood da BlessutVurjun hen ee seiz chee cumz evree toozdy fur lonch han chee seyez hallo hand id waz gud youz gotz yurseff intae hevvun allrite onaccownda yooz bein marturificaited han hall bye beeun runned ovvur bye da sportz kar.

Heye gotztae goes noo.  Heye wantae wadch da sunreiz wid Burnert da gooce han den iddel bee tyum tae went tae brekkfust han eye doan wantae bee lait on accownda idz da dae dey survz hare hand eyeum allaz hopin iddel bee hay owld fren or purhepz wonna mai sisterz han broddurs.  Nod my sister Eileen o’curse onaccownda cheese ubstares wid da bikk fokes han iz doin hallride fur herseff.  Wich iz gud han maikz mee feeul dat evertink woz wourt id.

                                             

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June 1, 2010

FloatYourBoat

My Seaworthless life with Ships and the Sea

Considering I do not come from a seafaring family and have never been particularly interested in nautical themes, there is a certain strand that weaves through my life, and it has to do with boats.  Big boats and little boats and salt boats and powerboats and punts.  And even the odd canoe and kayak thrown in for good measure, possibly to torment me.

For whatever reason – perhaps because nobody else in our landlocked family wanted it – my early years (right up until my father died) – were blessed by an ancient deep-water ocean-going ketch.  The vessel had been built some time before the last war, and of course she was built of timber and acres of brass fittings.  And when moored in her accustomed berth on the south coast, she was possibly the most beautiful and graceful old lady for miles around.

My father was very attached to her, and I believe before he married my mother he used to sail her regularly.  And because she was a deepwater craft built for the southern oceans, it did not occur to anyone to sail her down to the Mediterranean and tootle round the various islands and hop off every day or so to sample what local delicacies were on offer at watering holes and ports of call.

Not a bit of it.  She was, after all, over one hundred metres long from stem to stern.  She had her pride.  And wherever her skipper happened to be heading when he set sail, you’d better believe that before he knew it she would be in mid-Atlantic and Patagonia-bound.

In other words, she was not some millionaire’s plaything – not like those floating gold-plated palaces owned by Greek shipping tycoons or Middle Eastern potentates.  She was sea-worthy and – to put in bluntly – the other ones were fit only for a paddling pool.

For years she had shared a mooring with another vessel, this one belonging to our dentist.  Now don’t get excited.  He may have been a reasonably proficient dentist, and I believe he actually had a surgery in either Harley Street or somewhere just around the corner.  In other words, he had a good income, which meant he paid most of it to the government in taxes;  whatever was left over he used to support a wife and two sons – both of which were in good, if minor, public schools.  For his sins, this dentist also owned a couple of shares in one of my family’s no-hoper steeplechasers.  But that was all in good fun, and in any case, he always looked forward to watching me race.  As he put it, “One of these days, Minger’s going to knock out all of his teeth, and that will make up for the money I’ve lost on that bloody horse you made me buy.”  But you know what they say about wishes.  I never obliged.  And in the end he got so desperate that he bought a leg and a tail of another horse, this one even less athletic and more hopeless than the first.   But he never learned.  He was hoping, of course, he would live to see the day when I would finally pay off the mortgage of his dental surgery, but – alas – the only damage I ever did to myself was south of my neck.  My teeth – much to his chagrin – ended up the same old teeth as the ones I had started out with.

Anyway, back to his boat.  Unlike ours, which was built for racing and for braving the South Atlantic swells, his was the ultimate in pleasure palaces.  The fittings were, of course, gold, and while it had masts fore and aft it was powered by an ill-tempered coal-fired furnace – and because of that it had a small but elegant funnel – painted white with gold bands.  Needless to say, our lovely lady (who was of the old school and who believed no yacht would be caught dead with an engine) looked down her graceful bow at her neighbour – as if it was some sort of flash playboy from the lower end of the village who’d won the football pools.    

The dentist never took this beautiful monstrosity out to sea.  In fact, when his great uncle (whose yacht it had been and who had had it built to his own specification) set off on his very first sea voyage from Portsmouth  to Monte Carlo, the vessel proved to be so heavy that it wasted no time in sinking to the bottom of the harbour.  The team that salvaged it merely shook their heads and murmured, “We told him so.”

When our dentist inherited the craft he had immediately put it on the market.  But it seemed no one wanted to buy a yacht, no matter how beautiful it may have been, if it couldn’t stay afloat.  And so what he did was to hire a birth next to my father’s sleek utilitarian ocean-going thoroughbred.  And then he rented the pleasure palace out as a honeymoon retreat or for dirty weekends to other dentists that were looking to impress their latest chorus girls.

Eventually – after a few years had passed, came the day when our dentist faced the expense and inconvenience of putting his white elephant in dry dock in order to have its ‘bottom scraped’.  Or as the dentist liked to put it, “the bloody thing has got to have its teeth cleaned, and it’s not even on the National Health.”

But then came one of those miracles every one of us is always hoping for but rarely encounters.  A young man walked into the surgery and offered to take the yacht off the dentist’s hands.  It goes without saying that the dentist was flabbergasted.  I believe he even said, “You know, of course, that it will bloody well sink.”

But apparently, the young man knew all that.  He simply wanted it as a folly.  It was beautiful, he said.  And since he could afford it that was enough.  But there was a hitch.  It seemed he had an island in The Seychelles he wished to unload.  Would the dentist be interested in a swap?  The dentist asked him if this particular island had a fresh water supply, and if it was on the route of any of the mail boats.  “Yes,” replied the young man.  The upshot was that the dentist inspected the island – accompanied by a lawyer and the appropriate authorities – and he ended up with a tropical paradise of his own.  He loved it so much that he moved into a shack that was on a cove on the eastern side facing the Indian Ocean; and before the first year was out, he had planted gardens and built shelters for domestic livestock.  And from then on, the dentist spent at least three months of every year as a lotus-eater in paradise.  And our ketch?  It lost its companion.  However, because it had always had to work for its keep – yachts being the money-pits they are – it continued to spend every single month of the year under charter. Eventually, the boat proved to be so popular with the charter company’s clients that it was relocated to Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina, where it stayed for the rest of my father’s life.  And after he died, the charter company bought it.  And I believe it’s still in service – or perhaps even enjoying a happy retirement at the bottom of the South Atlantic.

But do you want to know something?  Not once in the entire time that we owned the ketch did I even once get to sail in her – not even round the harbour or over to the Isle of Wight.  We simply could not afford to have her around as a ‘kept woman’.  The slut had to earn her keep – and she did.  And besides, I had the horses.

So much for my history as a yachtsman.

And now we come to cargo vessels of the tramp-steamer variety, as well as to those that regularly sank.

My uncle, who had lived his entire adult life in Mexico and who was one of those ‘man’s men’ of which certain novelists used to be so enamoured, was incredibly fond of the rickety old steamers that sailed between the salt mines on Baja California and a port on the southern Sonora coast.  For years he had spent his annual monthly holidays shuttling back and forth, getting drunk as a skunk with the captains and crews and raising hell.  To claim that these vessels were ancient would be an understatement. In fact, they leaked like sieves and were in such disrepair that they sank like clockwork.  Of course, it goes without saying that God loves a good-natured drunk; and as proof of this, none of the crew-members on board – all of whom were smashed out of their minds – ever got drowned during any one of the sinkings.  They simply drifted ashore on a raft of booze and with the Blessings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and had the vessels – which were actually converted coastal steamers – refloated.  Again and again and again.

Eventually, my uncle bought two of them.  His retirement was not too far off, and he had it in mind to spend the rest of his life transporting salt back and forth across the Sea of Cortes in these banged up and rusting little hulks.

Sadly, that never happened.  His health broke down and his doctor ordered him to give up drinking; for his family’s sake he did.  However, without the booze spurring him on, he simply was not the same. He lost his zest for life. In fact, he became quite boring and conservative.  And after a while even his wife and daughter regretted that he had followed his doctor’s orders.  For the fun had all but left him.  And as for my mother (who had loved him perhaps more than any other person), she was heard to mutter that dying in his bed was not what he had had in mind – even if it meant being surrounded by his family.  And that what would have pleased him most was to have kicked the bucket drinking mezcal with his compañeros while aboard one of his pinche little coal scuttles.

And the pinche little coal scuttles?  Well, they kept sailing back and forth and back and forth, same as always;  the skippers and crews continued to drink each other under the table, and the boats ended their days on the bottom of the Sea of Cortes.  They are now reefs for the fish and toys for the baby grey whales.

Then there were the proper freighters that sailed the China route from Liverpool to Hong Kong and back again.  They were, of course, part of a small fleet belonging to a shipping company; it just so happened that some of our cousins had won two of them in a wager.  And having gained at least partial control of them, they leased them back to the company in question.  Which means they did rather well for themselves.

Naturally, all this didn’t have anything to do with us.  However, after my brother was killed in a motoring accident and my mother was unable to mourn, my father rang the cousins in question and struck a deal.  At the time he had part-interest in a tiny, mosquito-infested island off the coast of Sweden (yes, another island) and he said he would lease this island to the cousins in return for a favour.  Simply put, he wanted free passage for himself and for my mother and for me on one of the freighters from Liverpool to Hong Kong.  Return.  And so a month or so later, there we were on the docks in Liverpool, complete with a great many trunks (including one for my schoolbooks).  The three of us – plus a tutor for me for the outward bound leg – set sail and didn’t return for eight months – give or take a week.  As for the tutor, she got herself a free trip to Hong Kong plus expenses for her return journey.  A return journey, I might add, that she never made, for she fell in love with one of the stewards, got married, and settled down in Kowloon.

Unfortunately, I simply didn’t pay much attention to that period in my life (partly because I was forced to study day and night if I didn’t want to be shipped back home).  I do recall certain ports, among them  Port Said, but the reason that particular one stands out in my mind is that because our vessel was flying the Union Jack and the Suez crisis was still fresh in everyone’s memories; none of us was allowed by the Egyptian authorities to go ashore.  And vendors were not permitted on board.  However, a Gully-Gully man (whose family had worked the ships for generations and who – I believe – even had a Greek passport) spent a few hours with us in the smoking room.  But other than the fact that he was wonderfully funny and that his close-up magic was better than any I have seen to this day, I cannot remember what any of his tricks were, nor can I recall any of his patter.

We did linger at least two weeks in Port Swettenham, not an unusual occurrence.  For the port was very narrow and only a certain number of leiters were allowed for the off-loading of cargo.  I remember spending a day or two swimming at the officers’ club, after which we (along with my bloody books) went to stay with an Irish rubber planter and his Malaysian wife at a plantation in Jahore.  It was simply enchanting.  Typically – because of the climate – most of the exterior walls of the house folded back like louvers so that the breezes could blow through.  And I also remember they had built a swimming pool in the middle of a stream.  Which meant it was icy and fresh and cured what ailed you.

We then rejoined the ship and sailed to Singapore (where I was taken to lunch with Charlie Chaplin – who was not very nice, but who might have been nicer if I had been even nicer to him) and then on to Manila.  We arrived in the Philippines at the tail-end of a typhoon, which as far as I was concerned was rather fun – because to disembark we had to go down a very small ladder and leap across the churning swells on to very small boats.  And after we were ashore, we were packed into an ancient Cadillac limousine and taken up to the rim of a volcano – where we were treated to a cock-fight and then got to eat the loser.  Those were the days, my friend.  But never mind; in the interim the volcano blew its top and buried at least one hundred thousand people. Revenge is sweet.

The highlights of the entire voyage (as far as I was concerned) were that I got to ‘ride out’ at stud farms in both Singapore and Honk Kong.  And since I hadn’t been near a horse for what seemed an eternity, it was bliss!

The return journey – all four months of it – seems to have been one solid monsoon from the first day until the last, and seemed to consist of one endless game of mah-jong.  At least, when I was released from my ‘penal’ study servitude.  At the time I remember thinking I would have been much happier staying in Switzerland.

What else was there in my seafaring life?  Well, when I was in my late teens and putting serious thought into the prospects of becoming either a jockey or a show-jumper, my parents arranged with an American-based trainer to take me on (on approval, as it were).  Even though I had already lived away from home a great deal due to the fact that I had gone to boarding school, they thought it would be a good idea for me to put distance between myself and the trainers I had previously worked with. For I had never been able to work in a really first-class operation, and a first-class operation is a whole new ball game.  So off I went, and sailed to New York on the old Queen Mary (the one that is now a hotel in Long Beach, California).  I had an amazing few months, during which time I got incredible fit – fitter that I had ever been before – and decided to hold off any ideas I might have had about turning pro for another two three years.  I was all too aware of my limitations, and if nothing else the life of a jockey makes an honest man out of you.  Anyway, nothing having been settle either here or there,  I sailed back to England (this time on the old Queen Elisabeth (not the QE2, which is currently in Dubai, but the glorious old lady who now lies at the bottom of Hong Kong harbour) and got on with my life.  And in the process, I grew up a lot. At least temporarily.

Let us skip forward a few thousand decades.  When I was on the island a few years ago, a friend of a friend asked me if I wanted to join him and a few other strange people and tootle round the Atlantic in a converted trawler.  Well, I thought, why the hell not.  After all, I had grown up with a yacht I was never allowed to sail on, so why not make up for it now.  And everything was fine and dandy for about a week and a half.  And then – wouldn’t you know it – the craft foundered.  And not only did it founder, but it chose to founder off the coast of a country off of which one would never wish to founder.  Needless to say, because we were all idiots and if nothing else, God seems to love idiots (as well as happy drunks), all of us floated to shore – cling to bits of the wreckage – but very much alive. And with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises and a painful concussion for me – no one was hurt.  However, we were rounded up by some very solemn-looking very, very young boys wielding very serious machine guns.  And after they’d ordered us about for a little while and blew up a tree with one of their grenades, we were taken to an accommodation that looked suspiciously like it had formerly been used for pigs.  And there we stayed.  And we were fed yams and glowered at by the increasingly venomous young boys with the machine guns and grenades. They seemed fixated with waving their weapons in our faces and with shouting increasingly un-politically-correct slogans and with ordering us to march back and forth for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, after which they took to fondling lengths of rope.  They would then sit on the ground and glower some more and – at odd intervals – shoot a few rounds at the shed where we slept and explode a grenade or two.  And this would continue with great monotony until the next day when it was time for them to start the cycle of yams and strangeness all over again. I might as well tell you now, that eventually they seemed to have gotten bored with simply unloading a magazine into an empty shed and blowing up chickens with grenades, and so they decided to see what would happen if they put us into the shed before shelling it with bullets.  And if that wasn’t enough to put us off our yams, their obsessive noose-making started to get up our noses – especially when they started using our necks to model their nooses, whilst simultaneously pointing to the nearest tree.  And spitting.  After a while we got religion; it wasn’t that we wanted be saved, but we wanted the boys simply to get on with it.  And we really started to dread the sight of yams.  I fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that at the very mention of yet another round of yams we would start to twitch, for the yams only heralded yet another afternoon in the pig pen. To this day, whenever I see a yam – even if it’s sautéed with ginger – I want to run for the hills.

Of course, because I am here and telling the story – I did not end my life there.  But the end was really rather an anti-climax. There was no rescue; no fight to the death; no histrionics! I mean, where was Vin Diesel when we needed him?  Where was Bruce Willis? All we got was the Woody Allen version!  In fact, it all ended with such a pathetic whimper that – had it been in a movie – it would have been laughed out of every theatre in every Cineplex in the world.  Even the climax of the Sound of Music was more nail-biting!  All that happened was that a couple of old men pulled up in three taxis.  They started yelling at the boys, who in turn simply dropped  their sub-machine guns and ran away into the bush.  The old men then proceeded to usher us into the taxis, and took us into town and gave us hotel rooms. With honest-to-goodness toilets, which almost even flushed!  And a meal without even a single yam.

And the first thing the next morning, they put us on a plane.  Not  a word was spoken.  It was almost as bizarre as a French film.

It goes without saying that since we were lost souls without passports or any other form of identification, there followed a great deal of humming and hawing, as well as interviews with a great many men and women in suits.  But eventually – I suppose because we had shown ourselves to be such complete imbeciles in the first place by tootling round the Atlantic in a leaky reconditioned trawler – they came to the conclusion that we had been kidnapped by aliens and that our brains had been replaced by those of Daffy Duck – and that talking to us was giving them a headache.  And so they send us home and told us not to do it again.  Just like they do on the M1 when you are stopped for exceeding the speed limit.

Oh, yes, there are one or two other boating adventures – my favourite of which involves a punt and a fiendishly attractive other person and a tomato sandwich thrown from a bridge – but I think you have had as much excitement as you can take for today.  Ciao.

May 29, 2010

SmartHouses

What you build when you really like washing windows.

One reads all these wonderful stories about ‘smart houses’, and about everything they can do.  All the functions under the sun.  But can they burn your toast for you?  I bet they cannot.  And the reason they cannot is that some over-qualified four-year-old in Stanford (the one that wears Egyptian cotton short-sleeve button-downs that only look like they are cheap polyester blend so he’ll fit in) has programmed them only to make politically-correct, golden brown slices of all-grain – with sourdough spores grown in the Valle de Luna. And on each tasteless, carbonless slice, the house will spread just the ‘right’ microscopic amount of lo-cal, lo-carb, lo-fat, no-feed-flavour, oxygenated, organic butter (from the milk of sheep on the Faroe Islands that have never seen the front-side of a shepherd), and also the ‘right’ microscopic amount of sugarless organic beebleberry conserve with seeds that that contain a full day’s supply of leafy green vegetables and no red meat.

‘Smart Houses!  Ah – those wonders of the new twenty-first century – all wired up, every need and eventuality catered for, all sorts of bells and whistles.  They’ve got radiant heating and high-tech insulation and heat-sensitive walls.  Everything one could possibly want is not only available with the touch of a keypad, but in some cases in seems the occupant merely has to think of an image and – presto! – the house obliges.  And I am not merely talking about the usual common or garden conveniences such as vacuum cleaners and window washers and floor polishers and dog groomers and coffee-makers.  Because, believe it or not, ‘smart houses’ can even anticipate every one of your sexual peccadilloes du jour (even the most obscure ones that would get you executed in some countries).  Everything your mind and body desires – all in perfect three-dimensional holograms with not a single detail left out.  Why the house can even produce any flavour of vaginal yeast or toenail fungus under the sun if that is your pleasure.  And STDs?  No problem.  Does a tropical rash under your scrotum turn you on?  Easy-peasey.

The only thing that a ‘smart house’ sex function does not do well is inflatable-doll holograms – the kind that deflates as soon as you get going. Or really boring missionary position holograms that can compile a shopping list while you grunt and groan.  However, they can come up with a hologram with a voice like a corn-crake that nags you about taking out the garbage right as you are about to achieve an orgasm.   

One thing you will never find in a ‘smart house’ is an entertainment centre. The whole ‘smart house’ itself can fulfil every one of your heart’s desires – so what need is there for some outmoded leftover from the middle ages?  At the very mention of such a thing, I can hear your fibulator fibulate. And you would be quite right to gasp and to clutch your throat and even have the vapours.  After all, entertainment centres are sooooo noughties, dahling.  Can you even remember those monstrosities – with all their wires forever getting snarled and the sixteen remote controls that you were always getting mixed up?  Entertainment centres?  Now what were they?  I remember!  They were those gigantic pieces of cabinetry with all those strange flattish boxes that you couldn’t tell apart, as well as the twenty-five sub-woofers strategically positioned around the room and always placed wherever you would have preferred a table on which to set your frozen banana daiquiris.  Entertainment centres always had as their centrepiece a 200-inch flat-screen television with ten-thousand channels – all playing re-runs of Friends and Drake and Josh, as well as those headline news updates that repeated the same stories over and over every half-hour on the half hour – news stories, of course, that your local focus group had chosen just for your house and for the demographics of its occupants.  It goes without saying that each and every entertainment centre of that bygone era of 2008 A.D. took up so much space that you had to build a separate room called a ‘private theatre’ (but which in the prehistoric and Neolithic 1990s used to called a recreation room or a family room (or even the spare-room or – if you had a sense of irony and came from an old family, the ‘day nursery’). And before that, back before even the dinosaurs had been invented by Charles Darwin, there was usually some sort of multi-purpose room with sliding glass doors leading out to a patio on which stood one of those rickety antediluvian barbeques with tripod legs.  And, then of course, inside this multi-purpose room there was a drinks trolley – or even a portable Formica wet-bar – for dispensing shandies and even Babychams (for those special occasions such as that once-in-a-lifetime, 2-for-1 discount on circumcisions from Dr. Bleibner Winkel’s ‘Cut and Slice and Dice Moilerarium – for all those males in your family who had pretended to be little girls at birth, and thus had escaped the procedure right at the beginning, when – according to those doing the snipping it – it was less painful.  Not that they ever asked the snippees.

But so much for ancient history; let us leap forward to the year of Our Lord 2008 and those all-important, all-consuming, all-devouring entertainment centres. It goes without saying, each and every one of these essential organs for a ‘modern lifestyle’ (rather more important that your second kidney) had  – at its core –  the latest version of a Sky-Box or a TiVo, those nifty little gadgets-in-a-box that – providing you had a two-year-old son or daughter to program and set them for you – could schedule each and every minute of your day around those particular episodes of Friends and Drake and Josh and CSI – Guantanamo and Lost that your personal focus group had determined were most beneficial to your biorhythms.  Which reminds me, has anyone else noticed that the demise of Friends corresponded with the rise of Facebook?  For although you’ve probably never bothered to think about this, Facebook has a business plan almost identical to the five thousand scripts of Friends, which are in actual fact  the same script only using different camera angles to pick up the differing nuances of Rachel’s hair. I mean, was she going to flip it to the left?  Or was she going to flip it to the right?  Or was she going to surprise us all and flip it first to the left and then to the right?  

In fact, the very business model of Facebook shows how fiendishly clever its developers really are. What they do is to allow each and every subscriber on Facebook the exact same number of friends that there were episodes of Friends.  Furthermore, in the case of both the social networking site and the television program, no one has ever actually met any of the friends involved. They only think they have; it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Now let’s come to the question of deletions and cancellations.  For as the sitcom was practically cancellation-proof (until the network could no longer afford new extensions for Rachel’s hair), so too can it be next to impossible to delete one of your five thousand friends on Facebook.  First of all, let’s say you decide to hit the ‘delete’ button – after all, why not?  It’s not that you’ve ever heard of any one of your friends in the first place, let alone met them face-to-face or invited them to one of your famous ‘Sex & Sushi in the Sauna’ parties. However, they immediately take umbrage and get all whiny; they write you very weepy, clingy messages asking what have they ever done to deserve to be thrown out in the cold like Lillian Gish in ‘Way Down East’?  Well, first of all you feel terrible – after all, this particular friend is probably the only person, other than yourself, who has even heard of Lillian Gish.  And this alone almost makes you relent.  And then, full to the gunnels with guilt (unless you’re neither Catholic nor Jewish, in which case you are probably both heartless and a used-car salesman who would sell your own mother on eBay), you are by now so bowed down with misery that you take the easy way out.  And  rather than simply ignoring this dispossessed creep of a friend (who will in any case worm her way back in through the ‘friend of a friend’ back door and will – before you know it – be back on your friends list), you end up writing her a nice little note apologising for your brutality, but explaining that you cannot accept the two-thousand additional friend applicants – all of which might be more useful in your climb from the bowels of bankruptcy than a loser like her – unless you dump some of the dead-wood (namely her).  But then the trouble starts in earnest.  For these rejected friends decide to report you for stalking, at which point your only option is to let them back in – simply because nothing’s worth their whining on your wall or their relentless campaign wherein they send you five thousand separate special gifts of the only sort of flower that gives you an allergy attack – the ‘five thousand miles of bindweed sent directly to your garden’ gift.

And you wonder why no one has any free time to enjoy themselves.   

This is all too reminiscent of the situation when you are summarily fired from the job you despised and which you were no good at and from which you wished you had the courage to resign. Only now, because you were fired, you finally have a way to bankroll your future.  And so you will sue your employer for the sort of damages that will support you for the rest of your life.  But then, because you really never learned to consider the consequences of your actions, you can’t bring yourself to take the dosh and leave well-enough alone.  NO!  You have suddenly developed a sense of injured pride, and so what you do is to sue your old employer in order to get your old job back again.  Now, remember, this is the same dead-end job you had been trying to get fired from ever since you got fired from your previous  job at Dunkin Donuts for eating the entire  inventory of rainbow sprinkles.  But much to your surprise, they call your bluff.  They say, “welcome back, sucker.” And so, back you go, taking your photograph of your little dog and your potted begonia and – before you know it -you have settled back behind your desk.  

However, you soon find you can never go home again.  You see, the only reason your old boss hired you back is because it was an easy and affordable way to get you off his back.  And also because his insurance company told him it would cancel the company’s policy unless he rehired you.  And so, your employer re-instates you.  Only this time the boss places your desk where the supervisors can watch every move your make.  This means you actually have to work – no more looking at porn sites and no more Facebook on the company’s time and no more free cups of coffee from the executive kitchen and no more Friday afternoons’ pretending to be sick so you can go home early.  So, there you are: you and your moral victory are stuck in your craw for the rest of your live.  And what is more, you can never shirk again or even wear the wrong colour tie.  And the reason why you cannot shirk (or wear the wrong colour tie) is that you are now being observed by an FBI informant; every move you make will be recorded on secret video cameras (including those times when your boss is giving you instructions for a new way to colour-code paper clips, during which you are taking the opportunity to masturbate with one hand under the desk, whilst taking notes with the other – AND appearing to be aroused by your latest assignment). Who said men cannot multi-task?  Eventually, of course, your dossier grows so vast that the company is compelled to build an extra vault.  At which point – because masturbating whilst taking notes is not mentioned in the Employment Act – your boss has still not been able to come up with a valid reason for firing you.  This means that the two of you will be together for the rest of eternity and beyond.  Unless, of course, he gets the inspiration to file adoption papers. This, quite naturally, thrills you to bits because you have been checking into his accounts and you know to the penny what he is worth.  Just think!  You will be a rich man’s son.  And only that, but you won’t have to work for the bastard anymore! The bylaws clearly state that non-executive employees cannot be related to any executive of the company.  At least!  A win-win situation.  And for YOU!

But then again, sadly, Mister Stupid strikes again.  You simply could not resist having that double sixty-nine with both your boss’s twins, could you?  And right in the swimming pool.  And right at the moment your boss and his new wife (the buxomly luscious blond bimbo proclaimed ‘Miss Honey-Wagon’ at the 2009 County Farm-Implement Show) were expecting the mayor and his new ‘wife’, Robbie Bobby ‘The Implanter’ Magee, assistant manager of the town’s one remaining Bob’s Big Boy.

Needless to say, the evening ends in tears.  Not only are you thrown out of the house without any clothes – because after all you had not bought them yourself (at least not with your own money) – but you’ve been cut out of the will.  And not only that, but your erstwhile adopted father/employer is going to make sure you never get another job in any town in your particular hemisphere or any other hemisphere as long as you live.  Your only hope is to sell all your organs to the local organ bank.  Except, of course, since your ex-adopted father/employer took out a mortgage on them, even they are no longer yours to sell.

Right about now, I hear you ask, “But what has all this to do with smart houses?”   To this I say, “It shows what happens when you are not paying attention.”  Period.  Now, I am not saying that should you stop paying attention when you move into your smart house you’ll end up on the street without a part of shorts to call your own or without any of your organs.  But you might lose contact with your storyline – or in the case of your house, with the all-important instruction manual.  And it goes without saying that in the case of a smart house the instruction manual is run by the computer.  And that means that if you have lost the plot so far, you wouldn’t last a minute in a smart house.

I once saw one of these smart homes.  And it was spectacular.  For the architect was not only a brilliant engineer, but he also possessed  an unparalleled sense of beauty.  First of all, before even thinking about a design for his house, he selected a site.  And when he had found the site and had consulted the local planning authorities, etc., etc.’ he got down to work.

The result was breathtaking.  It was a two-storey glass cube, and it was totally computerised.  Every surface was clear glass: hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of square metres of clear glass. Even the floors were clear glass.  And lest you think that this would be unworkable – after all, in a house privacy is a consideration – at the touch of keypads, each wall or floor tile or door would frost over, and they could also change colours.  And so, you see, within a nonce, the house could take on the appearance of the natatorium at the Bejing Olympics or of a painting by Mondrian.

The family had two sons – both in their teens.  I asked him about teens and clutter.  He said, simply, “They know the score, and they think they can handle it.”  In other words, each kid could take refuge in his own room, frost the walls, and be in his own space.  I then asked him about wardrobes and desks and work-stations, and he showed me.  It was an old magician’s trick.  He did it with mirrors.

The same with the kitchen.  Mirrors camouflaged everything. Plus the fact that if the kitchen was in use and they didn’t want it to be seen from the open-plan ground-floor space, they simply touched a keypad and a frosted-glass wall rose up on hydraulics as a partition.

It occurred to me to ask him a few questions:  “But what about  clutter?” I asked for the second time.  “The house is so well designed and so efficient, we don’t need clutter.” He said, looking at me through narrowed eyes.

I asked him what would happen during a power-failure.  After all, the house was entirely driven by electricity. He said the computers could take care of that;  in fact,  they generated enough power of their own to sell the surplus to the grid. But then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders and said, “There’s always the fireplace.” And with that he touched another control and a slender black granite rectangle rose up from the floor.  With the touch of another keypad it ignited, and with the touch of a third, a rotisserie and a grill rose from the floor and inserted themselves into their respective niches.

“Anymore questions?” he asked.

“How about a toaster?” I wanted to know.

“Never use them,” came the reply.

“And a hairdryer?” I smirked.

“Ditto,” he said.

“How about if you did have them and switched them both on at the same time?” I asked in an innocent voice.

He smiled.  “Then we’re up shit’s creek,” he said.  “Without a paddle.”

May 27, 2010

FaerieLights

Where now are the sweet, savage Beasties that lived within the Bogs?

I love the savage beasties that live among us and who we rarely see.  I love the vagrant spirits that drift round in the dark, and whisper thoughts and dreams and admonitions when the clocks strike two in the morning.  I love the wee people that dwell underneath the ancient floors and bang their drums and dance ‘til dawn, and play their pipes and make us mourn for those we have loved and lost.   I love the icy fingers that wake when it is cold and damp, and grab our toes and fingertips and make our skin turn raw and red.  I love the way some spirits waft from room to room like ancient beings who cannot remember where they left their glasses and are forced to return again and again and forever and ever, amen.

When I first lived on the island – a land where the ghosts had always run free – I was told (with some regret I might add) that nothing had been the same since the coming of electricity.  And these words were spoken by those who were old enough to remember, yet still young enough to tell the tale as if it had happened only the day before.  It seems that when they were young and even slightly older than young, and the houses and barns were still lit by lamps and the light of a candle, the bogs surrounding each and every hill and dale were alive with the faerie lights that used to glow and glimmer and sparkle in the gloom-laden mists.  And those were still the days when young and old alike went on weekly pilgrimages to the holy well that was in walking distance of their dwelling. Sundays were an official day, it goes without saying, but they never forgot birthdays or saint’s days or the anniversaries of their departed loved ones.  Nor did these people of the shadowy past neglect the graveyards, in particular those where the unbaptised and the stillborn were quietly laid to rest at midnight; and those among their surviving kin who still lived and who lingered on bereft, would secretly pray that their lost little ones would one day find their way into the light – and perhaps would grant them forgiveness.

And then came electricity, and with the coming of electricity the faerie lights were seen no more.  Or at least that is what everyone said.  What they did not say, however, and the reasons for this are plenty, was that – with the coming of electricity and progress – many of the bogs had been drained; the spirits who had loved and nourished – and some say, created, the land – were driven deeper, ever deeper underground.  And then, of course, the people dwelling beside the bogs – the farmers and the fishermen who had lived on that land since before the beginning of time – entered a new era.  They acquired money; they sent their children to school; they travelled abroad – but not only for the sake of survival, but because their eyes were now focussing outwards towards different horizons and new possibilities.  And even when the new and educated generation did not leave, but settled on their family’s ancient lands to run the farms and bring them into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they tore down the time-worn traditional houses in which they had always lived.  So instead of warming themselves before their old nan’s turf-burning hearth and drinking tea with the old Border Collie sleeping under their feet, they built new houses –  more comfortable houses, more cheerful houses, more efficient houses, new houses with satellite dishes, five hundred channels, and with the Internet thrown in for free.  Modern houses wired for every eventuality – houses in which every member of their modern, twenty-first century families could happily forget the past.  And because they had taken to shining lights into the midnight skies outside these new houses of theirs, and because everyone else was doing the same thing, pretty soon there was no darkness left at all (and still less ‘stillness’ to be found) in which the ancient faeries – who had cared for the land for such a long time – could come out and dance and do all of the things faeries like to do when the lights go out and all of the people are safely tucked into their beds.

And as a consequence, on those cold dark nights, of which the island has so many, there is little phosphorescence left to gladden the heart, much less enough to frighten those loutish, whisky-drenched fools who are out and about when they have no right to be. And this makes the bog faeries very sad indeed.  For it has always been one of their tasks to hustle such craytures back to their hearths and homes and lay them safely in their beds – that they might sober up before the coming morn and live to drink again.

I pay no heed to ‘them wot scoffs’ at those faerie beings who used to rule supreme.  Just as I listen to the wind and check the sky for shooting stars and twinkling lights where no earthly twinkling light can possibly be.  And who gives a shite if someone more learned than I claims that what I see is but a satellite or a weather balloon or simply a visitor from the planet Zug?

To this latter group, those unhappy feckers who ne’er look down at what lives beneath their feet, but prefer to wait for some ‘never-will-come’ deliverance from beings from beyond the stars, I say this:  perhaps you are right, for what does one know?   And perhaps the moon is made of cheddar cheese of a far more authentic type than any made by Kraft, and perhaps the slurry pit is filled with chocolate dip?  I do not know. And no more do you.  The only things my eyes have seen during my nocturnal meanderings through the bogs – after all the electric lights have at last been extinguished and everyone else is fast asleep – are the myriad flickers coming from millions of glimmers from within the earth itself.  And the only whispers floating through my ears come from ancient voices that tell me true, that the earth is but a very miniscule place, smaller even than the smallest grain of sand in the universe.  And that our earth it is full, very full indeed, and over-brimming with souls large and small, living and dead.  There is no room for visitors from beyond the stars, much less for new immigrants, and neither is there a welcoming mat on which they can wipe their feet.  Besides, these voices say: what with the earth being so miniscule, no other beings can possibly find us.  For the earth is so very, very, very small – so very wee and peculiar to look at – that no matter how hard the aliens might search, all they will see is a large parking lot with a McDonalds at one end and a Pizza Hut at the other.  And with a discount mall in between.

So you see, my friends, there are bog lights and faerie lights, and they are there for all to see.  Simply turn off your televisions and shut your computers down and switch off your phones – if even for a minute. And then extinguish your lights and quietly walk round to the back of your house, to that part where nobody ever goes.  And look through the stillness and into the bog.  And there will be the lights, and they will be shining and sparkling, just the same as always – and they will be as plain and clear and bright as ever they were.  Only please remember to greet them with a heart-felt “Hello!” and to tell the spirits that you mean them no harm. And that way, when next the foul wintry winds sweep in and carry off the roofs, your house will be spared and kept safe and sound.  And not a single slate will be blown from your roof, nor will your chimney sway nor will your heart know fear.   For the faeries are in charge of this land of theirs, and they will gladly protect those who have remembered them, and who have greeted them with a heart-felt “Hello!” And – just occasionally – have left them a wee dram of whisky or a bottle of the thickest stout.

Although many islanders no longer speak of the faeries, or of the wells, or of those still-born infants whose bones still lie under the hill, they are never far from their minds when it comes to those traditions they cannot otherwise explain.  One of these concerns the eating of the tiny blackberries that grow wild upon the dry-stone walls. As berries go, these are the sweetest berries I have tasted for many a year, but nobody ever eats them. Of course, when I first moved there and the berries had ripened, I picked several small baskets for jam.  But then I was told – by one much younger than I – that the fruit on those brambles belonged to the faeries and would bring me ill-health and bad luck if I ate what had always been theirs.  Besides (my neighbour did add with a smile) the faeries they came and they spat (and often did shit) on the berries during the night. Just to turn them sour.  And so, of course, I did not demure.  And because I did not want to eat what was clearly not mine, I offered my jam and a loaf of brown bread to the little people in the bog.

Yet another wonderful phenomenon had to do with the way the glowering charcoal clouds that constantly hung low above our heads would only occasionally part. But when they did, through the gap where the clouds had been rent in twain, would stream a shaft of brilliant sunlight.  When, one day, when I happened to comment on this, and say how very lovely it was, I was told in tones most dark and obscure, to pray a novena starting that very day and to light a candle in the church.  For such breaks in the clouds were the divil’s own work, and as for those gaps, they let in all the evil humours from hell. And those very same gaps were the gaps through which your sinful soul would be spirited come the tolling of the funeral bell.  In other words, they let in the ‘bad’ air.

And do you want to know something?  I shall never scoff.  And I do not believe and I do not disbelieve.  After all, what does anyone know that I do not already know myself?  What difference does it make if I talk to the faeries after dark and give them all of my jam and brown bread?  You see, I know there is something there. What it may be is unknown to us all, and you may shrug it off with a grimace – and you may call it anything you like.  But, the fact that it is there and was there from the start, is quite good enough for me.

The house that I lived in was not all that old, but it still had plenty of creaks.  And since the land on which it was built lay with the bog on two sides and the sea on the others, I would lay awake at night and wonder what was going on that I was too deaf to hear and too blind to see.

And I thought of the old houses I had lived in before, with their squeaks and their rattles and their groans in the floor, and I thought what a wonderful world it would be, if only I could sharpen my ears and focus my eyes and fill my heart with delight.  And then because it was what I wanted to do, I would ask my doggie if she’d like to go out for a stroll, to wander down the boreen and to fill her lungs with the night.  And, of course, she would immediately perk up her ears and agree.  And I could see in her mind – my sweet little dog – that she hoped our walk might well coincide with a hunt for that old foe of hers, ol’ Misther Hedgehog.  And it might also include – if for only a glimpse – that illusive owld biddy, Missus Badger, who lived somewhere down below right next to the spring, and who never invited us in for tea.  So all it took was for my mouth to form the word doggie loved so dearly to hear. “Walk?” And she’d be off in a flash and would be standing next to the door, on a place right next to her leash. And if it was wet, as was sure it would be, it would be into our waxed Barbours for both her and for me. 

And then we would set off – and it would be perhaps all of two in the morning or so – and we’d walk side by side, in the damp still of the night.  And not a sound would we make, and no shadow would we miss, and we’d keep our ears pealed for a crackle or a sigh or for those tiny bells that we both hoped we would hear.

And when we got to the cliffs, to the rocks jutting out from the moor, we’d sit down or sometimes we’d lie back in sheer bliss, and I would think to myself as I looked up at the night and felt the rain on my face, where else could I go and where could I find a more cracking craic than this?

May 21, 2010

Idiot’s Delight

Lost friends and lovers who were there just because they were there.

His name was not Montague. He has been dead for a great many years and all those who knew him are long gone as well.  Who knows why I think about him now and again?  I don’t know.  It’s not that he and I were ever lovers.  But even so I remember him far better, and with far more detail that I remember any of those with whom I did actually share my bed at the time.  In fact, I don’t even remember most of their names – which probably shows how seriously I take my entertainments.  Do I even recall what their faces looked like, or what their bodies looked like, or even whether there was anything special about the parts of their bodies that I had so enthusiastically fondled?   Where have they gone, those ghosts of the flats and rooms in Cadogan Gardens and Kinnerton Street, and Gloucester Road and Courtfield Road, as well as all those other streets and crescents and terraces in which my willy ran rampant, but in which I never ever fell in love?  I simply cannot conjure up a single one.  Not even the better parts of the very best of them.  I don’t recall what cafes or restaurants we frequented, or the clubs or the new boutiques that were springing up along the King’s Road.  For I was not a Carnaby Street sort of person.  We were Mary Quant and Biba – back when Biba was a tiny shop, and long before it grew into its present megalith in what was in those far-off days, Derry & Tom’s, on the Kensington High Street.  There was another new boutique on the King’s Road – Queen – but, unlike most of the others, I still can picture it and remember its founder’s name.  Glenda.  Glenda SomethingorOther. Glenda, who – or so I was told by a mutual friend, Leon – fancied me enough to go to bed with me, but she wasn’t going to wait for me forever.  At least that’s what Leon said.  He also made it clear that she was getting fed up, because I wasn’t taking the hint.  And although I seem to recall that she was tall and dark and, of course, had hair like Mary Quant’s, it didn’t occur to me to test out Leon’s theory. Why should I?  Although I didn’t say so at the time, it was really Leon I fancied; not her.  In fact, I was – if not exactly drooling – desperately hoping that Leon would go to bed with me. He was more to my taste than Glenda (but he never took my hint, either).  What I realise now was, although it may have been at the end of the swinging sixties and in the middle of the sexual revolution, homosexuality was not something one talked about.  I never knew there were such creatures as openly gay people.  As far as I was concerned, I was straight.  We were all straight, no matter what else we did.     

Around about the time of Leon and Glenda and the many others who were floating in and out of my radar, Leon and I and a couple of others were sharing a flat on the Cromwell Road, more or less across from what was then the West London Air Terminal – the bus terminal from which one caught coaches to Heathrow Airport.  For Gatwick, then as now, one caught a train at Victoria Station.  But nobody in my crowd would ever think of flying out of Gatwick, any more than they would flying by BEA.  Any more than one would move far enough to the west of Gloucester Road so that one’s telephone exchange drifted over to the dark side.  In other words: FRObisher.  FREmantle was as far west as any one us ever went.  And as far as Chelsea was concerned, no one ever lived in the wilderness beyond the point where one turned south to Cheney Walk.  Distant World’s End was no man’s land, well past the end of civilised man.  Only swamp creatures lived there.  And rats.

I don’t really know how I met Leon and Glenda and that crowd.  I suppose as young people have always done, we simply drift together.  None of us were Beetles fans, but we all partied with the Rolling Stones and with the wonderful Marianne Faithful, who now lives in Ireland and sings the songs of Brecht and  Weill in a raspy, lived-in voice – like no one else since Lotte Lenya.  At the time I knew her (and I didn’t know her well), she was recording albums and playing Irina in The Three Sisters at the Royal Court Theatre.  Or perhaps it was Ophelia.  I can’t remember which.  I only remember her as being very lovely and very special and that her face always wore a wistful expression.  I believe her father taught some subject or other at the London School of Economics and that her mother was Austrian – or something like that – but that her parents were separated.  Something not as usual then as it is now. 

Leon never did show any interest in me, and neither did one of our other flatmates – the one who used to answer the door naked and with an erection in case the caller happened to be his girlfriend.  And although I don’t remember this flatmate’s name or even his face, I do remember his penis, but mostly because it was circumcised and I was – at the time – more attracted to the other kind.  But you have to remember that in the days before Princess Diana, circumcision was the way to go if you were middle-class or upwardly mobile. It was something that – if not universal – was taken for granted. 

We had another on-again/off-again flatmate, whose name was Nicky.  Nicky was incredibly cute with one of those perfectly proportioned bodies that are a gift from God, and which he certainly hadn’t earned himself.  And he had a face to go with it.  I seem to remember at the time he was sleeping with most of the girls in our crowd,  but no one was ever jealous of Nicky, for he was gentle and he was kind and he never took himself seriously, and he had a great sense of fun.  I cannot for the life of me recall what Nicky did for a living.  I rather think Leon did something or other in the city, for I remember him leaving every morning in a suit. And the same holds with the other flatmate as well – the one with the circumcised penis but with nothing else to remember him by. But Nicky?  I have no idea.  You see, none of us ever talked about our work or our plans for the future, or even anything to do with our pasts.  Of course, it had everything to do with all of us having at least a certain amount of money.  Plus the fact that the late sixties and early seventies were, indeed, a ‘different country’.  And for our little group – and for groups like us – such ‘inconveniences’ as social upheaval and student rioting and endless strikes were not even a blip on our radar.  In other words, we were straight out of one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

Most nights, all of us slept in the same bed, an enormous affair that stretched from one side of the bedroom to the other. Way over on one side, right next to the window, there would be the nameless flatmate with his girlfriend, making love all night every night without uttering a single sound.  Not even a moan or a squeak.  I used to wonder how they did it, and I also wondered if they actually enjoyed it.  It certainly went on long enough (the phrase ‘forever and ever’ often passed through my mind), but there was scarcely even any movement on their side of the bed.  The only thing I could think of was that neither of them knew much about what they were doing, for although we were in the middle of sexual revolution, as far as I know there no such things as a sex education class.  Mostly one talked to one’s own doctor, but I don’t think most doctors knew much about orgasms or how to achieve them.  They would simply hum and haw and give you a little pamphlet. However, everyone seemed to be doing ‘it’, but the ‘it’ they were doing was pretty much hit and miss.

That was also about the time when LSD was easily had, and everybody knew someone who knew   how to get it.  And, even more importantly, everyone – at least in our crowd – was very careful where they got it, trusting no one but their regular source (which was probably the first person they saw on the street that didn’t look like ‘the fuzz’). Nobody ever took it alone.  I never knew anyone who ever had a really bad trip, which only shows how lucky we were.

Now, I have always been on the outside of things and never really part of a crowd.  And lucky for me I have never been interested enough in drugs to actually find out how and where to obtain them.  For if truth be told, that whole scene bored me.  It was all foreplay, followed by a letdown – very much a case of “Is That All There Is?”  Where some things are concerned, it is better to be bored than dead.

However, in this case, the purveyor was none other than the black-suited, nameless flatmate.  The one with the circumcised penis.   

I do remember one night, and it was obviously on a Saturday, because no one in the flat had to be up early the next day for work.  All of us – Leon and Nicky and the nameless flatmate and I – together with all the riffraff that routinely crashed on the floor – took our tabs and settled in to wait for something to happen.  On the top of the television set was a sculpture formed by the intertwining chrome-plated bumpers of three cars.  We called it ‘George’ – for, after all, it was like a member of our household and (unlike that one flatmate) had to have a name.  Eventually, of course, we all got stoned; we turned up the music and at least pretended to act like stoned people act (although – to tell the truth – all of our trips together were depressingly boring and middle class, as befits a group of sons and daughters of mothers who made jams for the Women’s Institute).  At about two in the morning, ‘it’ happened.  For no particular reason except perhaps it was the only object of interest in the room, everyone started to concentrate on ‘George’.  And we concentrated and chanted and concentrated some more and, all of a sudden, ‘George’ apparently became offended by our laughing at him.  For he fell apart and collapsed into several chrome-plated segments on the floor.  And we could never put him together again.  We had killed him! Anyway, that was that as far as the trip was concerned. As so, of course, we all piled on to the one enormous wall-to-wall bed in the  bedroom, where the nameless flatmate immediately and without preamble launched into one of his all-night-long sexual ‘encounters’ with his girlfriend.  And the two girls next to Nicky – who obviously did  know a thing or two about orgasms – proceeded to do things to him which made him produce a great many very loud noises indeed, and which resulted in his leaping from the bed, clutching himself desperately, and making a mad dash for the loo.

Six months or so later I took a mews flat in Kinnerton Street, Belgravia, in a remarkable old Mews house that is sadly no longer there (it was just a few steps away from what was then the smallest pub in London).  For a short while, Nicky moved in with me and  into my wobbly narrow bed.  And for a time we did very nice things together.  But then, as with all things, he moved on and I moved on, and the next time I saw him was a few years later in Piccadilly Circus, in front of Boots the Chemist. He was still as beautiful as ever, but he had grown out of his youthfulness and was now a handsome young man.  And what is more, he had a young woman beside him.  He introduced her as his fiancé and it was obvious they were very much in love.  In other words, Nicky had grown up and moved on.

Somewhere along the line, I did have one or two more encounters (neither of them sexual) with Glenda, and both of them in tandem with her mother.  One was for Glyndebourne, and the other for the racing at Royal Ascot.  In both cases I was asked to be their escort, and since the mother was footing the bill, and since the Ascot meeting included passes to the Royal Enclosure, plus hotel and meals and free everything, I said, “Yes!” Besides, I had the clothes.

  Glyndebourne was, of course, wonderful and relaxing.  Glenda’s mother had ordered our hampers from Fortnum’s, and so our picnics were a delight.  Royal Ascot, however, was another matter. 

Glenda’s mother had booked seats on the special train, and had checked all her luggage with the conductor before we boarded.  Unfortunately, the special train to Ascot – then as now – is a somewhat crowded affair, and it is not uncommon for luggage to be lost.

Well, we arrived on schedule, but there was no sign of Glenda’s mother’s hat boxes.  And you see, she had brought enough hats for two changes a day for the entire week.  One of her suitcases did arrive, but the others – along with the hat boxes and the lovely bespoke hats nestled within them, were never seen again.  Believe me, it was a miserable week. I spent so much time with the mother prowling around Windsor and trying to find a couple of extra decent-looking hats for her to wear, that I missed all the racing – even the Gold Cup!  And the mother was so devastated that she spent all the rest of her time in the bar getting drunk. And Glenda deserted us and went back to London in a huff.  I always wondered if any of those striking miners and rioting students ever spared a thought for the misery that I was going through! 

It was also around about this time that I met Montague.  I was working at a small film studio in London doing continuity and acting as general dog’s body for some awful horror flic.  One day, when I was eating lunch in my small office-cum-storeroom (the ‘lunch’, by the way, consisted of rare roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and the only cabbage I’ve ever eaten which can be called ‘orgasmic’ – the producer of the film may have been  lousy producer, but he was an amazing cook and always made us lunch – as a way to make up for the niggardly salaries we were being paid) when a very elegant elderly gentleman with a goatee peered in a me and  asked  if I would like to share his bottle of wine (a very fine claret from, I believe Lynch Bages).  Needless to say, I said, “Yes!”  And thus began quite a strange and wonderful friendship.

At the time, Montague was working on some television production or other which was in another sound stage around the corner.  He had seen me around and since at the time I was always well-dressed and well-mannered, he thought he would like to get to know me better.  And so he invited me to lunch at his tiny little house south of the Thames.  It became a standing invitation that lasted for about three years.

At the time, Montague was seventy-two; I was twenty-two and only recently down from university – from which I had qualified in nothing at all.  In the roaring twenties he had been a playboy dilettante and nightclub singer in France – both in Paris and – during the season – on the Cote d’Azur.    When the Wall Street crash came in 1929, he – like most of the expats – found that their meagre talents were not wanted.  So he returned to London, only to find that his father and mother – who had previously been living in a large house in St. John’s Wood, were now living in that part of London known as Brixton. Theirs was a tiny house, but into it they managed to squeeze everything of value that they had managed to salvage.

By the time that I met him, his parents were long-since dead, but he had remained in the house and had kept it like a time-capsule. Not in honour of his father and mother, but because – even though it was small and in a tumbledown part of the city,  the cramped, airless rooms held memories of elegance and beauty that – in the world outside those four walls – had largely disappeared.  The chandeliers were still lit by gas, he still bathed in a copper tub in front of the coal-fired kitchen range, and on every wall were the exotic rain forests and animals of William Morris.  And having myself grown up surrounded by William Morris, I felt very much at home.

After several weeks of swapping tales and getting to know each other, Montague mentioned that he was in the throes of writing his memoirs.  Would I like to work with him as a sometime ghost-writer-come-commentator?  And, if so, would I be free to live in Paris for six or eight months.  To which, of course, I said, “Yes!”  I believe we left the next week.

Now, the whole of our little collaboration deserves an episode of its own, but let us just say that it was glorious fun.  And not only because he was a delightful human-being, but that he himself had never grown up, and enjoyed anything and everything that came his way.

When Montague had been strutting around in his white tie and tails in the twenties, so too had a very very remarkable assortment of people, many of which were still very much alive. And that is why we were in Paris.  Among those in my new ‘circle’ were Man Ray, Dali, Josephine Baker, Jean Renoir, Ionesco (who I later was lucky enough to work with), Jean Wiener and, of course, the amazing Stephane Grappelli (who, incidentally, made the best marinara I have ever tasted).  There were, of course, many others, many of whom – being extremely French about the whole business of aging – had taken to their beds and entertained us from the midst of dozens of faded, hand-painted cushions.

During our stay, Montague and I rented a couple of rooms on top of a brothel on the rue Houdon.  However, since that delirious place became so much a part of my life for so many months and had so much character of its own, it too shall be given a later hearing. For now, let me just say that ‘Madame’ – who was eternally encased in corsets and rustling black bombazine – was the most outrageously respectable woman I have ever encountered in the course of a life of encountering outrageously respectable women.  Every inch of her considerable bulk fairly quivered with respectability. In other words, she was a born Concierge.  And it is also worth noting that, right across the street from the house was a girl’s school.

I loved every bit of that year!

May 19, 2010

The Slurry Wagon

North Atlantic gales and collies and labradors and a moment of ecstasy.

I adopted my doggie sometime late in the springtime.  Along the ridges and through the fields and bogs the furze was cloaked with blossoms of mustardy yellow. And all along the six-foot- high dry stone walls lining the narrow boreen that started at the top of the hill and wound its way to its eventual endgame  in the ocean, blackberry brambles were sprouting pale green leaflets and the sweet-smelling wild roses – tiny, old-fashioned, single-petalled and delicately white – filled the moist, cloud-drenched island air with fragrance.  I lived three quarters of the way down this boreen – a good half a mile below the double farmhouse at the top, with its cluster of barns and tiny fields in which fifteen or twenty calves grew fat and happy grazing on the lush, emerald green grass.  Two hundred yards above me was a small sheep farm; directly below and to my rear was the sea.  And it was here – in a typically squat, determinedly ugly, and utterly sea-worthy, bunker-like cottage – that I had unpacked my bags. For at that particular moment in time, I called it my home.

Like all such bunker-like cottages built within spitting distance of the jagged west-facing cliffs, the eyes of its soul – its windows – looked eastward, towards light and the morning sun and across the endless vista of hills and bogs and faraway grey mountains. Although the view on the western side was more spectacular, no one but summer visitors would think of inserting picture windows into west-facing rooms.  The constant north Atlantic gales that sweep through such islands and which have shaped the peoples since the dawn of time, and which enshroud the hills and valleys and bogs with perpetual mist and dampness and a sense of foreboding, simply laugh at such folly.  For as soon as the visitors move into to the new holiday homes they have built, the waves crash against their west-facing picture windows to drive their point home.  However, those  souls who were born to these gales, and who have lost generations of fisherman sons to the North Atlantic swells, and who have spent half their lives in darkness – for in winter the light comes late and does not linger for more than a few hours – such light as can be had is not a luxury.  It is a blessing and a necessity. Hence, windows face east, away from the storms and towards this life-giving light, as well as towards a gentler, more pastoral landscape; in other words, towards the dawning of the next new day.

Besides, as every islander knows, what good is a window unless it faces the road?  And what good is a window unless the neighbours can see that the window is spotlessly clean, and that the seldom-used front parlour behind it is as spic and span as spic and span can be.  For if it is not, never fear – the whole village and county will soon hear of it.  “Poor dear,” the biddies will lament with glee, as they gather with others to sit in their own back kitchens and hash and re-hash the foul tragedy over plates of scones and cups of black inky tea.  “Did you notice how she didn’t get up for mass last Sunday, and how she had to be helped with her shopping bags when she got off the community bus? There will be tears and a wake within a fortnight, with a Mass on a Tuesday, so you had better be getting yourselves over to Mary’s by the Friday before.  To have your hair set early, so it will be less frizzy, you know.”

In other words, everyone judges you by the state of your front windows.  And don’t think you can avoid the issue by simply keeping the curtains closed.  For to keep your curtains closed means one of only four things:  that you’ve gone away; that you are poorly; that you are dead; or that you are dead drunk.  Now, since I am not the type to clean my windows for the benefit of others, I always kept my front curtains closed.  True, I lived in perpetual gloom – for the windows at the back were so small that what light there was couldn’t find its way into the house – but being the stubborn male creature that I am, I couldn’t see any sense in going out in the middle of a raging storm to wash the windows.  Because, you see, there was always a raging storm in progress, but nobody else seemed to find anything strange about washing one’s windows right in the middle of it.

And speaking of gales and storms and howling winds, not even a hurricane-force howler would prevent even the most desperately ill pensioner from hanging her washing out on the line if that is what she had in mind to do.  And to be perfectly candid, if anyone waited until the weather was less rowdy in order to dry their laundry and not get soaked through to their bones, it would never be hung up at all.  When I first arrived I used to wonder why and how my neighbour would rush out into the fiercest gale and hang her wash and then simply forget about it.  For if we had been anywhere else on earth, all those clothes and sheets and towels would have been blown into the next county within a second and a half.  But not so on the island.   So I asked her how such a thing could be, and she let me in on the secret:  ‘Gale-Proof’ clothes-pegs!  And to think, I had never even heard of such a thing before.  Needless to say, they were by far the most popular item (after window-cleaning supplies) in the local hardware store – a store very much like an old-fashioned general store.    

I had not been there long before I decided it might be nice to be taken care of by a dog.  I didn’t want a sheepdog, simple because they are outside dogs and working dogs and I had no work for one to do.  They are not at their happiest if cosseted on a couch twenty-four hours a day.  Yes, sitting by the Aga and living the life of Riley might please them for a few hours of an afternoon and evening, but Border Collies are not among nature’s born contemplatives.  They grow bored and they grow restive (and, believe me, nothing can look as bored as a bored Border Collie).  They look out the east-facing window towards the fields of sheep and they sigh and they moan and they groan and they whimper, and should you persist in refusing to take the hint, they finally shout, “Please give me some feckin’ work to do!  Give me some sheep that I may take care of them and herd them this way and that and worry them half to death, and if you do what I want I  promise to love, honour and obey you forever and ever. And I won’t even nip you on your heals when you get in my way!” 

But even had I wanted one of these treasures, I had to remember that I was surrounded on all sides by small sheep farms, and on each farm on lived a couple of sheep dogs, none of which would be happy to welcome a newcomer. Of course, I could have made a compromise amenable to everyone – to the neighbouring dogs and to their owners and to myself – by simply adopting a Border Collie pup.  For many of the neighbouring sheepdogs were getting on in years. A puppy can easily be integrated into an existing community; it could simply join in with my neighbours collies in their tasks, and then at such time as one of the older animals died or got too weak, it could take its place.  Also, under this arrangement, if and when I should decide to leave and move elsewhere – for I have notoriously restless feet and little feeling for a settled life if it doesn’t suit me – my dog would have a home and a job.  And everything in the garden would be lovely.

However, as much as I love and appreciate Border Collies, what I really wanted – if I wanted anything at all – was a companion dog, a low-maintenance beastie whose natural inclination was to sit on the sofa and snuggle and be a best friend.  I also wanted a quiet dog, a tidy dog, and a dog that wouldn’t eat me out of house and home.  In other words, the last thing on my mind was a Labrador.  For although when it comes to food I am extremely disciplined and rarely give snacks either to myself or to any pets I may have, a labrador’s natural-born love-affair is not with its owner so much as with the owner’s refrigerator.  They can’t help it; it’s how they are made.  Now, every once in a while every well-behaved Labrador should be taken outside and away from its beloved refrigerator and its jealously guarded food bowl – for as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s fulltime indoor job – when not guarding the refrigerator – is to monitor whether, in a moment of inattention, an atom of food might not have made it way into this treasured receptacle; for surely, such a morsel must be there somewhere – just waiting to be slurped up by the labrador’s tongue.  And since a Labrador has a particularly suspicious mind where food is concerned, a speck of food can only mean one thing: that another dog will appear from the depths of nowhere and gobble it up. Right in front of him.  And since he is suspicious on an equal-opportunity basis, and insanely jealous in regards to every edible thing in the entire universe, he is – it goes without saying – profoundly distrustful of the neighbour’s cats.  For all cats – no matter what colour, no matter what shape, and no matter if the cats are never let out of their owner’s house – are always covetous of a labrador’s food bowl; they will stop at nothing to lure the poor Labrador away – possibly even to its death in the bog – so that they might claim that one tiny remaining titbit that is lurking on the bottom of the bowl. And that is the truth.

But as I started to say, every once in a while, every Labrador should be torn away from its beloved refrigerator and food bowl and taken outside.  And this, to every Labrador, means just one thing.  Playtime.  And to a Labrador, playtime invariably means water and mud and poking its nose in the neighbour’s business (which, in turn, often annoys the neighbour’s sheep dogs) and, of course, it also means raiding every neighbours’ refrigerators and cleaning their cat boxes and,  just perhaps, even relieving that one neighbour of her bothersome budgerigar.

 Now, Labradors are not scrappy individuals.  They are not terriers, always spoiling for a fight.  They are simply the canine version of the happy-go-lucky village vacuum cleaner.  From the minute of their birth, they know that no one – except for you, but you don’t count because you are evil-minded, pinch-faced and stingy – can resist feeding a visiting Labrador that extra wedge of cake (the wedge that was absentmindedly left unguarded for a nanosecond); for you see, as far as the labrador is concerned, everything that is within reach of his mouth belongs in his stomach.  And as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s mouth is faster than a speeding bullet and able to eat entire picnic baskets without appearing to move a muscle.

Now everyone claims that Labradors are ideal kids’ dogs, for they are patient, long-suffering and they rarely if ever lose their cool.  But the only reason that any labrador assumes this living-cuddly-teddy-bear disguise is that they know that sooner or later – whenever the kid is in the vicinity of food – he (the living-cuddly-teddy-bear) will consume every bite of it.  And if a kid should get upset and end up with a second or third of even a fourth helping, the kid still will go to bed starving. Because where food is concerned, labradors know their stuff.

As regards kids and food and Labradors, we should put aside – for the time being – any thoughts we might have about taking him straight to the vets for a permanent vacation. For, although you might not have given this much thought, Labradors are extremely far-sighted.  They instinctive know if a kid has a future as a high-fashion model. And that being the case, all it is doing is preparing that kid for a life of starvation and deprivation.  And let us never when forget the starving children of Biafra and Somalia and The Congo.  Had their parents not had Labradors at the beginning of children’s lives, those children would not have been as well prepared as they are for a diet of one meal per lifetime.

But are Labradors appreciated for their childhood starvation preparation talents?  Not a bit of it.  And does it occur to any of the stressed-out dieticians and healthcare professions that deal with the issue of childhood obesity that there is an easy and cost-effective solution?  Buy each kid a Labrador, and that kid will lose all its surplus avoirdupois in a day and a half.  Unless, of course, the kid simply turns around and eats the Labrador.  But you can’t win them all.

I will admit, Labradors do have one serious behaviour problem.  Should anyone within two hundred yards happen to be taking a deep breath when a Labrador decides to fart, that person will have no chance at all.  He will be dead.

Come to think of it, with all the problems the American seem to be having with their methods of executing their death-row inmates, wouldn’t it save a lot of time simply by feeding a Labrador two kilos of corn beef and cabbage and baked beans, and then simply locking it into a small, airless room with the condemned man?

It goes without saying that a Labrador is not for me.  Besides, they all seem to wear this perpetually happy-face, and I’m just not a happy-face kinda guy.

Did I finally settle on a dog?  Yes and no, for although I settled on a member of the canine family, she was not only not a dog, but she a bitch.  For if it is a nice clean undoggy canine you want, then I should recommend a female any day of the week.  But, “What was she?” I hear you ask.

 Well let me describe her for you.  She was about thigh high and her coat was dark brown.  She had liquid, almond-shaped eyes of darkest chocolate, and the figure of a supermodel; she could run like the wind, and she was as dainty as a gazelle.  She was completely fastidious in her habits; she was hypoallergenic and had no doggie odour whatsoever.  So polite was she that she would not even enter a room without permission.  She never begged; she didn’t appear to even know what a refrigerator was.  Her appetite was tiny – less than a cup of food two times a day – and being polite, she always left that one little bit on the plate. She was incredibly healthy and always maintained her perfect weight.  She preferred me to be in the room with her while she ate, but didn’t like it if I looked at her while she was eating.  She was also incredible quiet; she never barked.  And if she had to go outside, she would simply give me a certain ‘look’, and make an almost inaudible ‘squeak’. That was her sign that she was in a hurry – and if, in the middle of the night, she heard a hedgehog snuffling about on the grass, she would squeak twice.  It was her, “Let’s go hunt a hedgehog” squeak.  I only ever heard her bark once, and that was when a hare jumped up on the window sill and looked in at her. Otherwise, she never made a sound.  

When I first adopted her, it was during lambing.  It goes without saying I did not want to take any chances that – when I took her out for a run – she might take off after a new-born lamb. After all, she was born to the chase.  And so what I did was to fasten a thirty foot lunge line to her collar and take her as far away from the lambing shed as possible – down to the far pastures on the cliff.  And there she would run.  And run.  And run.  And when she had finished she had a habit of leaping on to the top of one of the great dry-stone walls, as if to say, “Here I am!”  And there she would recline like the lady she was – not even panting – waiting to be escorted home.

The rest of the time she was a complete couch-potato.  And at night, she slept under two duvets on my bed.  She never scratched, never chewed herself, and besides having a natural tendency to sleep right up close to me for warmth – which occasionally left me with only a few inches for myself – she never, ever disturbed my sleep.

The day after I brought her home was the day the farmer was spreading slurry on the fields.  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, let me explain.  Slurry is usually cow manure that has been left in a vat to ferment for about a year. It is an ancient method of making fertilizer and it is strictly regulated.  

On the island, because of the weather and climate, the fields normally grew at least five cuttings of silage each year.  Each time the silage was mowed, slurry would be spread on to the stubble.

Needless to say, the day the slurry was spread the smell was somewhat strong.  Personally, I like the stink; to me it  smells like the earth and nature and how things ought to be.

Now, on that magical day, my doggie and I happened to be sitting outside the front door the first time the slurry wagon passed.  And the minute the wagon passed in front of us (for the wagons themselves smell very strong), her eyes glazed over; she tilted her head back and breathed in.  It was a very long, very deep breath.  She shuddered.  Her eyes started to water, her whole body started to vibrate.  And then she sighed.

Never before or since have I seen anyone transported like that.  It was – purely and simply – ecstasy.  And when it was over, she put her head in my lap, turned over on her back, and moaned.

Over the months and years that followed, she never paid the slightest bit of attention to the wagon, and since she was very fastidious about where she walked, she didn’t even like walking down the boreen with me on days when slurry was being spread – for, of course, the spreader dribbled when it was closed and left a string of splatters on the track.

It was just that one time. The first time. When life was new, and my lovely greyhound and I were sitting on the grass in front of our cottage; everything in heaven and earth was in its right place, and as a bonus she was given a special welcome to her brand new home.  For one split second, the cosmos held its breath and time stood still – and let the slurry wagon pass and give her its blessing.

May 18, 2010

Lost in Alexandria

Prowling Around the Back Streets and Alleyways of a City of Dreams

I have a real love of public transport.  And although I miss the countryside and all that it has to offer, I do love cities.  I especially love cities that have real people living in them; in other words, cities with a good public transportation system.  Because for me, the minute a city has become sterile and its services consist of private car parks and outlet malls and fast-food franchises and botoxed faces, then that is not a city in which I can breathe.  It might have all the best libraries and museums and theatres in the world, but if there are no buses or undergrounds, I’ll go somewhere else. Because I can drive around in cars anywhere; in a city I want to see and smell and taste the city itself. I want to uncover the street life, and the best way to do that is by walking from one end of it to the other.  And yes, by taking public transport.  And, by that, I mean by exploring as much of each and every route as possible.  Because – after all – every separate route .leads to a different place. Or, if they do happen to end up at the same place, then the route by which they travel is along a different set of streets.

One of the first lessons I was given as a kid – and a lesson that has stuck with me through thick and through thin – is that  upon arriving in a strange, new city  the first thing you do is to sample that city’s sights and sounds and flavours.  And, no, this isn’t done through going to a travel agent or through a faceless concierge in your indentikit hotel or in booking a guide to take you on the ‘official unofficial’ tour – which, it goes without saying, is conducted in the back of a car or in an air-conditioned coach.  And in both cases you are at the mercy of this guide (and in the coach this factotum is certain to have a microphone turned on to ‘full-blast’). That’s all very well if you are on a package tour and have only half a day before you move on to the next city and/or ruins, or if – to  put it bluntly – you simply can’t sand another moment of ‘experiencing the Third World’.  And that’s fair enough, because it’s honest.  On the other hand, if that is all you want out of life, then why bother to visit at all – just stay at home, save yourself a lot of money and discomfort, and watch the travel channel.  Of course, that way you won’t be able to share your travel-related horror-stories with your friends, but you can’t have it both ways. But back to guides and pre-arranged tours.  What you have to understand is that nothing they will show you will resemble the city or country in which they live.  For no matter how conscientious the guides happen to be, their tour will have been designed by some expert or other who ‘knows’ what the visitor will want to see.  And you can be sure that on their list there will be nothing that hasn’t been vetted by the chamber of commerce or the guide books or the ministry of tourism. In other words, you will never even hear about the truly exasperating and shimmering parts of the city, much less the nitty-gritty areas that, for the locals, make their everyday lives come alive.

I will never say that you should not do a certain amount of homework, for every city has areas that are best avoided, just as every city has its own special secrets.  This, however, does not mean you should Google the FBI/CIA websites or stick to the news agencies of your own countries. For contrary to what you might have heard, other countries do report news accurately, and not all of them cover up the negative and the ugly. And no, not all of their news is propaganda.  And if you would rather not believe me, just remember this: every month, thousands of tourists visit dozens of countries and most of them even live to tell about it.  And also keep in mind that you are just as likely to get diarrhoea drinking bottled water in Dallas as you are eating falafel from a market stall in Ibrahimea. 

So anyway, here you are in Alexandria!  You are all squared away in your hotel, having unpacked and eaten a good hotel lunch of over-cooked chicken, and you are ready to hit the streets.  Now remember, the first thing you do is ignore the concierge at all costs.  First of all, many of them really don’t know what’s going on if it’s not already listed in the hotel’s ‘What’s On’ Guide, plus the fact that they will never ever have a decent map.  But in any case, even if all you want the concierge for is to book theatre tickets, wouldn’t you prefer to go to the theatre yourself and see what seats are actually available?  It’s not only an eye-opener to discover how much money you will save, but – and this is a real bonus – you will actually get to know where the theatre is; and wouldn’t it be interesting to discover what else is happening in that particular neighbourhood?  For, as far as I am concerned, the whole purpose of travelling – indeed, the whole purpose of life – is to be constantly surprised by sounds and tastes you have never before even imagined. And as for the theatre itself, there will possibly be other offerings not listed in the hotel’s brochure. For believe me, it is only for the ‘major’ events that the theatre or opera house will bother notifying the hotels. In other words, if the production happens not to target a higher-end audience willing to pay a lot of money, the concierge will never hear of it.  And also – in Alexandria – there is the probability that the production will have been cancelled, but since nobody in Alexandria ever notifies anyone of anything, your concierge would not have been informed. 

Another good reason to check out the theatre yourself is that you can also investigate any bus or mini-bus routes that take you back to the hotel; for believe me, there will be dozens of them.  This, for me, is extremely important.  I’m not being a cheapo here – although I admit to preferring to spend my money on something else besides a taxi. However, let’s be brutally honest; in many countries taking a taxi means one thing:  bargaining, endless whinging, perpetual wheedling, followed by yet more bargaining.  And I’m talking about bargaining that will not stop from one end of the ride to the other.  What you will discover is – yes – you may have agreed on a price beforehand, but from the moment the taxi leaves the curb (and you are deluded enough to believe that the affair of the fare has been satisfactorily settled) that’s when the driver suggests that there is, of course, the matter of the tip. And, from that point on, instead of being able to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of the city, you will perforce listen to a non-stop whine about what a good driver he is, about how the driver has to support his brother’s sixteen children in addition to his own, and about how he has to pay for an operation for this mother. Now, what you have to remember is that the story is always the same; it is, in fact, the same story that ruined the visits of tourists two thousand years ago. And, more recently, it is why “The boy stood on the burning deck” (the boy in question being young Casabianca, the son of one of Napoleon’s admirals) chose to burn to a crisp rather than to swim ashore and risk a taxi to the Cairo Airport. For me – and I am willing to admit that it is personal – on the whole, I would rather leave two hours early and take the most crowded bus  that deal with the average taxi driver.   I’ve been there, done that,  bought the fuckin T-shirt  and, what’s more, I can repeat the spiel back – word for word (in the identical tone of voice) to any taxi driver who dares inflict me with it.  And if you take taxis often enough you will hear it in all its hundreds and thousands of variations.  And you might even hear three different versions from the same driver who picked you up from the airport, who later drove you out to Carrefour, and who – later still – picked you up at Carrefour and drove you back to your hotel.  It’s called one of the seven wonders of Egypt.  And I’m sure it’s why Marc Antony eventually committed suicide.  After all, with Cleopatra dead and unable to bargain on his behalf, he never ever would have been able to set a fare to the airport.  It was simply more pleasant to die.

Needless to say, if you ever ask an Egyptian how much you should pay a taxi to take you – say – to the Greco-Roman amphitheatre (which is has never heard of), he will immediately tell you that you can get a much better deal on a new Nokia phone at Sidi Gaber, and that the tariff to Sidi Gaber is five pounds and not a piaster more.  It is then that you laugh in his face.  Because, you see, you are not Egyptian.  An Egyptian simply gets into a taxi, gets out at the other end, pays the driver the five pounds, and slams the door.  But, as a foreigner, even had an Egyptian settled on a fare on your behalf, the minute you have left in the taxi, and your Egyptian friend is safely back on the street, your driver suddenly doesn’t remember that anything has ever been discussed.  And so the bargaining begins.

Now, I will admit here and now to having sunk to a new level of deceit.  It’s called speaking French. I simply get into a taxi next to the drive, and bark a resolute “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I have found to my great joy that this confuses the driver.  And being confused, he simply accepts whatever sum I give to him (and here, let us be fair:  although I am as skint as a bucket of skinflints, I still have more money than the average Egyptian.  Taxi drivers work very hard.  And I certainly do not expect to pay the same low, low tariff as an Egyptian).  However, I would much rather hear the whinge in French than I would in English. After all, in English I am forced to understand it.

And while we are on the subject of foreigners and bargaining – and let’s face it, there is nothing dearer to an Egyptian’s heart that proving that every foreigner is the idiot that he truly is – I have a story for you.

A couple of months ago, I became acquainted with a young student teacher from Brazil. Now, it so happened he was well-educated, well-travelled and savvy; what’s more he also knew how to use his appearance to get everything at ‘local’ prices. Because, of course, the ethnic mix in Brazil often has more in common with that of North Africa than it does with the rest of Latin America.  And because of his appearance – for let’s face it – the modern Egyptian is an homogenous blend of many different peoples – everyone in the market automatically assumed that he could be either a Nubian or an Egyptian of Sudanese descent or some other mix.  And consequently, just so long as he kept his mouth shut (for he did not speak Arabic) he always paid what the Egyptians paid for everything.  And I do mean everything.   

Now this is where is gets funny.  The other students in his ESL certification class were either Americans of European descent or Northern European themselves.  In other words, the last thing they looked like was Egyptian.  Now, it goes without saying that every one of the students was on a tight budget.  Therefore, the minute they realised the Brazilian could get things for practically nothing – whereas they always had to pay ten times as much – he would invariably end up with their shopping lists.  So far, so good; all’s fair in love and war and in saving a buck or three.

As I’ve already mentioned, this Brazilian guy knew enough to keep his mouth shut when out shopping; he would simply point to whatever he wanted, then pay and leave.  The fact that he hadn’t spoken was irrelevant.

And when he happened to be accompanied by one of his American friends, he still pointed and still said nothing.  And if for some reason, he did speak English to one of the others in the group, the stallholders still assumed that he was Egyptian.  After all, plenty of Egyptians speak at least a little English.  But then – alas – came the day when he actually needed to ask for something.  It was at that moment, of course, when the stallholder – who had been selling items to him at reduced rates for a good three weeks – suddenly saw the light of day.   And, of course, he laughed.  What a wonderful jokester the Brazilian was!  However, to cut a long story short, the Brazilian instantly lost his Egyptian status, as well as the privileges that went with them.  Knowing the Egyptians as I do, he probably ended up paying twice as much as any other foreigner. And to make matters worse, he was never again given any of the choicest fruit. But, of course, he was now a foreigner and all foreigners are stupid; he was simply being put in his place.

Now, you may recall that at the very beginning of this piece, I mentioned that – when I was very young –  I was given an invaluable piece of advice (the only one to which I have ever actually listened).  It is the key to unlocking the mysteries of any city in the world.  And it is this:  the first thing you do, upon arriving in a city – after you get settled in – is to get on the first bus you see.  And once you are on the bus, let yourself be absorbed into the life of the bus, into the lives of the people on the bus, and into the life of the passing streets.  Simply open your eyes and ears, and let yourself go.  And when you get to a place that looks interesting, simply get off and start walking.  And don’t worry about getting lost, because in a city teaming with life, there is no such thing as getting lost.  Yes, you might misplace yourself.  But even should you happen to get totally tangled up, you simply ask for directions (and having asked for directions, you will immediately be invited to eat lunch with everyone within earshot).  

It goes without saying you will have remembered to write down the name of your hotel (I least I hope you have).  And, of course, although I hate to inflict one on you in your very first day in Egypt, there’s always a taxi in case of emergencies. 

Mobile phones may be the bane of my existence, but they really can be lifesavers. And in countries such as Egypt, handsets and SIM cards are cheap.  Plus, since they are invariably pay-as-you-go, you are not going to end up with a large bill at the end of your visit.   Therefore, buy an inexpensive phone; write down the number (as well as the number of your hotel – and yes – your Consulate if you are so inclined – as well as the number of that one person in your family back home in Dundee or Duluth who is most likely to panic).

But anyway, don’t worry about getting lost.  You are, after all, in a foreign city for the sole purpose of discovering that city.  And how you do this is by taking buses – any and all buses – and then by walking and walking and walking.  And whilst you are doing this, you will meet new friends; in fact, if you are in Egypt, by the end of the first day you will have more friends than you’ve ever had in your life.

Before we go any further, here is another thing worth remembering. Each and every one of your new friends will want your phone number, and if they are male, ninety-nine percent of them will be named Mohammed or Ahmed or Mahmud. And all of them will phone you at three o’clock in the morning and invite you out to tea and sheeshah.  For in Egypt, life begins after ten or eleven at night; sitting in cafes until all hours with your friends in an Egyptian tradition.  So don’t get annoyed, and when you enter their names on your contact list, remember to add their second name as well – for in the Arab tradition, each and every person carries four names: his or her own name, followed by his or her father’s name, followed by his father’s name, followed by his father’s name. So if a new friend tells you his name is Mohammed, it will save a lot of embarrassment later on if you ask him to tell you his second name as well. That way instead of being listed as one of thirty Mohammeds, he will become known to you as (for example) Mohammed Sayed (which is easier to remember than Mohammed Number Two).  Otherwise, when you receive twelve different calls from twelve different Mohammeds at three in the morning, you will be able to avoid the usual scenario wherein whichever Mohammed it is will be hurt because you can’t tell him apart from all the other Mohammeds.

One additional suggestion.  Now I know I’ve come down hard on taxi drivers, but when you do meet a good one and he wants to give you his phone number, enter in on your phone.  Because you never know when you might need the services of a good taxi.  And if a rotten drive insists on giving you his number, simply enter it – and after you’ve gone, push the delete button.

Over the past years, because of my curiosity, I have discovered no end of out-of-the-ordinary places in Alexandria. And since the average Egyptian, just like the average Englishman or American or Frenchman or Irishman or (yes, I know, and I’m sorry) Scotsman, won’t have a clue about what’s going on in his or her country – it will be up to you to discover everything for yourself.  Now, I happen to love the local markets in the back streets, as well as the twisty-turny hidden passageways where ordinary people go to shop for special delicacies and bespoke items. I also like to know what sort of cafe is frequented by what sort of people.

For a while I used to suggest to foreign visitors that they might like to visit some of these amazing, magical places, and I always ended on the receiving end of a blank stare.  Because almost none of them ever take buses, they don’t know one district for the other, and when they do go out, it is invariably to Carrefour (which is, after all, a mall like every other mall in the world, and therefore just like home).  Either that, or they go somewhere on a set tour arranged by their school.  Having been burned, I now mind my own business.

At one point (for my sins) I taught one or two evening classes to Egyptian students.  One of the joys of this experience was to have been able to share with them some of Egypt’s cultural icons, of whom they had often heard very little.  For example, none of them had heard of Nass Makan – which is in Cairo and is the Centre for Traditional Egyptian folk music (it is, by the way, on the web – and it also has a page on Facebook). Another name with which to conjure was and is Rahnda Fahmy, who is possibly the greatest female coppersmith in the world, and whose works are displayed in every major museum and gallery and palace (and – yes – mosque) throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe.  Her sister, Azza, is a major jewellery designer.  The list goes on and on and on… and the maddening thing was not that my Egyptian students knew very little about their own cultural treasures, but that not a single one of the people responsible for running the ESL training centre – which was supposedly guaranteeing foreign students an insight into Egyptian culture – had even heard of any of them.  Nor were they interested.

For what it’s worth, in case you ever do happen to visit Alexandria, here are a couple of places to explore:  first of all, The Friday Market, which is the most outrageously chaotic flea market you will ever find.  It is open Thursdays and Fridays (afternoons to well after midnight) and is located between Anfushi and El Max on Sharia Abaza Oshmann (and which spreads out higgledy-piggledy in all directions).  And then, of course – and this a part of the Friday market, as well – along the canal is to be found the market for new toilets.  And if that isn’t worth more than a visit to the Pyramids, I don’t know what is!  Another little gem is on the rue Nabi Daniel, near Manshea. It is a tiny market chock full of booksellers.  And no, it is not as good as the one in Cairo, nor can it be compared to the Left Bank in Paris, but I have never failed to find at least one long-forgotten and discontinued Penguins amidst the madness.  And yes, just a few minutes from the bookstalls are a couple of legendary cafes.  And while they may be crumbling and the service may be appalling, you cannot sit in their faded and dusty splendour and not be sucked back into the past, to an era when Alexandria was the Alexandria of everyone’s memory.  One more thing:  Across Nabi Daniel (and this is probably the only place in Alexandria where you can actually cross the street and not be run over) is the French Cultural Centre.  Their small exhibitions are truly wonderful, they have a full program of concerts and films (all free), as well as a small French/Arabic bookshop and a mediateque. … and, last but not least, a peaceful garden where you can sit and not be surrounded by noise.  And as a bonus, inside the villa they have well-polished floors.

If there is one thing you should embed in your psyche it is that Egyptians do not have the western concept of service.  So leave any thoughts you have about the customer always being right at home.  If you don’t, I promise you will be miserable.

And one more thing.  Egyptians are not politically correct and everyone yells at everyone else.  So for once in your repressed and frustrated and timid little politically-correct life, go ahead and yell back.  Because nobody will mind at all.  It is the Egyptian way.

Do you want to know one last thing?  I bet you I am the only foreigner in Alex who knows where a certain pet camel lives (and no, it is not the one in the seafood restaurant).  Its home is somewhere near the shipyards.  But if you want to find it, you’ll have to prowl around and find it for yourself.

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