Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chain mail

I just sent an e-mail to Mr P. at well-known publishers Archant. I got an automated reply saying “I’ll be out of the office until January 5. If the matter is urgent, please e-mail Mr S.” Deeming the matter reasonably urgent, I mailed Mr S. – and got an automated reply saying “I’ll be out of the office until January 5". Fortunately he did not say, "If the matter is urgent, please e-mail Mr P." or I'd still be at it next year.

Speaking of which, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish that loyal but diminishing band of readers a very happy, healthy and prosperous new year, and may your comments continue to be as creative, lively and penetrating – but conspicuously more numerous – in 2009 than in 2008.

Monday, December 08, 2008

BA Humbug

Just when I’d decided to retire from trying to be a consumer champion comes this credit-crunch-crushing offer from British Airways to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the One-World Alliance: reward, 10,000 BA miles!
All you have to do is this:
1. Fly First Class or Club long-haul.
2. Connect to another airline in the “Alliance”- American Airlines or one of nine others, including Finnair, Malév, Jordanian, LAN etc.
3. Complete the journey before December 19.
Not exactly an offer you can’t refuse – if you can afford to do all that, 10,000 BA miles (enough to take one person Economy Class to Glasgow) would be a highly resistible incentive. (You could buy them for £310.)

Enough of the caped crusading; I’ve decided to emulate the DG and move into Human Interest. So now, lest you get the impression that life on the Côte d’Azur is a bowl of cherries, a pip: we have new neighbours downstairs, who I hope read this. They have a three-year-old child. So did we, once, six times between us, and it’s a precious age. But these people are so precious about theirs that every movement we make causes them to ring – or shout – up to ask us to be quiet because the child is asleep. It must sleep 23 hours a day. They complained that our cane chairs scraped on our terrace, so we carpeted the terrace. They complain when we use the vacuum cleaner. They complain to our guests. Yesterday we returned from a long walk, changed into slippers – and within five minutes they rang to ask us to stop stamping.
We’ve been here eight years, and no other neighbour has ever complained. We spend only about six months of the year here, we read or write – neither very noisily – and play Scrabble, keeping score with felt-tip pens. We never have parties, rarely use the TV, and we tip-toe about the apartment in soft slippers.
So, having decided that we had compromised as far as we could, we called on them to ask if they could try to be a little more reasonable. (The child slept through the discussions.) Whether or not they appreciated our problems we don’t know – but they haven’t complained since.
If they do, we’re thinking of renting our apartment out to Michael Flatley for a while - as a rehearsal studio for River Dance.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

American Excess

Dear American Express,
Your current advertising says that American Express cardholders “gain access to a more exclusive world”. I fear you may have carried exclusivity to a point of excess. I have spent many hours over recent weeks trying unsuccessfully to access my own account.
The problem is that when I click “My account” and key in my ID info, I am told it does not agree with your records. I obviously can’t see those records, but I know that my details have not changed in years.
I call “assistance” (from France), key in my card number as requested and a man immediately ask for my card number again, then goes through the security routine and says there is nothing wrong with the card and assures me that I will be able to log in. I go back to the beginning and go through this loop again. And again. And again. And I get locked out.
I can’t e-mail you because when I click “E-mail us” I get “Site unobtainable”. I can’t use Help or access FAQs because it requires my ID reference, which you say is wrong.
A nice man named Chris listens to my woes and tells me he’ll give me a temporary password that will get enable me to log in. It doesn’t. Back to the beginning and repeat. Again. And again. I am now locked out.
Can you possibly imagine how frustrating and time-consuming all this is? Since there seems to be no way of solving the problem, I suggest that you cancel this card and issue me with a new one.
Yours sincerely

It's not just Amex is it? Security is the "Health and Safety" of the internet - the one-size-fits-all excuse. In fact, angry as I still am, I'd say AmEx are one of the better ones.

Speaking of excess, a Mr John C. Thomason of Colorado has a letter in the current Riviera Reporter: “I love everything about the French, but…” [sound familiar?] “…why are you French people…” [this to an Anglo expat magazine] “…afraid of Moslems and Russians”?
Blah, blah, blah, then “One day you people will get the same as us and then what? Cry for help a third time?”
Editor: Every issue we get at least one letter from a nutter. You’re the winner this time.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Write Stuff

What do you do when you discover that the book you’ve been working on for four years has just been published - by another writer who’d been researching it for twelve?

It seems writing is as much a test of character as of creativity. When John Stuart Mill decided that he was would never finish writing his history of the French Revolution, on hearing that Thomas Carlyle was working on a similar project, he generously gave Carlyle his entire collection of books on the subject – there were no lending libraries in those days.

So when Carlyle finished The French Revolution in 1835, he lent the one and only manuscript – there were no photocopiers either – to Mill to read. Mill’s housemaid, thinking it was scrap, burned it. What did Carlyle do? He sat down and wrote it again, and then – how's this for trust? – sent it to Mill to review. (Presumably he'd changed his housemaid by then.) It turned out to be Carlyle’s greatest work. Then he founded the London Library.

When Charles Dickens wanted to write a novel set against the background of the Revolution, he relied heavily on Carlyle’s book and reading list, which by then he was able to borrow from the Library.

It’s an interesting thought that if there’d been no Mill, Carlyle might not have written The French Revolution, without which there might not have been A Tale of Two Cities – and, worse, no London Library. Today, if you search the Library catalogue under “French Revolution” you get 575 responses.

The Victorian painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, faced a different test. When Lizzie Siddall, his model, lover and, later, wife, overdosed on laudanum, he was distraught. Before she was buried in Highgate cemetery, he touchingly laid the manuscript of an unpublished book of his poems in the coffin beside her, implying that “Without you my poems are worthless”. But when, some years later, Rosetti decided he would like to publish the poems, rather than write all them out again, he had Lizzie’s coffin exhumed, took out his poems and buried her again, remarking that she was still as beautiful as he remembered. As always, Dorothy Parker put it succinctly:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti,
Thought the matter over – then
Went and dug them up again.

What am I going to do about the book? I wish I knew.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Palermo airport is called Falcone-Borsellino airport – for the two judges who were murdered by the mob there in 1992. Getting there at 1.00pm Monday for Alitalia’s 3.20pm flight to London seemed ample time. It was: the crews went on strike and I got home at midnight Tuesday. I won’t go as far as the guy who set up a special website to complain about his Alitalia experience, partly because the airport staff were incredibly helpful, but mainly because the guy is being sued by the airline. But next time I’m going by sea.
The amazing thing about Palermo is that whenever you think you’ve seen it all, another marvel pops up. The Piazza Pretoria is just one of many: a 16th century square – except it’s round – with a fountain in the middle, hidden around a corner from the Via Roma, surrounded by statues, which, instead of concealing their genitalia, Botticelli-like, with fluttering gauze or long hair, do it with their hands, like footballers facing a free kick. The square seems too small to hold so many statues together, until you try to photograph them - then you find it’s too big to fit into the viewfinder.
About five miles south of the city is a 12th century Benedictine abbey with a panoramic view across Palermo and its bay. It was founded by William II (William the Good), as a penance for the fact that his father, (appropriately, William the Bad), embezzled the country’s money on earthly pleasures. Williams I and II (pair Williams) are buried alongside each other in the abbey. Strolling the cloisters on a quiet autumn afternoon, you could imagine William II checking off his beads and meditating on his future image, eight centuries later. Just to make sure, he put old father William in a black sarcophagus. His own is white.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lyon’s Corner House

We spent All Saints weekend in Lyon, France’s second city. It sits between the Rhone and Saône, and it’s where the two rivers converge. Fittingly, for the weekend of the dead, it rained almost non-stop. There’s a block of flats on a corner in Lyon, one side of which is flat, windowless and pretty boring. Or was, until a local art school decided to make it a monumental trompe l’oeil. A lot of people chipped in money for paints, ladders, etc. and this is the result. Even standing right in front of it it’s hard to tell if the windows, cats, cars etc. are real. They're not: only the delivery van and the pedestrian crossings out front are real.

The next weekend we were in Palermo, Sicily. It is one of those cities whose fictional image is so intense that it obscures its factual one. Oh yes, there’s still a Mafia presence all right, but the visitor doesn’t see it – unlike St. Petersburg, where the mobsters sit proudly in their smoky-windowed Mercedes as they speed along the pavements. What the tourist sees is what travel brochures call a "bustling" city that lies between a blue crescent-shaped bay and a concentric semi-circle of green mountains. There are baroque churches in dozens and almost as many medieval monasteries. The picture is a 12th century mosaic the size of a cricket pitch.
Its cathedral is a hodgepodge of architectural history, from Roman to Moorish to Norman to Baroque with a touch of Gothic – yet strangely harmonious.
We were a group of “mature students” who, almost 12 years ago, met in the semi-circular piazza in front of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and every year since then have deserted our patient partners to go off to some historic European city for a weekend of museums, galleries and food. The main difference this time was that – thanks to a strike of Alitalia air crews - the weekend became almost a week. One of us is still waiting for his suitcase.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarnies with Grandma

Mexicans call it La día de los Muertos; the French Toussaint, posh English All Saints', but as linguistic imperialism spreads, we will all soon call it "Hallowe’en". Not belonging in any of the above categories, as children we called it "Duck-Apple Night". I don’t know if that was a uniquely Liverpool thing - but it was an evening on which we did silly things with apples – floated them in basins of water or hung them from ceiling beams, and tried to eat them without the use of hands or implements. Apples being autumnal, I guess it was the Scouse Hallowe’en.

But no one does it like Mexicans. In Guanajuarto, in the central highlands, some 200 miles north-west of Mexico City, I was asked if I’d like to see the museum. “What museum?”, I asked. “Las Momias”, he said. It sounded friendly, but it turned out to be a ghoulish library, its shelves within easy touching distance on either side, except that on the shelves were, not books, but dead bodies.

There were men, women, and children; most of them naked, but some were partially clothed in funereal black. They were emaciated and covered in parchment-like skin that stretched across their bones like over-filled shopping bags. In eyeless faces, skin was drawn tightly across cheeks and jaw to reveal blackened teeth in demoniac grins.

I kept thinking that I must be more than half way in, so that I would see fewer of them if I kept going than if I turned back - but on and on went Las Momias - the Museum of the Mummies - room after room of corpses piled on corpses from floor to ceiling, most of them frozen into agonized positions that did not say “RIP”. By the time I reached "the smallest mummy in the world" - the petrified foetus of a woman who had died in labour - I'd seen enough.

It was my first taste of the Mexican fascination with death. In Mexico, La Día de los Muertos is a national festival, a day on which families load up picnic hampers and folding tables and chairs and trip merrily off to cemeteries to cavort among the ancestors, the adults drinking wine and beer and the children eating skull-shaped sweets.

Outside, kids in Nike trainers were offering coloured postcards of the bodies - lying on shelves, sprawled in the dusty street, or standing in line like a cadaverous Miss World contest. Other kids sold rock effigies of corpses.
That’s not 'rock', as in archaeology, but 'rock' as in Brighton.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Don’t Tampa with history

One thing about Villefranche is the strange signs they put up. Every pedestrian crossing has a sign saying "If you want to cross the street, press the red button below", and there's an arrow pointing down to the button - which is green.
Outside the Post Office, a notice says "Open Monday to Friday - except Thursday and Saturday". And in the middle of the town there's a building site. They're going to build 44 houses. The notice outside has been there a long time. It reads: "Completion date October 8, 2007". That's right, 200seven. The only problem is they haven't started work on it yet.

Tonight’s the night folks. This is the night the Phillies walk off with the World Series of baseball. You can't get odds on them not to. Why is it called the World Series when the teams all come from the same country? And it's not even an American game? You don’t have to go to Coopertown, NY to celebrate the alleged birth of baseball – in 1839. The rules of Base-Ball were established in England – in 1744. I like Tampa – nice weather, great Dali museum - but the Phillies will do it tonight, you'll see.
If you can stay awake long enough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Senator wrecks Jazz Festival

That Chicago – it sure is one laid-back city. One of our reasons for choosing it was jazz. It was the first northern city to get into the blues – thanks to a river with a long name and lots of New Orleans jazzmen looking for work. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven – that sort of thing.
“Hyde Park Jazz Festival!!” the brochure screamed, “Sunday from 11am till late”. Wow, this is it, we thought, pity we fly out to London that evening, and that it’s two buses and two train rides from the city and the same to get back. We’ll have to leave it at 1.30, but still, a couple of hours’ jazz before we leave will be fun – a lasting memory of Chicago.
At 11.30 there's no one there. At 12 noon some sound equipment turns up. At 12.30 some locals and a photographer arrive. There’s a problem: some nouveau-riche Hyde Park resident has his house surrounded by Secret Service men 24/7 and they can’t even walk their dogs, let alone drive. “God – if he gets elected it’ll be worse!” they say.
At 1 o’clock the stalls are opening – near-beer and pretzels. 1.30, still no jazz, and we have to leave.
Moral 1 – don’t believe tourist brochures
Moral 2 - Don’t go to a jazz festival near a presidential candidate’s home.

Chicago has two other famous sons: Ernest Hemingway, who spent his first 18 years in Oak Park, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who began his architectural career with the great Louis Sullivan, then started his own practice in Oak Park. In fact Oak Park really rocks, especially Louie’s Bar. (Has the number of Louis’s in this town anything to do with Satchmo?)
A week later, back in Villefranche, a letter arrives from Chicago: “I found this notebook in Oak Park, Illinois. Hope it finds you”.
Nice people, even if they can’t run jazz festivals.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bread and Baroque

When someone says Turin you think of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino and Juventus – the former familiarly known as Fiat and the latter as Juve. But it’s not all Fiat and Juve - after this weekend we’ll remember it as Baroquesville. Every public building and street seems to have been designed as part of some sort of Grand Plan – which of course they were. We went there because it was the only city within a thousand or so miles we hadn’t been to – and loved it. Neitzsche said, “This is the only place where I am possible”, which is about as helpful as what he said about Nice – “like a plant I grow in sunshine”.
Not a lot of sunshine in Turin – but they have the answer to Piedmontese weather: the streets are lined with cloister-like (but baroque of course), marble-clad arcades, and you can walk 18km. of the town - including intersections - without getting wet. It doesn’t help a lot against the wind but then neither does it seem to impact the sales of bread or ice-cream – or the warmth of the people. We'll be back when they play Everton - forza Blues!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pit-bulls on parade

After Chicago it was a nice change to hear a few different things in the news other than The Campaign - things like the FTSE and Rooney's form. But now, just as I'm getting ready to start listening to it again, and just when I thought it was relatively clean, it's turning nasty. Here's Frank Rich in the NYT today:

'[...] what has pumped up the Weimar-like rage at McCain-Palin rallies is the violent escalation in rhetoric, especially (though not exclusively) by Palin. Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” He is “palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun). Obama is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” Wielding a wildly out-of-context Obama quote, Palin slurs him as an enemy of American troops.

By the time McCain asks the crowd “Who is the real Barack Obama?” it’s no surprise that someone cries out “Terrorist!” The rhetorical conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete. It is stoked further by the repeated invocation of Obama’s middle name by surrogates introducing McCain and Palin at these rallies. This sleight of hand at once synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts and shifts the brand of terrorism from Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today.

That’s a far cry from simply accusing Obama of being a guilty-by-association radical leftist. Obama is being branded as a potential killer and an accessory to past attempts at murder. “Barack Obama’s friend tried to kill my family” was how a McCain press release last week packaged the remembrance of a Weather Underground incident from 1970 — when Obama was 8.'

Not that I'm entirely in favour of that particular legislation, but I don't think that sort of talk is permitted in the UK these days. But then, neither are pit-bulls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's in a name?

Newcastle’s new manager - football’s answer to Gordon Ramsay - used 46 expletives in his first press conference. So said The Telegraph: the more sensitive Times made it 50. His complaint is that the press doesn’t understand him. Now that surprises me.

The other Gordon is chucking our money at the financial sector in the hope that it defibrillate the economy – as the FTSE drops another 314 points today. One wonders, since the beneficiaries of his largesse are those same people who mismanaged their shareholders’ money, why they are being given another try using the taxpayers’?
But there’s a more important question. Is it fair to reimburse British savers who put their money into foreign financial institutions that failed because they were badly managed – and not to reimburse British savers who put their money into a British financial institution that was subject to government regulation and went belly-up because the government regulated it badly?
We are of course talking about Equitable Life - to which a million British savers entrusted their pensions. They did so because it was government regulated, and because most MPs – including our prudent Prime Minister – also entrusted their pensions to Equitable. It went bust eight years ago and the Parliamentary Ombudsman gave maladministration by the government as a critical cause. But Equitable pensioners still get less than 2/3 of the pensions they paid for and the Treasury won’t say anything, let alone do anything. How Equitable is that?
The reason for the Treasury delay seems to be either that the government is deliberately taking its time, knowing that demographics will eventually solve its problem. (More than 30,000 Equitable pensioners have died since the crash and obviously the death rate - currently 15 per day – is increasing.) Or, do MPs not want to explain why they did not lose their pensions?
There’s only one solution. Equitable Life – a name that opens up whole new vistas of irony - could change its name to include the word “Scotland”.
Talking of ironic names, the Schools Minister, Ed Balls, who once endorsed SATs as a better way of comparing schooling quality, then, when the SATs system collapsed, said it wasn’t his area of responsibility, now says that SATs have been dropped in favour of school report cards, to present a more accurate measurement. Hey! School report cards! Great idea, Ed.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Apostrophically yours

This is how a Villefranche gift shop promotes its products to departing cruise passengers. It may infuriate Lynne Truss, but I bet they sell more gifts and T-shirts than copies of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". (It's next door to Michel's.)
American politicians have known ever since Truman’s "If you can't stand the heat..." that voters prefer their politicians folksy and illiterate - hence Sarah's "Doggone it" and George W.’s "Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?".
As Alistair Cooke once observed - and Maureen Dowd quoted in the NYT (punctuation corrected) - “Americans seem to be more comfortable with Republican presidents because they share the common frailty of muddled syntax and because, when they attempt eloquence, they tend to spout a kind of Frontier Baroque”. Sarah just shoots.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Grapes, anyone?

A bit tense around here today – they’re announcing the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not that I’m over-optimistic: it’s supposed to be about your life’s work and I only started writing after senility set in – or perhaps because senility set in. And there are many who’ve been in the queue longer than me - just look how long Pinter had to wait for his (it takes longer for lefties – Greene never got one at all - he should never have called the hero of Brighton Rock "Pinkie".).
And besides, what chance has anyone got with a bourgeois name like mine?
I'm not holding my breath, but still, I'm cheered after Horace Engdahl’s recent words – he’s permanent secretary of the body that awards the Prize. In fact, I never had a better chance, because he seems to have ruled out American writers this year.
Maybe it’s part of the world trend today, but he's been saying things like “Europe is the center of the literary world,” and that “the U.S. is too isolated, too insular”.
Charles McGrath in the NYT seems to agree. It’s because, he says, “in the United States, a Nobel usually doesn’t produce even [a] modest uptick in sales”. Could he be confusing cause with consequence?
Who wants the Nobel Prize anyway? Beckett thought it was the worst thing that happened to his career; Sartre refused it; Yeats thought it wasn’t generous enough; Steinbeck never wrote a decent thing after it: and Hemingway shot himself.
So keep your capitalist bauble, Mr Engdahl. It wouldn’t exist had it not been for the explosives industry.
Grapes, anyone?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My kind of town

The good news: Chicago was fantastic. Everything about it, with one exception, (see bad news). It’s a sort of mini-New York, but calmer, quieter and more polite – they even stop at Stop signs. Incredible buildings, great galleries, interesting museums, nice people, perfect weather. All-in-all nine wonderful days.
The bad news: the food. Amazingly bad. In nine days, we hit about a dozen restaurants, and only one you would think of going back to. OK, so we’ve been spoiled by Nice and Villefranche, but you never in your life saw such theatrics – glamorous hostesses, chatty waiters, (“Good evening, I’m Matt and I’ll be looking after you this evening”), poster-sized menus, incessant iced water top-ups, (not by Matt), all building up to cold, bland, half- cooked crap.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on Tempo, which did excellent but obscenely large breakfasts, and the Bistro 110, but please, don’t even go near to Devon Seafood Grill, Bice, Italian Village, Ditka’s or the Art Institute Restaurant. Their chefs should be dragged forcibly to McCormick and Schmick – the one we went back to, twice - to see how it should be done.

But those buildings – we’ve got stiff necks from gazing at them. Because of the great fire that flattened the city centre in – was it 1871? – they’re all relatively modern, but different, from the mock-Gothic Chicago Tribune to the mock-funnel Trump Tower (right). Collectively, they make excellent backdrops for views of Lake Michigan.
More later – we haven’t finished with Chicago yet.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Horse sense

It sounds like the ultimate in British academia, but it’s actually a tiny village five miles from the sea in bucolic Dorset, an English county named after a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback. The village is called Oxbridge, and it’s so small it doesn’t have a pub, a Post Office or even a phone box, and you had to stand by a window on the top floor to get mobile access. All this is to explain why we’ve been offline for a week. OK, so you didn’t notice.
We were in this 17th century cottage – which is a bit of a misnomer because although it has a thatched roof, it’s not exactly a humble Hardy-esque hovel. It’s got an Aga kitchen, a walk-in fireplace on which you could spit-roast an ox and a lounge the size of a basketball court.
The surrounding countryside is fantastic for walking – subject to two major drawbacks: one, it rained all week; and two, after our English summer the surrounding fields were quagmires. We did venture out once but got lost, then spotted a carved wooden sign saying “Oxbridge 1m.”. We finally emerged at the other end two hours later, after I had slipped backwards into Wellie-deep, willie-deep mud and been dragged out by the DG at the other end of her umbrella. Our attempt to avoid the rest of the path led to our getting lost again in soggy fields of malevolent, face-slapping corn, to finish up at exactly the same mud-bath as before.
What? Of course we're going back next summer.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Getting back on the horse

Now I understand how Captain Scott felt when he got to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had been there already and was on his way home. The book I’ve been researching and writing for the past four years just came out. But it doesn't have my name on it.
It’s the writer’s nightmare – that someone else is working on exactly the same subject as you and that their book will come out a few months before yours. (I published my first article touching on this subject in April 1999.) You watch the archives and borrowings of relevant books from the libraries to see if anyone else is taking out the same ones, and it seemed that nobody was: that’s because they’d already had them years before.
It’s by Carol Burnell and it’s called Divided Affections: The Extraordinary Life of Maria Cosway, Celebrity Artist and it’s published by Column House, Lausanne. She has been working on it for, not four, but twelve, years, and it shows. I almost wished I could say it was badly written and sloppily researched, but it’s scrupulously researched, lovingly written and beautifully illustrated. I haven’t finished reading it yet but it’s clearly a tour de force and will be the definitive work on Cosway herself, and leading figures in late 18th century European art and politics - and of course Cosway and Jefferson.
Ah well – you know what they say when you’re thrown by a horse.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The secret is out

You heard it here first. We said it on May 19, 2006, again on June 2, 2006, May 25, 2007 and again on June 3, 2008. (That’s not an editorial “we” – or even a Nintendo one – it’s “we” as in the DG and I). You will already have realised that this is about our second favouritest town in England – even if most of it isn’t: Hay-on-Wye.
Hay is in the news lately. There's this survey they do every year to find the happiest town in the country. This year the first place, at the top of the short list of 273, is none other than Hay-on-Wye in the county of Wopsy – whoops, I think that should be Powys. Good news and bad, of course: good that its qualities have been recognised at last, but bad in that this is probably the end of Hay as we know it. It was OK hidden in the total obscurity of the RW blog, but BBC1 did a feature on it the other morning and now its fame has spread throughout the whole English-speaking world and the USA. Things will never be the same.

This is to warn you about Hay. Don’t even think of going there – they speak a funny language with a consonant-to-vowel ratio of a thousand to one. It never stops raining; the spring lamb chops are inedible and nobody speaks to you – they’ve all got their noses stuck in books.
Don’t take my word for it, listen to Boubacar Touré. Who is Boubacar Touré? you ask. Only president of the Timbuktu Twinning Association, that’s who. Hay is twinned with Timbuktu. Why? Because every town in Britain is twinned with somewhere; because it provides excuses for exotic trips for overworked local councillors; and because, at least according to the twinocrats, both towns are interested in books and they’re both on rivers. But old Boubacar tells it like it is. He said on a recent visit to Hay that there are also some differences. "We have sand, Hay has mud and trees and it's cold," he said.
Hay for the hayseeds.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Jumping to Occlusions

Dear Tony,
You remember your speech at the Labour Party conference in September 1999 - when you promised “everybody will have easy access to an NHS dentist within the next two years”? The BBC headed it “NHS Dentistry for All” and there was rejoicing throughout the land, especially among pensioners.
I did have an NHS dentist at the time, whom I'd been with for many years. Then he retired, and overnight his practice went 100% private. At the same time, by an amazing coincidence, my teeth suddenly jumped from a six-monthly check and clean to an urgent programme of occlusions, extractions, root canal treatment and preventative orthodontry. Cleaning became "Dental Hygiene".
I couldn't understand how you would treble the number of dentists in just two years, so I thought I’d check your progress. Finding an NHS dentist at all was difficult, but we eventually found one. And they could see me - in two months’ time. Not exactly “easy access”, Tone.
Well, the two months were up yesterday. “Oh, yes, we can do this on the NHS. But you’ll get metal fillings and it will take at least eight weeks – or you can go private, give me £1,070 and I’ll do it whenever you like“.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it”.
“Sure, that’ll be £16.20”.
“But you haven’t done anything”.
Look, Tone, I don’t expect you to do anything about NHS dentistry. I realise you’re busy these days, what with the speeches; having to sort out your mess in Iraq - all those bereaved parents; bringing peace to Palestine, consulting to Corporate America; Emeritus Professoring; keeping the EU from finding out what happened at BAE, and acquiring new mansions, so I don’t expect you to do anything - any more than I expected it in '99. I just thought you'd like to be kept you up to date, and I can't do it tomorrow - I'll be at the dentist's.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

She Stoops to Conker

A school headmaster at Cummersdale in Cumbria, Mr Shaun Halfpenny, has thwarted the efforts of the Health and Safety police by issuing safety goggles to his pupils, thus clearing the way for the introduction of Conkers into the school curriculum. Having yawned through the Olympic Games Finals of the Mountain Bike and BMX, I think it’s time to consider the inclusion, not only of Conkers, but other long-neglected playground sports into the Olympics programme for London 2012. With our trees groaning with horse-chestnuts after the wet summer, it’s not too early to start training.
The said headmaster’s name suggests that the time may also be propitious to campaign for the acceptance of Shove-ten-p (formerly Shove-ha’penny) into the Olympic schedule.
As host nation, the opportunity is, well, golden. We should be campaigning now for the acceptance of other quintessentially British sports, (though I’m not sure about cricket). Tiddleywinks, for example: if jobless teenagers were busy tiddling their winks on street corners there would be less knife crime.
The only problem is that if the IOC were to allow the above classifications, the fiendish frogs would lobby for inclusion of their much more lethal sports, such as Boules, or its Provençal variant, Boules Carrées, (square boules), designed for mountainous regions to avoid the boules from rolling down-hill. (It's true - the Boules Carrées World Championships are being held in Cagnes-sur-Mer this weekend.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Scots Wha' Hae

The party’s over and we’re back in rainy Windsor, which is only slightly less wet than Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival was great fun – not just the Book Festival but THE Festival. So much going on – allegedly 1200 venues – and that wasn’t the Festival proper - only the Fringe. We had only time to see five of them, but they were all brilliant, especially a couple of plays: Air Swimming and You Don’t Need to Know That – a Kafka-esque tale of a guy who failed to fill in a form that he had never been sent and finished up on the guillotine. Reminded me of the fascist antics of Wachovia Bank – now threatening to “disable” my account and impound the $7000 that’s in it. (Perhaps they didn’t like my blog.) Even managed to survive the shock of going down to breakfast and bumping into John Prescott.
Ah yes – the Edinburgh International Book Festival: we were the same price as Prescott but the BOSGOF was better value – buy one Scouser, get one free. It went rather well, despite the fact that we were in the graveyard slot at 8.30 pm. Not quite a sell-out crowd but an excellent turnout, no one walked out, no eggs were thrown and – as Nicholas confirms, (Comment, below) - we flew the flag for our natal city.

Which is more than I can say for Everton yesterday.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What's the plural of Scouse?

In case it has escaped your notice, the Edinburgh International Book Festival starts this Saturday, August 9. This is undoubtedly one of the key literary events of the year. Edinburgh is the place to be in August, especially this year, because on Monday, August 11, you will be able to see two Scouse authors for the price of one. Nicholas Murray, novelist, historian and biographer (of Bruce Chatwin, Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Andrew Marvell and others), will be talking about his latest book A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of the Empire, a colourful collection of real-life accounts of travel in the Victorian age. Joining Nicholas on the stage of the Peppers Theatre on Monday evening will be your genial blog-host, talking about - What was it now? Oh yes - my book The French Riviera: a Literary Guide, a virtual literary tour of the Riviera covering the lives and work of the many writers who found inspiration there. Afterwards, both of us will be signing our books in the Festival bookshop.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Monday, August 11th, 8.30pm. Hope you can make it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


The Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Sport and Capital Letters, Andy Burnham, in an interview in The Times today, lists his interests: “Everton, the Labour Party and the Catholic Church – in that order”, he says. Well, one right out of three isn’t bad for a Government Minister - and at least he had the order right. It should qualify him for the post of party leader, except that he's not only English, but Scouse.

In case it escaped your attention, this is my 250th post. No, no, please, no fuss, flowers or fireworks. I wish I hadn’t mentioned it now – I can just hear you saying “And this is after 2½ years’ practice?”

Speaking of posts, I was standing in the queue at the Post Office last week and I saw these marker pens. Ah yes, I need marker pens, I say, and pick them up. But by the time I get to the counter I’ve found, on a label containing seven words, not one but two grammatical errors. I point out to the clerk that “pens” is plural, not singular, and that the plural of “CD” is “CDs”.
The clerk is unimpressed, and Italian. He says what the lady in Marks and Spencer said when I complained about the “Ten articles or Less” sign. “Do you want them or don't you?” he asks.
It’s my doryphoria again. Interesting word – means being excessively pedantic: it’s derived from the Greek word for a spear carrier. So why don’t we call spear carriers “doryphores” instead of “spear carriers”? What’s worse is that it also means Colorado beetle, despite the fact you never see a Colorado beetle, nor me, carrying a spear. Confusing.

But it’s not all bad news: Premiership football is only four weeks away.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A matter of form

We all know how big business goes out of its way to make itself inaccessible to its customers - try making a complaint to Microsoft or France Telecom. I sympathise totally with the man who drove his Mercedes into the dealer’s showroom – through the window – in an attempt to get their attention.
I’ve been wondering how to get the attention of my bank.
I used to use a friendly local bank in rural Pennsylvania where they were helpful and efficient and gave you peppermints - and didn’t charge seniors checking fees.
Then, a few years ago, it was eaten up by an ugly giant bank, promising greater efficiency, more security, high tech online facilities etc.
The ugly giant is called Wachovia Bank - a name that would be much more appropriate if spoonerised.
I’ve been trying to use these supposedly secure online services – but the trouble is they're so secure you can’t use them. When I try to register they tell me I’m already registered, but when I try to log on they tell me my e-mail address is wrong!
When I try to ring the "toll-free" number (which is not toll-free but very expensive), after 20 minutes pushing cascade buttons, a dalek voice tells me to hit a key that doesn’t exist on a French 'phone. And when I e-mail – this is the worst – they reply with a standard form letter.

“I regret we were unable to fully assist you via email”, it says; then, incredibly, “If there is anything else that we can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact us. Have a great day."

It goes on: “I value your business as a Wachovia customer and look forward to
continuing to serve your financial needs.” Yes, “continuing”!

"If you have additional questions or concerns, please contact us via e-mail”.
But when I do so, they send another form letter. Their form letters are all the same – except that they have a random name generator which selects from a list of tasteful female first names, so they appear to come from some nice, caring lady with a '40s Hollywoodish name like Barbara, Audrey or Alison. When I say “Please, Marilyn, I beg you, do not send me another form letter”, the reply is – Aw, you guessed it.

Now they have the gall to start taking $5 out of my account every month because it’s a “dormant account”. Whose fault is that?

In New York last year, I thought I’d foil the system. I walked right into their branch on Sixth like I used to do in Paoli, PA. They said mine was not one of their account numbers! Remember the name: Bachovia Wank. The funny thing is, I’ve been trying to send them money.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Crakow dawn

We spent the summer solstice, (they call it “Wankia”, which is not as bad as it looks - I’m told just means White Night), in Poland, in a city called Crakow – so nice it makes you wonder why all those Polish people decide to come and live in Birmingham or Slough. Slough doesn’t have a gallery on anything like the scale of the Czartoryska Museum with its Breughels, da Vinci, Rembrandts, etc. In fact Slough doesn’t have a gallery at all.
And, unlike our language, Polish is so easy – word order is voluntary and there are no articles - definite or indefinite. The only slight problem is in trying to speak it. Our stop was Plac (square, that’s easy) Wszystkich Swiętych - even the tram drivers couldn’t say it. It made Casablanca’s Bashri Ibrahimi seem child’s play.

We took a 140 kilometre side trip. What do you say when people ask about your day? “Great”? “Terrific day out – enjoyed it immensely”? No, not if the visit was to Auschwitz. It’s something you do because you feel you should - unlike its earlier guests, who didn't have a choice.
In fact it was a beautiful day, and a pleasant journey – early harvest being gathered, hilltops perched by ancient castles and brooding monasteries…
Then you see the railway sidings, and the ramps where they opened the cattle trucks. Their journey was as different from ours as it’s possible to get: up to five days without food or water and no comfort stops. On the ramps, the cargo – Gypsies, Jews, Polish political prisoners, foreign resistance, prisoners of war (Geneva convention - what’s that?) - was “sorted”. Women, children and incapacitated males to the right, able-bodied males to the left, to be hired out as slaves to the IG Farben plant down the road.
The women were further sorted – the able-bodied became slaves and the rest rejoined the old, pregnant, disabled and the children. They were the lucky ones: their journey was nearly over.
Before the visit, we too are sorted: first by language, then by destination: Auschwitz and Birkenau here, Saltmines over there. Wear your badge and remember your bus number. But our numbers are self-adhesive - not tattoos.
The overwhelming impression is of Teutonic efficiency – mountains of no-longer-needed suitcases here; of shaven hair there (to line the overcoats of our brave soldiers on the Russian front); spectacles here; shoes there; prosthetic limbs here; teeth (after gold removal), there. In the end, when there was nothing left but naked bodies, they were gassed and shoved, by able-bodied fellow-prisoners, into incinerators – 30,000 bodies a night when on full production. The ashes went to the IG Farben factory to be made into fertiliser. (Farben thought the SS were charging too much, so they in-sourced the operation: they opened their own concentration camp.) It is recycling gone mad.

Back in our comfortable hotel room, watching those lavish, meaningless corporate image ads on CNN, we wonder what IG Farben’s corporate ad would look like. “Our most important asset is our workforce – until they drop dead”? “Half a century’s experience in unnatural gas”? But you don’t see these ads because it’s not called IG Farben any more – today it’s called Bayer or Hoechst.

When the Russians arrived in 1945, out of 1.5 million former inmates, there were only 7,500 left, including 90 pairs of identical twins. Of the 15,000 Russian prisoners of war there remained 90.
Of the 7,000 guards there remained, of course, none.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Hay wane

Another Hay is over (sorry, never got around to telling you about Milan. It's a wonderful city, the Pinacoteca di Brera art museum is one of the best anywhere, La Scala is on Verdi Street, and that's the Victor Emmanuel Gallery over on the left - a sort of up-market shopping mall). Yes, Hay waned and we've already booked for next year. New readers start with my post for May 25, 2007: this year's was the same only wetter and windier. As it's all under canvas, this means that the car parks closed and the rain on the roof and the wind flapping the canvas made things pretty inaudible at times, which was an advantage if you've come to hear Cherie Blair - which we hadn't. We did go with what we thought were open minds to hear John Bolton, but they didn't stay open - I just hate him more than I did. Some guy tried to make a citizen's arrest for complicity in crimes against humanity but a bunch of hefty SS men dressed as stewards grabbed him. (The guy, not Bolton - that would have been news) We didn't bother with Jimmy Carter because we didn't think he would be worth £50 - even at only half the price of Bill Clinton, but we liked a lot of things - in particular a documentary-in-the-making called Jazz Baroness, featuring Monk, Parker and others. But once again we've come back burdened with more books than we have room for, so we're having a book sale to make room for them. What am I bid for a 1998 Michelin Red Hotel Guide - in pristine condition?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ford - or Trabant?

It took me 4½ hours to get to Cannes on Saturday – normal time
one hour – for the last 10km of which I had to leave the car and catch a bus – which took two hours.
You guessed it: it’s the annual bunfight known as the Cannes Film Festival. Hotels, quintuple-priced, are jammed, not to mention the fancy villas. For example, Château Microsoft, otherwise known as Chez Ballmer, which faces us across the bay on Cap Ferrat, housing, this week only – according to Riviera Radio - Brad Pitt and the very preggie Angelina Jolie (How do you get a nice name like Jolie? You start with a name like Voigt.) and entourage. The USS Microsoft lies just offshore awaiting their every whim. Here’s a picture so you can glimpse the sort of good cause that your generous contributions are supporting.

On Saturday the Film Festival was less crowded than usual. No, not because Harrison Trabant was indisposed but because of the vast crowd attending the Big Book Signing at La Gaude. Those who know about these things decided to spurn a 65-year-old super-hero for a slightly more mature writer. An animated - and thirsty - gang of literary connoisseurs assembled at the Villa Luciane, including the hostess, Chantal Paillard; the illustrator, Bernard Payet (who also exhibited his original works for the book); and an anonymous Riviera writer. They were up in the foothills of the Maritime Alps celebrating the six-month anniversary of the launch of the well-known The French Riviera: A Literary Guide (ISBN 978-1-84511-455-8).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Oh ye of little faith

On January 21, I announced what I thought would be Everton’s historic but short-lived arrival in fourth place of the Premiership. “Historic” and "short-lived" because no-one gets into the Big Four unless they’re dripping in money or foreign-owned or both. Sure enough, the People’s Club, owned and run by mere Brits, went down to fifth. But what’s incredible is that they stayed there, and yesterday the season finished - with the Blues STILL fifth.
They did a fantastic job, but special congratulations go to their Scottish (well, nobody’s perfect) manager, David Moyes, who won the prestigious Fink Tank Best Manager Award, for gaining the most points per pound spent.
I've nothing against the Big Four – in fact I love them all, except Man. U. – but in that sort of company, Best of the Rest is pretty good.

We’re off to Milan. No, we’re not really realtor-dodging – we always go away Pentecost weekend because we have some neighbours who always come Pentecost weekend. We board the train at our local Villefranche Dinky Toy station; but the train stops at Menton on this French side of the border and everyone has to get off. An anouncement says it can’t go any further because Italian Railways are on strike. With a couple of kilometres to go to the border and most people going only to the market in Ventimiglia – a further eight km. on the other side of it, about half waited for a promised bus, and the other half – which included us – headed for the Menton bus station.
The best we could do there was get a very crowded bus to Garavan, about 200m. from the border. Across the border there’s another split. About half decide to wait for the local bus to Ventimiglia, the rest – including us - decide to walk there. We didn’t know at the time that the Italian buses were also on strike, but with train tickets to Milan and hotel paid for, we were too mean to take a chance, so off we set with the rest in a remake of Exodus. Differences: while Charlton Heston may have had the Red Sea, he didn’t have a suitcase with dodgy wheels and it wasn’t uphill all the way.
We had planned to call a cab from Latte, 5k along the way, but with 200 metres to go, along came a mirage with a Mercedes emblem on the front and the word TAXI on the roof and in ten minutes we were in XXmiglia. But it was market day: the traffic was at a standstill, so we had to walk the last 500 metres!
At the station we find the strike will end at 1 o’clock and there's a train to Milan at three. It was quite a lunch.
And what about Milan? That will have to be the next post – I’m on sympathy strike just now.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The shaming of the true

It is a well-known fact – and was put on the public record by my cardiologist in the spring of 1996 that I am “inordinately fond of cheese”. I thought it an elegant turn of phrase and have since been known to use it myself, but of course never failing to credit the assumed author.
But it would seem that Dr Ilsley could be a plagiarist.
There I was, innocently looking up how to catch a shrew alive – I’ve already got one, but hell, you can’t have too many – when I came upon, in the section on shrew-catching on page 18 of a book called Small Mammals, by Adrian Barnett and John Dutton - published in January 1995 (remember that, it’s significant) the following phrase: “contrary to popular opinion rodents are not inordinately fond of cheese".
Of course, it’s possible that the good doctor – which he is – could, exactly one year later, have coined the expression himself. But it’s much more romantic to think that he took the trouble to hone his micro-surgical skills on field-mice, and consequently was able to save my life.
If they sue, he can count on me as a character witness - if I'm still around.

Off to Milan tomorrow, ostensibly for some Gothic churches, parmigiano and Jack Daniel's, but it's really to escape real-estate salemen. See you next week.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Caid mille failte

It’s my Mum’s birthday today. She would be 118 years old if she were alive - so I guess it's a good thing she's not. She hasn’t had the same coverage as Dad because she died much earlier so I knew him for longer. But she was as much a part of what I am as he was. If he was me, the brakes, she was the accelerator; he, hermit, she, gregarious. They were both Celts, but he was the Welsh one and she was Irish.
They lived in an era before the word “baby-sitter” was invented - when having kids was the whole point, not a temporary interruption of your social life. (A young relative complained recently that she couldn’t go somewhere because she had to babysit. When asked for whom she was sitting, it turned out that she would have to look after her own child!) That’s how lucky we were - Nancy and Walter made a lifetime career of my brothers and me. I’m no judge of how well they did it, except that I wish my own kids had had something as good.
They were a traditional working class couple – in those days a wife who worked was a reflection on the husband’s manhood. But she did – she cleaned for Mirabel Topham, who lived on - and owned - my school-holiday playground, Aintree Racecourse.
My memories of Sunday nights in 58 Arthur Street, Walton, are of ceilidhs, though they may not have happened every Sunday, except in my nostalgic haze. My mother was Scouse-Irish, and on those – let’s call them occasional - Ceilidh nights our little house would shake to the Gaelic music on Radio Eireann, to which Mum, aunts and assorted expatriate Micks would dance - or sometimes sing. That “shake” was literally true, because someone – usually Jimmy Gardner, to whom - for he was the tallest – would be deputed the task of pushing back the wet-battery radio to stop it falling off the sideboard. We kids were usually in bed at the time, but missed nothing, and heard, rather than saw, the ceilidh, but my mental image of the scene was of something between Riverdance and Gaelic football on rollerskates.
The signal for the end of the evening was the midnight time signal followed by what I used to think was a jolly nice quickstep, but know now was Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem. Even now I still can’t hear it without a momentary flashback. Happy Birthday Mum.

Monday, May 05, 2008

This is not this

I just realised that if you Google me in search of this blog, you may get a page on Writers Weekly which indicates that I have contributed to its Forum six times since 2004.
Except that I haven’t - it's a coincidence. The author, it seems, is one Heather Stimmler-Hall. Ms Stimmler-Hall, although she has a far more distinctive name than mine, has a rather similar profile – travel writer, lives in France, (it doesn't say Everton, but, being from Phillie she could be an Eagles fan, which is as good) and uses the handle "rivierawriter". Since it seems she has been using it for four years to my three, she probably has more right to it than I. There are other differences: her picture’s a give-away for a start. It’s as much like me as Dorian Gray’s was to him, and it’s clear to even the most visually challenged that this is no TJ in disguise.
So I hope we can continue to enjoy our respective places in Blogland and that she’ll trust me not to bask in her fame or accept any work that is rightfully hers. I just wanted to say I chose the name innocently because that’s where I live and what I do sometimes.

Talking about distinctive names, Joan Hunter-Dunne died last month. She had obituaries in all the posh broadsheets; The Times (OK, not a broadsheet now, but still posh), The Sunday Times, The Guardian and even a leader in the Telegraph. What did she do? Well – er, nothing really. In her 92 years, her only claim to fame was that she worked in the same government office as a future poet laureate, John Betjeman, who, without knowing who she was, heard her name and, enchanted by its hypnotic, train-like ca-diddly-dah metre, wrote a poem that began “Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun”.
Philip Larkin was much impressed. and Joan might have gone on to even greater literary fame, had she not ruined it all by marrying a man called Jackson. “Joan Jackson” didn’t have the same cachet - or metre - so that was the end of her career as a muse. It could have been worse – she might have married someone called Jones. Not a name that's going to get you an obit. in The Times.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Don't bank on it

I have a lot of problems with my Bank – not the least of which is their staff’s infuriating habit of calling it “Haitch SBC”. (I resolved that at the first opportunity, I would ask the management why their staff training didn’t include advising people the name of the firm they work for - but the next manager I spoke to also called it “Haitch SBC”.)
With staff exhaling violently whenever they announce themselves, their call centres must be like wind-tunnels.
But collective aspiration is a minor irritation. Another problem is their web-site. Why do so many big companies have user-hostile websites while smaller ones are usually much easier to use? OK, their businesses are less complicated, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who used to scream at the British Airways screen, “Go and look at Easyjet’s”. In the end they did, and it shows. Perhaps HSBC should look at Nationwide’s.
But the site's most annoying idiosyncrasy – of many - is the way it asks you, in the middle of whatever you’re doing, if you would prefer NOT to be logged off. If you happen to be looking elsewhere at the time, you’re off.
(The creeping "haitch" is not confined solely to HSBC - a guy in Curry’s the other day tried to sell us a TV that was “Haitch D ready” – it sounds like a folk singer. I wouldn’t buy anything from a guy who says “Haitch D ready” even if he didn’t have halitosis.)
Not only that, but the words he should have aspirated, like "have" or "here", he pronounced "'ave" and "'ere".

I’m enjoying a Christmas present, Passionate Minds, about Voltaire’s affair with Emilie, Marquise de Châtelet – one of the first women physicists - in the early 18th century. Writing about the Enlightenment period, author David Bodanis says, “In writing your thoughts in a letter rather than in a private, confessional diary, you’re showing that you’re proud enough […] to expect that other people will want to hear what you’re expressing, about yourself. Emilie wrote an immense number of such letters[…]”
Sounds like she was also the first woman blogger.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Could I have a word?

Things are not going too well domestically. In fact things are grim. Every year we start a new series of Scrabble and it’s my unspoken resolution to win the Scrabble World Series, but I never get further than Most Promising Newcomer – which, considering I was one of its Beta testers when it was launched, is stretching it a bit.
What’s even more galling is that back in January I was leading 10 games to 9 and rehearsing my lap of honour. Then she won the next seven games on the trot. The score now is DG 22; Wordsmith 15.
I may have identified the problem: I discovered only last night that there are four “u” tiles in the set. All these years I've had the unshakeable belief that there were five. And, since all my favourite words have multiple “u”s – crepuscule, unguent, pustulate, unctuous, and my ultimate favourite, curmudgeon (which she says is appropriate because I am), I consider myself unfairly handicapped. Either that or there were five and she’s hidden one.
The solution came to me last night. From tomorrow – can’t tonight, it’s the big footy match – we adopt the European system. She will play with the tile set she knows and loves. Mine will be Polish.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

BA humbug

I did a post a couple of years ago warning people to watch out for guys – it’s always guys – with diminutive names. (Unless of course they’re jazz musicians.)
At the time I meant politicians. (You knew where you were with Mark Antony - he didn’t call himself “Markey”; it was that Pompey who was up to no good.) But who would trust a guy called Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach at the time? And if he’s a double-diminutive, like his predecesor, Charley Haughey, you have to be twice as wary.
Now Bertie, whom Charley called “the most skilful, […] devious[…] and cunning” of politicians, (from Charley, praise indeed), has quit over “unexplained transactions” of about £600,000.
What I said in 2006 was
‘He said it was “a misjudgement”. First it was “only $60,000”, then “a speaking fee”, then “an unsolicited gift to help me over my separation” then “a loan”. Now, it’s a misjudgement.’
But Bertie’s replacement is obviously a man on whom you can depend: he has the solid, diminutiveless name of Brian Cowen. But according to my news bible, The Week, it seems he’s not known as Brian Cowen. In political circles they call him “Biffo” – an acronym for “the Big Ignorant Fucker From Offaly”.
Meanwhile, highly-paid British Airways PR consultants are trying to hide their new Chief Exec because of the Terminal 5 debacle. (Following on the “Gate Gourmet” and the “wearing a cross on your necklace” debacles - which admittedly weren't on his watch.) Next it’ll be the "Great Third Runway Debacle". I’d like to write to him to complain about aircraft noise, but he’s the diminutively-named Willie Walsh.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Weather retort

I took this picture three days ago, when the bay didn’t look like it does now. It’s been raining most of the time since then: at times you can’t see the other side of the bay. I’m not looking for sympathy – in fact I no longer tell people in England when we have bad weather. They have this conspiracy. “It’s beautiful here”, they all say – whether it is or not. They don’t actually say, “Na na ni na na – serves you right for gloating about your weather all these years”, but you can tell by the smug tone that it’s there.

It’s tough being a football manager. Steve MacLaren, when he was England coach, once – just once - carried a huge umbrella, quite reasonably, to keep the rain off his Simpson’s suit. The tabloids made him the national wuss. Even the Guardian, no less, gave “Sheltering under an umbrella” one of the ten reasons why he should not be England manager. (Although some of its other reasons - like playing Joleon Lescott - have since been endorsed by the new manager.)
The result is that ambitious football managers, if they want the England job, have to stand out in wind and rain in just their suits - like poor Gareth Southgate last weekend, catching pneumonia, while the ones who’ve already made it – like the nose-picking knight – can be snug in their Umbro-supplied anoraks.

Jones's Law

I once had dinner with Gilbert Northcote Parkinson, author (this for those under forty) of Parkinson's Law. In awe of the best-selling humorist, I spent days preparing for an evening of merry banter. The food was excellent, but it was a long and tedious meal: I assumed my repartee had failed to bring out his latent humour, but later consoled myself with the thought that funny writers are not funny in person because they're too busy worrying about what funny stuff they're going to write next or in which tax haven they're going to live. Over the years I have derived much comfort from assuming that the converse is equally true: that the reason I can't write funny is because I'm such hilarious company.

I didn't write this either - I stole it from the Sunday Times:
Doctor: "You're going to die".
Patient: "I'd like a second opinion".
Doctor: "You're ugly".

We had fun over dinner last night with the thought that British place names don't appear in song titles because, unlike American ones, they're not glamorous. It explains, for instance, why "By the time I get to Wigan" never made it to No 1; nor, I guess, will "Sunderland, Oh Sunderland" or "In my mind I'm goin' to Wolverhampton".
Penny Lane anyone?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

I spent ten years in New Zealand (for the same offence today you’d probably get eight and be out in four) and when I got back to England I found that when I asked for a pen, someone would give me a pin. I had caught IVS – the dreaded Irritable Vowel Syndrome.
It’s an illness that affects all Kiwis; it’s highly contagious, and the only cure is expatriation. We saw how quickly it affected Ian Botham and David Gower when they covered the recent series of Tist Metches.
You don't feel a thing - it strikes at your vowel movements: IVS sufferers transform the letter “a” into an “e”; “e” into “i”; “i” into “o”; “o” into “u”; “u” becomes “a” - or disappears completely. Thus: Wan p’lls beck th’ cendlewock bidsprid, gits ap, drissed, end cetches thu bas tu wurk. Somple, usn’t ut?

Thet’s ut for thus wik – but you can see how cetching ut us - must stop now before my Spellcheck overheats. Next week: double vowels - “oe”, “ou” etc., and how to distinguish a Kiwi from an Oz. (Th’ Kiwis are the wans thet lit as wun Tist Metches.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Once more unto the beach

As the English winter goes into what seems to be its 10th month, I’ve been turning grumpy. “If you’re so rude about the French”, asked a puzzled but loyal reader, “how come you can’t wait to get there?” Easy – I’m not rude about the French: I may not be mad about Sarko, but then I’m not crazy about most politicians, whatever their nationality or party. In fact, French pols are probably closer to the will of the people than ours are: at least they didn’t join George and Tony’s war while a million people walked the streets in protest. And yes, I have more French friends than English ones; and yes, perhaps I should give Sarko a decent chance. He’s certainly making the right noises, which is more than you could say for his predecessor: and his predecessor – the famous Resistance hero - was even worse. Meanwhile we Poms can’t talk: we have the man who isn’t Blair – or anyone else for that matter. But all will be well next week – just one look at that blue water and I’m Monsieur Nice.

Shoot-out at the Old Kop corral No one likes political posts, so, to the Matter of the Greatest Importance in the RW household.
The MGI is that Everton are fifth in the table - two points behind Liverpool, who are fourth, and there remain only seven games to play. Only the top four teams go into the Champions League. You get the picture.
On Sunday afternoon, the two play each other for the 207th time. If the Blues beat the Reds, we (I mean "they") go a point ahead and become fourth. If the other way round, Everton go five points behind. Wife is a Reds supporter – bless: she was very young at the time. It was built into the (unwritten) pre-nuptial agreement that I am forbidden from making disparaging remarks about them, even if they are a foreign-owned and –coached bunch of overpaid prima donnas, awash with money that you'd think they might be sharing with their poorer neighbours and – until 1892 – landlords. Now - another pillar of the pre-nup is the Exception to the Non-Disparagement Rule: that it does not apply when the two play each other. Now can you feel the tension?
Even had to iron my own blue shirt.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Stance and Circumpomp

We had a distinguished visitor in Windsor today: the vertically-challenged president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife, Carla Bruni - so we went along to show a bit of entente cordiale. The Castle pulled out all the ceremonial stops – bands, cavalry, parades. Not Sarko. The last time I saw a republican president in this country it was William J. Clinton, and he did a walk-about and shook hands with us all. Not Sarko: he was met by the Queen at the railway station but, contrary to the advertised schedule, arrived by car, decided to stay at the castle one night instead of three, and, instead of travelling in the open coach with the Queen, skulked in the back of an enclosed carriage. At least he was polite enough to discard the Ray-bans – they're not an absolute necessity in Windsor. If there’s not much of him to see in bright sunshine, as the pic shows there’s even less in a shrouded coach.
Mrs S was a different item - I guess her name would translate into Charlie Brown. They went up to London to meet the PM. If he’d called in the Defence minister they’d have had three of a kind.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Au revoir Maroc

Take-away chicken We were kindly invited to Larache this weekend - it’s up north near Tangier - but we refused, mainly because it would be an eleven-hour round trip and we go home tomorrow. But there's another reason: the Rough Guide to Morocco advises that, if invited out, it’s considered polite to take food - and recommends a live chicken. The thought of sitting on a train holding a live chook for 5½ hours was too much. At least we wouldn't have to bring it back.

Tomorrow we swap our cloudless skies and 22 degree temperatures for rainy, 8ーdegree London. We’ll miss Casablanca. We’ve had fun lampooning the strange, but we’ve really enjoyed the people here. OK, so the odd taxi-driver may have tried to rip us off - just like those in London do - but hardly anyone else. We’ll remember the many acts of kindness: the kid who got us through the labyrinthine Medina of Fes and refused any reward; the passengers on the train who told us to stay put although we were clearly in someone else’s seats and the rightful occupants were standing in the corridor (we moved); Hassan, with whom we've chatted every day, despite the fact that neither party could understand a word the other said. Will we be back next winter? As they say here, inchallah.

Friday, March 07, 2008


In a quandary over Cliff's tag. Because of baggage restrictions, I only have three books with me, and two of them don't have enough sentences on page 123. There's the Casablancan yellow pages - great cast, crap plot - which would bring us into Auto-collants, or Self-adhesives, so it looks like I'm stuck with book three.
It's called Morocco and is a collection of writings about the country. The quote is from Tangier: A Different Way by Lawdom Vaidon, American freelance journalist and table-tennis champion of northern Morocco for seven consecutive years, and tells of a cosmopolitan part of Tangier called Soco Chico, home to fugitive expatriates of various kinds. The first two sentences are about Bill Burroughs, heroin addict and wealthy grandson of the adding machine tycoon.
"He could produce an excellent curry when he felt like it, and though his quarters usually resembled a sea of books, typing paper, temporarily discarded clothes, syringes, needles and the remains of yesterday's spaghetti, he remained a popular host. The 'different' novel that he was writing was published in 1959 as The Naked Lunch.
Everybody in the Soco was respectful to Paul Lund, a self-styled and proved criminal - he had spent three years in Dartmoor - who was on the run from the English Midlands."
Good book as far as it goes, but one editor, Robert Bidwell, died before publication and the other, his wife Margaret, seems to have lost interest in it and didn't even bother with an index. Surprising, really, in view of the fact that the publishers are the eminent TPP, publishers of such unforgettable works as The French Riviera: A Literary Guide, (ISBN 978-1-84511-455-8).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Fes tivities

We stayed in a riad in the old town. They’re a sort of posh B & B, usually hidden down some dark alley in the Medina, and - even after three days of residence - not easy to find. The Riad Arabesque is a former Andalusian/ Moroccan palace tastefully restored, its sumptuous reception hall looking as if Sydney Greenstreet might stroll in at any moment in a crumpled white suit. The first night they told us that dinner would be “special”. It was held in one of the rooms off the hall: singers and oud players - are they oudists? - wandered in and out as we reclined on low couches and more cushions than John Lewis’s; people plying us with Morrocan delicacies like stuffed aubergines, sun-dried tomatoes, and wild artichokes - thirteen dishes in all; at the end of which we could hardly move. That was the starter. After that came the lamb tajine, with which we coped gamely before falling back exhausted into the cushions. That was when the chicken tajine arrived. I recall vaguely refusing various deserts: dates, fruits, etc., and cheese and as we struggled upstairs the DG saying something about surgical intervention, but it’s all something of a blur. Breakfast turned out to be similar, but with only 12 courses. We gave dinner a miss.

Halfway between Fes and the coast is the Meknes wine territory - mile after mile of flat, sunny vineyards which produce most of Morocco’s wine. We knew some of them beore we got here, (even Windsor has a Moroccan restaurant) but we decided to try our luck down-market - and got as far as the Gerouane - red, white, rosé or gris (a near-rosé) - without problems. One of these would cost you 32dh - a whole £2 - but our favourite red is still the Domaine du Sahari Reserve, costing an outrageous 63dh, or £4. We found the answer to what happens to empty bottles: they go in the poubelle - there are no facilities for recycling them. But it still hurts.

It was like missing an open goal and I blew it. Our American friends who live in an eagle’s nest, high above Villefranche, are often telling us that they’ve seen (100-miles-away) Corsica - while we who spend our lives down in the town haven’t seen it since the mid-eighties. But the other day they mailed to say that they saw Elba.
It was probably the only time in my life I’ll have the opportunity to say “And are you now able?”, and I didn't.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fes please

We took the comfortable four-hour train trip to Fes. It’s the oldest of the ancient imperial cities - founded in the ninth century by the great-grandson of Mohammed himself, and from what we could see, not much changed.
In fact there are at least two Feses. When the French took over after 1912, the enlightened French Governor, Hubert Lyautey, decided to leave the old medieval Fes untouched and to build the new French colonial city outside of the old town. (Edith Wharton was so taken with Lyautey that she dedicated her book, In Morocco, to him.) There are only three kilometres between the old town and the new, but the difference is striking: one modern, prosperous, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, fountains and pavement cafes; the other the seething Medina, the ancient Arab quarter - the quarter is ancient, not the Arabs - its narrow streets so winding and undulating that it’s impossible, even with a compass and solar navigation, to keep one’s bearings for more than a few minutes. It doesn’t help, either, that the streets and landmarks are hardly ever labelled, or if they are, it’s in some Jackson Pollock-like script like the product of a leaky paint tin. Your only hope is that some ten-year-old kid will take pity on you and ask what you are looking for. Then the challenge is to remember the name of the mosque (of which there are over 400) that you were so confident of remembering when you read about it the previous evening.
Such is the topography of the Medina that the only practicable means of transport is donkey-powered. Sad-looking - but then, what have they got to laugh about? - spindly-legged donkeys and mules squeeze by, almost invisible under their huge loads, while recumbent on top of it all is the animal’s owner. When Napoleon called the English “a nation of shopkeepers”, he obviously hadn’t seen Morocco. The souks consist of miles upon miles of tiny stalls, their size seeming still to fit Mark Twain’s description when he was here in the 1860s: “about that of an ordinary shower-bath in a civilised land” (in Twain's view there was only one civilised land). Every fourth shop seems to be a shoe store - just like the shopping malls at home except that there’s not a chain store in sight.
Among the seething crowds of locals, tourists are comparatively rare - but they’re there, in their M & S chinos and Panama hats, Indian-filing behind their guide like baby ducklings. As a group passed us, someone called out the first English words we'd heard in three weeks: “donkey-poo”. And the warning was passed down the line: “donkey-poo, everybody”.
Most people wear floor-length, hooded djellabahs, the men's woollen, those of the women - in scarves but not veils - lighter-coloured and more decorative, and the girls wear smaller replicas. The young guys wear baseball caps and football shirts bearing names like Beckham and Ronaldinho.
But I never saw anyone wearing a Fez.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A refuse you can’t offer

We tend to accumulate - not excessively but on a fairly regular basis - wine bottles. This is not a problem - certainly not in Windsor, where the Council give you a special container and call every Tuesday to empty it; or in France, where you take them to a nearby recyclage. But what to do with them here is a serious and growing problem.
In Morocco, it being a Muslim - and largely boozeless - country, drinks receptacles come in either plastic or cardboard: there's no need for glass bottles, and there are no facilities for recycling them. When it’s only a matter of a honey- or mustard-jar or two, there’s no harm in putting them in with the rubbish. But putting bottles into landfill is something we are now conditioned not to do. We can't leave them for the landlord to dispose of. What to do? Answers on a post card.

As predicted here, Everton beat Manchester City last night and are now back in fourth place, and breathing down the neck of the number three. It’s an over-used word I know, but it really is phenomenal, especially when you think of the money Chelsea and the other big guys spend. I’m surprised that no journalist - as far as I know - has remarked on this phenomenon: though it‘s something Finkelstein may well have done. It seems to me there’s a great story to be written based on the ‘points won per pound spent’ value of our top clubs’ management. When it happens, David Moyes‘s canonization - if not sainthood - should be assured. But there's a cloud on the horizon; a problem more serious than wine bottles. Would this marriage survive both Everton and Liverpool being in the Champions League next year?

Greetings and a message to the faithful reader(s) in Valencia who join us nearly every evening around happy hour and are now north of us for a change: thanks for your interest and support. By the way, what do you do with your empties?
Off to Fès in the morning.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Going places - but not the right ones

Getting around is always a challenge for me. As I tend to get lost easily, I carry a compass and map as if traversing the Gobi desert - even when going to Windsor Post Office. But in Casablanca it’s especially challenging: it’s not only the unfamiliar street names, but the fact that they are in the gradual process of replacing the old French names with Moroccan ones. This means that every street map you get is different depending on when it was printed. Further complications are that not many of the streets are sign-posted anyway, and even the locals do not know the current nomenclature.
The other evening I was having difficulty directing a taxi driver to our street - Bashir Ibrahimi - and, thinking that the problem was my Arabic pronunciation, I asked him what its original name was, so that I could find it on my map. He said. “I don’t know - taxi drivers know only the French names”. (That space under the sign is where the original name - which I now know to be Rue des Quinconces - used to be.)
So the procedure is as follows: find a street that you both know that still has a French name and navigate from there. It‘s a bit like the old Radio Four game, Mornington Crescent:
“Avenue de Londres?”
“Rue Foucaud?“
“Boulevard de la Resistance.”
The other day I had to get to the British Embassy to get something signed. What I had thought was an impeccable pronunciation of “Royaume Uni” was repeated back by the driver as “Roumanie” and off we sped, crammed with our shopping into the back seat of a Fiat Uno, not knowing whether we were on our way to the Roumanian Embassy - or Bucharest.

Je n'egret rien. The DG complains that I am obsessing on storks. There seems to be some controversy about whether they're storks or egrets: can anyone help? But who was it gave me the camera?

Back last December I posted that Everton were fourth in the table. I did it in a hurry because I thought it wouldn't last out the day. Well, they are still fourth, even if - unless they’re playing one of the top three - they continue to appear last on Match of the Day. You can guess why I’m posting this now: Liverpool play Middlesborough later today.
(OK, so now you know I didn’t manage to post this in time. The Reds beat 'boro and we’ve now swapped places with them. But we play Man City tonight...)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Blessed are the pizza makers

They make great pizzas in Rabat, thin and crispy and not smothered in tasteless cheese. All the food is good in fact - I only highlight pizzas because I liked the title - but the best bit is the bill. Salad, sole and filet steak, a good bottle of wine and coffee for two people (that’s one bottle of course) with tip, set us back £24.
Rabat is about 100 kilometres north of Casablanca, but a universe away if measured in terms of civic pride. Wider boulevards, cleaner streets, shallower potholes, clearer air, quieter traffic and more discreet calls to prayer. Perhaps the last two are linked: Oxford City Council is currently debating whether to allow one of the city’s mosques to do its muezzin over loudspeakers. If they do, let it be along the lines of Rabat. Casablancan worshippers are summoned by something along the lines of a Brazilian football commentator on steroids – a noise level that I guess is necessary to compete with all the other street sounds. The DG asked a guy yesterday if they’d ever thought of bells. He smiled indulgently - it’s a national characteristic that no one admits voluntarily that they don’t have something.
The menu last night listed about a dozen items of fish:
“I’ll have the turbot aux fines herbes.”
Shrug. “Sorry, we don’t have turbot.”
“OK. I’ll have the St. Pierre aux champignons.”
“Sorry, no St. Pierre.”
“What kinds of fish do you have?”
At the newsstands, it goes:
“Do you have The Times?” The answer is either “It didn’t come today” or “There are none left”. In three days, we never saw an English paper - which after all isn’t surprising: we haven’t seen a Brit or American, or heard an Anglo-Saxon word since we’ve been in Morocco. It’s doing wonders for our French, if not our Arabic.

That's the 12th century gate to the Kasbah in Rabat. We went to Rabat on Edith Wharton’s recommendation. She was right. New monuments can be impressive, beautiful even: old ones are also moving. The walled town of Chellah, just outside Rabat, for example: first - from 20BC for three centuries - the Romans, then in the 12thC everyone left and it has remained uninhabited ever since. (Well that’s what it says in the guidebooks, but a security man pointed out the house, half-covered in foliage, and garden where the first French Governor, (from 1912) Marshall Hubert Lyautey, had lived - clearly derelict, but far from a 2,000- or 900-year-old ruin.) Edith was very impressed by Chellah; and apparently also by Hubert, whom she knew when she was here in 1917.
But there are other inhabitants who hardly get a mention: hundreds of them. They’re everywhere you look, occupying every height and mating, with a call that’s a strange rattle like a North American woodpecker in low gear. Yes, storks. All that's missing is the hoarse whisperer, David Attenborough.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Isn't she lovely

Everyone asks if we’ve seen the Grand Mosque. We went there yesterday. It’s big - I mean BIG. The nave would comfortably house Wembley and the Giants Stadia and still leave room for Goodison Park, (though perhaps the Emirates would be more apt). It’s also exceptional in that non- Muslims are allowed in, except on Fridays - and I’m glad to say one is allowed, exceptionally, to carry one’s shoes in a bag rather than leave them at the door - much more sensible, (especially during Ramadan, when it can house 25,000 worshippers) than coming outside to find a 50,000-shoe mountain. Especially if you’ve just bought a pair of Bally’s and you aren’t the first out.

Strange things happen in taxis: if there’s an empty seat, people will stop you and - - if you’re going their way - hop in. Very eco-friendly, and presumably helps keeps the price down: the most we’ve paid so far was still less than £2 - for a 5-kilometre trip. Kids approach you at traffic lights, selling roses or paper tissues - and today a guy stopped the car, waited until the driver wound his window down, and said, ‘Madame, Monsieur, I would like to sing you a little song.’ - and bursts into it, accompanied by cab driver on Arabic obscenities. As we speed away, the Casablancan Stevie Wonder just manages to extricate head from taxi in time to prevent it departing therewith. Off to Rabat tomorrow, for, we’re told, a bit of sanity.