Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Romance of the Stage

In a response to Mrs Pouncer's moving musings on stage curtains and ancestors, I commented that my own parents' relationship had blossomed when my father lit my mother in sundry productions; and Mrs P asked me to expand on the tale.

Bear in mind that I have the fragmentary evidence of my parents and my grandmother for this version, since for obvious reasons I wasn't there other than as a twinkle in someone's eye.

My parents had known each other in some degree at their mixed grammar school - of which my mother was head girl - and there may even have been some romantic attachment (my father on one occasion wistfully alluded to the long grass behind the tennis courts, upon which my mother silenced him with A Look That Could Kill). Anyway, they then went their separate ways - my father to do a degree in electrical engineering and then get hoiked off to do national service in the merchant navy, my mother to drama school (Rose Bruford's) in London and then to teacher training in English and Drama in Birmingham. She was strikingly good-looking, I may as well point out at this stage: dark and petite, in a sort of vaguely Audrey Hepburn-ish way.

Years went by; at length my father returned from the sea, but according to his version of the tale still carrying a torch for my mother, but having long lost contact with her.

And then one evening his mother was reading a local paper bearing a review of an amateur production of something or other in which she played the female lead (as she usually did). "Do you remember that Janet ------?" she said, reading out my mother's maiden name (which, along with my bank account number and sort code, I have no intention of publishing on the Internet). He did, and hope rose within him at the apparent revelation that she was not yet married.

Being also eligible for membership of that dramatic society (old pupils of the aforementioned mixed grammar school), he contacted them to enquire whether they needed a lighting man, casually dropping the fact that he was now an electrical engineering graduate. Unsurprisingly, they said yes - setting him up neatly for a studiedly nonchalant reunion with him leaning suavely over the lighting gantry.

I have difficulty reconciling the romantic hero of the tale with the father I know, love and frequently take cover from during incidents of DIY. My mental picture of him always involves him dropping bags of spanners on her head or similar, but clearly that can't have been the case. Imagining one's own parents as carefree young lovers is always difficult.

But anyway, something clearly blossomed because he asked her out, then asked her to meet his parents (on which evening his father - also an electical engineer - received an emergency callout from a local coalmine and insisted my father accompany him down the pit, leaving my mother and paternal grandmother awkwardly alone).

All being well, we shall be joining them next year to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Bangladesh - a marked improvement...

Having somewhat got over my frustration at being in a luxury hotel (oh happy frustration, some might well say), my Bangladeshi homies took me for a ride last night. It crossed my mind that after some of the less than generous things I had said about their fine country, they planned to batter me insensible with a coconut and leave me floating face-down in a jacuzzi; but in fact they wanted to show me some of the real Bangladesh. And a far nicer place it looks close-up than from behind a hotel compound wall.

It is quite uncannily reminiscent of the Indonesia of the 90s - incomes are rising, leading to more cars on the road without more roads necessarily being built; above street level there are mind-boggling tangles of wires carrying cable TV and broadband Internet access into the apartments of the rising middle classes, old houses are beng replaced at a rapid rate by new apartment blocks to squeeze more accomodation into the city. Occasional power brownouts are the result, above all, of so many people being able to afford fridges, AC units, TVs and computers. These are all signs of a country on its way somewhere; as is the laudable development of grameen banking - a Bangladeshi invention.

There are still some beggars about; many of them congregate around the hotels in the hope of tapping the sentimental guilt of suckers like me, of course - the equivalent of walking out of a posh London hotel to be accosted with the words "Big Issue?"; but also the streets are safer than you may imagine. I fussed about leaving my bag in the car when we arrived at a cafe and parked in the street. "Leave it there, it'll be quite safe" my colleague told me. So I did, and it was. That's not something I'd like to try in Reading. Complete strangers make eye contact, and smile, and greet you politely - again a marked improvement on Reading.

I am reminded, re-reading my last posting, of the 'Goodness Gracious Me' sketch in which Dave Lamb played a British reporter with a repertoire of cliches; standing with grim-faced concern talking about "the grinding poverty" and similar while happy Indians clustered around him, beaming broadly and saying "Mark Tully! Mark Tully!"

Furthermore, a story that has gathered much media comment is about an elderly woman abandoned by her successful, professional children to live on her own, which the papers are lamenting as an introduction of "Western values".

As the Bible should have said "Before removing a mote from another chap's eye, remove the plank from your own eye - then you'll have a plank handy to hit the blighter round the head with if he makes a fuss."

I would very much like to come back for longer, learn a modicum of emergency Bengali (perhaps from a colonial era language book, just for entertainment value. I could stride around in pith helmet and khaki shorts bellowing "Tell the men not to clean their rifles with sandpaper" or "Look here! I'm going to ask you six questions..." while Boyo stands by with dustpan, brush and valuers guide to Gypsy teeth). It would be nice to get out of Dhaka - to see Tagore's compound, or the world's longest unbroken beach at Cox's Bazaar. It would also be nice to stay somewhere more in touch with the country around it, to stop me being such a wuss about things.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

How self-centred am I?

I suffered a major pang of first-world, post-colonial guilt the other night, occasioned by a coconut palm and a jacuzzi. I will leave you speculating on the mechanics of that for a moment while I explain the background:

I wrote in my last post that I was in Bangladesh. This is only partially true: I cross a few hundred yards of Bangladesh twice a day, en route between a five-star hotel and an air-conditioned office. I can see Bangladesh through plate-glass windows. I can hear it teeming, bustling, wailing and honking outside. I can smell its polluted air, its lack of adequate sewage and habits of public urination and defecation as I scurry to and fro; but I am not in it, in any meaningful sense.

And how could I be? I can't speak or read the language, I don't know my way around, I have little idea of what I could be interested in if I cared. And like so many western business travellers, I too easily delude myself that this sterile, cocooned existence counts as experiencing a country.

But I know deep inside that have no excuse. For when I was young and energetic and had more time than money, I travelled properly. I spent years living in a developing country; I spoke its language fluently, socialised entirely with its people and studied its culture to a high degree. I subsisted exclusively on its food and suffered its endemic diseases in all their sweating, puking unpleasantness. I rode its crowded public transport and tramped its chaotic, dusty streets and got to know it intimately well. Ultimately, I married a local girl and made an attempt to settle down; until gun-toting, head-stamping, ethnic-minority-burning chaos reared its ugly head and we decided that moving to the UK would be a better idea in the long-run.

And through all this I self-indulgently allowed myself a fair measure of mixed pity and contempt for well-heeled foreigners who gave it a week or so, sticking grimly to the same coachload of their own kind, staying in luxury hotels, whizzing round sights of interest in a crocodile of clicking cameras and hideous shirts before returning to the luxury hotel for a swim. I really knew the place - I told myself conceitedly - while they did not.

I also vowed to myself that I would never become shallow enough to visit a country whose language I did not speak. And here I am, 20 years down the line, becoming what I despised; though in my half-hearted defence I am here to work and not to travel per se; and the work is going well.

The night before last, I returned from the office feeling somewhat rumpled and went for a swim in the hotel pool before dinner. From over the wall I could hear and smell Bangladesh, but inside the hotel compound all was carefully manicured luxury - coconut palms waved serenely over the surrounding gardens, stars shone in the blackness of a clear sky overhead, and a bat flittered manically over the pool scooping up as many whirring insects as it could manage.

I had the pool to myself; everyone else presumably having enough sense not to expose their pasty skin to the evening shift of mosquitoes. On a dais next to the pool stood an open-air jacuzzi, bubbling away invitingly; so I climbed out of the pool and started towards it, at which point a coconut detached itself from the tree and fell 5 metres or so onto the slabs, missing me by a worryingly small margin. (I used to think that the statistics showing that 'falling coconuts' are the major cause of untimely death on some Pacific Islands were funny - right up until the day that I was nearly hit by one. Those things are lethal, since they fall from such a great height - and the coconut per se is only the stone inside a much larger fruit with an aerodynamically sharp bottom edge...)

Should I complain? Should I point out the potential danger? "Good Lord man - never mind the millions of your compatriots living in grinding poverty and the daily body count caused by unsafe transport (that day a truckload of people rammed on an open level crossing; the next a river ferry capsizing with over 100 on board), have heed of that dangerous coconut palm next to the jacuzzi! Get your priorities straight!"

I said nothing, and was unable to sleep that night.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

"All Bengalis are poets"

Some of my more literary acquaintances have recently mused about the reasons we all write. It strikes me that in one sense the task of the writer is to chase down the thoughts that flitter, moth-like, among the thickets of the subconscious and collect them for display to the world. We are the unacknowledged entomologists of the imagination.

"Ooh! Get you!" my less literary acquaintances are probably saying to themselves by now. In my defence, I shall quote the title of this posting - said drunkenly and tearfully by someone at an office leaving party I once attended in India - and point out that this week I find myself in highly literary Bangladesh, among the highly-literary Bengalis who produced Rabindranath Tagore to name but one. (OK, so Tagore was from West Bengal, now in India; but that hasn't stopped Bangladesh adopting one of his poems as a national anthem).

Permit me to direct you to the highly literary blog of my Dhaka-based friend and colleague, the highly-literary Mr Amaro'to Kotha-chhilo by way of evidence.

Among the less poetic elements of the country, I should point out by way of balance, are the airport baggage carousel and the free-form scrum that formed around it (an hour and a fricking half to retrieve one bag! I ask you...); and the fact that the office is only a short walk from the hotel, but across eight lanes of homicidal traffic. Having lived in Indonesia, I feel quite at home. I have readopted my erstwhile tactic of adding myself to a large group of locals to get across, reasoning that while a driver may be tempted by the target of a lone westerner, they're less likely to mow down a dozen of their own. Although tragically, pedestrians in many parts of Asia seem to be regarded as an expendable commodity.

Yesterday's main English-language paper carried a surprisingly colonel-esque headline: "GUNBATTLE AT JU [Jahangirnagar University] AGAIN". It was the 'again' that caught my attention - as if one isolated inter-student gunbattle would barely be worth reporting. The article also contained the inescapably arresting detail that 50 had been injured in the shoot-out, "five of them with bullets". This says volumes about either a shortage of ammunition or a serious perception gap about what guns are actually for. (I think the university should introduce a short course taught by a retired colonel: "Firearms 101 - How to load the bally thing with bullets, point it at yer intended target and pull the trigger, you long-haired nicompoops!" or some such.)

The calls to prayer from the city's many mosques are, as always, hauntingly beautiful. When I lived in Indonesia the sound of 15 or 20 mosques within earshot all going off at once, as it were, was a constant delight; forming a kind of accidental found choral music of Messiaenic beauty. Here, the effect is marred not a little by the incessant honking of horns and whooping of 'VVIP' motorcade sirens. Not that anyone moves aside for them, of course. On the way into town from the airport, I saw the faintly pathetic sight of policemen in an escorting truck waving batons listlessly at the oblivious traffic, with the forlorn expressions of men who know full well that they're just going through the motions.

Tagore himself said of Indonesia when he visited it in the early 20th century "I see India everywhere but I do not recognise it." At the time, of course, Bangladesh was part of the India he meant. Looking at Bangladesh, I understand him perfectly.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Please help me settle a family argument...

This morning, as I drove young Djangolina to school, she outlined for me the rules of a fun, new game called "Red car, blue car". These rules are simple to elucidate - one player looks for red cars, the other for blue cars. On seeing a car of the specified colour, one cries out "RED CAR!" (or indeed blue car, as the case may be), while hitting the other player on the arm.

Djangolina took the blue corner, I the red. Every time any car of blue-ish hue hove into view, she would cry "BLUE CAR!" and slap me.

Whenever a red car appeared, she would swiftly interject "NOT THAT ONE! IT'S BURGUNDY!" or similar. The final result was - Djangolina - 24, Daddy - a bruised arm.

Was her conduct within the spirit of the rules?

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Colonel of the month - February

Moving forward in time from the heroic and much-wounded Campbell, we come to an equally delightful character of WWII vintage - Col Eric 'Crazy' Hayes-Newington, "the oldest surviving officer of the 4th Bombay Grenadiers".

My source for this is the Daily Telegraph (of course) obituary, posted here.

As usual for a Torygraph 'moustache' obituary, it dedicates much of its first part to an account of the action in Burma in which he won the DSO:

Hayes-Newington sustained a wound in his shoulder, but this gave no pause to his vigorous leadership, and he himself slew three Japanese soldiers at point-blank range as they bore down on the tanks, shrieking.

So far so good. It then details his career up to that point, which involved the quintessentially colonial colonel activity of fighting in Waziristan - "a very active service which involved climbing peaks and
avoiding accurate sniping by tribesmen who regarded fighting as a normal
way of life".

After retiring from the Indian army he moved to Kenya, Lest anyone think that 'retirement' is a time for taking it easy, the Telegraph puts us straight:

When the Mau Mau insurrection broke out in the 1950s, Hayes-Newington joined the police, and was soon running the operations room at Nyeri.
During his 12 years' service he became Acting Superintendent of the Kenya Police, and on retirement was awarded the Colonial Police Medal.
In his late 70s he became Chief Game Warden ("Number One White Hunter") at Treetops Hotel, where he escorted Royalty, and appeared on a BBC Blue Peter television programme.

I remember that programme, which of course gave barely a hint of the man's daredevil courage and homicidal magnificence.

But what, I hear you ask, of personal eccentricity and field-sports, without which no portrait of a true colonel is complete?
Although very modest and reticent, he had a low threshold of boredom and if he felt that a dinner party was too dull, would begin eating his table napkin or do something equally unusual.
As a young man, "Crazy" had been a good hockey and soccer player, and he was always a first-class shot. He enjoyed riding a powerful Norton motor-bicycle, in spite of the practice being deplored by his seniors.
Invariably cheerful, with a dry sense of humour, he was an excellent organiser, and extremely good at putting people at their ease. Part of his younger days had been spent in Ireland, where he had become a skilled trout fisherman and a good horseman, and partly in Bruges, where he became fluent in the language. He skied, skated, won medals at cross-country running, played polo, and planned and built his own home in Kenya - where he developed a great fondness and affinity for elephants.

Present and correct on all counts, sah!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Samoa examples of gonzo anthropology

A propos of my recent thumbnail description of gonzo anthropology, young Miss Scarlet enquired whether having sex with as many locals as possible was the principal goal of anthropological fieldwork. Rather than answer her directly, let me tell you - from a hitherto unexplored angle - the story of one of anthropology's major controversies.

In the 1920s, the young Margaret Mead, an American anthropology student, went to Samoa to do research on adolescence. Speaking no Samoan, and failing to do any gonzo anthropology herself, she formed a picture of sexual mores among the Samoans which painted a picture of a tropical paradise full of happily shagging, carefree, laughing young people.

The book she wrote detailing this conclusion - 'Coming of Age in Samoa' - was one of the most influential books of the 20th century; not merely among anthropologists but as a foundation stone of the Standard Social Science Model, the apparent triumph of 'nurture' over 'nature' explanations of human culture and character, and as a seminal (if you'll pardon the expression) text of feminism, counter-culture and 1960s-style 'free lurve'.

We then fast-forward to one Derek Freeman, who re-interviewed some of Mead's informants - now respectable Evangelical Christian grandmothers - and came to the conclusion that they had been winding Mead up for casual amusement and were in fact virgins up until marriage, in stark (as it were) contrast to Mead's fervid imaginings of goings-on among the lush tropical palms. Both Freeman's and Mead's interpretations have their supporters today, it must be said. To outline the problem, here are my own reconstructions of the kind of interviews that are alleged to have taken place.

Mead's 1920s fieldwork, according to Freeman:
Mead: Hello!
Interpreter (an overweight, overdressed and rather rumpled male missionary who has been Out Here Too Long): Hello Miss Tatala.
Samoan informant: Whassup, innit?
I: She says hello.
M: Can I talk to you about your attitude to sex?
I: Big White Mother want to tok himfella jiggy-jiggy.
SI: Whatever.
I: She says she is happy to discuss the goings-on that every night, fill the air of this very Eden with carefree laughter...
Mead: So, despite being a giggly 16-year old, are there lots of boys interested in you?
I: Them boy-fellas want jiggy-jiggy?
SI: Yeah, they all do (snigger) 'cos I'm well sexy, innit.
I: She says yes, they all desire congress with her ripe, curvaceous nymphet body, light glinting playfully from her oiled, rippling...
M: Oh my goodness! And does she, you know, do the deed with lots of them?
I: You do him jiggy-jiggy with rugger team?
SI (rolls eyes): As if! Them boys is all queuing up for it though, innit? I have to carry a whip to keep them off.
I (sweating slightly): She says she is in the regular habit of offering her lithe, sunkissed body in acts of guilt-free physical pleasure to the boys of the village, naked as God surely intended them to be; before scourging their muscular buttocks with a lash of... (starts frothing at mouth)
M: Steady on Mr Scott!
SI: Puketa!

Freeman's 1970s fieldwork, according to Mead's supporters:
Freeman: Good afternoon madame. Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Tapuni, chairwoman of the church ladies committee? I gather that you were one Margaret Mead's informants back in your younger days.
SI (warily): Ye-essssss....
F: Well if you wouldn't mind sitting here between your husband the high court judge and your son the church minister and parliamentary candidate, I'd like to ask a few questions.
SI: I'd be glad to help, professor.
F: Is it true that you spent most of your teen years behind a coconut palm with your grass skirt around your ankles, as described in the celebrated article 'Having it off in Rumpipumpi?
SI (grinning with teeth while looking murder with eyes): Good lord no! I was pulling her leg all the time. We love a joke, we Samoans, you know; don't we Reginald?

Now it is my firm contention that had Mead done the proper gonzo anthropologist thing by dressing in a grass skirt and flower garland, shacking up with the young Reginald to learn the language without even needing to get out of bed, offered herself to the Fagamalo Rugby Club Under-19s first XV behind a coconut palm and then observed the results of this research on her standing in the community, she could have settled the question then and there.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

L'esprit de l'escalier

Some hours after reading No Good Boyo's post about nudism, it struck me that I should by rights take umbrage with his description of me as a 'gonzo anthropologist', pointing out haughtily that the correct term for 'gonzo anthropology' is 'participant observation'.

Then it struck me that actually, 'gonzo anthropology' is better.

The theory goes that one can only understand certain things - ceremonies, diet, acrobatic monkey sex with local men/women according to gender and taste, performing arts, sex, socialisation, sex, superstitions, sex, cosmologies, more sex, language and even more sex - if one participates in them rather than merely observing them as an outsider. It is a theory most anthropologists (and their fieldworking fellow-travellers like ethnomusicologists and ethnolinguists) have gladly embraced, along with substantial proportions of the populations they have studied.

It was fairly standard procedure, for instance, for the tutor to bring in his/her native-speaker spouse along for oral language exams (titter ye not) when I was a grad student at SOAS. Other standard procedures included wearing ethnic-print clothes and smoking suspicious roll-ups (when kretek were available our entire Javanese class - tutor included - would slope out onto the landing for a smoke break halfway through a mind-bendingly thorough treatement of homorganic nasalisation in transitive verb formation, back in the days when this was still allowed. The smoking, that is, not the grammar. Ah, the memories...)

Before the politically correct take offence, I should point out once again that Mrs Byard and I are equal-opportunities miscegenators - I fulfil the role of sleeping dictionary/proff-reader (sic - just spotted both the typo and the deliciousness of the irony) for her every bit as much as she does for me. And we have the advantage of being able to hold private conversations wherever we are confronted by insurance salesmen and similar subhuman wretches.

Furthermore, given that Boyo claims his research was on homosexuality in the Russian navy, I think questions can legitimately be asked.