Wednesday, 29 September 2004

Guest for breakfast

It would be difficult to think, offhand, of a simple explanation of why a young woman, a total stranger, wearing only a nightdress, rang our doorbell at 7.45 in the morning.

But the answer was simple indeed: her name is Esther, she comes to England for an English course, checks in with her host family (of which, husband and children away on holiday at Disneyland, wife goes to work at 7am), gets up the next morning, strolls outside to see what the weather is like and the door swings shut, locked. No key, so she runs next door to see if anyone can help.

People next door (us) don't know where (host) wife works, nor do language school, so (my) wife lends her some clothes, I deliver her to the language school for her first day's study and all ends happily.

It made rather a jolly start to the day for us, but such an experience would have reduced many a young person to a gibbering panic. Fortunately, Esther is Swiss, a people renowned, like Yorkshire folk, for their phlegm. Of course she was concerned and embarrassed, but by no means panic-stricken.

I told her later that when she goes back to Switzerland she can proudly tell her family and friends that on her first day in England she has improved the British perception of the her compatriots beyond measure. We have tended to think of the Swiss as efficient, well-organised people who never make foolish mistakes, admirable but not especially lovable. Since Esther's arrival, however, we have realised that they are just like us, and feel much warmer towards them.

But Esther at twenty-three has good English, impeccable French and German, and her studies in written and spoken Arabic are well advanced as she is planning to go and teach in an Arab country. Not at all like us, really.

Monday, 27 September 2004

Our Great and Respected Leader: Part 3

…continued from Part 2
I was taken to the theatre three or four times during my visits to Pyongyang. The productions I saw were not only all much the same, but had been performed unchanged for decades, and are no doubt still being performed, with occasional changes of cast. They were described as revolutionary operas, and certainly had some rattling good tunes, with titles like Infinite Is the Raftsman’s Honour and Let Us Send More Rice to the People’s Revolutionary Army.
These operas were by no means monotonous, with some very lively ensemble work…

The Sea of Blood

…alternating with quieter interludes when the entire cast stands about immobile as if stricken with a palsy…

A True Daughter of the Party
(Note some interesting touches: the gentleman second from the left is NOT standing to attention, and the lady with the Sonja Henie hat has not quite succeeded in getting her feet into the first ballet position.)
continued in Part 4

Saturday, 25 September 2004

United Kingdom

An elderly lady of whom I was fond died last year. Our relationship had been founded on mutual affection and respect combined with utter contempt for each other’s politics and views on society, and I miss our occasional disputes. She was actually a kind and generous person, but often gave voice to the most bloodthirsty pronouncements: I do not believe she would really have wanted the death penalty applied to, for example, Liberal voters, but it sometimes sounded as if she might have done.

She did not have all the prejudices one might expect in someone of her class and generation, and those she did have were not at all predictable: “Why do they have to come here, we don’t want them, why can’t they go back to their own country?” she would say…but she was talking about the Scots.

This was entirely because she could not always understand what they said when they were on TV as newsreaders or commentators, and resented being given English news in her own home by people with foreign accents.

But her strong feelings on this matter did reflect the sad truth that the Act of Union in 1707 (proposed a hundred years earlier) has not yet resolved the suspicion and mistrust between the two countries which had prevented the union throughout the 17th century.

(The Scots feared that they would simply become another region of England, being swallowed up as had happened to Wales some four hundred years earlier. For England the fear that the Scots might take sides with France and rekindle the 'Auld Alliance' was decisive: England relied heavily on Scottish soldiers and to have them turn and join ranks with the French would have been disastrous. So there were some financial incentives offered which convinced some dithering Scottish MP's of the many potential benefits of a union with England, and the deal was done.)

And now? Perhaps Michael Flanders spoke for us all:

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers.
Consider the Irishman, Welshman or Scot,
You’ll find he’s a stinker as likely as not.
The English, the English, the English are best
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest…..
…The English are noble, the English are good,
And clever, and modest, and misunderstood.

Those are sentiments on which I think my friend and I would have agreed.

Thursday, 23 September 2004

Thou’ll hae to corn thy sheep

I have long since stopped minding when Americans comment on my quaint English accent, and I no longer bother to explain to them that I don't have an accent, they do.

Dialect, though, is another matter. I do urge anyone who loves the infinite variety of spoken English to listen to the warm and lovely voice of Jim Wade, a Lancashire sheep farmer recorded in 1953, talking about the techniques of breeding sheep. You will have to listen very carefully to catch his drift, but a glossary and some notes on the quirks of his grammar are provided.

But I should warn those logging on to this marvellous website not to do so unless they have time to spare, for Jim goes on a bit and there are several hundred others beside him in this collection, whose voices cover topics ranging from Killing Pigs in Lowick to Growing Up on Holy Island.

The collection is called Accents and Dialects, part of Collect Britain on the gigantic British Library website. The first time I logged on there was after dinner one evening, and I later had to be told that it was half past two.

Tuesday, 21 September 2004

A life of crime

At the time of her marriage in 1999, my daughter-in-law Wendy never dreamed that the next five years would put her into so many unhappy situations. Covering up a patricide, involved in a mail order bride scam, working with a gang of snakeheads and then accessory to another murder, she was in constant trouble, and for much of that period was also masquerading as a blind physiotherapist.

Happily, these difficult times are now over and on 22nd September she starts work as a Detective Constable in The Bill (on her last visit to Sun Hill nick she was on the other side; they gave her a rough time and quite right too). This will be no sinecure, of course, as anyone who has observed the goings-on since 1983 will know; criminals there probably stand less chance of coming to a nasty end than the officers attempting to catch them (and as one of the latter you are also almost certain to become romantically involved with someone totally contemptible).

But I am told that DC Suzie Sim makes a good start on 22nd, so it may be a few weeks before some appalling disaster strikes.

Wendy is not an actress, by the way.

Sunday, 19 September 2004

Words of wisdom

Many blogs feature in their heading a maxim, aphorism, saying, adage, axiom, saw, proverb, epigram or precept (thank you, Dr Roget). Sometimes there are several, in little boxes, listed down a left-hand or right-hand column. The trouble is, they are nearly always of the most stupefying banality.

For some time I tried to find an wise or witty one to insert at the head of my home page. I considered the Marquis of Chamfort's A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the end of the day, and the cryptic and charmingly brief Scots proverb Twa piggles dinna mek' a thrup.

Then there are spectacularly confused pronouncements like A roaring lion is a calamity unto his father but the cautious man cometh not again.

In the end I came to the conclusion that any saying, however wise or witty, fails to amuse when you have seen it twenty times, so I dropped the idea.

Friday, 17 September 2004

And only UHT milk

It would be absurd to assess the qualities of a holiday destination solely on the basis of what there is to eat when you get there.

However, if the sun isn't shining, the insects are biting, and the baroque churches are beginning to pall, then the prospect of a splendid lunch is really all that there is to make you want to get out of bed in the morning or to stop you from wishing that you'd stayed at home.

I have to say that from recent experience I have the feeling that in these circumstances northern Portugal is not the very best place in the world to be. It's not that Portuguese cooking is bad; the goat stew is, well, OK, the sardines are nice (though not always properly gutted, and apparently best eaten early in the summer), and we had a few pleasant dishes and a memorable octopus in red wine. But some misconceptions are cherished here: for example, that boiled potatoes and rice, together, are a perfect accompaniment to any meal, that stewed pork is made more exciting if you throw a few clams in with it, and that if you call cod bacalhau it automatically becomes interesting, however boringly you cook it.

So, kind and friendly as the Portuguese people are, there is no denying that their cuisine is among the dullest in Europe.

My wife can be counted on to get the very best out of any situation, but there she could only make a rather sad proposal as we pored over a depressing menu identical with a dozen others we had seen: "We really must investigate the vegetable soup" she said, brightly.

Saturday, 4 September 2004

Ate mais tarde

Off to Portugal so no more posts for a couple of weeks.

Northern Portugal, not the Algarve. I hear they've had mosquitos there, blown over from North Africa and carrying the Nile Virus. It is estimated that about 20% of people who become infected with West Nile Virus will develop West Nile Fever, the symptoms of which include fever, headache, tiredness, and body aches, occasionally with a skin rash. While the illness can be as short as a few days, even healthy people have reported being sick for several weeks.

Don't like the sound of that; I mean, one can get all those sensations just by sitting on an English beach, without having to get on an aeroplane first.

Friday, 3 September 2004

Italian abroad

I have no need to apologise to my Italian friends for this; it was passed to me by a French friend.

One day I go abroad and stay in bigga hotel. Inna morning I go down to eata breakfast. I tella waitress I wanna two pissas toast. She brings only one piss. I tella I wan two piss. She say go toilet. I say you no understand, I wan two piss on ma plate. She say you betta no pissa onna plate you dirty sonna bitch. I donna even know lady and she calla me sonna bitch.

Later I go to cafe. The waitress bring me knife but no fock. I tella I wan fock. She say everybody wan fock. I say you no understand, I wanna fock on table. She say you betta no fock on table you dirty sonna bitch. I fed up so I go back to hotel to sleep.

At hotel I find no shets on bed. I call manager and tella him I wanna shet on bed. He say you betta no shet on bed you dirty sonna bitch. I go to reception and man say Peace on you. I say piss on you too farter of bitch. I gonna go back to Italy pronto.

Thursday, 2 September 2004

Leaders in Endless Love

I met a man the other day who by some mischance had never seen George Dubya and Tony in duet (assisted by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross). In case there are others, I put a link to it HERE.

Widely circulated rumours concerning an engagement and hinting at S&M practices have been shown to be totally false. Those who play any part in the dissemination of such vicious slanders should be found and severely punished.