Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Liverpool's Language

Its cosmopolitan origins have given Liverpool an accent and language of its own, and dictionaries exist for those wishing to extend their linguistic skills. A few important words should suffice the average traveller:

Scouse: Like many other nicknames, (eg kraut, frog, rosbif), the word is food-based. It was originally the word for a stew, with everything – meat (usually lamb), potatoes, veggies – cooked in one pot. If you couldn't afford meat it was called 'blind scouse'. In addition to the food, it is now the adjective for anything to do with Liverpool. A person from Liverpool is a scouser.

Cack: Shit (thus the American pronunciation of khaki arouses mirth).

Dicky Sam: Another word for a scouser. The female equivalents are Maggie May and Mary Ellen.

Kecks: Men's trousers.

Jigger: An alleyway at the back of a house.

La: Male mate or friend. (See also wack) The female equivalent is 'judy' – hence 'Hey Jude' – though some claim it originated as 'Hey Jule' (John Lennon's son Julian.)

Rhyming slang: Imported from London. Substitution of a word, phrase or part of phrase that rhymes instead of the word meant, eg. 'ducks and geese' for 'police' or 'boracic' (from 'Boracic lint') for 'skint'

Skint: Short of money. See Rhyming slang.

Ta: Thank you.

Wack: Mate or friend.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Liverpool: its history

In the17th century civil war, the town supported parliament against the king, and was sacked by royalist troops. Its prosperity began in the 18th century, when Liverpool stood at the apex of a trading triangle in which goods from the cotton mills of Lancashire were traded with West African states in return for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies and sugar was brought back from there to Liverpool.

The city's growth continued through the War of Independence, and the American Civil War, when, as the European port closest to the US, Liverpool was the principal route for the Lancashire and Yorkshire mills, importing raw cotton and wool and exporting cloth. The industrial revolution attracted thousands of migrants from Ireland and the rural communities of Wales and north-west England to work in the factories and docks. Among the problems of this sudden growth was poor housing and poverty, and even a 1928 survey showed 14% of the city's population were living barely at survival level.

During World War II, Liverpool, as Britain's second largest port - and less well protected by air cover than London - became an easy target for the German Luftwaffe and more than 5,000 people were killed in air raids and more than 10,000 houses destroyed.

Monday, May 29, 2006

My kind of town

Gone to Wales (see Hay Fever post) for a change of rain. Son is blog-minding for the week, so I will have to drop in the odd expletive and not go on too much about succulent Welsh lamb. But if there's anything you don't like, it's my fault, so don't shoot the deputy. The week's theme will be my natal city, the great northern port of Liverpool: its people, its history, its language, its sport and its culture. I hope you will treat this information with discretion: if everyone knows about it they will all want to come. We've kept it a secret for centuries and don't want the place invaded by barbarian hordes from less privileged southern places such as London and the French Riviera.

Its people
Liverpool is a city of about half a million people at the mouth of the River Mersey in north-west England. It has an infectious character and ambience and the natives - Liverpudlians, or Scousers as they are affectionately known (see Language) are a friendly, fun-loving, Celtic mixture, with mainly Irish, Welsh and Scottish backgrounds. Liverpool humour is akin to Irish - fast, abrasive, dry, sarcastic and at times bitter, but with an underlying sadness and sympathy. It can be intimidating to newcomers and is typified by writers like Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine), Roger McGough and others.

Scouse alumni are heavily represented in show business and sport. In addition to the countless footballers, musicians, singers, actors, DJs and TV presenters, they include many famous comedians. (More comedians come from Liverpool than any other city - one of its Members of Parliament said you had to be a comedian to live there.) Examples: Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, Kenny Everett, Tommy Handley, Alexei Sayle and Jimmy Tarbuck. Politicians are well represented: the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, Edwina Currie and William Gladstone, four times Liberal Prime Minister. In literature, scouse writers include Beryl Bainbridge, Alan Bleasdale, Cara Lane, Willy Russell and Ted Jones. Even the foundling Heathcliffe, in Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights, was a scouser.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


If he were alive, this would be his 120th birthday.

He was born in Liverpool on May 24, 1886. When he was nine, his father died in the Workhouse, and his childhood was spent in extreme poverty. He left school at the age of 12 and, like his brother, worked in the printing trade. His mother, widowed at 30, put her two sons in a newsboys’ home and did what uneducated single women did: she went into domestic service.

Despite his limited formal education - or possibly because of it - he was streetwise in every sense. His knowledge of the streets and alleys of Liverpool was encyclopaedic and we could never catch him out.

He was my Dad.

On November 13, 1914, just 3 months after the start of World War I, he joined the 5th King’s Liverpool Regiment and four months later was sent to fight in northern France and Belgium. His papers say he was a specialist in trench mortar warfare, but like most WWI veterans, he almost never spoke about it. His wartime experiences are being further researched by my son.

On February 6, 1918, while on special leave, he married my mother at Walton Church, Liverpool, then went back to the trenches until the war was over. Their wedding photograph shows him in uniform, looking confident and proud, she in a white blouse, looking apprehensive - perhaps it was just at having a photo taken.

After demobilisation on February 18, 1919, he got a job with the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, (LMS), as a ‘Carriage and Wagon Examiner’ - colloquially known as a ‘wheel-tapper’. They raised three sons, of whom the last – and only survivor – is me. He tapped train wheels for the next 34 years, through the years of the Depression and the air raids of World War II, when over 5,000 people in Liverpool were killed, among them his parents. When he retired at the age of 65, they gave him a watch, and a few months later he died. We buried him in Fleetwood cemetery, alongside our mother.

He was a placid, gentle, kind man and a loving father whose main – perhaps only - interest was his family. Because of his job, he was able to give us something not enjoyed by other working-class families: travel on the LMS rail network. In summer he would finish a morning shift at 2pm (having got up at 4.30 to be at work at 6), walk home from the station where he worked, collect the family, walk back to the station, and take us on another train to the seaside for the rest of the day – and get up at 4.30 again the next day.

But he and my mother gave us a great many other things: when I won a scholarship to a grammar school, it was their sacrifices that enabled me to accept it. They also gave us a love of theatre and cinema – Mum took us to musical comedies and pantomimes, Dad to gangster and fight movies. He gave me a love of travel and of words, and his word jokes are still enjoyed by the three generations that followed him. And he gave me my obsession with the fortunes and misfortunes of Everton Football Club.

Happy birthday Walter.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Due espressi doppi

No, it's not Snow White speaking to one of the dwarves, it's how you order two double expressos in Italy. They have to be doubles because Italian coffees are served in thimble-size cups, and if you want the coffee to cover the bottom of the thimble you have to ask for a doppio. If you want normal size 'gnat's piss' coffee, you either say Americano or whatever is Italian for 'Can you please direct me to the nearest Starbucks'. In England, the drink of preference for truck-drivers is a pint mug of tea with lots of milk and eight sugars, so when Brits see a couple of burly Italian truckies belly up to the bar and order, drink and pay for their thimbles-full of coffee in one nanosecond, they're reminded of that scene where Bob Hope slouches into a western bar, pushes cowering customers out of the way, and orders a glass of milk. As they look on in astonishment, he adds 'In a dirty glass'.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Confused, wasn't I?

Funny how some people, when relating a past incident, turn to their partner at the end of every sentence and say, ‘Didn’t it, George?’ or ‘Wasn’t she, George?’ or ‘Weren’t we, George?’ or other confirmatory question. If you’re the person being spoken to, you feel like saying, ‘OK, OK, I believe you. A witness won't be necessary’ Or, if you happen to be George, you might say, ‘No it didn’t’. It wouldn’t make any difference what you – or George - say, because it’s not really a question. It’s rhetorical – more aberration than corroboration. It’s a verbal shrug, like ‘like’. A teenage relative of ours can easily get four ‘likes’ into one sentence. And she doesn’t use long sentences.
In Liverpool they say ‘erm’, in France, ‘bon-ben’.
It’s something I will worry about only if it should ever become a written thing. Imagine getting an e-mail saying, ‘It’s raining - as George will confirm’. They’d have to put a macro-key on the keyboard.
My Irish Auntie Ruby had a more challenging technique: she used to put the past-participle/pronoun combination at the beginning of the sentence, as in, ‘Didn’t he have the cheek to ask for a turnip?’ What’s the correct answer? By trial and error I found the most appropriate response was to look shocked and say, ‘Jaisus!’

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hay Fever

Talking about the Sondheim musical made me think of the old Abe Lincoln joke: ‘apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the show’? Although very conscious of the twin spectres facing our respective families, we withdraw into football and shows rather than brood over disasters we seem helpless to avoid.
Next week we hope to be withdrawing on our annual pilgrimage to The Land of my Fathers, Wales – for the 8th year in succession. It's the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival.
When Arthur Miller was invited to speak there, he asked what kind of sandwich it was. In fact it’s one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and is held every spring in Hay-on-Wye, a market town on the Welsh border with England.
The town is called Hay and the river's named Wye. It sits at the edge the Brecon Beacons National Park. Offa’s Dyke, the watery ditch that divides England from Wales, runs through the middle of it, so you’re never quite sure which country you’re in - but it likes to think of itself as Welsh and natives call it Y Gelli. And it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Britain.
They call it a market town, but its main market is second-hand books. Hay is one big bookshop, with books occupying any available space: the former castle; a cinema: a chapel; a Victorian military drill hall. Bookshelves line the main street, with honesty boxes labelled ‘Hard backs 50p’. You pay what you like for paperbacks.
Hay has a population of 1300 people and 39 bookshops - that's one shop for every 34 inhabitants. You’ll find bookshops that specialise in anything: books about bee-keeping, about British birds, about WWII medals. One shop sells only new books at £1. Marijana Dworski sells books in Polish,
Over 80,000 attenders choose from 500 presentations in seven different venues in the town. There’s a broad mix of nationalities and ages, (there's even a kids' section) but there’s a predominance of gray: middle-aged, middle-class, middle-British broadsheet readers with leather-elbowed tweed jackets (pashminas are optional). The only newspaper on sale within the grounds is The Guardian.
Presenters include politicians: presidents (we met Slick Willie there and it didn’t cost us a bean) and prime ministers by the dozen. There are so many BBC presenters that we suspect the Beeb must close down for the duration of the festival. Chefs, war correspondents, mountaineers, explorers, entertainers, scientists and of course the professional writers: biographers, novelists, academics and historians.
We love lots of other things about Hay: beautiful countryside, excellent pubs and that Welsh lamb – it’s just the right season. But our main pursuit is book shopping. If you go, take a car with a big boot/trunk – oh yes, and an umbrella.

Hey, don’t miss it - - it’s the ultimate in denial.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Phil Spitalny or Ivy Benson*

Feeling a bit deflated after twin disappointments last evening: Sondheim was not up to his usual standard. To be fair to SS, although he has written some fantastic scores, eg. A Little Night Music - Send in the Clowns etc.- his fame is as a lyricist – West Side Story for example. But Sunday in the Park with George? Not exactly whistleable music, but full marks for acting and plot, 80% for singing and 150% for the set – which actually plays a big role in the show if you see what I mean. Still, four out of five ain’t bad.
Speaking of scores brings me to the other disappointment of the evening. Coming out of the theatre we came across a bunch of guys in Arsenal shirts – singing. Expecting happy news, we asked: Arsenal had lost 2-1 - the guys had been drowning their sorrows. Having your goalie sent off after 23 minutes is not only bad for team morale – it makes it easier for the opposition to score.

Promised I’d tell the Broadband saga, but it’s too long. All right, just a taste: got back from sunny Riviera to find we had lost Broadband contact with the ISP. The British Telephone lines had gone down. They fixed them in three days – a service which from big corporations these days verges on the acceptable, but Bb hadn’t come back up, which meant having to call the ISP's Technical Support - guaranteed to bring on Weltschmertz and feelings of deep inadequacy, especially as DG had already been talking to them for three days and was beside herself, which is a very uncomfortable position. (Typical questions: What colour is the cable from your ADSL socket? How long is it?) Rather than attempt to make progress where she had failed, I called on a friendly network consultant but the network was anything but friendly and he didn’t manage any better.
That’s all I’ll say about our two weeks in solitary - two days of which were our fault because of other crises. We’re working now, as you can see, and the ordeal by geekery is almost forgotten and plans to switch ISPs temporarily on hold. What was the problem? No one knows. We think it was the BT Bb line – a BT engineer came but said he didn’t know anything about broadband. But isn’t it the ISP’s job to get it fixed?

* - broad band

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I’ve always been a Stephen Sondheim fan. Knowing this, the Domestic Goddess booked for us to take her daughter and partner to see his Sunday in the Park with George on her birthday – that’s the daughter’s birthday not the DG’s – and tonight is the night. BUT tonight is also the night that the final of the European Champions League, which decides the best soccer club in Europe, is played in Paris. And the competing finalists – said he through gritted teeth - are Barcelona (Spain) and Arsenal (England). It had better be good show, Stephen and George.

Halleluyah! We’re back – and on broadband! More about that later.

I don’t know much about Jane Austen but I liked her alliterative titles: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, etc. and wonder if, like Dickens, she got the idea from Tobias Smollett. Funny thing, pride: hanging on my office wall – which must mean I’m proud of it – is a framed clip of a front page from The Guardian. It has two articles on it – one by me, the other by my son. It was my first appearance in a national newspaper – he was a veteran of about 23.
So is being proud a posh word for showing off? People who boast about their past glories are usually trying to reassure themselves rather than impress others. In my first job there was an old man who told everyone he was in the British water polo team for the 1916 Olympic Games. Maybe he was, but he failed to mention that they didn’t run the Olympics in 1916 because of WWI. And surely the most ostentatious of all is to say you’re proud of your kids. After all, what right have we to be proud? What was our contribution? A bunch of genes (over which we had no control) and food, shelter and schooling for a few years. But we all do it.
When John Osborne – English writer of Look Back in Anger – died, the obituaries said what a fantastic contribution his mother had made to his success. She died aged 87, having ridiculed him all his life and belittled him at every opportunity – thus, said the writers, motivating him to prove her wrong. Lack of parental pride may have helped his career – but what did it do for him? Fellow playwright John Mortimer described him as an ‘affable, champagne-drinking, absolute shit’.
So who’s right, Nellie Beatrice Osborne or Jane Austen? Guess I’ll stay proud of them till proved wrong - it's more fun.

The best strikers of three continents are playing: Ronaldinho (South America), Henry (Europe)and Eto'o (Africa). But I don't care.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The prodigal returns

Tough luck on the fatted calf. (Actually I'm here on dial-up only - my ISP is falling short in the I and S departments.)

Talking about fatted calves recalls that much of the RI (religious instruction) we get when we are young is inappropriate - they should save it until we are old enough to understand it.
As a kid I had serious problems with the parable of the prodigal son. You know the one – a guy has two sons, one of whom gathered up all his wealth and ‘took his journey into a far country and here wasted his substance in riotous living.’ (Luke xv. 13) The sensible son stayed home and helped on the farm.
When the first son’s money runs out, he gets hungry and says to himself, ‘How many of my father’s servants have bread enough and to spare, while I perish with hunger!’ So he goes back home.
Everyone knows what happens: the father says ‘Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it.’ This seemed unfair - and not just for the calf. I could never see what right the prodigal son had to a joyous homecoming. Surely you should reward the loyal sibling, not the idler?

You have to have been a parent of adult children to realise what this is about. Compassion has to be based on need rather than equality. Looking at it as an oldie, I worry about what would have happened if the old man had died? Would the prodigal never have been received back into his family? Would the sensible son have flourished while he, the prodigal, spent the rest of his life outcast and alone?
Fairness has nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bye bye Blackbird mon pied

Exciting last night in V/franche. Thought I'd better sweep the terrace before I leave, and there he was - a very large, very dead, seagull. Thought I ought to do something - avian flu and all that, so I went to the police. (Check out the vocabulary first - is he mort [male] or morte [female]? How do you tell the gender of a seagull? And, since mouette is female, are they all morte, whatever their sex?) It doesn't matter anyway: the police don't deal with dead seagulls of any gender - you must call the Gendarmerie (Municipal Police), Monsieur. But they don't work after 5pm. Then you must call them tomorrow, Monsieur. But I'm not here tomorrow, I'm in England tomorrow. Shrug. I shrug him back. OK, then, have your bloody epidemic.
You heard it here first.

Here we are back in jolly olde – now that spring has arrived on the Cote d’Azur. What I want to know is how the blackbird knew. He's here!

No 1. son has given me this book about Liverpool – and it’s frightening. It’s autobiographical, and the author could be me, five years earlier. He was born in Walton, the same Liverpool suburb as me, went to Queens Drive Swimming Baths – as I did - and won a scholarship to go to Alsop’s High School – as I did. He remembers the same teachers as I did: Mr Preece (French) who used to bash you on the head with a book and say 'Pour encourager les autres!' The writer went to see Sir Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Fascist Party, speak on the piece of waste ground opposite the school. I didn’t: my Dad wouldn’t let us kids go - he said there might be trouble. He was right – Moseley was hit by half a brick (we throw a mean half-brick, we scousers) and went straight to hospital (Walton Hospital, of course, where my cousins worked) before he could say ‘Heil Hitler’. That was the end of Fascism in Liverpool. Can’t write any more: No. 1 son might want to read the book and he may see this and I don’t want him to know the plot. Plus I have to go read some more - can't wait to find out what I do next.

The fool on the hill

This is a not infrequent situation here if you’re walking along a narrow pavement or sidewalk, of which there are many because the road was designed to take a column of Roman soldiers. But now it is the Route Nationale 98, and the traffic – French traffic – is rushing by. As you climb the hill towards home, you see two women ahead of you, chatting. It doesn’t have to be women but it usually is - hope that isn't interpreted as something sinister. The one nearer to you is half-turned towards you, and her body language is saying to the other woman ‘I’m in a desperate hurry and I really must go – like now’. But the other is not listening to body language although hers is saying, ‘I want to stay and chat’. This means that the one nearer you will have to keep looking at the other while she wraps up the conversation.
As you get nearer, you read the situation as follows: ‘Any second now this woman will set off in my direction – fast, to prove she’s in a hurry, while still maintaining eye contact with the other woman, thus probably knocking the bottle of Gigondas for which I just paid 15 Euros(£12, $18) from my hand’. If she does I’ll feel stupid because I knew it would happen'. You can either
1.step off the pavement, knowing that you will be killed
2.stop and make a loud noise in the hope (a vain one) that they might notice you and squeeze up to let you pass, or
3.cling tightly to your bottle and hope she won’t, at the very moment of your arrival, do a Le Mans start, head facing the other way, in your direction.
She did. They always do. The loaf broke in two – but the Gigondas survived.
Didn’t Ray Milland, in Lost Weekend, say something about a god that protects drunks - I mean oenophiles?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Rooney out, Clooney in

Another great thing about blogs is they have the same therapeutic power as writing a letter to a newspaper but without the hassle or the fear that your boss might read it. (I don't have a boss other than you know who but you get my point - you don't know who might read it.) Bryan Appleyard said in the Sunday Times (after a brief visit to NYC) that all news presentation on American television is fantastic and all Brit TV news presentation is crap. I am normally a faithful reader of Appleyard, but this time – and I hope this isn’t a latent nationalism coming out just in time for the World Cup - I think he went into territory he knows little about. NYC – though I love it - is not typical US of A.
OK, TV news has its limitations whatever its technical and artistic quality, but that’s in the nature of TV. It needs pictures: fires and wars are big because they photograph well; but many equally important things – like elections and business news – don’t get covered except for cliché pics of party leaders sticking ballot papers in a box, or over-rehearsed CEO interviews.
Now I admit that my experience of US TV news-watching could well be outdated – it pre-dates cable, satellite and 9/11 – but I remember TV News on the three major networks (I haven’t seen Fox, and CNN can’t merit serious consideration) as
1. being essentially local, with the rare traces of national and international content. (It normally took three days for a UK election result to reach US screens. Rest of Europe more, Israel less.)
2. trying to make cult personalities of the presenters.
3. frequently interrupted by commercials, and
4. continually running promos for future programmes.
The BBC is guilty on item 4, Sky and Channel 4 on 3 and 4.
Maybe I’m out of date and maybe 9/11 and wars have made Americans – and therefore the networks – more internationally concerned. In which case, news may be back to the days of people like Ed Murrow. And if so, apologies, Mr.Appleyard, and Goodnight and good luck.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Spring in the air yourself

How strange that other people’s travel screw-ups are so boring when one’s own are so fascinating. Just this one, then no more Rome:
Looking idly at our return tickets we notice that our sleeper to Monaco leaves Rome Ostiense at 11.50pm. We think ‘Ostiense’ is the name of the station, like New York’s ‘Pennsylvania station’, which doesn’t mean you have to go to Pa. to get aboard. (Even when sung by Tex Beneke.) But we find that Ostiense is a Metro ride from town - and the Metro is closed. Information office? That’s closed too. (One of the reasons I like travelling with Mrs is that she doesn’t panic. It may be pretence: she may be paddling like mad under the water, but the possibility of missing our train and sharing the streets of Ostiense with the local wine-tasters seems not to bother her.)
We find that the 11.20pm to Civitavecchia stops at Ostiense, but we don’t know how long it takes to get there, so this is the option we choose – it being the only option there is. We finally board our sleeper with two minutes to spare. Sleeper trains always remind me of Cary Grant in North by North-West. The implication is that he and Eva Marie Saint sack up together – which I submit would be a physical impossibility.
But now she’s left me. She’s in England and I’m here. It’s an eerie feeling - we won’t see each other for four days. Fortunately she’s left me enough food to permit 5,000 lumberjacks to survive a six-month siege. Anyone know how to do the miracle of the loaves and fishes in reverse?

It’s the first of May – as the refrain from Mountain Greenery goes - ‘Spring is here, so blow your job/Throw your job away’. There’s a blackbird in the Douglas fir outside the window who knows it’s spring, and sings his heart out all day long without repeating a riff – I can hear him now. (Must get that double glazing checked.)
But it’s a black, black day. It’s 40 days from the start of the World Cup and Wayne Rooney has broken his metatarsal and is unlikely to play. England’s chances have plummeted. Even the news that, in the same match, Chelsea (a London soccer team named after Bill Clinton’s daughter) humiliated Manchester United to win the Championship, is tainted, because there was a clause in Rooney’s contract when he was transferred to Man U. that said Everton would get a few million if Man U. won the Championship. Yes, a black day. Bye bye, blackbird.