Sunday, 28 December 2008

It is a curious fact...

... that in Cantonese, there is no way of saying "my backing singers are in tune":

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Marriage, perception and memory

Surely I cannot be alone in my uneasy feeling that my lawfully wedded spouse and I inhabit parallel universes. This could explain the commercial success of books like "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Newcastle" or whatever the overhyped tomfoolery was called.

The rift in human perception on which it drew was recently brought to mind by a discussion of 'the incident at Heathrow' some years ago during which a caster became disengaged from the bottom of the oversized piece of luggage upon the bottom of which it had started the day.

My recollection is that it was a poorly made piece of luggage, dangerously overloaded by its female owner and unwisely trusted to the vagaries of airport floors and killer baggage carousels rather than the adoption of the sounder policy of keeping your luggage within the limit you can carry and lifting it clear of the floor. While getting out of the lift between the car park and the concourse, a wheel slipped into the gap between lift and floor and broke off, a fact that cannot be in any way blamed on the helpful, chivalrous gentleman attempting to drag it (and three other bags) at the time.

My wife's recollection is that rather than lift the thing clear of the sill 'like someone with common sense', I first got it jammed out of sheer malevolence and then spent fully 20 minutes pulling fruitlessly at it as queues built up around me, until overwhelmed by a combination of my Herculean strength the extent of which I apparently don't realise and the violence of my language - which allegedly attained a command of demotic Anglo-Saxon so advanced that students of linguistics within 200 metres got out pads and pencils and started feverishly making notes as their eyebrows ascended high into the stratosphere - the poor abused suitcase gave up and shed its wheel into the liftshaft where it subsequently 'must have' caused mechanical failure and congestion on a Biblical scale, too vast ever to have been noticed by anyone.

I suspect I can guess which demographic groups will instinctively believe each version.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

On the subject of Slavic music videos...

Before I get over this music video-posting craze and get back to serious blogging - Noted cultural commentator Gadjo Dilo has recently posted some interesting Ukrainian music videos. In a spirit of serious musicology, I would like to share the following video - Russian band ANJ's tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev, dealing with some seriously heavy political and economic issues within the music video form - with the three people in the world who haven't seen it yet:

But for other serious Southeast Asia specialists, I present an interesting art rock US/Cambodian fusion band ("Oh God, not another one" I hear you cry):

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Gyppo's video jukebox...

In a feeble attempt to match the technological nous of others, I hereby present an attempt to get a video to play on here. This is the 'Song of Peace' from Tony Gatlif's 2002 film 'Swing'. I particularly recommend the bit at 3' when Gypsies gatecrash an earnest peacenik 'everyone sing together' exercise with some kick-arse swing. Sharing Tony Gatlif's biases, I thoroughly approve:

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Smartening up rap music

As my colleague and time-wasting companion No Good Boyo has recently explained, he and I have come up with a plot to render rap, hip - and furthermore hop - music socially acceptable by asking the conceptual question "If this was being recited tunelessly over a repetitive rhythm by a decent chap with a sound public-school classical education under his correctly positioned and properly-tightened belt rather than a mumbling ghetto indigene with his trousers slipping down around his unwashed ankles, what words would be used?"

This train of thought led to the previous post, which - arriving unannounced and unexplained like a Burmese baby in a cardboard box on a Tory MP's doorstep as it did - seems to have confused more than it amused.

While Boyo applied his misshapen head to the improvement of Mr Schoolly D's lyrical outpourings (though he was unable to answer my query as to whether the School in question was Charterhouse or Winchester), I turned instead to Mr 50 Cent, duly relabelled 'Mr Ten Shillings'; whose 'In da club' I have thus reworked for a more upmarket-audience, to be sung to an appropriately uplifting tune:

At One's Club
Proceed, young lady chap, it's your birthday
We shall celebrate as if it's your birthday,
We shall sip Chateau Lafitte (the 92) as if it's your birthday,
And you know we're not unduly concerned that it isn't actually your birthday!

You can find one at one's club,
A magnum full of champagne
Look Mater I have a bag of ether,
If you fancy the idea of illegal substances I would not be averse to intimacy
So come give me a hug if you need the application of embrocation
When I park, you see the Bentley badge
Decent chaps heard I put one over on Dre*,
Now their appreciation has appreciated appreciably
When you sell like M&Ms, and the garden tools they wish to use
If you watch how I move you'll mistake me for a professional cricketer...

It continues, but is anyone going to read even this far?

*Presumably Reginald 'Tooler' Dre, leg spinner for Northants 1953-60

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Jeevz N da Hood

It was one of those mornings when, as Jeeves once put it, God's in his heaven and all's right in the world, if that's the phrase I'm after. Jeeves would doubtless know.
When he shimmered in with the morning tea I did detect a certain frostiness about his manner, doubtless the result of his sulking over my purchases of a gold tracksuit, Air Jordans, a Malcolm X baseball cap and copious amounts of bling.
"Dashitall Jeeves - one must move with the times, don't you know. This gear is all the rage at the Drones Club."
"Indeed, sir."
"I mean, Tupac Fotherington-Thomas has promised to teach some of the chaps to break-dance. It's this frightfully jolly dance where you spin round on your head, apparently."
"I fear that Mr Fortherington-Thomas may be unable to impart his skill in that particular exercise of terpsichorean agility today, sir."
"What on earth are you blabbering about, Jeeves?" I retorted. Brainy as the chap may be, he sometimes fails to make sense at all.
"One heard from Mr 'Biggy' Little's manservant Beddoes that Fotherington-Thomas showed disrespect to Mr Little, upon which Mr Little's homies took him for a ride in Mr Little's stretch limo and popped a cap in his mother****ing ass, sir."
I reeled. "Oh I say Jeeves! Hardly the act of a preux chevalier, what?"
"Indeed not, sir."
As I sipped the refreshing brew my head seemed to clear somewhat.
"Yes sir?"
"Do you really think the bling gear is a frost?"
"Yes, sir."
"You'd probably better get rid of it."
"Thank you sir. I already have"

Thursday, 4 December 2008

My life as a French farce

Looking back over what I can remember of my chequered career, the incidents which stand out with the greatest and most appaling clarity are the ones involving the highest degree of buttock-clenching embarrasment.

The one which stands out particularly as being the sort of incident which - if I wrote it into a sitcom script - would be most obviously cut as contrived and implausible, happened when a student couple, both of whom I knew well, split up.

I was in my flat attempting to deal telephonically with a terrible crisis which had befallen a language student friend, and to cope with which I had to buy them a plane ticket home from their 'year abroad', when there was a knock at the door.

It was a tearful young lady - let us call her Beatrix for the sake or argument - who informed me that she had just chucked her boyfriend, an acned youth (let us call him Rodney) whose relationship with the sweet and extremely pretty Beatrix was a mystery to all. "Go and have a seat in the living room", I told her, "I'll be with you in a moment."

I then reapplied myself to the intricacies of coping with the multiple-choice button-pressing telecommunications nightmare that was the BA booking line in the early 90s, when I was interrupted once more by a knock at the door.

I gurgled helplessly as Rodney strode in, saying "I've just split up with Beatrix, I need a drink..." and made his own way to the living room. It was a good 10 minutes before I could join them, during which I gather silent recrimination was the order of the day.

Both eventually forgave me, though never each other, curiously enough.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Glimpses into forgotten worlds - 3

A kind colleague brought an absolute treasure into the office the other day - a copy of Major W. Turner's 1943 "Guide to Military Urdu", including a sample elementary examination paper. It belonged to her father, who served in India during and shortly after WWII.

As you would expect, it is a magnificent collection of phrases which no pith-helmeted, khaki-shorted gentleman should be without:
"Your rifle is dirty, why have you not cleaned it?"
"How many mules have you brought?"
"We shall be able to capture the position in half an hour."
"Tell the men not to clean their rifles with sand-paper."

There are sections devoted to military discipline:
"March the prisoner in."
"You are charged with disobeying the Havaldar's orders"
"- Being absent from parade on Saturday morning."

Bayonet training:
"Don't bend the left arm so much."
"Keep the right arm against the butt."
"Make the 'withdraw' in the same line as you pointed."

Anti-gas training:
"What is the first aid for mustard gas casualties?"

And enrolment of new troops:
"You will not allow your caste usages to interfere with military requirements."
"Look here! I am going to ask you six questions. You will have to answer them truthfully."

But overall - disappointingly - it lacks the crusty, bat-stretching insanity of the slightly earlier "Malay Made Simple" or "The Modern Pushtu Instructor".

Until we get to the sample examination. Here, we start to get slightly more entertaining phrases:
"He got up and threw an orange at the Havildar."
"We hoped that the train would start again, quickly, as we saw a man coming towards us. when he got near, we all began to sing."

Best of all is a story regaring a man's ill-advised kindness towards a snake on a cold day, which concludes:
"The man got very angry and killed the evil snake with a stick. That snake was just like the Japanese. We must remember this story, and never let the Japanese get into our homes."

I showed this to Mr Shandonger, whose respect for the Indian Army rose appreciably...

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Great lines to overhear....

Today a colleague told me a merry anecdote of her time in Aleppo which included the line "So anyway, we jumped over a pile of skulls..."

My life has been far too sedate to match material like that. The nearest I came was walking through a pool of someone's blood, which was bad enough and gave me occasional nightmares for a year or so afterwards. And it wasn't even my blood.

For those with an interest in the Islamic world, my colleague's anecdote was in response to an office discussion of when exactly Idul Adha falls this year.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Nigella 1, Heston 0

Since our house contains an unfeasibly large number of recipe books, I feel I am sort-of qualified to comment on their relative usability. Many of them remain unused after a single disastrous experiment, others are cheerfully dog-eared and full of bookmarks, turned-down corners and scribbled pencil notes.

So here is a small selection of those we have found useful and those we haven't:

How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson.
It is only the barest of exaggerations to say that before acquiring this book I could not bake, and now I am infallible. Every single thing I've cooked/baked from this book has worked admirably first time of asking. Now I should stress that I grew up in a household where everyone was expected to cook, and did. I was non-negotiably assigned to helping in the kitchen from around the age of nine, and cooking has remained a pleasure rather than a chore all my life (one of the many varied things I have to thank my parents for). However, I wouldn't go so far as to claim to be an outstandingly good cook, and baking was always a stressful mystery. Nigella changed that for me - in her books I have at last found a cookery writer who explains things at my level, always giving easy-to-understand hints about judging whether things are ready or not. Her rhubarb grunt and baklava muffins in particular have been delightful revelations. The same principle goes for her other books too.

The Cranks Recipe Book/Entertaining with Cranks
My copies of these date back to the 1980s when my sister turned vegetarian and I then started going out with a vegetarian. This meant I needed reliable veggie recipes at my fingertips. My copies of these have been used so often, and had so many things spilt on them, that you could probably survive a week just by licking them. I still use them regularly, as my sister is still vegetarian.

The Covent Garden Soup Company recipe book
Like the ring-binder and wipe-clean pages; deplore the lack of an index. But the recipes are mostly fabulous anyway. Our copy has an interesting array of paper-clips/post-it notes sprouting from its upper edge.

The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner - Annabel Karmel
OK, we're into specialist territory here I admit; but for those struggling to feed a baby with healthy meals this is a goldmine.

Larousse Gastronomique - Prosper Montagne
The serious foody bible - great for browsing, but the recipes are often a bit hit and miss and require a clasical training to understand at times. They are also wildly extravagant, often turning on phrases like "three days before serving, make a stock out of 15lbs of wild venison and 30lbs or freshly picked vegetables..." or "take the yolks of 12 eggs..." Makes good reading outside the kitchen, though.

Anything by Heston Blumenthal
Probably magnificent if you're a brilliant cook to start with and can fathom what he's on about, but a path to dismal failure for the likes of me. I love his cooking - I've eaten once at the Hind's Head in Bray and it was one of the best meals I've ever had. It's just that his recipes are over my head - attempt them without being able to judge by eye when, for example, clarified butter is hot enough and you're sunk.

Gordon ****ing Ramsay.
Someone bought us a Gordon Ramsay book as a present. We tried one recipe. It was a disaster. As with Mr Blumenthal, this may be as much down to my native incompetence as Ramsay's impossibility, but the fact remains it was a mistake I won't be repeating.

Monday, 17 November 2008


No Good Boyo has developed a noticeable tendency to use variations on the phrase "agenbite of inwit".

I hereby propose the in the unlikely event of his ennoblement, he should take the title "Lord Agenbite of Llantwit".

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Mouth of Orlac

I have something of a social disability: My mouth has a tendency to answer people before my brain has woken up and realised that someone is even talking to me.

This unfortunate tendency is, indeed one of the things that attracts me to blogging - I can edit my comments before releasing them to the world. There have been occasions in my life when I have sorely wished this could be done with spoken comments.

In particular, there was the unfortunate incident with the nun and the crucifix. The Jesuit college at which I used to teach had, as is the way with Jesuit educational institutions, rather gaudy painted crucifixes of considerable size fixed to the wall, over the blackboard, in each lecture hall or classroom.

Coming in to class on the first day back after the Easter break, I was confronted with a dozen or so of my students who had turned up early (or more likely had been hanging around after an earlier class). Without planning, forethought - or indeed wisdom - I greeted them merrily with "Did you have a good Easter?"

So far so good.

I then turned to the crucifix and enquired "And did you have a good Easter?"

Most of them laughed in a slightly shocked manner. The main exception was the nun in the front row, who was clearly trying to judge my combustibility for a public heretic-burning.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The dear old provost of my dear old college

A recent thread on Mrs Pouncer's Counsel caused me to recall my Oxford days, when my college - let us veil its identity by calling it Christnose - was presided over genially by a provost of the old school (or more to the point, the old wine-cellar). Let us veil his identity by calling him Lord Fnord.

Anyway, Christnose had a reputation (before more recent, academically-inclined killjoy management decided it wanted 'results') of having more gaudies (college feast nights) than any other house in either of the two universities. Some time after midnight on one of these evenings Lord Fnord emerged from the Hall and wove his way gently towards the Provost's Lodgings, past the library. A thunderstorm was in progress, and as he passed the library a bolt of lightning struck one of the carved stone eagles which decorated the roof. It detached itself from the fabric of the building and plummeted into the lawn.

Fnord stared at it for a while, then concluded he'd better tell someone. Turning around with difficulty, he wobbled all the way to the porter's lodge and tapped on the glass to attract the night porter's attention.

"Good evening your grace."
"Th'librarary eagle. 'Sh flown off the roof. Whoosh!"
"Yes of course it has, sir. Shall I get someone to take you back to your lodgings?"
"Nonononono - y'don't undershtand. Eagle. On liberarary roof. 'Sh f***ing flown orff."

The conversation apparently went in circles for some time before His Lordship gave up and went off to sleep face down in a flower bed. He was vindicated on the morrow, however.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Things people wouldn't say to my face...

... but might post on my blog.

Like, what do you think of my moustache? I mean, seriously?

I realise that there are those who hold strong opinions on the question of facial hair. My goatee, swordburns and pony tail are firmly in the past (to the relief of some, I'm sure); but I maintain the 'tache and would, indeed, feel naked without it.

Mrs Byard likes it (good enough reason to maintain it, one would think), but has set down strict rules about length. I am not permitted to allow it to straggle over my top lip, nor can I comb it out sideways and wax it in a manner reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm or Wilfred Makepeace Lunn (which I would if permitted to do so).

I originally grew it while living in Indonesia, where the moustache is a common attribute of manhood. Likewise, I am comfortably at home amid those of the Turkish or Middle-Eastern persuasion. Yet there is still unspoken prejudice against slug-balancers in the UK.

Why? What's wrong with having a 'tache, for Kitchener's sake?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

In which I shock No Good Boyo...

The normally impeturbable Boyo blenches as he strides purposefully by and clearly overhears a treacherous isolated part of a sentence, in which I am apparently telling a colleague "... and kick the cr*p out of the Chinese!". Boyo's discomfiture may be related to the fact that the colleague in question is a Mr Zhang, late of Shandong Province.
"Ah - we need your expertise!" I call merrily to Boyo, but he demurs, fleeing what he clearly fears is an act of imminent violence.
Need I explain to the world that - a propos of the power politics that led to WWI, a fair enough topic for Remembrance Day - we were discussing the curiosity whereby France, Britain, Japan, Germany, Austro-Hungary and the USA were united in a single alliance against the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Let's hear it for Barry Soetoro!

As the USA gets it's first Indonesian/Malay-speaking president, let us pause to reflect how his experiences as a mixed-race man, capable of conversing in a real foreign language (as opposed to, say, Bush's mangled English or bloody Esperanto), and tracing his blood ancestry to a developing country (Kenya) may be a welcome tonic for the United States of Northern America, and help it to shake off its (unfair) image as the world's most geographically clueless nation.

(And lest one think it is merely Kenya and Indonesia that are delighted at today's results - I just ran into the K-Man, sporting his 'Vote Obama' baseball cap, who proudly informed me that Obama is the 21st US president of Scottish ancestry. Plus there are apparently wild celebration in the Japanese town of Obama.)

While resident in Indonesia as a child, Obama went by the name 'Barry Soetoro'. There is, despite what right-wing US bloggers claim, absolutely nothing sinister in this. Many long-term foreign residents adopt - either formally or informally - Indonesian (or at least more pronounceable) names in the interests of social interaction (mine was Timbul Sentono). In any case, Indonesia does not recognise dual citizenship, so the possibility of his being considered legally Indonesian lapsed years ago.

Personally, I think that the election of a man who is not only aware of the existence of the rest of the world but has actually lived in it can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Gyppo's critique of Marxism, aka 'Shut Up and Shave, You Sad Git'

I have long had considerable contempt for that self-important buffoon Karl Marx and his ignorant, piss-witted musings about things he clearly didn't understand; but until now have failed to engage in a dialectic with his unwashed, Socialist Worker-hawking minions. Partly this is because they steal the best pitches for lucky-heather selling in Britain's high streets and thus are the mortal enemies of all those with Romani blood, but partly it's because they simply have no idea.

Let me therefore lay out my intellectual objections to Marxism for them:
1) Marx was a continental philosopher. Now continental philosophers may have their uses - "draught excluder" and "ashtray" spring instantly to mind; but they are, to a man, self-important, incomprehensible geeks living in a bubble of their own tangled syntax and incapable of coming up with anything useful or relevant. Visit some cafes along the left bank of the Seine and you will see what I mean.

2) Marx was incapable of shaving properly. Have you seen pictures of the man's beard? I refuse to believe that either he or Engels were acceptably hygienic. There must have been stuff living in there.

3) Marx thought that you could understand the world from a corner of the British Museum Library. He made a number of crashingly wrong assumptions which Marxists twist themselves into knots trying to claim validity for.

Let me give you two examples:
Firstly, Marx claimed that primitive societies had no concept of property. While this may have been based on some of the "travellers' tales" produced by early and unscientific explorers, it turns out not to stand up to the glare of anthropological fieldwork. There is no society, however materially primitive, which has no concept of personal property. While one can almost forgive Marx this false assumption - after all, scientific anthropology had yet to get fully into its stride when he was writing - you can't excuse later generations of Marxists. I mentioned this lack of fieldwork recently to a socialist worker type in front of Reading Station and he replied petulantly "Marx did get out into the real world - he convened the first Communist Internationale!" So there you have it - for these whining losers, real life means holding a meeting with other saddoes. Now you see why I see Esperanto and Communism as two sides of the same autistic coin.

And secondly, he claimed that under capitalism wages would follow a downward spiral unless workers controlled the means of production. And did he do any research to find out whether the trend of wages under capitalism was up or down? Of course not "I am a European philosopher, zerefore I do not dirty mein hands viz facts!"

My academic field, when I had one, was ethnomusicology. This is culturally and psychologically a hipper and more laid-back twin of anthropology, and we as a breed tend towards an anthropologist's world-view. This means that our key challenge is "Nice idea; but have you done the fieldwork?" Philosophers never have. That's why they talk shite.

Tip for other academics and non-academics - if you see a rumble starting in the senior common room, side with the anthropologists. The philosophers may have silver tongues and cunning arguments, but we have a large collection of tribal weaponry and witch-doctors' curses.

Any Marxists wishing to critique the above may do so in person at my house, while I fiddle impatiently with my Dayak beheading sword.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Auntie Floss

I recently had cause to mention a great-aunt of mine who made it to the age of 100, and there was a rustle of desire to hear more. She was always referred to in the family as 'Auntie Floss' - she was actually my mother's aunt and her name was Florence; but the diminutive Floss stuck to her throughout her life.

She was the eldest of four girls born (in 1895) to a Midlands pub landlord. They travelled around much while young, shifting peripatetically according to the brewery's needs, but usually around Birmingham and the Black Country. My grandmother always claimed that as a small girl she was present in the room in their pub in Oldbury when, after hours, a visiting music hall artiste named Jack Judge composed a song on the pub piano that went "It's a long way to Tipperary..."

But I digress. One night in his 42nd year, my great-grandfather went to bed complaining of a headache. Forty-eight hours later he was dead of meningitis. His widow and four young daughters were generously given two days by the brewery to pack up and leave. For a time the family was split up among various lodgings and relatives; Floss as the eldest was most affected since she was the one expected to "take responsibility". It was a trauma that marked her for life; even in her old age and having amassed a considerable fortune (of which more anon) she never felt entirely secure and came over to strangers as a curmudgeonly miser.

All the girls went "into service", as girls of their class often did, working as domestic servants in various houses. Escape for Floss came via the First World War, when she became a "clippy", working as a condictress on buses in Birmingham for the duration. During this period, being an independent and enterprising soul, she learnt to drive (a relatively rare accomplishment for a woman at that time) and subsequently found employment as a chauffeur (chauffeuse?) to a wealthy businessman named John Thomas Hyde Legge, a man personally responsible for electrifying most of South-Western England. He was considerably older than Floss and married, but his wife had been committed to a mental institution some years previously and was never released. As we enter the "Roaring Twenties", I think you can predict the plot twist - Floss slipped seamlessly from driving his Rolls-Royce to becoming his constant companion and mistress. (And to head off Boyo's obvious query, she never said whether she wore the leather chauffering gear in bed).

The 20s and 30s passed by, judging from her photo albums and home movies, in a whirl of society parties, ocean trips and visits to Switzerland, Nice, Monte Carlo and Amalfi. It came as a surprise when, a few years ago, my uncle had the surviving home movies (taken on a baby Pathe 9.5mm cine camera which we still have) transferred to video and found them to feature the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and Charlie Chaplin. And they were just the ones we recognised.

Mr Legge had a gorgeous house named 'Upover' in the Somerset village of Shipham, just outside Bristol. It was a magical place of my mother's childhood, often visited during school holidays. Later it had the same function in my childhood, but more of that later. Mr Legge - a "proper gent" of the old school - had a huge influence on my mother. He taught her to drink and speak French, among other things (a more suspicious age might view these contributions to her education cynically, but she has always spoken highly of him as a civilising, avuncular influence).

At the outbreak of WWII, my mother was evacuated to Shipham to stay with Floss and Mr Legge, it being thought that this would be safer than staying in the West Midlands and facing the blitz. Shipham is not far from Bristol's Filton Airport, then a place of military significance. The powers that be decided that Shipham's contribution to the war effort should be to light a fake flarepath on the fields outside the village in order to lure the Luftwaffe to bomb Shipham rather than Filton. So much for 'evacuation to a safe place'. If she was good, my mother would be allowed to help light the decoy. It says much for either the innacuracy of German bombing or the Luftwaffe's failure to be fooled that no bombs fell on Shipham.

Anyway, some time after the war the first Mrs Legge passed away and Mr Legge finally married Floss before passing away a few years later. My mother married and produced my sister and me, and from before we can remember we were being taken several times a year down to Shipham to stay in the huge, rambling, time-capsule of a house that Upover became. For kids it was an almost perfect place to go on holiday - enormous, untended gardens with delights that were hidden and needed to be unearthed and rooms full of mysterious old-fashioned books, furniture and devices.

Floss's eccentricity by this stage took two memorable forms: stubborn independence and a complete inability to comprehend changing prices. The independence was manifested by her acquisition - well into her 80s - of a flock of sheep to keep her lawn short. I remember seeing her actually pick up a young ram bodily and chuck it over a fence when it dissed her in some way or other. The incomprehension of prices was less admirable. My Uncle Peter still cannot discuss the question of her car without tear coming to his eye. It was a 1930s Rolls-Royce. In the 1960s, the local garage man told her it wasn't worth much and offered her £100 "to take it off her hands". She accepted on the spot, in an act deeply and lastingly regretted by the rest of the family, mercenary lot that we are. Her catchphrase by the 1970s was "I'm not paying that for a [fill in blank]!"

It got to the point where she could no longer look after herself, let alone a huge rambling house. It was sold off for development, the magic gardens of my childhood flattened and covered in a 'development' of boxy little houses. She was moved to the same private nursing home as her younger sister (my grandmother). And there they sat out their final days, tragically failing to recognise each other. So many conversations ran along these lines:
Floss: "How's your mother/nan?" (depending on whether she was adressing my mother or me)
Visitor: She's sitting next to you.
Floss (adamantly): That's not her! That's an old woman!

At length my grandmother passed away and Floss was alone. My last sight of her was her 100th birthday party. She could no longer speak intelligibly by that point, but she obviously registered that something out of the ordinary was happening. The thing she most enjoyed was the champagne, tipped gently to her lips in a plastic cup (for health and safety reasons). It was her last taste of a good life she had enjoyed decades before.

We were curiously unsurprised to get a phone call from the home exactly a week later. She had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Only family came to the funeral, since she'd outlived her social set. I read a lesson for her.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Esperanto - a final sideswipe

Lest my blog turn into a gathering place for anorak-wearing saddoes, this shall be my final word on Esperanto.

After my previous post, I learnt two important things:
1) Being rude gets you more readers and more comments than being nice; and
2) I was correct in my predictions about how Esperantists would react.

Let me expand upon the second point for a moment: I had a sinking feeling that they would say "but it does have songs, literature, folklore etc". Which is true in the sense of 'stuff made up my Esperantists to amuse other Esperantists', but profoundly untrue in a deeper sense. No, there isn't a folklore; unless you start twisting definitions until they scream. Because there are no "folk".

Esperanto has dwindled, whatever its proponents claim, from merely obscure to wilfully bizarre. It has approximately one sixth the number of speakers as Albanian, and nowhere you can go to actually learn it for real, on the street, from native speakers. Esperantists may decry my shallowness for being able to flirt and eat in Bahasa (it says much about there own tragic geekiness that they regard good food and relationships as beneath them; 'beyond them' might be closer to the mark); but of course that isn't all I can do - in my 15 years of working as an occasional freelance translator/interpreter I have wrestled with TV subtitles, mobile phone menus, liferaft instructions, sauce-bottle labels and reports on coconut palm cultivation, to name but a few. In much of this I have been aided and abetted by my handy sleeping dictionary, Mrs Byard. We work as a bilingual team (and in the interests of political correctness I should point out that I am her sleeping dictionary in English). I wouldn't have been able to do the dull and worthy stuff half so well had I failed to get the important things - enough food to keep me alive while studying in Indonesia and a native-speaker partner - sorted first.

Secondly, I am reassured that I am not alone. This chap makes the pertinent point - something that occurred to me to, years ago, when first getting to grips with Bahasa - that Esperanto is simply too obscurely Eurocentric to make it as a genuine international language. If one were to decide on a medium of global communication, it wouldn't be Esperanto. Even regularising conjugations and declensions misses the point that neither are necessary to construct a perfectly adequate language. Zamenhof was unable to stand back from his Indo-European cultural context and imagine something simpler and easier; Esperanto is at root a failure of either imagination or knowledge of the world of languages beyond Europe.

Let me explain what I mean. In Bahasa, verbs don't change according to subject. I go - Aku pergi; he goes - dia pergi. Why should the verb change? Furthermore, the verb doesn't change according to tense or mood either; these are indicated by single words which are dropped into the sentence. Instead of learning a tense, you learn one word, which can then apply to any verb (in fact, any predicate regardless of part of speech) - sedang for the progressive, sudah for the present perfect, akan or hendak for the future.

Once you have liberated yourself from the tripwires of grammatical endings (ack), however regular, you begin to perceive them as a non-functional frippery; a sort of linguistic peacock's tail - magnificent if you like that sort of thing, but a total ****ing encumbrance in real life.

I'm not suggesting Bahasa would necessarily make the best global language (although it has around 300 times as many speakers as Esperanto - many of them strikingly pretty - and a genuine culture behind it including a fabulous cuisine); merely that a truly 'easy to learn' global language would not look like Esperanto.

Melayu sederhana sekali
Mudah bisa menulis pantun
Aku tak mau diikat tali
Tatabahasa Esperantun

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Esperanto, the world's saddest and most pointless language.

A recent hit-and-run visitor to No Good Boyo's blog has attempted, like some seedy drug pusher, to tempt us to read about his dull, aspergerish obsession with invented language. I merely warn as a public service that Esperanto is a complete crock of sh*t.

I say this for a number of reasons:

1) It's totally artificial and thus totally lacking in a soul - there is no literature, no folklore, no songs, no opera...

2) It was invented by a European and therefore is laden with useless fripperies like declensions (ack).

3) In wasting time learning Esperanto, one misses out on the joys of learning a real language - how can one impress one's date by ordering fluently in an Esperanto restaurant or flirt with a dark-eyed Esperantina (or suave Esperantino, according to gender and/or inclination)?

4) Most horrifically, one is limited to conversation and social interaction with other Esperantists, a fate that has all the free-spirited appeal of going to train-spotters' meetings or joining the Socialist Workers Party.

Now I must in my pre-emptive defence point out that I am not against learning languages; quite the opposite - I speak several aside from English to a greater or lesser degree of fluency. But they're all real languages. And heck, there are enough of them out there without having to invent any more, especially ones that lack all the appeal of learning languages in the first place.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Six random things.

I have been tagged by Scarlet Blue - which I consider an honour and a privilege, btw.

The challenge is to reveal six random things about myself, so here goes:

1) I was reportedly conceived in Wales (I have my mother's word for it); in Pembrokeshire of all places.

2) I suffer from (or perhaps 'enjoy') a genetic condition known as hyperbilurubinaemia or Gilbert's Syndrome, which I have passed on to at least one of my two children. While it makes you prone to jaundice, it has the welcome side effect of giving you very low cholesterol levels and thus a degree of protection against heart trouble. Up to 5% of the population have this; since it's considered benign it isn't tested for and I only found out when being tested for something else, which I turned out not to have. Gentle reader - you may in fact have it too. If so, I propose we form a support group to eat bacon sandwiches and plum duff and snigger cruelly at people who eat Benecol.

3) I was the first Briton ever to sing macapat in the royal palace of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat in central Java, a distinction somewhat tempered by the fact that it's so obscure even most Javanese haven't got a clue what it means.

4) On my second day at school I had a live python placed around my neck. You see, we had 'the zoo man' (Mr Whittle his name was) come into my infant school to show and talk about various creatures; everyone volunteered to hold the cute furry ones but when it got to the snake I duly put my hand up and then realised, to my slight discomfort, that I was the only one whose hand was up.

5) I got married three times in my life. All on the same day, and to the same woman. Multi-cultural relationships can get like that...

6) When I was 17 I painted all my finger- and toenails gold. In my defence, I removed the said nail varnish on the last night of the school production of Midsummer Night's Dream, in which I was playing Puck.

Having fulfilled this duty, I hereby tag Boyo, Mrs Boyo, Gadjo Dilo, MC Ward, Scaryduck and The Stirrer.

Was that alright, Ms Blue?

UPDATED EDIT: Tag rules: Link to the person who tagged you. Post the rules on your blog. Write 6 random things about yourself. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them. Let each person you have tagged know by leaving a comment on their blog. Let the tagger know when your entry is posted...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Indonesian pornography - a definition

One of the most hotly contested issues in Indonesian politics for the past few years has been the draft bill on 'pornografi dan pornoaksi' which has been grinding through the parliament (the DPR) for a while now.

Rarely is it possible to trace a controversial law to an individual enmity; but on this occasion it is. Let me tell you a little story...

Once upon a time, there was a dangdut singer called Rhoma Irama. Dangdut is a form of Indonesian pop sounding curiously like Bollywood film music and associated with working-class Muslims, but culturally bearing more than a passing resemblance to Country and Western. Anyway, by the 90s Rhoma Irama's star was on the wane - associated with an old-fashined, un-hip form of music and gradually descending into paunchy middle age, the one-time "King of Dangdut" decided to jack in the music business, become what one can only describe as a "born-again Muslim", and entered parliament as a celebrity candidate for an Islamist party. (Think "country-and-western singer known for rhinestone suits finds Jesus and gets elected as congressman for South Carolina".)

And then, a new dangdut star emerged onto the national stage - young, energetic, female, curvacious and decidedly too raunchy for the imams, who started having fits watching her videos, which they nonetheless forced themselves to watch as a moral duty. Yes, it was the time of the 'Ratu Ngebor' (the drilling queen, named for her trademark hip-swivelling dance), Inul Daratista. Suddenly, dangdut had a new monarch and Rhoma Irama was left blinking in the dust. (The opening words of the song you'll find by clicking her name run "O audience - ladies and gentleman, all who are here - please forgive me if I get a bit se-xxyyyyy ")

And did the old duffer take it graciously, perhaps writing a song for her and inviting her for dinner to discuss dance moves? Did he heck - in an unbelievable display of spite, bile and political opportunism, he forbade her from singing any of his old songs and railed against her to any crowd or media outlet that would listen about how she personally endangered the morals of the nation. Following which, he introduced a bill in the DPR outlawing "pornographi dan pornoaksi" - pornography and, er 'pornoaction'. Pornoaction being a term for any 'obscene act' performed live, including - in fact especially - Inul's sell-out shows and TV appearances.

Mind you, she's actually relatively discreet. There's a form of music known as campursari, the female performers of which get even raunchier than Inul.

Anyway, having let the genie out of the bottle, Rhoma Irama soon found it out of his control. In vain did the government point out that pornography was already banned by a perfectly clear law; in vain did many point out that despite that law's existence you can buy hard-core DVDs from under-the-counter cardboard boxes in any market in the nation; no- he went right ahead regardless. And here a fresh problem emerged - there isn't one Islamist party in the DPR, there is a whole bunch of them, most with only a pathetic handful of MPs, all jostling madly to distinguish their indistinguishable policies. And so when Rhoma Irama stood up and said "I think we should ban sexy dancing", that served as a cue for a rival MP to chip in with "I wholeheartedly support that idea, but call for the new law to ban women going bare-shouldered in public as well as sexy dancing..." and so on, like some insane fundamentalist version of the game 'my aunt went to town'.

Finally, this week, The Jakarta Post finally came clean with the working definition or pornography that these zeebs are going with:
"man-made sexuality materials either in the form of drawings, sketches, illustrations, photographs, text, voice, sound, moving pictures, animation, cartoons, poetry, conversations, gestures, or other forms of communicative messages through various kinds of media; and or performances in front of the public, which may incite sexual desire and or violate moral ethics in the community" [sic]

Well, that's perfectly clear then, isn't it? I fail to see how, under this definition, I - anybody - could get through the average day without falling foul of the law as interpreted by the kind of bone-headed, permanently angry zealots who will see it as their holy duty to enforce it on everyone else (the linked clip shows members of the "Islamic Defenders' Front" - a self-appointed vice and virtue squad - attacking a pro-religious tolerance rally in Jakarta on 1 June this year).

Like the puritans who left 17th century England for the Americas, the reality of their complaint is not that they are being oppressed, but that they are being prevented from oppressing everyone else. And this proposed law gives them the excuse to harrass scantily-clad women (i.e. anyone not wearing what they believe to be modest dress), non-Muslims, and anyone enjoying themselves.

I shall be deeply disappointed in Indonesia if it passes.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Minor intellectual peeves

There are some common misconceptions, received opinions, slips and so forth which really irritate me.

Here are a few of the most egregious:

"This begs the question..." No it doesn't. 99 times out of 100, when people use this phrase, they mean "this raises the question...". "Begging the question" is a term with a specific meaning, describing a logical fallacy where you smuggle in your conclusion as an assumption, thus appearing outwardly to prove something which you haven't in fact proved at all. This is such a useful term that it would be a shame if we were to allow the likes of Evan Davies (a persistent offender) to wreck it for us.

"If Napoleon had won Waterloo... .... he would have reigned peacefully as Emperor for decades". No he bloody wouldn't have. He would have had to face Blucher's Prussians within 24 hours, and then go on to face an even larger Austrian/Russian army under Schwarzenberg - who had kicked Napoleon's sorry ass at Leipzig - and even had he defeated that, he would still have been blockaded by the Royal Navy and facing open hostility from the whole of Europe. It bugs the hell out of me when people seem to assume that the Napoleonic wars were scheduled to end in 1815 no matter what, with Waterloo being a kind of "penalty shoot-out" with the winner taking all.

"Beautifully designed..." OK, so if this phrase is used on, say, Top Gear or The Gadget Show, I'm not quibbling. It's the careless use of the word 'designed' in writing or TV programmes about natural history that bugs me, partly because it is simply wrong and partly because it offers a shred of comfort to moronic creationists. Nobody designed it, it evolved.

I'm sure others have their own list of pet peeves, of some of which I am doubtless guilty myself; but having got that off my chest I feel curiously cleansed...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The precocity of my other offspring...

Yesterday, Guthlac told a highly colourful story about a duck, a time machine and a packet of maltesers. Or something.

Strange the things children say - yesterday in the park, while I was walking my daughter to school, I overheard the following:
"No Kieran, you can't skim your bag over the pond"
"But I want to hit a duck!"

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Hello leather puppet!

In pursuit of a subject that had perhaps better not be made fully public - at least not outside a court hearing - I was recently explaining to No Good Boyo the semantic flexibility of the Malay/Indonesian word 'kulit', which can mean either skin or leather depending on the context. It appears as part of the term 'wayang kulit' (wayang meaning 'shadow' or 'puppet' depending on context), which refers to a form of shadow-puppetry using flat puppets carved from buffalo hide. The term 'shadow puppet' is the most appropriate English translation of the term, but that needn't stand in the way of a random Indonesian with a small dictionary.

Now picture the scene: Along the arcaded west side of Jalan Malioboro, the main drag of Yogyakarta, stand hundreds of stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, craft stuff and the like to wandering tourists, both domestic and foreign. To lure the foreigners, most vendors have learnt a modicum of English sales patter. Thus one will be accosted every few yards with "Hello -hat?" "Hello - batik shirt?" "Hello - poster?" and so forth. On one memorable occasion, I was accosted by a puppet-seller with the words "Hello - leather puppet?"

I mentioned this to a fellow Java-loitering SOAS student, and we decided to adopt it as a form of greeting, though with more of a Leslie Philips intonation (we also pioneered a form of improvised street-theatre which involved holding public Alan Bennett-type dialogues in loud, Lancashire-accented Indonesian to the consternation of passers-by who would suddenly realise that they could understand every word spoken yet still have not a clue what we were on about - usually the desirability of having "a proper sit-down meal").

Upon her return to London, I wrote her a postcard bearing the salutation "Hello leather puppet!" It was picked up by her boyfriend, who confronted her gently but somewhat anxiously about it, asking "Is there something about your relationship with this man you haven't told me?"

There wasn't. She duly explained and he saw the funny side, to the extent where he and I have subsequently greeted each other the same way. Just as well really, considering he's about 6'7"...

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Boyo - Les Cahiers de Conversations

Many of Boyo's readers will doubtless have built up their own mental pictures of the man as legendary wit and conversationalist, much of it stemming from Boyo himself.

Without predjudice, I offer this charming eavesdropping, as Boyo and a colleague walked in to start work. Boyo waved merrily to me, and I waved back as he disappeared into the nether reaches of the building.

The colleague - who understandably wishes to remain anonymous - came over to her desk next to mine and said in a pleasant, conversational tone "We were just talking about having a squirrel attached to one's groin. At a children's party..."

Monday, 29 September 2008

Travels with my mother-in-law

Neighbourhood Romaniac Gadjo Dilo has recently waxed lyrical on the perils and pitfalls of dealing with foreign mothers-in-law. This set me to thinking about the bond of good-natured incomprehension that exists between myself and my own mother-in-law; a lady with whom I have never had a cross word although on one occasion I came close, as I shall shortly relate.

My MiL is a lady of little education (not her fault, I hasten to add - blame it on the Imperial Japanese Army burning her school down when she was 8 and the subsequent chaos of occupation and revolution preventing any proper schooling), whose life revolves entirely around her family. She bore 13 children in total, 10 of whom are still around today, and now has a total of 17 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Mrs Byard is the only one of her offspring living outside Indonesia.

Now while I cannot claim to be a favourite in the family, having removed their beloved daughter/sister from the fold, they do tolerate me with good humour on the grounds that I at least make the effort to be a dutiful son-in-law as far as the separation distance will allow. I greet my MiL respectfully with the 'hand over fist' greeting familiar from old episodes of Kung Fu, we send money for red envelopes at Chinese New Year, we go and visit every couple of years and I speak enough Indonesian and Javanese that I can ask her about her her grandchildren (her favourite topic of conversation as with grannies the world over). There's also the appeal of the exotic. Never forget that in much of Southeast Asia, being from Dudley is exotic.

There have been but two occasions on which the happy facade cracked - once during the burial of my daughter's placenta and once over housework during her stay in England.

Now at this point, you may well be asking what on earth I was doing burying a placenta. IN my defence, it is a common custom in Indonesia and my wife's family - especially my MiL - would have been quite upset with us had we not gone through with the ritual. The idea is that the placenta represents a 'spirit sibling' who watches over the child until the remaining stub of the umbilical cord drops off (historically the most hazardous period for a newborn). The placenta is washed and wrapped in white cotton, and then placed in an earthenware pot with flower petals and a selection of items indicating the family's aspirations for the child - money for prosperity, a notebook and pencil for scholastic diligence, a mirror and comb for good grooming. Finding this rather poetic, I decided to go along with it and add a few mathematical and scientific formulae, a Shakespeare sonnet and a bit of rosin from my violin case. I then had to dig a hole in the garden, in equatorial heat, to bury the thing. Having done that, we buried the pot and I back-filled the hole. I was just treading down the last of the earth when my MiL suddenly interrupted me: "We forgot the money. Dig it up again!" It's as well she spoke no English, especially my next utterance. I did dig it up again, of course, rather than risk a major ruption.

Some years later, she and my eldest sister-in-law (the one involved in the ripped shirt incident), came to stay with us in England. Having only a three bedroom semi (one of whose bedrooms is too small to fit a bed into), we decided that the only viable sleeping plan would be for my MiL and SiL to share my daughter's room, my daughter to go in with Mrs Byard and me to sleep on the couch downstairs. (When I say 'we decided...' I'm obviously not implying I had much of a say in this). Anyway, waking blearily at 4 am and needing the bathroom, I staggered out clad only in dubious boxer shorts to find my hall occupied by my fully dressed MiL doing my ironing. She greeted me with a cheery 'good morning'. I greeted her with a wheeze of horrified embarrassment. Should I castigate her for setting to at all hours (although she had the defence that she was jet-lagged and couldn't sleep), order her not to be so daft as to bother ironing all our crapulous laundry, or just accept it graciously and make a point of dressing more elaborately for bed for the duration of her stay? Well, the only viable course of action was the last one, clearly, but I was pretty grumpy about it.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Glimpses into forgotten worlds - 2

Or "Malay as she is spoken by a Welch academic".

The bookseller of Woodley market came up trumps for me this last Saturday, with a 1947 edition of "Teach Yourself Malay". A more substantial volume than Hamilton's 'Malay Made Easy', it moves away from the 'yell at the servants' paradigm and shows that its author, one M.B. Lewis, had a genuine love of Malay literature that transcended mere quotidian practicality in favour of language so flowery it could be displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flicking through at random, one comes at first to some delightful dialogues, redolent of pith-helmeted Hamiltonian lunacy:
"If you are free on Friday, come up river crocodile-shooting, will you?"
"Your coollies, Mat, are often late assembling."
"Bring me the chisel when you come back."
"The prisoner, who was deaf, could not hear what the judge said."

And clearly Lewis was a man with a feel for life's necessaries:
"Nurse, come here a moment, will you?"

But for Lewis these are clearly distractions to be put aside in favour of slightly mildewed copies of chronicles and tea-stained reams of pantuns.
"Then without a moment's pause he lit the fuse and set spurs to his horse."
"The queen sat under a pandan tree with all the wives of the magnates in attendance. The king took much pleasure in watching the court maidens sporting there, each following her own inclination."

Wouldn't we all?

And his approach to everday grammar is evident in this delightful translation from a 16th century prose romance:
"The said Hang Mahmud to his wife, whose name was Dang Merdu Wati, 'Lady, it were well that we should go to Bentan so that we may more easily seek a livelihood. Moreover, it is a large settlement; it were well that we should move thither, we and our child'."

One wonders if he spoke English like that. And the following pantun may tell us more about Lewis's personal life than he realised:
"In the swamp the monkeys play
Swinging down from leafy tree.
Plain, uncomely others say;
Sweet and fair she seems to me."

Poignantly, however, the book gives the occasional "twitch of the curtain" to reveal just how dire life in Malaya must have been in 1947.

There is, for instance, this given as an example of correspondence:
"I apologise for this shabby scrap of paper. I had to buy it because there was nothing else to be had. We reached a very low ebb when the war was on. We had scarcely more than we stood up in. But what does it matter, as long as we are still alive?"

And the following comes from an Engish-Malay translation exercise:
"In consequence of reports received by the District Officer that many persons are hoarding food far in excess of their needs... No one is allowed to keep in his house more rice (sugar, flour etc) than is sufficient for 3 days consumption... The officer in question hs power to enter and search any house to enforce this regulation."

One wonders why they rebelled.

Monday, 22 September 2008

The bitter-sweetness of serendipitous discovery

Many years ago, while I was living in Indonesia, I sang and played keyboards in a blues-rock band with three local Indonesian guys. We played a few gigs but never amounted to that much. I lost touch with the bass player and drummer years ago, though I still see the lead-guitarist from time to time now that he's living in London. The drummer was a Balinese guy named Ari, who had lived in Australia. We spent many convivial evenings rehearsing, playing and drinking beer. The question of what had become of him had slipped from my consciousness, when today I read this:

Ari Astina, a drummer of the Superman is Dead pop band, said his worry was based on the fact that anything, including songs, associated with pornography under the would-be law could be subject to legal punishment, regardless of their lyrics.
"Actually whether its pornographic or not depends on how it is seen. If someone is full of dirty mind, anything can be considered pornographic," said Ari, who is popularly known as Jerinx.

So one of us made it to stardom, at least... I am consoled by the thought that had he stayed playing with me, he doubtless would not have made it in the music business...

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Jacqueline Wilson is a very nice lady

My daughter is an avid reader, usually to be found curled up with a book if she has the choice. Her favourite author is Jacqueline Wilson, author of the Tracy Beaker books among much else - a name which should be familiar to any parents of girls aged from about 7-13. Jacqueline Wilson has an official fan website to which my daughter is signed up, but in August she went a step further and sent a fan letter to Ms Wilson.

I expected that at most she would get a printed form-type reply; imagine then her delight to receive a hand-written postcard from JW herself. I have never seen her quite so excited. The card is now her single most treasured possession.

From the fact that JW has had a card printed (it shows the author in front of a shelf-full of her books), I summise that she replies in person to most if not all of her fan-mail, which must be a huge effort. I heard from people who have attended her signings that she is meticulous about dealing attentively with her fans in person too. What a pleasant thing it is to encounter a successful person who is willing to 'give something back' to that extent.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Gyppo's Top Twelve Operas - 3

"Britten in Bloom"
I thought to myself, thought I, 'I must put some British operas in this list'; and having thought that the title came naturally. Then I started actually thinking about Britten operas and how much I actually dislike them. Besides, Boyo and Gadjo have got Benji nicely covered...

Dido and Aeneas - Purcell
Often touted - wrongly - as the first English opera (Cupid and Death having achieved that distinction under the Commonwealth), Dido is, however, the first worth reviving. I've sung in the chorus a couple of times, once achieving the distinction of being "the tenor echo". Like Gianni Schicchi (see previous posting), it's known as much for its main female aria as for the rest of the piece. But both are cracking...

A Midsummer Marriage - Tippett
"Keep Britten Tidy - don't Tippett in the street!" as old Music Faculty graffiti had it. Tippett certainly wrote better vocal parts than Britten. Discuss.

The Mikado - Sullivan
And indeed - though it pains me to say it - Gilbert. Purists will howl that this isn't an opera but merely an operetta. But in preparation for that, I have cleaned and loaded my purist gun. This is such a cracking show, and has a special place in my affections as being the first in which I played the tenor lead on stage, opposite a young Elizabeth Menezes as Yum-Yum...

And three that don't fit anywhere:
L'Incoronazione di Poppea - Monteverdi
Back to early opera for a bit - this is an absolute corker of a piece, and refreshingly brutal for the time. The love duet with male and female voices entwining in the same register is spectacularly erotic. Anyone who casts Nero as a baritone should be shot for cloth-earedness. You 'as bin warned.

Boris Godunov - Mussorgskiy
Another that I like for similar reasons to Siegfried - forget the dodgy politics and wallow in the glorious soupy romaticism. This opera proves that to be a successful Tsar, it's not adequate being Godunov - you also need to be Stroganoff.

Jenufa - Janacek
One of the first genuinely modern operas - prose text, gritty subject matter. Nonetheless it's a compelling piece and a nice refresher for those who assume opera revolves around a German-Italian axis.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Gyppo's top twelve operas - 2

It's Puccini night!
Like many a classically-trained singer, I have the same affection for Puccini as Alpinists do for the Matterhorn. It's a challenge you set yourself. Having said that, Puccini knew how to write stuff that sounds more difficult than it really is - he provides you with the musical equivalent of conveniently-spaced handholds to give you a fighting chance. I've tried to go with whole operas rather than merely the sources of favourite tenor "warhorses", so I'm afraid that I've had to wave goodbye - tearfully and while waving a large handkershief dramatically - to both Nessun Dorma and Che Gelida Manina (which if my Italian serves me correctly, means "Your hand is in my ice-cream!")

Gianni Schicchi
More people know the one rather insipid soprano aria O mio babbino caro than know the rest of this one-acter; which is a shame because the tenor parts are rather good too. Of course, if you're allowed to count Il Trittico ('the triptych', written as a single evening's performance of three one-act operas) as one, you get Il Tabbaro and Suor Angelica thrown in too, which is a good package deal by any standards. Gianni Schicchi is also refreshingly rare as being a genuinely funny operatic comedy.

La Fanciulla Del West
Who can resist the spectacle of cowboys and Indians singing in Italian? Yes, this has to be the finest operatic western ever written. Though not the most popular of Giacamo's works, it nonetheless has its admirers (myself included, obviously) for being better dramatically integrated than many of the others and musically more 'modern' to boot.

Not only do I - like all tenors - have a soft spot for Cavaradossi, but choosing this gives me an opportunity to air a funny story about an erstwhile colleague of Scaryduck, No Good Boyo and myself - let us call her Doris - to whom I shamelessly dropped the fact that an old chum had invited me to play Cavaradossi in an amateur production.

Doris: Tosca? Are you any good at jumping off walls?
Me: Pardon? Um, I'm a tenor.
Doris: Yes, but are you any good at jumping off walls?
Me: It's only Tosca who jumps off the wall at the end.
Doris: I thought they all did.
Me: Have you ever actually seen Tosca?
Doris: Well, no...

Actually, come to think of it, the entire cast leaping from the walls might be an improvement, adding some much-needed laughs to the otherwise depressing final act.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Ladies and gentlemen - let us stretch ourselves

After the pleasurable time that was had by all over the film lists, let us extend ourselves and show our true cultural mettle:

Gyppo's Top Twelve Operas - 1

Don Giovanni (Mozart)
It's impossible to impress on anyone who hasn't been compelled to study 18th century opera just what a refreshingly revolutionary piece this is. There is fabulous music all through to be sure; but the real kick is that last scene where the Commendatore's statue arrives. In many ways, this is the true birth of romantic music.

Siegfried (Wagner)
I know Wagner isn't everyone's cup of tea, and that his supposed political views and the fact that Hitler was a fan weigh against out-and-out enjoyment for many, but I still love giving in to a good wallow in the sheer musical magnificence of it. Siegfried, for me, is the ultimate Wagner opera; but then again I'm a tenor. For best scene, it's a three-way tie for me between the forging of Nothung, 'forest murmurs' and the love duet with Brunnhilde at the end (if the orchestral entry at 3'43 in this last bit doesn't send a thrill up your spine, then you either have no soul or the voume isn't set high enough...)

Akhnaten (Philip Glass)
The final - and best, imho - part of the great Glass operatic trilogy (coming after Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha). I never tire of listening to this... I've seen the Philip Glass Ensemble play live, accompanying a screening of Koyanisqaatsi. It was honestly the loudest thing I've ever experienced - the speaker stacks rivalled many heavy metal bands.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Marketing people - I sh*t them

... as my grandfather was wont to say of things that annoyed him.

I have finally, in my mid-40s, worked out how market research operates. Hidden cameras, tracking devices and nerds with clipboards take careful note of which products I buy and then take them off the market. This has happened too many times in recent years for it to be coincidence.

Among the recent casualties of this global conspiracy to irritate me are Lloyd's pharmacy's own-brand talcum powder, Elgydium toothpaste, Sharwood's yellow bean sauce and the entirety of Waitrose's 'food explorers' kids' ready-meal range.

Why do they do this? Is it personal, or do I just have a taste so rarefied that continuing to satisfy it is unprofitable? Darn them all. Darn them to heck...

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Bald Brummies!

My esteemed colleague and bald Welch No Good Boyo recently pointed out the undeniable but inadequately acknowledged truth that England's greatest writer was a Bald Brummie. Which led me to the obvious thought of who else would make a list of the greatest Bald Brummies of all time. Let us start with the following. All suggestions for inclusion in a future, longer list will be treated with all the respect they're due.

William Shakespeare

The man that got the whole 'Bald Brummie' thing going. Purists will argue that Stratford-upon-Avon isn't in Birmingham, but purists can fook roight off. Shakespeare isn't for purists; he was a proud midlander through and through and - like midlanders today - took a lot of stick for his accent. And he beat the poncy southerners at their own game, so fair play.

Jasper Carrott

Britain's top professional Brummie. Need I say more about his major contributions to art, culture and siring the fabulous Lucy Davies?

Michael Balcon
Born in Birmingham to an East European Jewish immigrant family, he became on of Britain's greatest film producers. Two highlights of his long career stand out - he was the man who first got Alfred Hitchcock to direct, and he presided of the Ealing studios at the time they made the string of immortal comedies for which the studio is best know. He also helped many flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A life jolly well spent, all things considered.

Matthew Boulton

Industrialist, key figure in the Birmingham Enlightenment ('The Lunar Society' and its offshoots), technological innovator who helped kick-start the steam age and social reformer. Pioneered corporate structure rather than using outworkers, refused to employ children, and introduced social insurance for his workers. All-round good egg.

Dave Pegg

Bass player, member of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, founder of the excellent Cropredy Festival, and bald rights activist.

JRR Tolkien

A man with ambiguous feelings about his Brummiosity; lived most of his life in Oxford and based his description of Mordor on the city (while The Shire was Worcestershire, by the way).

Barbara Cartland

Few realise she was born in Edgbaston and educated at Alice Ottley - the posh bints' school in Worcestershire with the pervy gymslip uniforms. Once a year the scummy likes of Black Country comprehensive-school kids (e.g. me) were allowed to go to Worcester for the county music festival and sneer at the Alic Ottley girls publicly while drooling inwardly. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes - Barbara Cartland. Bald? Well, in her later years, yes. Sorry.

Francis Galton

Cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenicist, tropical explorer and instigator of pamspermia experiments on rabbits which today would get him sectioned under the mental health act but which at the time led to him being showered with honours by his grateful country. Yet another way in which we are going downhill as a civilisation - even our mad scientists have nothing on their Victorian and Edwardian ancestors.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Film buffery. It's a bloke thing...

A propos of the ongoing film list thing, I recalled today a comment made by a sci-fi nut friend of mine years ago "You have to see it. It's the classic giant ant movie!"
The same sentence with appropriate substitutions could well come from No Good Boyo concerning lesbian vampire films or me about cult comedy films (note that I restrained myself from citing This Is Spinal Tap as being too obvious. I also fought down the urge to include Irma Vep or anything by Tony "look at me I'm a Gyppo" Gatlif, on the grounds that they would be giving away too much information about myself. A deficiency I've just corrected, in the psychological equivalent of shooting myself in the foot. Ah well...)
My daughter's favourite film is Whale Rider, which hits the entertainment needs of her demographic with bulls-eye accuracy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Watch with Gyppo - III

This is getting trickier. I've exhausted my "must-see" films and am into a random selection from a penumbra of 50 or so flicks that I just like a lot.

Well, shall I be obscure of blindingly obvious? Or a mixture of the two? Decisions, decisions...


Ninth Night: Zulu
"Zulus sir. Fahsends of them..."
I have issues with this film for its historical inaccuracies, but the fact remains it's magnificently and uncompromisingly British. And I do like war films as a rule so I had to put one in.

Tenth Night: Yellow Submarine
Looking back over my choices, there does seem to be a worrying tendency towards illegal substances as theme and inspiration. This film made such a strong impression on me when I first saw it on TV at about age 10. I have recently had the pleasure of sharing it with my daughter, who also loves it...

Eleventh Night: Farewell my Concubine
I challenge anyone not to be ravished by this Chen Kaige offering from 1993. Another one that's too well-known and acclaimed to be cult viewing, but necessary viewing for anyone who thinks that cinema is an exclusively American art-form.

Twelfth Night: Twelfth Night
Sorry, but somebody was going to do that gag at some point anyway...
Again, I felt duty bound to put in something modern, British, and involving Helena Bonham-Carter and Richard E. Grant. So here you are. We love this as family viewing.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Watch with Gyppo - II

Fifth Night - Tjoet Nyak Dhien
Eros Djarot's masterpiece. I felt I had to put an Indonesian film in; and having had that thought it was but a brief inner tussle to choose between this and Daun di Atasa Bantal (The Leaf on the Pillow). They both star the excellent Christine Hakim. Tjoet Nyak Dhien was a 19th century Acehnese women who led a revolt against the Dutch. The film is gorgeously shot and looks superb; and Hakim gives a tremendous performance. I first saw this in a flea-pit cinema in Yogyakarta in 1988 (with Indonesian-language subtitles for the Dutch and Acehnese bits) with rats running around my feet, and thought "Gosh - the Indonesians can make great films!" Unfortunately, they seem to ration themselves to one good film a decade, if they're lucky.

Sixth Night - Up In Smoke
Like The Blues Brothers, a film that the true fan has to use great restraint not to 'sing along' with in the presence of newbies. I showed it to my students in Indonesia some years ago, to their shock and delight - the idea of a pro-drugs film was a bit of a mind-blast for them. A delirious joy from beginning to end...

Seventh Night - Zítra vstanu a oparím se cajem (Tomorrow I'll wake up and scald myself with tea)
Yes - in a spirit of wilful obscurity I offer this Czech sci-fi comedy from the 70s. I saw it on late-night TV in England in about 1982, and for years wondered whether I'd imagined the whole thing. It turns out, to my delight, that I hadn't. It does exist! Trust me, this film has the most complex plot you will ever encounter, involving identical twins, a time machine, a suitcase-sized hydrogen bomb, a trampoline, Adolph Hitler and an acid-bath.

Eighth Night - Monsieur Hulot's Holiday
Another comic masterpiece, from an age when there was time to set up gag sequences properly. For physical comedy, nobody can match Jacques Tati.

Watch with Gyppo - I

My esteemed colleague No Good Boyo has issued the challenge, which I feel it my bounden duty to take up, to nominate 12 films to inflict upon my friends. Lacking Boyo's years of watching bizarre horror films, my choices may be a lot less interesting and verge on the pathetically mainstream at times, but here goes:

First Night - The Blues Brothers
OK, too popular to be genuine cult material, but if you have any friends who still haven't seen it, ask yourself two questions: Is it not your bounden duty to subject them to the entire DVD, with your own running commentary that goes "This is a brillant bit!" and joining in with all the funny lines? And secondly, how come they're your friend?

Second Night - Metropolis
OK, so again a predictably arty choice; but this is the evil robot mother of all subsequent sci-fi and has been referenced so many times by so many directors that it should rank as compulsory viewing. I first watched this on video many years ago in a chemically-enhanced state with my mad friend Gregory, when he and I caused consternation to the only female in the room when we started screaming and waving our legs in the air at the 'robot Maria' bits. Any straight bloke who has watched the film will know why.

Third Night - Dark Star
Possibly the weirdest, cheapest movie ever made; yet essential cult viewing. Strange, disturbing, and hilariously funny in turns. The liftshaft sequence with the malign alien pet - which is clearly a painted beachball on string - is a comic masterpiece.

Fourth Night - Animal Crackers
I have long adored the Marx Brothers. I considered the obvious hard-core Marxist choice of Duck Soup, yet plumped in the end for this early gem - the four Marxes in the high summer of their early success. Groucho's rendition of "Hello - I must be going" and Harpo's knife-dropping at the end are career highlights by anyone's standards.

More anon...

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Is my house haunted?

Mrs Pouncer raised the interesting question, in response to blood-soaked tales of minor accidents involving myself and the occupants of the semi-detached house attached to ours, as to whether the ground upon which they are built is haunted. I think not; but perhaps the house in which I grew up was. This would explain many enlightening incidents of first aid provision to my dear father during my formative years. He was - and remains, as far as I'm aware, although I haven't spoken to him since yesterday - a left-handed engineer. If any of you have ever encountered a left-handed engineer you will probably already be forming a mental picture of the chaos and destruction in his wake. He is actually quite a fine craftsman in some areas, it must be said: The rocking horse he made for my nephew is a thing of great beauty, though it was made - and I stress the point - with moving parts supplied in kit form.

When he himself encounters things with moving parts, common sense flies from the window along with spatial awareness and self-preservation. The best of his accidents have a classic elegance to them. There was, for instance, the time when he opened the loft hatch from the wrong side, causing it to swing freely into his own face and knocking him backwards into a door.

Then there was the time when he designed and built an inspection trolley for use under the car, which was basically a 3/4 length bed on castors on which one could scoot oneself under a jacked-up vehicle rather than wriggle like a caterpillar. A fine idea, you might think. And had he used it on a level surface rather than a sloping drive at the top of a hill, it would have worked beautifully. I caught up with him 150 feet down the road and rapidly approaching a traffic roundabout, while my mother was still leaning on the front door, incapacitated with laughter.

But the one that sticks out in my mind was the time in the early 80s when we bought our first video recorder and were duly sent by my mother to buy a flat-pack cabinet in which to put it (and on top of which to put the telly, if you follow me). We arrived at the shop to find a variety of such items, graded according to size. I asked him whether he had measured the video recorder before setting off. "No son; this is the one we want!" and so saying he selected one at random. We duly got it home, and I suggested it might be provident to measure the video recorder to confirm that this was the right-sized cabinet. "Less of your lip, son" he admonished me; "Let's just press on and build it."

"Let's just press on" was a favourite phrase of my dad's, deeply worrying to hear; it usually meant "I have just encountered a major snag but am determined to continue on a dangerous and ultimately catastrophic course".

Anyway, we assembled the thing and put the video recorder in it. Lo and behold, it protruded a good three inches, preventing the glass doors from closing. Rather than admit the problem, dismantle it and get a refund, my dad hit upon the brilliant solution of getting a saw and cutting a slot in the back of it, so that the video recorder could be pushed through and the doors thus allowed to close. My parents still have it...

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Removing one's own goolies - a brief guide

The following narrative is, alas, entirely true. It happened some weeks ago but has been too traumatic to relate up until now.

The other week I repaired late one night to the bathroom, during a bout of minor digestive inconvenience. Struggling away on the toilet - as one does - I managed to faint. I came round on all fours looking upside-down at a copious pool of blood, which for a brief moment I failed to recognise as my own. On investigating further, I found blood pouring from the base of my male member, which had evidently got stuck inside the rim of the said toilet as I crashed to the floor and been partially torn off. Of all the places from which to find one's blood pouring, I think all males will agree that that is one of the least pleasant to behold. Oddly, it was completely unaccompanied by any sensation of pain.

My inarticulate cries of dismay brought my wife rushing to the scene. Unable to leave the baby or bring it with her to A&E, she called on our neighbour to drive me to the local hospital, clutching a towel to my groin and walking somewhat oddly.

As I suspected, the most traumatic part of the experience was trying to explain the nature of my injury to a cynical and jaded receptionist at 1 a.m. "So. shall I put it down as a 'personal problem' then?" she said with a quizically raised eyebrow. "No dashitall" I yearned to reply - but didn't - "Put it down as a fall from fainting!"; but I could see that the more I protested the more she would be convinced of misadventure involving a domestic appliance, so I sat and waited.

And yes, of course the doctor who eventually saw me was female, and yes of course the solution involved hypodermic needles of local anaesthetic in deeply personal places and stitches. But since it led to full recovery I shall not complain in the slightest of the embarrasment. Better that than go for the Earnest Hemingway option...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Back to the real world, alas.

My pleasant two-week sojourn in the backwaters of British education is over for another year. Every year about this time schools up and down the land discover that they have basically finished the syllabus and have more reports to write than can comfortably be managed while managing a class of screaming, hyperactive monkeys, making it an ideal juncture to bring in an outside tutor to run some workshops. And so it is that I am invited in to introduce said hyperactive monkeys to the delights of Javanese gamelan.

Although a standing bet with No Good Boyo compels me to refer to them as monkeys, I do have to say - to the chagrin of Daily Mail readers everywhere - that the vast majority of today's yoof are in fact pleasant, well-mannered (if talkative) young people who show a a keen and intelligent interest in things. You just have to know how to talk to them. Or failing that, pick a subject such as gamelan which means that whenever you go into a school you have a large array of hammers immediately to hand.

The exception is Year 9, or what in old money was called 'third formers'. These are 13-14 year olds, wallowing in the first wash of strange hormones and convinced that street-cred involves sniggering, refusing to answer questions and being sulky. "Attichood" is everything, and can be accurately gauged at a glance by the amount of time spent on the haircut. The more gel, dye, sticky-up bits and razored designs involved, the less cooperative will be the tiny brain rattling about inside. Girls with long plaits or boys with tousled fringes are never a problem, for some reason.

I propose that this should be used as the basis of a new stop-and-search initiative by the police. Better still, march all the hairdressers off to re-education camps to be taught more useful skills. Sheep-shearing, perhaps. Although doubtless a few months down the line there will be the first reports of delinquent sheep with gel in their wool terrorising old-age pensioners. You read it here first. I think I need to go and take one of the blue tablets now. No wonder teachers are all so twitchy...

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Does everyone have conversation like this? - 2

"Daddy, what's your favourite musical?"
"I like the Rodgers and Hammerstein show about the Canadian vet who has to investigate a sudden outbreak of vomiting among wild hoofed mammals."
"Is that a real musical?"
"Yes darling! It's called 'The Sound of Moose-Sick'."

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Mussolini is alive and well and running Italy

An Italian court has ruled that proactive prejudice on the basis of crude racial stereotypes is legally defensible.

Italy's highest appeal court has ruled that it is acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that they are thieves.
The judgment, made public yesterday, comes amid a nationwide clampdown on the Roma community by Silvio Berlusconi's government. Last week his interior minister, Roberto Maroni, announced plans to fingerprint all of Italy's Roma, including children.

So that got me thinking - it must now be fine to go to Italy and punch someone. 'Cos after all, I could get away with it seeing that all Italians are cowards. And it would be justified by the fact that they all attempt to misbehave with the womenfolk.

First they came for the Jews...

It doesn't matter whether you are Roma or not; this ruling brings shame on Italy for resurrecting some of the worst elements of fascism - legally enshrined racism and collective punishment on the basis of suspicion without evidence to name but two. When this happens, we all need to don the yellow star.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Does everyone have conversations like this?

"Daddy, what's your favourite Beatles' song?"
"Ooh - depends. Which album are we talking about?"
"This one."
['Help' is indeed playing at the time]
"I like the one about the lady getting the Isle of Wight ferry."
"Which one's that?"
"She's got a ticket to Ryde."
[Sighs deeply, rolls eyes]
"How about on Rubber Soul?"
"I like the one about the chap who makes the costumes for Japanese classical theatre."
"Is there such a song?"
"Yes. Noh-wear Man!"
[Groans, exits sideways looking worried]

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The precocity of my offspring - 4

Yesterday my daughter started singing "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, let it burn your body away, flatten the planet by it's enormous gravitational pull and destroy all life on earth!"

Well, her version is more accurate!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

More music-hall recitations!

No Good Boyo graced the Armenia thread (see below) with the charming music-hall ditty "I slew the Black Armenian". In similar vein, Major Buffy Fortescue-Trouserbugle bids me quote his most famous work, in the style of J. Milton Hayes. With pleasure, major:

The Green Eye er the Little Yeller Dame de Nuit

There's an idle yeller Dayak ter the East er Tanjung Kot
With a British Army spade lodged in his head;
While a broken-molar'd maiden tends the grave er "Scottie" Scott -
And the silly blighter isn't even dead.

He was known as "Scottie" Scott because his name was Captain Scott,
And his Christian name was Scott as well ter boot,
But what made his dull life bearable out there in Tanjung Kot
Was the maiden fair ter whom he pressed his suit.

Her eye was green, her hair jet-black her cheongsam it was red,
And the name above her door was 'Fu Man Minh' ;
But though Scottie loved her dearly she'd grace any feller's bed
Fer a satayed goat and sev'ral pints er gin.

Her uncle was Scott's orderly, his name was Corporal Ngurk;
Though Dayak-born he'd risen through the ranks,
And though diligent by daylight ter avoid a stroke er work,
By night he had a love er boyish pranks.

Miss Minh went ter her uncle to request a favour great -
A potion strong it was her dearest wish;
But what Ngurk put in the potion she intended fer her mate
Was an extract from the deep-sea puffer-fish

Poor Scottie hadn't any sort er inklin' of a notion
Why young Fu Man Minh ran screaming from the room,
But then her potion from the ocean set his motions in commotion,
And his thunderbox exploded with a 'BOOM!'

His boots flew North, his hat flew East his Sam-Browne sped North-West
And the handle of his spade went swiftly South,
Where - though tryin' ter escape young Miss Fu's efforts were the best -
It struck the poor young gel right in the mouth.

I'll speak no ill of a lady lest I face m'comrades' censures
And the thing I hafter say may seem quite tacky,
But her adventures with entrenchers sadly robbed her of her dentures
And what's left was only fit fer chewin' baccy.

Old Ngurk did even worse because the blade er Scottie's spade
Flew true - although the edge was rather dull -
And though Ngurk was cacklin' foully at the work his prank had wrought,
He stopped laughin' when it landed in his skull!

When the CO heard about it (it was I, I must confess),
His voice rang forth like peals er summer thunder;
And respondin' ter his bellows men came pourin' from the Mess,
Carved a gravestone fine and placed young Scottie under.

There's an idle yeller Dayak ter the East er Tanjung Kot
With a British Army spade lodged in his head;
While a broken-molar'd maiden tends the grave er "Scottie" Scott -
And the silly blighter isn't even dead.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Anything to declare?

Gadjo Dilo has raised some interesting questions about ethnically specific foodstuffs re marmite (memorably described by Bill Bryson as 'an edible lubricant'). This set me thinking about some of those weird and wonderful edibles/smokables/unguents that only appeal to people of certain ethnicities or long residence in a particular country.

For example, my return trips to Blighty from the Malay Archipelago always involve packing large quantities of the following: cartons of clove-flavoured kretek cigarettes; kacang mete, which are garlic-roast cashews fit for deities; kopi luwak, which is coffee that has been passed through a civet (seriously); and ting-ting jahe, which are fiercely hot and very chewy ginger sweets. I now have regular 'customers' for all these. Tiger balm used to be a must but is now widely available in the UK.

Marmite, of course, is a major component of British diplomatic bags; and I have known Americans in Asia dedicate much time and effort to tracking down 'peanut butter and jelly'. Though quite why, I have no idea.

What's de rigeur for other countries?

Saturday, 21 June 2008

"The Little I Saw of Armenia"

Since I have returned safely from Yerevan, a few background notes might be in order for anyone planning a trip there:

Armenians are an ancient, charming and deeply cultured people whose mountainous homeland lies in a strategic location in the South Caucasus. Consequently, they have spent much of the past 2,000 years having the cr*p kicked out of them by their larger and more aggressive neighbours. But do they hold a grudge? Well, yes, actually. Few conversations pass without one's interlocutor checking that one accepts the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as a historic fact. Dropping the (true, in my case) fact that one's grandfather served at Gallipoli is a useful ice-breaker, surprisingly.
"You mean your grandfather killed Turks?"
"You are friend! Have brandy!"
Do not, under any circumstances, order Turkish delight.

The Armenian population consists of delightful, exquisitely groomed women and larcenous looking men who always manage to achieve 2-days' stubble. The men turn out on the whole to be super chaps once you've had a drink with them and clarified your position on the Armenian genocide, however. Men and women alike stay strikingly slim through a combination of a traditional diet, chain-smoking and inadequate public transport.

Armenia's economy consists of two main activities - making alcohol so strong it can strip paint, and generating nuclear power. In an earthquake zone. I said it was nice, not safe, OK?

Yerevan will be a beautiful city when they get round to finishing it. Until then, a combination of large areas of building site and strong mountain winds mean that walking through many of the streets gives a passable impression of what it's like to walk through a desert sandstorm. One slight surprise was the affection that people feel for the Soviet Union. Many of the older buildings still proudly display the hammer-and-sickle logo of Cap Scott 'Scottie' Scott's personal masseuse*, and I even saw the red banner flying at one location. One of my Armenian colleagues explained the background to this as being that after the genocide, the choice offered to the Armenian people was "Join glorious Bolshevik revolution and stay alive for foreseeable future" or "Have a Turkish pasha drink raki out of your skull." Your live skull.

Actually, one possible reason for the long-term oppression of the Armenians did appear - their habit of putting the pepper in a shaker with a single hole and the salt in one with multiple holes. one can imagine a Turkish governor, having just put pepper on his chips once too often, flipping out.

Armenians drink. In their favour, they produce excellent brandy, exquisite red wines (Areni is rather pleasant) and very passable beers (I recommend kalikia for drinking with food and kotayk for achieving rapid oblivion**). So when one goes out with Armenians, what do they order? Apricot vodka; which - as its name suggests - is made from apricots and industrial coolant. And they don't just drink, they toast. "Let us drink to our foreign guests" (glasses clink, vodka goes down in one, there is a collective gasp of pain from the foreign guests and a struggle to focus). "Let us refill our glasses and drink to world peace!" (same routine again). "To the beauty of women!" (etc etc - I trust you'll forgive me if I fail to remember some of the later toasts). Then you all start calling each other "X-jan" which either means "dear-X" or "gullible British berk" depending on what impression I made on them.

I am already angling to go back at the earliest opportunity...

* See Dr Linstead's "The Wounds of Capt Scott 'Scottie' Scott" (Delhi, 1947) Vol 38 - "Superficial-Metaphorical-Political (Treasonous)-Blonde ladies in uniform"
** Old Russia hands will be pleased to note that Baltika is also available, though the billboard adverts for it pose an interesting semiotic conundrum - they show a baltika bottle and a young Russian lady with her blouse partially unbuttoned. The message could be either a) "after twelve bottles of baltika, all women will appear like this!" or b) "after twelve bottles of baltika, you too will be incapable of doing up buttons like Svetlana here!"