Sunday, 28 February 2010

Epiphany (without Carmen rollers)

After hedgehogging the other day at the acupuncturist's J. and I went for a light lunch in the centre of Montpellier.

Conversation was lively, mostly about where he'd stuck his needles, what ghastly jellop he'd prescribed and the consummate and extraordinarily courteous discretion with which he lifts the waistband of your underlinen, but I'm ashamed to say my attention was partly diverted by the girl who was sitting at the next table, back to back with J.

I wouldn't like to be associated with King James II as 'the most unguarded ogler of his time' (a criticism I discovered earlier this week), but I found it difficult to take my eyes off her hair, which was the only part of her that was visible, really.

Several years ago I finished The Night Music, my only novel to date, and please don't think of this as a plug, because it's now out of print. The heroine, Claire, had various characteristics cogged and compiled from girls and women I'd known more or less closely, in real life (if there is such a thing) or in books, which I recognised was a bit of a cop-out. Claire had long blonde curly - no, but really curly - hair down to her waist. I took her appearance from a version I had of the King Arthur stories, where there was a woodcut of Isolde. It's the one above, in which she and Tristram have drunk a love potion intended for somebody else, on their fatal voyage to Ireland (which for my purposes I transferred to the Isle of Wight ferry). I had never seen hair like it on any living woman. Did such hair actually exist? Wouldn't it have been the very devil to comb? Was I taking a big risk in featuring something I didn't have first-hand knowledge of?

Then suddenly at the next table in the crêperie there she was, with hair exactly as I'd imagined it. I felt completely vindicated. Relieved, too. Or maybe that was the effect of having all those needles pulled out?

Friday, 26 February 2010


It's really very frustrating when doctors don't believe you. You want to - or I do, anyway: maybe you're made of more resilient stuff than I am - you want to pick them up and shake them and generally sit on their heads until they gasp for mercy and promise eternally to take you seriously.

It's this sneezing, doctor. It'll carry me off one day. It happens after certain meals and certain other adult phenomena that I won't specify in a family blog like this. After a perfectly ordinary meal of roast chicken, say, followed by trifle or profiteroles or crêpes Suzette or even Tesco's Expat Extra Strength Tinned Treacle Sponge Pudding (with custard) or even strawberries and cream, I tend to be attacked by a series, usually about 20, of violent sneezes that bruise the diaphragm and bronchial tubes, scour the throat and sinuses, sometimes to the point of drawing blood, and which occasionally knock me down with their violence. It has already caused a hiatus hernia. I have to close my eyes, I become feverish and shivery and an embarrassment to everyone, especially if this takes place when we're eating out. I usually have to leave and shatter the night air in the restaurant car park with my explosions. Or in our host's garden, when dogs bark, flocks of roosting starlings take flight in alarm, shutters open and neighbours peer out anxiously to see who is so savagely roaring rapine or pillage.

Our GP lives well within sneezing distance of us. I've complained about it to her, but she says she's never heard of such a complaint and that I'd better see an allergy specialist, and next time it happens will I please face well away from her windows?

I know it's not an allergy, I tell her. There might be something in it if it only happened after meals, but there's the other trigger, which I outline to her discreetly. She's embarrassed, and I don't insist. French GPs are often only a clearing station for referral to specialists. She knows of no specialist for my case. I will just have to suffer. Or abstain. Two years ago, in desperation at my badgering, she prescribed codeine, which puts the central nervous system on skeleton service for a bit. It works very well, but I'm uneasy about taking codeine for the rest of my days.

So the other day I went to see J.'s acupuncturist, of whom she speaks quite highly. He's from South-east Asia and fully qualified within the French system. I start to explain. He's never heard of it either. Nevertheless he sticks pins in all over - head, neck, wrists, groin, knees, ankles and feet - and applies some heated resiny substance to points on my back. He then prescribes drops, to be taken under the tongue, of compounds of copper, gold and silver, the inevitable lithium and essence of aconite.

I'll await results. I wonder if anyone else among the multitude of sneezers who come here has similar problems?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Age shall not wither, nor custom stale

Several people have been wondering about my physical appearance. I hate to disappoint, so here is a photo of me surrounded by some of the livelier and more enterprising of my erstwhile staff, who arranged to have this convincing likeness taken. To add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, they purloined my purple-edged academic gown (called a toga in Scotland).

I have to admit it was taken a few years ago, but it was contemporary at the time.


Friday, 19 February 2010

A trifling natter

Last night J. made an immense trifle for our guests, to be drunk with muscat. Flown with this most English of desserts and this sweetest of French fortified wines, the talk at our end of the table turned to holy relics.

My first contribution to this discussion was a distant memory of a car journey in Dorset with my mother when I was about 7. We came through a place called St Peter's Finger*, not a big place, maybe just a hamlet, I don't remember now. My mother, a hapless martyr to her imagination, never slow to invent her version of things, told me the place was so called because in the church there was a relic of St Peter, indeed one of his fingers. I thought this was pretty gruesome. I wondered what it looked like. Was it pink and bleeding? Had it been cut cleanly? What happened to his other fingers?

B., next to me, said that if you made a survey of such things you would probably find that St Peter had at least 30 fingers, if not 30 hands. M. said she'd heard that if you collected all the supposed pieces of the True Cross together, you would have enough wood to build a -

- but we never found out what, because A., a recognised expert in such matters, said Monseigneur So-and-so had once actually weighed all the supposed pieces of the True Cross and the total weight came to 1.87kg, about the same weight as the combined helpings of trifle he'd eaten.

Some talk followed about the Catholic classification of holy relics. Class A: Bodily relics like the Virgin's tears, St Theodosius' hair, not forgetting St Peter's Finger. Class B: Artefacts associated with people worthy of veneration, like the Turin shroud or the mantle of St James the Greater (in Santiago de Compostela). Class C - but we never found out what was in Class C because M. interrupted to ask if there was much of a market for holy relics.

I remarked that the Pardoner, in one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, once required reading for English Literature O Level, did pretty well out of selling his holy relics, which he admitted were no more than 'pigges boones'. B. told M. that if she had holy relics to sell Ebay was the place.

A., ever the expert, said that certain cults venerated the prepuce. No, it wasn't necessarily a Jewish trait, although customarily they buried the prepuce. B. wondered what they might grow into if you planted them. I was imagining (my mother again: you can't hide your genes) what an Ebay ad. might say: 'Prepuce - as new, hardly worn' ?

At this point M. , who had some distance to travel and the hour was late, stood up and said 'Ah! Ça dégénère!' i.e. 'The level's going down', but whether she was referring to the conversation or the trifle or the quality of this post is unclear.

*'St Peter's Finger' is apparently a fish.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Still only double figures

Today is my birthday. This clearly entitles me to be extra sententious.

My favourite present is having been enabled to live all these years in peace and relative prosperity and really quite good health in what will undoubtedly be looked back on as the Golden Age of Western civilisation.

Now I'm going to choose which cake to start on. There's a piece for everyone of you, naturally. Which would you prefer, the chocolate and cream one up there or the giant rich fruit cake with inch-thick marzipan and royal icing? Mind you, that might be an illusion: I'm half expecting J. to jump out of it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Our Island Race (concluded)

George Raft didn't have a keel, so it was impossible to keep it on a straight course. The only way to navigate was to use the wind and hope to correct the trim now and again by using the rudimentary paddles we'd made.

Launch Tuesday arrived, a fine day with a stiff westerly breeze. By means of logistic arrangements too uninteresting to detail here we arrived at Lochindorb in two cars, B., my bride of a few days and Perrington, my cairn terrier in one, and Angus, Callum, George Raft and I in the other. Lochindorb is roughly oval, and the length runs roughly south-west to north-east. Eilean a' Chasteil, the island with the ruined castle, lies towards the northern end and close to the eastern shore, so close that there is supposed to be a sunken causeway between the two. A road runs the entire length of the south-eastern shore.

The easiest way of a making a landfall on the island was to select a point directly upwind, launch the raft and let the westerly breeze do its work. Once under way, B. and Perrington would then drive to the far end and await our arrival, having annexed the island in the name of Mr Petrie the headmaster en route.

Finding an upwind launch point meant assembling the raft by the roadside and then carrying it, one at each corner and Perrington bouncing through the heather, about 400 yards until the wavelets pointed directly at the island, about a mile away. Would George bear our weight? I felt the least I could do was test it myself first. It wobbled alarmingly, but it held as long as weight was distributed evenly. Callum and Angus inched their way on board and we settled in line astern. B. let go the painter and we were off.

It was superb, a complete vindication of everything there ever was. We danced over the wavelets, a feather wafted on the willing breath of the zephyr.

It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, does it? Within two or three hundred yards of the island the wind, fickle as - H'm. I was going to write 'fickle as woman's promise', but that wouldn't have been in the best taste just a few days after B. had said 'I do'. Anyway, the wind changed direction. Not by much, just a point or two, enough to blow us slightly off course. We paddled furiously to regain our course, the raft tilted alarmingly with each paddle stroke, waves swept over us with each lurch, soaking our lower halves. To no avail. The blade of my paddle came off, leaving me with a useless length of wood. The island, unattainable prize, sped past.

The far shore approached, but alarmingly slowly. All the movement of strenuous paddling, the torque, the transferred kinetics, had fatally weakened the knots and bindings. George Raft began to disintegrate. The flag and the annexation plaque, painted in feeble water-colour, jettisoned themselves and were never seen again. We kept very still, holding planks, ropes and oildrums together in a sort of human cleat. Little was said.

Well, we made it. B., cold and bored, nobly kept her complaints to a strict minimum, but never allowed me to forget how she spent her honeymoon with a small dog that wasn't hers and I spent it with two small boys. We took Angus and Callum to Wee Nooke, gave them hot baths and warming goodly soup while their clothes dried before taking them to their homes, Mr Petrie (who never knew how he was due to be honoured) never got 'his' island, and I think the one who enjoyed the day out most was Perrington.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Our Island Race (continued)

What moment would be the most propitious for telling B., my bride of a few hours, that far from a week's honeymoon spent in a sportive tartan love-mist in Wee Nooke, our rose- and heather-girt cottage in the Highlands, she'd been volunteered to provide back-up services for the Great Lochindorb Raft adventure?

Mr Petrie, the headmaster and soon-to-be nominal and unwitting proprietor of Eilean a' Chasteil (you have to have read the previous post for any of this to make sense), very kindly gave me the Friday afternoon off, which enabled me fly from Inverness to Heathrow. B. was waiting for me, and as I came down the terminal steps I remember thinking H'm...I'm not certain I really want to go through with this and I wonder how many other eve-of-marriage couples have the same individual and secret thoughts, but carry on nevertheless for fear of upsetting the applecart of peoples' expectations.

Go through with it we did, and all thought of Angus, Callum, Lochindorb, George Raft (which is what they christened it) were very properly eclipsed until after the ceremonies and we were driving from Southampton to Banbury to spend the night at the Whately Hall hotel before continuing the next day to Scotland. Along the then notoriously slow A34 we came up behind a coach full of 11- and 12-year-old children. As always, the liveliest had managed to procure for themselves the back seat.

No colony of baboons could have been more boisterous. Arms in the air, legs in the air, wrestling, trampolining, throwing things at each other, swinging from the luggage racks, scrawling ruderies on the windows misted with condensation - and then a sudden calm descended as a teacher approached from the front. Then as she disappeared back up the aisle it all started up again. There was a curious luxury in having no responsibility whatever for animal behaviour that I wouldn't have tolerated for one moment in my classroom.

I said Dearest B., I've got a little surprise. I've only just thought of it. On Tuesday I've undertaken to take two small boys out on a home-made raft. Or Wednesday, if wet. Will you come too? Would you mind?

Of course, she said. It sounds fun.


(to be concluded)

Friday, 12 February 2010

Our Island Race

Sarah presses me urgently to post something new...

Earlyish in my self-curtailed career as a teacher I left employment in Southampton at the end of one school year and transferred to Moray and Nairn, a fairly remote education authority on the southern shores of the Moray Firth. In some ways this wasn't a good move, because the Southampton term finished on July 24th or thereabouts and the Scottish term started on about August 9th and I've never known a shorter school summer holidays. My 40 or so Scottish Primary 7s (11-year-olds, kids in their last primary school year) had been used to the most rigorous formality. They sat in rows according to the grading they'd received at the end of Primary 6, brightest at the front, thickest at the back.

It seemed to me that some emancipation, some liberalisation was needed. Despite strong hints from other members of staff that any slackening of discipline would invariably lead to total collapse of the entire Scottish social system, I included among their prescribed daily diet of mental arithmetic, 50 long division sums involving yards, feet and inches, learning by heart of Wordsworth poems (or 'poy-ems' as the local dialect had it), endless exercises distinguishing there, their and they're - into all this I insinuated the building of a raft out of planks and oildrums. This was in the context of the Odyssey, parts of which I was reading to them. (Dave, I KNOW Homer doesn't mention oildrums, but we had to make do with what we had. If there'd been oildrums on Calypso's island, I'm sure Odysseus would have used them.)

When finished, it had to be tested. We couldn't fit all 40 kids on board, so lots were drawn and two lads, Angus and Callum, were chosen to pilot the vessel on its maiden voyage. A sea voyage seemed a bit too close to Odysseus for comfort, so I chose Lochindorb, a remote loch in the middle of Dava Moor, which had, as you can see, the added attraction of having an island in the middle with a ruined castle on it.

A date had to be selected. In Scotland an early week in October is - or was then - set aside for what are called the Tattie Holidays, traditionally to free children from school to help with potato harvesting. We agreed on a Tattie Holiday weekday, Tuesday or Wednesday. The raft would be loaded up into the Minivan I was driving at the time, Angus and Callum and I would drive to Lochindorb, assemble the raft and launch it before the wind, steer for Castle Island (we'd even learned the Gaelic for this: Eilean a' Chasteil) and plant the school flag on it and claim it in the name of the headmaster, Mr Petrie. Angus the Scribe and Cameraman Callum were to record all this for reporting back to the rest of the class.

There was just one snag in all these arrangements. I was due to be married back in Southampton on the first Saturday of the Tattie Holidays. Through all the raft-building I was guiltily aware that I was rather compromising our honeymoon...

(To be continued)

Monday, 8 February 2010

Ballad of Stoke Newington

A recent conversation with some people from Stoke Newington, or 'Stoky' as they sometimes call it, reminded me of later childhood delights that I don't think I've entirely worked out of my system. I probably never will now.

Was it not in Stoke Newington that was to be found, many years ago, the UK's leading mail-order joke shop? I can't now remember the name of the outfit, and I might easily have got it all wrong, but they used to advertise on the back page of Meccano Magazine and similar organs, alongside Hamley's of Regent Street and the very curious Mr H. Becker of Brighton, who claimed to be able to teach you to play the piano in six weeks. (Mr Becker's advert showed a picture of a weedy, drippy bloke with long hair, supposedly resembling Franz Liszt, not much of a role model for red-blooded lads. I learned elsewhere, in case you were wondering.)

Little drawings illustrated the jokes on offer. The rubber fried egg. The nail through finger. The dribble glass. The whoopee cushion, O heavenly delight. The joke flies and spiders. And, joy of joys, the plate lifter.

This was a rubber bulb the size of a small walnut. A long thin rubber tube connected it with another bulb, maybe a bit bigger. You placed it before a meal under the table cloth where Auntie Madge or Rev. Todger would later be served, you secretly trailed the rubber tube under the table-cloth to your own place, where the other bulb dangled down on to your lap. At strategic moments you squeezed your bulb, thereby inflating Bulb No.1 and causing the plate above it unaccountably to lift. Mirth, admit me of thy crew. It was best if you affected to take no notice, because then you could do it again. And again.

Sadly, I never owned any of these wonders. As so often in life, it was better to travel in hope than to arrive, the contemplation was more rewarding than the actuality. Another joke item was the Seebackroscope. This was a sort of horizontal reverse periscope. When you put it to your eye you could see what was going on behind you. Maybe this is what I need now for a clearer vision of past times. I might even be able to make out what the company was called.

This Elysian industry and its enthusiastic clientèle of small boys (never girls?) lost its innocence with the import from Hong Kong of joke dog turds and joke vomit and suchlike. The lowest common denominator is never far below the surface.

Friday, 5 February 2010

You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!

I recently gave a friend (in fact the man who represents the Scottish police to the world) a birthday card that I'd been hoarding since the mid 60s, never finding quite the right occasion to send it until the other day.

The text was a long list of insults - kindly and inoffensive, I do assure you: my friend is the kindliest of men - with a box beside each, so that you could tick the ones which you felt applied. There was also a spare box for you to write in an extra one if you felt the insult compilers had unaccountably left one out. I'm happy to try to reproduce it (from memory) for the greater delight of the multitude of gentle abusers who come here every day. It went something like this:

Fraud.... Tinker.... Cormorant.... Slug.... Cannibal.... Greenhorn.... Sourguts.... Reptile.... Don Juan.... Tartar.... Hillbilly.... Torpedo.... Landlubber.... Butterfingers.... Hellhound.... April Fool.... Lotus Eater.... Drone.... Weevil.... Vampire.... Toady.... Scribbler.... Lie-abed.... Crumb.... Egghead.... Babyface.... Imperialist.... Sassenach.... Rake.... Puritan.... Tom-cat.... Loafer.... Sponge....

and so on. I'm particularly happy to include 'sponge', because I understand this is what Simon Cowell once accused Prince Philip, giant among the multitude of gentle abusers, of calling him.

It's hard to beat King Lear for colourful insults:

Coward.... Brazen-faced varlet.... Whoreson zed.... Unnecessary letter.... Wagtail.... Finical rogue.... Pandar.... Cullionly barbermonger.... Eater of broken meats.... One-trunk-inheriting slave.... Worsted-stocking knave.... Jakes wall-daubing....

Thank you, Will. I feel the better for that.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Mo less keen, eh?

I don't think it's Mo in the photo below, you know. It's actually a postcard, one that was thrust on me when I went to an expat trade, arts and crafts forum in Montpellier last summer. Goodness knows why. The league promoting breast-feeding was called La Lèche, which literally means 'the lick', and they had a stand there. I'm afraid my days of having anything to do with breast-feeding are rather distant now, but I'm more than happy to support it, and if publishing this photo encourages the multitude of undecided mothers-to-be who drop in here to say OK, let's go for it, I won't have wasted my time.

I'm busy just now on a composition called L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon, which is a collection of about 40 poems by one Jules Laforgue. Over the last few days I've been struggling to set to music the following lines addressed to the moon:

Oui, tu as la gorge bien faite
Mais, si jamais je ne m'y allaite ?

Yes, you have a well-formed breast
But [what's that to me] if I never suckle there?

A few nights ago I woke up with a ready-made tune for this coursing through my head. I was uneasy about it, because it was a stomping, in-your-face, pint-pot swinging sort of tune, suggestive of Munich beer halls in October and not in the least reminiscent of the full moon or breasts or mother's milk. Anyway, not to waste this 3am dream-bounty, I sat up very quietly and reached for a wonderful present which the ever-thoughtful J. had given me for Christmas: a Moleskine music notebook. (That's it on the piano music-desk, at the top of this post. )

As I wrote the tune down - by moonlight, very apt - it occurred to me that maybe a pint of beer gives the same relative satisfaction to the punter as a breastful of milk to the baby, so I could use the quasi-drinking song that I'd dreamt with impunity. In fact this seemed quite a daring idea, until it I realised that Laforgue's point was that you're as likely to get milk out of the moon as you are sense out of a scarecrow. I couldn't - and can't - work out the aesthetic implications behind all this, so I gave up and went back to sleep. And if I hadn't had my beautiful Moleskine, and if I hadn't written it down, by morning it would have gone.