Bits and Pieces

img_0842_11-1500x630Foreword

Hello anybody who is still there, sorry to have kept you, thank you for holding etc. I’m still not dead, but one or two people have asked if I have written another post, or have I given up or what, so I thought I’d better write something quick before people stop asking. In a week or two I hope to be publishing something outstandingly interesting and amusing, a real rib-tickler full of wisdom and insight. I can scarcely wait to write it. However, it is currently at what a student of mine once dubbed the pre-ideas stage, so for now I will write whatever this turns out to be. That’s 110 words already.

Newsletter

As predicted in my last post, a second-rate England team were nowhere near good enough during the rest of the World Cup, which didn’t come home. But it’s a dismal thing to have been right about. The rest of the summer was full of family visits, grandchildren and so on, and when that wasn’t happening we had building work going on. We also spent a week or so in the UK. Since then I have been busy emptying my flat, sorting out the garden and generally preparing the place for letting so that I can join the rentier class at last. The weather has continued sunny and dry throughout September, gradually getting cooler but with occasional very hot spells. Everyone is back at work or school now and the morning traffic is terrible again, though Veronica tells me the tourism in Lisbon seems to have slackened off earlier this year than last, to everyone’s relief.

Bits and Pieces

The RA Summer Exhibition

This is colourful and entertaining, not least the way some of the public turn themselves out. I lead a sheltered life, but you only ever seem to see people dressed like that at art galleries. I overhear a cadaverous, posh-sounding old man with a beard, long straggly hair and a strange long coat say with a dry chuckle ‘quite a few people are dressed as if they would like to be taken for artists themselves.’ I think he is probably an artist.

More on pork pies

In Saffron Walden market I buy an excellent pork pie, eat it while the others eat their pasties and so on, then sneak back and buy another one twice the size, which I hide in my bag. Later I bring it out and share what’s left round, because I feel quite sick by then. But if you’re ever in Saffron Walden, don’t miss out.

The charm of Devon

The following is an account of three little incidents which happened in Devon within four hours of each other. If it gives the impression that Devonians are surly, ill-bred people who can’t manage their tempers, this is regretted.

With my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, we are renting one end of a sizeable thatched cottage which stands at right-angles to the narrow road out of the village. A gateway off the road gives onto a gravel parking area, with our kitchen door and window on the right and on the left a high brick wall, pierced by a wooden door which leads to a large walled garden. Inside, there are broad herbaceous borders, wooden benches, a good-sized lawn, a little pavilion, a croquet set and so on. Unseen beyond one of the high walls the road continues down to a hump-backed bridge over a small river, but inside it is very secluded and quite magical. I am feeling reverential in here one morning when there is suddenly the loud huffing and squeaking and jouncing of a lorry brought to an abrupt halt, and immediately afterwards a rich Devon voice bawls out:

You’re the problem, if you want to know! And I don’t take kindly to being called an idiot.’

By the time I have scuttled across the lawn, through the door and across the gravel to the chest-high street gate, he has climbed down from the cab and is glaring back up the street. His lorry is no more than eight feet from the gate, but he doesn’t glance in my direction.

‘That is no way to bloody park, and if you don’t know that, you should. And if you want me to come back up there, I will.”

There is no reply, and he snorts disgustedly, climbs back up into his cab and drives on. Following him very slowly at a careful distance is one of those smart BMW minis, a convertible, containing a septuagenarian blonde dolly-bird straight from the sixties (without the PVC cap). She pulls a quintessentially middle-class face at me as she passes, midway between a shrug and a collusive, shamefaced smirk. ‘Well really’, you can almost hear her thinking.

Two or three hours later we are in Seaton, an old-school picturesque seaside town (though less picturesque than in photos), complete with an amusement arcade also straight from the sixties. The beach is pebbly, and slopes so steeply that Veronica struggles to clamber back out of the sea, which is chilly and grey-green. It’s all a bit Shoreham Harbour. Later, I am waiting for our order in the fish-and-chip shop, but step outside because a group of over-excited six-and-eight-year-olds are shouting and running about in the space between the counter and the dining area, where an overweight couple are finishing their lunch, visibly unhappy about the disturbance. I wander along the prom, returning to find a row going on outside the shop, where two slightly overdressed, slightly over made-up thirty-something women are haranguing the couple, especially the woman. She is in a wheelchair. The man stands behind her, looking stolid and resigned.

They are probably in their fifties, and dressed dowdily compared with the slim young mothers in their tops, jeans and heels. It’s not clear what has happened already, but the woman in the wheelchair is on the back foot, and looking shifty as her antagonists get into their stride.

‘Do you think it’s all right then, swearing at children?’ enquires one of them shrilly.

‘She didn’t swear’, says the man stoutly.

‘Oh yes she did,’ says the other one. ‘She said bloody. She said ‘get out of my way you kids, where are your bloody parents’.

The woman in the wheelchair rallies: ‘Well, they were blocking the way out, weren’t they? Kids shouldn’t be allowed to make a disturbance like that.’ She has a stronger Devon accent than the two mothers, though they are local too.

‘We were paying at the time. And that’s no way to speak to children’.

I have paused in the doorway of the chip-shop and am looking on quite openly, but the combatants are so intent on their row that I am ignored for the second time today. I am strongly with the wheelchair couple, of course. The two mothers weren’t paying when I left the shop, and the disturbance had been going on for quite a while by then. I had been annoyed by it too, and mildly indignant that someone having lunch in the restaurant area next door thought it was OK for their children to disturb other people in that way. Apart from that, it all seems a lot of fuss about nothing.  As a boy growing up in a country town I was always getting shouted at and having fists shaken at me by older people. We called them ‘old moaners’ amongst ourselves and that was that; it would never have crossed my mind to bother my mum with it. And is ‘bloody’ all that bad, nowadays? Tell that to an Australian.

‘Well, it’s gone now, it’s over,’ says wheelchair-woman grumpily, as if making a concession.

‘No it isn’t, it isn’t over yet,’ says the first mother excitedly. ‘We’ll decide when it’s over.’

‘You should be ashamed of yourself’, says the other. ‘You should apologise to the children for what you said.’

This takes the biscuit. By now I quite dislike these young women, who seem to stand for something about modern parenting which I also don’t much like. I am strongly tempted to tell them not to be so bloody ridiculous, but the row has by this time reached that stage where the aggrieved parties have little choice but to walk away or launch an actual physical attack. They do the former, shaking their heads and casting dark scowls behind them.

Two minutes later, I have paid for the (excellent) fish and chips and am applying extra salt and vinegar to my own portion. There is nothing worse than finding a hundred yards down the road that the salt and vinegar haven’t penetrated below the top layer of chips, so I am turning them over with my fingers as I go, and tasting a chip from time to time. The amused owners look on benevolently, then the man turns to his left and says with a smile:

‘Are you ready to order, sir?’

‘Well, when this man has finished eating his dinner at the counter, yes’, says a weedy, querulous voice.

I turn in astonishment, but can’t think what to say to the man, who avoids my eye and keeps avoiding it as he gives his order. He is short and nondescript, middle-aged, accompanied by his wife (I presume). Surely he must know how rude that sounded.

‘When this gentleman has finished eating his dinner, you probably mean’, I feel like saying, but instead I apply more salt and vinegar, thank the owners and leave, holding my stack of cardboard cartons carefully.

I need you

Another interesting language misjudgement at Stansted airport, as we are shuffling with the rest towards the security gates. A young woman in a security officer’s uniform pipes up plaintively: ‘Keep moving please,’ (as they do) but then a little later ‘I need you to keep moving’, at which my hackles twitch.  I have heard the form over the last few years from people with some authority who want a more PC (or formal, or professional-sounding, or something) way of saying ‘can you do it please’, but to me it sounds teacherly and mealy-mouthed, and coming from this person in this context, over-personal and presumptuous. I feel like telling her that her personal needs are neither here nor there[i].

Football latest

Speaking of language, welcome back football and more particularly football pundits. A couple of baffling gems heard recently:

‘Lorente hasn’t hit the ground running yet.’ Ex-player Clinton Morrison on Sky News.

‘That’s the closest, by some distance, as Watford have come today.’ Commentator on Watford vs Manchester  Utd.

And while we’re at it, if you find the uplifting music of the Champions League anthem as comically inflated as I do, you may enjoy reading the English text, which plumbs bathos’ vast abyss [ii] if anything ever did:

They are the best teams,
They are the best teams,
The main event.

The master,
The best,
The great teams,
The champions.

A big meeting,
A great sporting event,
The main event,

The master,
The best.
The great teams,
The champions.

They are the best,
They are the best,
These are the champions.

The master,
The best,
The champions.

It makes me tingle all over.

West ham have just beaten Manchester United. It is very enjoyable to see Mourinho under such pressure. In his early years he was virtually canonised in Portugal, but I have always disliked him as a sulky primadona with a nasty tongue. I delight in his downfall.

You know, you could have used the word ‘schadenfreude’ there, and nobody would have thought any the worse of you for it.

Oh, are you back? OK, thanks for the tip.

‘Weltanshauung’ is another fine German word, which always brings credit on the user. I use it whenever I can.  

And ‘angst’, I’m sure.

Do you know ‘zeitgeist’?

Another nice one. However, this won’t do, I must get on.

Tschüss!

 

 

[i] But I don’t. I have no wish to tangle with airport security staff, whose hostile faces and lack of courtesy are a chilling foretaste of how we would be treated by the police and armed forces if the British government were ever to declare a state of emergency.

[ii] I think I remember this Byron quote from school, about Robert Southey’s poetry. (I was made to study Don Juan for my O-levels. Who says exams teach you nothing? From other subjects, I remember moraines and ox-bow lakes, and something called the coefficient of linear expansion, though I still have no idea what this is.)

A sort of day…

 

Morning: Barbershop Man

barbershop

As I go down the stairs of my exercise club, I notice a new poster: a fit-looking young woman in gym singlet and knee-length leggings is bending over backwards, so that both the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands (not to mention the end of her ponytail) are in contact with the floor. The legend is an uplifting ‘Acredita em algo mais’ (believe in something more). It isn’t clear in what, but I suspect in Wellness, or perhaps even in Better, which is what Sky TV recommends we Believe in. Anyway, one for the collection.

An hour or two later, I am at my hairdresser’s for a much-needed haircut. It is a minuscule place inside a small, old-style shopping centre. There are three chairs where you have your hair cut, and two which lean right back so your hair can be washed in a basin and your scalp get a free massage while you nearly go off to sleep. There is also a coat-stand, a tiny counter for bookings and payments, an awful little padded bench strewn with magazines, and a desk affair where manicures are done by a fat Brazilian girl with false eyelashes. It is so crowded that people are always getting in each other’s way and dropping things.

I enjoy being here. My hairdresser Teresa is a lady-like, quietly-spoken Portuguese who says little as she goes about her work; the other two are gay Brazilians (one of whom wears his hair in a little ponytail which he’s twenty years too old for), and the general atmosphere is chatty, gossipy, friendly, mildly camp, occasionally raucous. I am mostly ignored, content to sit and smirk. For what I pay here (ten euros), I would otherwise have to go to a low-end men’s barbershop, where I would get no hair-wash and a terrible haircut (straight Portuguese barbers don’t seem to know anything about hair), and would have to endure at least half an hour – probably more, counting the wait – of old-school masculine conversation à portuguesa. I used to go to such places in my first few years in Portugal, and I doubt they’ve changed much (a few weeks ago my son went to a fashionable one in Lisbon called Figaro’s, and his girlfriend wasn’t allowed inside to sit and wait for him.)

In the traditional Portuguese barbershop, people’s clothes smell of stale cigarette-smoke. There is silence, the steady snip of scissors, the occasional sharp hum of electric clippers, desultory chat. Occasionally one of the barbers will pause, clippers in one hand and comb in the other, and say something ponderous. He will be a male type found disproportionately often in Portuguese barber’s, either as the barber himself or as a customer: middle-aged, more opinionated than knowledgeable, completely lacking any ironical sense of himself, bluff of manner but basically humourless, given to holding forth on football and politics.

I met one or two bores like this when I first came to Portugal. My first wife, who worked for a Portuguese company, would be invited to dinner at someone or other’s house and I would go along as her partner. Such dinners would begin with four or five males standing in a circle at one end of the sitting-room, holding glasses of whiskey and talking about Benfica, or in some households about Sporting Lisbon. Other subjects might be the latest conspiracy theory (Portuguese males are partial to these) or a meal someone had recently eaten, but discussion of other topics was not common. When we arrived I would join this  group, rocking gently on my heels, smiling, nodding, studying the ice in my glass, laughing at jokes I half-understood, wool-gathering – and would mostly be left in peace, while I glanced wistfully at the cackling women getting tipsy at the other end of the room, comfortably sat on sofas and in armchairs (the upright phase of a dinner could easily go on for the best part of an hour.) However, if Barbershop Man was present, I could forget about being left in peace: Barbershop Man does not converse but holds forth contentiously, expecting full attention, and if any slackening of my own was sensed behind my increasingly fixed smile, my upper arm would be touched insistently (I dislike this), or in extreme cases grasped firmly (I like this even less), to restore me to a sense of my social duty.

And now there is in fact a touch on my shoulder: I have been daydreaming and the haircut is done. Teresa carefully lifts off the nylon hair-dresser’s shroud, turns through a few degrees to shake out the loose hair-cuttings, and plies her outsize shaving-brush to clean me off around the neck and shoulders. I stand, thank her and pay at the little counter by the door.

 

Afternoon: a bit of fish       

monkfish

Later, I am at the fish counter in our local Pingo Doce[1]. I have come for a bit of fish for my supper (Veronica is away), and am waiting to be served. I have been waiting a minute or so, which doesn’t sound too bad on Pingo Doce’s part, until you consider that I’m the only one at the counter. I have taken a ticket to be on the safe side, and have been waiting for the lady to officially notice me. I know she knows I’m here, but her back is firmly turned while she gets on with some job she has to do. I am reminded of the waiter’s epitaph[2]. If this was in a TESCO or a Sainsbury’s she’d turn with an empty, well-trained smile, and that singsong intonation they have, and say something like “Good afternoon, sir, sorry to keep you, I’ll be with you in a moment” (though even in a posh place like Waitrose she wouldn’t have authorisation to use the modern and very irritating “bear with me, please”, which is restricted-use for people who answer the phone.)

Anyway and be that as it may, I might as well be a fish myself for all the attention I’m being paid here.

However, there’s no great rush, I still have to choose what fish to buy. I am no expert on fish. There are lots of bream-shaped ones on the slab, mostly silvery, though there’s a quite pretty one called a salema which has yellow stripes along its body (only three euros fifty the kilo, but we’ve had it before and it wasn’t great). The usual diagonal-cut sections of scabbard-fish, lots of colourful little tiddly ones that will be full of bones, a few laughably overrated and overpriced salmonetes, a couple of gormless-looking monkfish, very dead and sorry for themselves with their prognathous lower lips and wide toothy mouths, and their little fishing-poles keeled-over and stuck against their heads. It looks like it’s going to be the usual salmon-steak or  dourada[3] again, though the eyes of the douradas are a bit filmed-over, giving them that seedy, morning-after look which  means they aren’t fresh. I see this look in the mirror from time to time.

After another few moments, I say “Good afternoon”.

She turns her head a couple of degrees, no more, and says “Just a moment” (we are speaking Portuguese, of course.)

I am slightly taken aback by the offhand tone, but wait another half-minute and try again. This time she sounds quite irritated, but after a second turns and approaches the counter, in her gleaming white overalls, gauntlets and wellington boots. She is a stodgy, pale woman of about forty.

I smile winningly and say “Good afternoon” again. She regards me implacably, but after a second or two is able to say “Good afternoon” herself.

Knowing I am committing a basic error, but unable to stop myself, I ask: “Are the douradas fresh? Their eyes look a bit filmy.”

What happens next is hard to describe. The fish-lady doesn’t lift her shoulders, turn her palms upward, or pull down the corners of her mouth like a grouper. Her eyebrows remain unraised, her lower lip unpursed, her chin, unprojected, remains in the default position. And yet she clearly shrugs, in a way I have never seen before, not even in Portugal (where the shrug is reputed to have been invented), and she does it without moving a single muscle. I am fascinated. I watch her steadily, begin to feel rebellious, and once again cannot help myself.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?” I ask. “I can come back when it’s more convenient.”

I’m sure she does the invisible shrug again, or maybe it’s a continuation of the same shrug. Did the first one ever come to an end? Is it a lifelong shrug, a life-style shrug, a continuous way of being? I am out of my depth.

“I’ll just have a salmon steak, please,” I say.

 

Evening: leave everything in the tank

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Since Veronica is away, I am able to indulge myself with an orgy of catch-up televised sport. There is a club rugby match, some cricket highlights, and a football match.

There is very little to report. The football match is Atletico Madrid against Arsenal , a Europa League semi-final which turns out exactly as everyone knew it would. Before the game, Arsene Wenger demonstrates the challenge which football clichés can present to even the most fluent foreign coach. He starts well, promising that his team will play ‘with the handbrake off’, but makes a cock of his next one, assuring his interviewer that ‘we will leave everything we have in the tank’ . I am still intermittently puzzling over this one when I give up on the game and try the cricket highlights. England don’t do very well and neither does the otherwise very good Ian Ward, who seems to have forgotten his algebra when he informs us that ‘for England to win the match, it’s a simple equation: ten wickets’.[4]

In the rugby match the referee is  a slight, sandy-haired figure, and very young. Most of the players are so much bigger they look as if they could eat him in a sandwich. And yet he controls them like a lion-tamer, warning, explaining and guiding players through his decisions; and these are respected right or wrong in a way which would be unthinkable in football, where referees are routinely jostled, pushed and hounded round the pitch by players having tantrums that would disgrace a four-year old. The ten-metres-back-for-dissent rule has something to do with this, and also the fact that rugby’s better calibration of punishments gives the ref the option of the sin-bin, making the yellow card a far more effective deterrent in rugby than in football (where the red card is almost never used for even gross dissent: not every ref has Michael Oliver’s courage). An alternative view might be that quite a few rugby players are relatively rational, recognisably human beings, while professional footballers tend to be overpaid, under-educated virtual halfwits (just look at the excruciating goal celebrations.) Personally, of course, I do not hold this view.

[1] Pingo Doce- a chain of high-street supermarkets

[2]  ‘God Finally Caught His Eye’.

[3] Apparently, gilt-head bream

[4] In fact, Wenger has mixed two clichés: 1. ‘to leave nothing out there on the pitch’, and 2. ‘to empty (or leave nothing in) the tank’.  I’m afraid I’m lying about the cricket quote, which was on another day entirely.

Who else hates the English?

 

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(Continued…)

So Australians don’t get worked up about all that?

Nope. Being descended from a transported convict is a source of pride these days. That’s what I was told.

Pride that your great great great grandfather was arrested for impersonating an Egyptian?

It’s better if he was an Irish political prisoner, but there are only so many of those to go round. Jeremiah O’Donovan was a famous one, he’s on a 19 Crimes label, I think.

Are you telling me Australians don’t even mind the hilarious convict uniforms worn by English nitwits at Ashes matches?

All part of the fun of the fair.

So Australians don’t hate the English after all?

Oh no they do, but that’s because of Gallipoli.

And that was?

Is this a joke? Go and look it up.

OK, so that was in World War 1, when weak-chinned English toffs sent gallant, down-to-earth loveable Anzac boys to certain death in a doomed invasion which the layabout British army was spared, because English toffs don’t give a damn about the lives of Australians and New Zealanders.

Good work, you’ve got it.

Is that what’s known as an entrenched narrative?

It is.

Because of the trenches, right?

Don’t be stupid. Never mind, just be on your guard if you’re in Australia on Anzac day. Or maybe indoors. You don’t want to get king-hit.

And what is that? Simply please, because my brain is getting full.

But we haven’t even started on the bodyline tour yet. OK, king-hitting is a recent Australian custom, when you go and hit a complete stranger in the face, without warning, as hard as you can. It’s hilarious. It can leave the victim with a broken jaw, in a coma, whatever. The urban dictionary has a definition: ‘the most hardcore, damage-maximising, chronicly (sic) solid punch that can be thrown. Send’s (sic) the aggressor off balance if it doesn’t hit the intended target’.

Why do they have semi-educated teenagers writing this dictionary?

Someone’s got to do it, and all the harmless drudges are busy on proper dictionaries.

Who?

Google it, if you can be bothered. Samuel Johnson. Perhaps we’ll hold the bodyline tour over for another day.

Please.

But anyway, it isn’t the Australians who really hate the English.

It’s the Welsh.  

I was going to say the Irish.

And also what about the Scots?

No it’s the Irish all right.

And what have we ever done to them?

Funny man. Plenty, but perhaps we’ll hold that over for another time too.

What about that dressing-room speech Phil Bennett gave before a Wales-England rugby match.

Go on.

“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon. The English”

Fair enough. Nobody likes us all that much, to tell you the truth.

Perhaps the Americans.

The Americans find us picturesque and patronise us, but they also think we’re alien and untrustworthy because we can speak English properly. That’s why they hire our clapped-out actors to be evil baddies in their films.

OK, so I’ll put the Americans down as not sure.

However, I did check into a shitty little hotel in Sri Lanka once, and when I handed my passport over the owner said ‘Ah very good, British,’ and beamed and waggled his head. He said he didn’t trust the Italian and French hippies, but the British were gentlemen. I found the same in India. In fact, middle-class Indians in hill towns are more English than the English ever were. They wear tweed jackets and cravats.

You did the hippy trail?

I backpacked around South Asia. Sorry, why are you laughing?

You did the hippy trail. When?

Years ago now. I was young, and it wasn’t the hippy trail. Anyway, the big difference between the Brits and the French wasn’t trustworthiness, it was dress-sense.

Well, well.

Yes, funny isn’t it. Brit freaks were just scruffy and looked as if they needed a shave and a wash, but the French would make an effort to turn themselves out properly.

Meaning what?

Hippy full fig: beads, hair, Rajasthani waistcoat, pyjama trousers, shoulder-bag with tassles, headband, or if not a headband a hat with a feather. If funds allowed, a monkey on the shoulder, though once I met one with a slightly uneasy-looking cat there.

Shades?

Oh no, no sunglasses. Or sun cream, ever.

The French aren’t very popular either, of course.

I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps not with everyone.

So who do the English hate?

In the last few months it’s been mostly cyclists, I think. Which is something else we might come back to.

A Spot of Rain

science-news-water-cycle-showing-groundwater-recharge-large

 

Another delayed post.

11th October 2017

It’s about five-thirty, a hot and humid late afternoon. The sun is quite low, sloping in at 45 degrees or so, but its heat is still weirdly strong as I step out into the garden.  I potter for a while, bending, straightening, dead-heading, snipping.

Then, out of nothing, a quick patter and rustle around me, and spots of coolness on the back of my white work-shirt. I straighten up.

After three months, it is raining.

The sun continues to beam hotly from the south-west as the rain intensifies. I crane my neck to see a rare sight, a grey cloud directly above, slowly heading north.

‘It’s raining, it’s raining!’ I enthuse, but the dog has headed indoors.

I hurry to turn over the cushions on the garden chairs, and fuss about in wonderment for a while. But it’s over quickly – before the dots and spots on the tiles of the terrace have had a chance to join together, the rain has stopped.

Very interesting, what an afternoon you had, but at the top there, are you sure ‘weirdly’ works? You just mean that it was unseasonably hot, yes?

When I get right down to it, you mean? No actually, I  don’t ‘mean’ that, whatever ‘mean’ means.

Fine, just trying to help.

And it makes no sense anyway.

Don’t start, of course it makes sense.

It has no meaning.

Everyone knows what it means. It’s even in the dictionary.

But unseasonably hot means that the heat was unseasonable, doesn’t it?

Obviously.

Well, also obviously, when something is called unseasonable, that means, and only means, that it cannot be seasoned. ‘Unseasonably hot’ thus means that the afternoon was so hot that it couldn’t be seasoned. And since an afternoon is not something that can be seasoned in the first place, the expression is meaningless.

You’ve lost me a while ago there. Listen, it’s clear to me and everyone else what it means, and it would have made things a lot clearer if you’d just used it in the first place.

Thanks for your views. I’ll give them some thought.