Tuesday, March 31, 2009
We are able to take this rather condescending line because fortunately we are at the very peak of human civilisation, and in another millennium hence our descendents will certainly not look back at our world – with our Twittering, our Agnostic Buses, our complete understanding of anthropogenic global warming, our End of History and our iPhones – and offer a patronising chuckle and pat on the head.
Anyway, even though the Bayeux Tapestry is rightfully British, it dwells in a strange foreign country called ‘France’. You may have heard of it. It is reached by a gruelling ocean voyage, and long and arduous the time was, tossing and turning on the fretful seas with only an over-priced bar, some duty-free shops, three restaurants and two cinemas to pass the six or seven hours, ere we spied land. There was also a disco full of French students dancing to YMCA – a tune with accompanying actions cooked up a couple of decades before they were born. Well at least that’s one thing that we can say with confidence our descendents 1000 years hence will still be doing. Our era will be remembered as the one that gave to Eternity the Village People, and until the final heat death of the universe, space station cantinas across the galaxies will see strange and terrible creatures whooping gleefully onto the dance floor when that “baaa ba ba” horn intro starts, all impatient to arrange their various tentacles and bionic limbs into the shape of a Y, an M, a C and an A as they bop.
Well since we were in France anyway we decided to do a few of the essential French things, such as: mooching jealously and gloomily round a market full of outstanding produce and casual animal cruelty; eating croissants; drinking cheapish vin rouge; and making various traumatic visits to what pass for public lavatories.
We also found time to have an evening meal in Ouistreham with some quite delicious food and perhaps the rudest service I’ve ever encountered. It was rude in that spectacular way that you can still only find in France: a total disregard for the wishes or comfort of the customer and a blank and immovable refusal to make even the slightest deviation from the menu. The Great Gallic Non. In Britain, that expert kind of rudeness is very much a dying art, so coming up against it is a shock to the system. God knows what the Americans make of it – for Yanks, a menu is merely a starting point for negotiations, not a take-it-or-leave-it-buster ultimatum. We left a tip of zilch, which I think I’ve only done twice before in my life.
Of course, if there is any area in this world where the locals have no right to be rude to the Brits, it is Normandy. We visited the D-Day landing beaches, Pegasus Bridge and the British cemetery at Bayeux. Scanning the ages on the headstones was a grim business: 20, 21, 19, 19, 23... That’s a lot of young English lads, and their lost and never-to-be marriages and children, grandchildren, now great-grandchildren. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still obscenely early to be forgiving about all this. But of course we’re embarrassed about our pensioners and their outdated xenophobic prejudices; we see them as archaic, primitive as Norman and Saxons. The machine-gun violence still isn’t as amusing as Harold Godwinson getting an arrow in the eye, but give it another millennium and you never know.
Be that as it may, we liberated the ungrateful Frogs in 1944 and left them to carry on their wicked ways unmolested. They’re aliens, honestly. Strolling through Bayeux the penny dropped, though no doubt you’ve had the same insight at one time or another. The difference between Britain and France, the crux of the opposition of souls, lies in the patisseries. Where there is a row of competing businesses in England, the result is innovation. Special offers! Buy X Get Y Half Price! Above all… NEW NEW NEW! Try our exciting new blueberry, avocado and chilli flavour! Try the latest import from Outer Mongolia!
There’s no NEW! in France. All the patisseries in the row sell exactly the same croissants, pan au chocolats and prissy little tartlets as everyone else, feeding the monoculture what it wants, has always wanted, will always want. France is convinced it has achieved the last word in civilisation and is determined to preserve it without deviation or hesitation and with as much repetition as possible. It is admirable, tragic, heroic, depressing, suffocating, exhausting. In France, there is No Future.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Closer inspection, however, revealed the enigmatic smile to belong to the Barcelona striker Lionel Messi, which I suppose makes more sense.
Mona and Messi do have much in common though, when you think about it: the iconic international status, the unmistakeable touch of genius, the ability to waltz through the Malaga defence and curl a left-footer into the top corner... Of course I’m being silly. If anything, the Mona Lisa is surely a no-nonsense defender in the Tony Adams/John Terry mould. Willing to put her head where others are afraid to put their feet, and if it’s bouncing around in the box, just put your boot through it, find Row Z, GET RID!
GET RID! Those two words echo around the nation’s parks and amateur league football pitches every Sunday morning, and illustrate why England never win anything. Children playing on large muddy pitches is not conducive to the development of passing skills and close control; it is conducive to GETTING RID! Big boys who can hoof the ball into the next field dominate. Personally I would make all kids play exclusively indoor football, with walls and no throw-ins, until the age of 15. Stevie Gerrard somehow managed to become Roy of the Rovers despite all this though, mind, so I could be wrong as usual.
Talking of which, they’re bringing Roy back. That was my favourite boyhood comic. I once had a letter published in the Hamish’s Hotshots page, which was quite a thrill. It was an odd comic though, with a mixture of ‘serious’ adventure strips (Roy himself, Goalkeeper, Billy’s Boots) and overtly silly ‘funny’ ones (Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse). As a boy I drew no clear distinction between the two types, and took the silly ones pretty damn seriously.
A notable thing about all these sporting comics was the device of using members of the crowd to provide expository remarks while the action was taking place. So in the split second that Roy Race unleashes his famous Rocket shot and the ball is exactly halfway to the goal, a chap in the crowd would be speechbubbled saying “Roy’s gone for goal! He’s hit it hard, but will the keeper save it?”, and his mate would reply “It’s now or never, there’s only seconds left on the clock and if this goes in Melchester will win the cup, and that could be just the thing to rescue the club from financial ruin and also save Roy’s marriage!”
Time is meaningless in comics. My goodness, I must have absorbed absolutely tons of this nonsense. Pictures are what count to children, much more so than the words in books. When you pick up a long-forgotten childhood favourite, the illustrations hit you like Proust’s madeleine but it’s amazing how slight the stories turn out to be. This is because as a nipper you spend hours staring at the pictures until you know every detail, and you invest each one with a world of meaning and semi-conscious backstory. Much as adults do with the Mona Lisa, I suppose. For children, eight-page books are as vast as Biblical epics. So Scale must be something you grow into, or else a complete illusion, like Time.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
If I could choose one language to speak fluently, it would be French. This is because I’m interested in the way that the French soul is so different to the British one. Dear me, how might world history have unfolded without that miraculous sliver of sea to bulwark Britain from the rest of Europe and allow it to evolve to Greatness in glorious isolation? We can only imagine…and shudder.
The Frogs and the Rosbifs – an epic tale of rivalry, hatred, love, secret envy and two utterly opposed souls. But to speak both tongues fluently, well, it must be like uniting two sides of a brain. As it is, I can get by. Enough to find food, shelter and the nearest metro station. Enough to catch half a glimpse of the French soul; to shrug a gallic merci at the waiter and feel faintly froggish as I stir my café au lait.
I can barely even do that in Spanish or Italian, strictly the essentials plus sign language there. Greek is pretty much just ef haristo or however you write it. (σε ευχαριστώ apparently). Everything else, forget it, they’re not real languages. Except maybe Latin. But how can anyone take Thai seriously, for example? It’s clearly a hoax. I won’t even order Thai food in the original language, there’s always a prik, a bum or a wee in there, waiting to trap you.
I do have a bit of German though – as with French, just enough to perform. Also, I’m very good at accents and mimicry in general. But this combination can get you into terrible trouble, in that locals assume you can speak the lingo much more fluently than you really can.
I remember a particular example in a Berlin hotel. Using my GCSE knowledge and a German phrasebook, I had carefully prepared a fairly long and complex question to ask the concierge. It was something like “What is the best way to get to the main train station from here – is it quicker to get the tram from just over the road or is it better to walk to the U-Bahn. Or if we walk all the way, how long will it take?” So I practised this Germanic spiel on Mrs B, rehearsed it in the lift on the way down to the front desk, uttered a cheery “Guten Morgen” and reeled it out with careful effortlessness in my best Kraut tones.
Well, I hadn’t thought it through, had I? The girl at the desk beamed with delight at my apparent and, for an Englishman, highly unusual fluency in her native tongue, and then launched into an extremely rapid and detailed answer. I was drowning from the off, but instead of owning up, foolish pride meant that I instead opted to perform some Pavement Panto™ to indicate that I was following every word of her answer. This Straßepantomime consisted mostly of nods, raised eyebrows, thoughtful Jas and neutral chuckles. By God she went on, even producing a series of maps from beneath the desk to illustrate the intricately nuanced nature of the question I’d asked her. By the end I was a total wreck, and it was all I could do to cry a feeble danke schoen over my shoulder as I fled the lobby.
Speaking languages is one thing, it’s when the buggers speak 'em back that the problems start. I was going to draw some sort of lesson from all this but I forget what it was now.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Dear me, this is the business, I thought, resting awhile at the top of a hill. The scent of distant bonfires, a bubbling of birds in the tree-lines and a burnished haze across the valleys. Ratty and Moley floating about on a boat somewhere below. The world was washed in the light of the Magic Hour, like in the Kubrick movie Barry Lyndon.
At one point a wee deer shot daintily across my path. I was suddenly reminded of Appleyard’s brilliant remark a couple of years ago:
I don't understand going out into the countryside to shoot things. I feel it's a terrible failure of the imagination, like taking a television set on a hike. The wilderness is complete and self-justifying; all we are required to do is look at it.
And that reminded me of Duck’s equally brilliant retort:
Your self-contained wilderness is no such thing, it is a manicured garden devoid of predators. You feel no need to shoot game because you eat beef and pork raised on some factory farm and slaughtered and butchered by low wage laborers. Your idyllic stroll in the woods is only possible because of modern man's absolute dominance over nature.
Obviously I couldn’t remember the exact wording of this exchange– I’ve looked that up since – but I pondered the essential conundrum on the homeward stretch and, as ever, came to no solid conclusion.
I finished my walk with a pint of Badger at the Upton, detracting from the physical benefits of the exercise but enhancing the spiritual ones.
A solitary man in a pub garden with a pint and a copy of Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy. It’s noble, but is it English Wabi Sabi? Not quite, I don’t think, though it’s in the same neck of the woods.
True Anglo Sabi appears either completely spontaneously or through rigorous and precise ceremony, I think. Keep an eye out for it.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Picked up the Sunday Times on the way back from football, see what Appleyard is up to, gloat over Fergie’s humiliation etc. They gave away a free CD of Noel Gallagher playing a charity gig at the Albert Hall. Do you know, it’s rather good. Like most right-thinking people I gave up on Oasis after Be Here Now. Lapsed Oasis fans are like ex-Communists – contempt is sharpened by embarrassment at the memory of how fervently we used to champion the cause. The new Beatles…Ha! We were fooled into thinking that those first two albums and the casualness with which Noel tossed away top tunes on B-sides was all a sign of unprecedented prolificacy and promise. Turns out that was all he had in him, and he shot his bolt too early. But those early B-sides, which make up a chunk of the freebie CD, do sound great. I always thought Noel should have ditched the chugging Dad-Rock vehicles for Liam’s sneer after Be Here Now and tried an acoustic solo album, preferably employing a lyricist or at least a decent rhyme-jockey. He covers The Smiths' There is a light that never goes out on this album, so it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get. Can't get much more Manc than Gallagher singing Morrissey. Can't get much more English.
Except maybe at Bitton Railway, which is not a working station, but a café and a little museum and on odd Sundays an old steam engine that chugs steady as Dad-Rock up and down beside the cycle path to amuse the kids and nerds.
It was in action this Sunday. Here’s a picture of its retreating arse.
Now I’m no steam engine enthusiast but sometimes I can see the appeal. Lovely machines, especially on a rare Spring afternoon with the daffodils a-massing and the birds a-tweeting and kids on wobbly bicycles drrrringing their bells. England at its finest.
Not everyone likes them though.
That graffiti says THOMAS CAUSES GLOBAL WARMING and is the best of a small string of slogans along the cycle path urging all and sundry to BOYCOTT BITTON STATION on warmenist grounds. That’s right, the occasional weekend up-and-down tootling of the Avon Valley steam engine must account for at least 0.00000(a lot more 0s)001% of global carbon emissions, at a conservative estimate. It may be much more than that… Stamp it out! Destroy it! Crush every tiny little bit of human enjoyment that doesn’t conform to the . . .oh I can’t go on. Poor old Eco-Fascists. When you make yourself into a laughing stock you do so much more harm than good to your cause. “Thomas”, of course, refers to The Tank Engine, so that’s one purely to upset the kiddies. Nasty, silly greens, filling their heads with theories and statistics and understanding nothing about nothing about nothing.
The café at Bitton station offers seating in an old converted train carriage. It’s very popular with pensioners and children. Through the window of this carriage I glimpsed a scene of striking Englishness. Three generations of Bristolians were squeezed absurdly into train car seats (there are perfectly good and spacious seats outside the carriage of course), tea mugs balanced on the table, all laughing their heads off. It was framed beautifully with the sunlight streaming and I attempted a sneaky phone-photo but it didn’t come out properly. Later, having watched a programme about Japan, I realised that the image was pure English Wabi Sabi.
Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that involves simplicity, imperfection, beauty, truth, impermanence, decay, loss. Well, it’s hard to define. The Japanese named it, but it's universal. It’s more of a feeling than a concept and the Japanese find it in tea ceremonies and seasons. And so too, naturally, do the English.
There was more Anglo Sabi in the Upton Inn, to which we drove after Bitton. The latest of the late Sunday lunchers were stocking their plates at the carvery. I drained my pint of Badger bitter and through the distortion of the glass, ringed with sliding foam bubbles, I watched a chap carrying a plate absolutely loaded to the point of physical impossibility with beef, gravy and giant Yorkshire puddings. He had a grin like a Cheshire Cat. Then we went out, into the birdsong and the last of the rare Sunday sun. England fades, England endures.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
Punks used to put washing-up liquid in the fountain sometimes and it bubbled wonderfully over everything and made councillors cross.
The other was a joke shop called U-Need-Us (I never got that name, I thought it was called Yewneeders. Kids are so stupid.) U-Need-Us relieved me of pretty much all of my pocket money (when I wasn’t collecting Panini football stickers), and one particularly prized piece of crap I bought there was this kind of squishy face-puppet thing.
It had a Popeye-ish visage on the front and three fingerholes on the back which you could squiggle to make Popeye gurn. I was very keen on this thing, but one day I left it on the rim of the Jubilee fountain, and when I realised and ran back for it, it was gone. Then I saw another boy with one just like it. “That’s mine,” I said. “No it isn’t, I’ve had it ages,” he replied, lying through his nasty little teeth. Before I could formulate a proper counter-argument his parents appeared and swept him and my squishy face-puppet away forever.
This episode, or a warped version of it, came back to me in a nightmare last night. But Popeye had a flat, 2-dimensional body, and Jason my childhood dog was there, and they were all running laughing away from me, and men in grey Panama hats loomed in tunnels, and there was a pounding drum and a scratching, squealing guitar sound.
And I churned helplessly through thick air. “Wait!” I cried. “They don’t love you like I love you…Wait!”
Thursday, March 12, 2009
MYTH: Men should regularly examine their testicles
WHO SAYS? Men’s health support groups and charities, all of whom need something to write about or campaign for. But, notably, not cancer and screening boffs and profs who can spot a myth quicker than you can say “Scan my testicles”.
WHAT’S THE TRUTH? Thankfully, testicular cancer is even rarer than Saturday appointments; the average GP sees two or three new cases in his entire career. When it does occur, it usually produces a symptom, a heaviness, ache or obvious swelling, to draw your attention to it. So the chances of finding an unsuspected cancer via a routine feel-around are about the same as winning the lottery. Whereas the odds of finding something harmless, a cyst, swollen veins, normal bits of gristle, are high. Cue anxious males clutching their privates pleading for appointments and tests, thereby lengthening waiting times for the poor sods who really need them.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? Certainly give your tackle a check if you think you’ve noticed a symptom. And don’t delay seeking help if you then reckon that you’ve discovered a lump. But don’t become a ball-watching neurotic.
I’ve encountered this debunking several times now, but still the regular ball-checking myth persists. I take two lessons from this. The first lesson is to beware of things said by charities. It is hard for humans to draw a line between moral values and truth values, so charities can talk all manner of nonsense and nobody (especially politicians) will protest because it looks like you’re protesting against good intentions and selflessness.
The second lesson is: for any meme, the fact that it is widely accepted, even amongst ‘experts’, is evidence merely of its ability to successfully spread, not of its veracity. At this point I do not, of course, dare to bring up the topic of anthropogenic global warming.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
This requires some explanation.
Ilkeston (pronounced "Ill-ker-ston"), as I’m sure you know, is a town adjacent to the city of Nottingham, and it was in that city that New Year’s Day, 1997, found me unshaven, hung over and scrunched in the back of a Vauxhall Corsa (or something like that) with two other similarly unshaven, hung over chaps. Driving the car was another chap, and he was driving it with care, partly because conditions were snowy, and partly because, from the look of his swollen eyes and dark frown, he was attempting to micro-manage a headache of terrible dimensions.
Next to him, in the passenger seat, was his girlfriend. She, apparently, was not feeling quite as bad as the rest of the car’s occupants, for she had been talking non-stop for the previous twenty minutes (it may as well have been twenty years). On and on she went as the four of us sat in tortured silence, a stream of gossip delivered in a high-ish pitch that provided the ideal atonal accompaniment to the intermittent scrape of the windscreen wipers. The gist of the long, long narrative was that some man (whom none of us knew) had left his partner, gone missing for some unspecified interval, and then – the great denouement – it “turns out that all that time he lived with a girl in Ilkeston…”
And suddenly our driver spoke the devastating line. Except he said it like this:
With a Girl
It is hard to convey in writing just how much force and weight this utterance carried. It wasn’t just a snide piece of sarcasm. It was total, it was final and it cut straight to the black heart of humanity. It was the Voice of God, passing final judgement not just on this particular titbit, but on all forms of gossip, tattle and trivial chitchat, and casting them into the flames forever.
It was a bringer of awful self-realisation, for all of us but especially for the gossiper herself, who choked up immediately and gaped in open-mouthed shock. In the awe-frozen back seat a fair few seconds had to pass before we could break the silence with nervous giggles.
Quite a moment.
“He lived with a girl in Ilkeston” – I still mutter that under my breath when any particularly irksome prattling and backstabbing is taking place in my presence, but I could never hope to recreate the power of that original delivery.
Monday, March 09, 2009
The only thing we can say for definite is that it's definitely not definitely a boy. It may still be a boy, but only possibly, since although you can get positive confirmation of boyness, you can't get guaranteed confirmation of girlness. All we got was a lack of positive confirmation of a boy. So it's probably a girl, unless it isn't.
So that's good to know.
“The solution,” said Mrs Brit, “is to check on the internet to see which lines are closed before you come to London, and then plan a route.”
“The solution,” I replied, “is to not live in, visit or even go near to London ever, ever again for as long as we live.”
But some time later, upstairs in the Magdala’s old-fashioned dining rooms, ensconced snugly in a brown leather armchair and sipping a pint of Fuller’s Pride amongst loved ones, London didn’t seem so bad after all. As with mothers and the pain of childbirth, the human brain deliberately weakens the memory of London transport because otherwise nobody would risk it twice.
The outside-the-box solution we eventually hit upon was to take the Victoria line north to Highbury & Islington, then the overland train west to a mobile phone-revised destination of Hampstead Heath. When it comes to complex directional decision-making under pressure, my approach is to slow right down, stroke my chin and contemplate the map with the deep deliberation of the chess grandmaster. Mrs B’s approach, by contrast, is to speed up and rely on instinct– the Blink method, if you like. This doesn’t necessarily make for harmonious relations in the middle of a sea of pushing tourists, but between us we seem to get there.
Has it occurred to you that the underground train systems of the world’s great cities are a neat microcosmic representation of that city, or country, as a whole? The Paris Metro is dirty, unfriendly, the map purposefully confusing to the outsider, but once you get attuned to it you can sort of see the appeal. In Berlin everything is clean, efficient and clearly signposted. A breeze, in other words. A cold, cold breeze. The London Underground is a bloody mess that, against all odds and by the skin of its teeth, somehow makes it through each day. Splurged on top of a solid bedrock of evocatively-named stations (plus the design genius of the Tube map), is all the chaos of entrepreneurial, multicultural London. Sometimes it makes you long for some Germanic top-down planning. They have plasma screen technology in there, but instead of using it for, say, handy up-to-the-minute travel information in multiple languages, they scribble illegible notices on whiteboards and use the screens for adverts, just so much more visual ‘noise’ in the clamouring, clashing, brain-aching bedlam of the Tube. Exhausting.
Ultimately, I suppose, coping with crowds is the issue. Some thrive in it, most of us just have to find a way of dealing with it. It is possible to take solace in London’s sheer anonymity. It takes the pressure off; you’re there, then you’re gone. You really are a nobody to everybody. Except of course, to your friends and loved ones, ensconced in cosy leather armchairs upstairs in a pub. And who gives a damn about the rest? Let them swarm and jostle, outside.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
After all the street acting fun over the last week, I took a moment to drop Adam and Joe an email with my suggested name for the phenomenon. And guess what? They've officially adopted the term Pavement Panto™.
Quite right too.
If you listen to this week's podcast you can hear them discussing it, along with more very fine examples and a mention of your host, about 5 minutes in. Well done, everybody.
Can this be true? Is the Ikea-going, book-culling and attic-filling I'm about to do for the benefit of the impending sprog a complete waste of time?
Is a nursery a superfluous Hollywood invention? Why does everything I know turn out to be wrong?
Please answer any or all of the above at your earliest convenience.
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
Watership Down the novel, Watership Down the movie and Bright Eyes the song are three of the great cultural oddities of our time.
Bright Eyes is a song about death, made for a dark and brutal cartoon adapted from a novel about talking rabbits.
Criticism is irrelevant. There is no why or wherefore; it is what it is.
Monday, March 02, 2009
If you live in an urban environment, occasionally it becomes necessary to walk through a group of hooded youths. Most of these youths are, we are obliged to say, harmless, misunderstood, basically good kids, hanging out in gangs while they search for an identity et cetera. Some are proper little bastards. But however you feel about hooded youths, the experience of walking alone through a group of them is one of self-consciousness and does call for a bit of Pavement Panto™ (Secondary Class).
I can think of three approaches for the male PP artist (though no doubt you can suggest more):
1. Exaggerated nonchalance. Perhaps a bit of whistling, hands in pockets, jaunty stroll. Oh is there a rabble of aggressive-looking teenagers here? I didn’t even notice. Evening, all. Knowing grin. I’m like you guys, man of the people, man of the street, a bit like Tony Blair, hey ho.
2. No nonsense tough guy. This is more of a fast determined stride straight through the middle, looking neither left nor right, slight frown, jaw set. I’m on important business, possibly secret service or undercover policework-related. Certainly I have a wide range of deadly martial arts techniques in my locker. Your trivial teenage gang is of no interest to me. Fake gum-chewing may be employed.
3. Unstable lunatic. Slight facial or limb twitches, bulging eyes, odd humming and an unearthly, twisted smile can all give the impression that beneath the apparently normal façade lurks a raging, and possibly armed, violent schizophrenic.
I tend to go for approach 2, but approach 3 is the most interesting Panto.
Of course, it helps if you really are an unstable lunatic. Chap I used to house-share with had the most extraordinary paranoid rage always bubbling away just beneath the surface. He was just one big trembling ball of tension. One day a couple of chavs made some remarks and started following him up the street, taunting him with their brainless zombie chunterings.
His response was to deliberately and obviously slooooow dooooown. Suitably unnerved, they went their grubby way.