Mother Theresa’s Plastic Pledge seems like a good idea. But we’ve seen her good ideas before. May the force be with her.
Thursday, 11 January 2018
Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Ha Noi March 2007
Motorbikes, thick as porridge
I emerge from Arrivals into the concourse of Ha Noi Airport with $400 in my bum-bag. But the local buttons are dongs, 31,000 to the £1, so I need a Bureau de Change. There isn’t one. There’s an INFORMATION sign over there but no one behind the counter.
That smart young bloke in a brown suit, walking across the concourse, seems to have recognised me. At least, he’s suddenly started waving in my direction and shouting ‘hello’ in English. What’s this about?
I look round to check who he’s aiming at but there’s no one behind me. He must be shouting at me then. Does he think he knows me? Maybe he’s from Cardiff. He looks a bit like one of the waiters from the Happy Gathering. ‘Blimey,’ he’s coming over. He wants to shake hands! Who’s making the mistake? Me, or him?
‘I get taxi,’ he says.
That’s handy. ‘But I’ve got to change some money first,’ I tell him. ‘I need dongs.’
‘Come,’ he says, striding towards the exit.
‘No!’ I shout, ‘money! dongs!’ I keep upping the volume. Maybe he’s deaf. ‘I’ve only got American Dollars,’ I tell him when he looks round.
‘Dollah OK,’ he assures me. ‘Dollah velly good.’ Now he’s gargling into his mobile.
It all fits. That Chinese bloke on the plane told me they like dollars out here.
‘Wait,’ the Happy Gatherer tells me when we arrive outside.
Now a taxi swings into the kerb and Gatherer tells me to get in the back while he feeds my case and rucksack into the yawning boot. OK so far. But now he’s climbing into the front passenger seat. That’s different. ‘Where go?’ he asks.
‘I’m going to the Heritage Hotel,’ I tell him. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I go home,’ he tells me. ‘I give help. You pay taxi. I get ride.’
So we’re going to divert to the Happy Gathering. The guy’s a chancer, nothing for nothing. ‘How much?’ I ask warily.
He inclines his head and looks thoughtful. ‘Eight dollah,’ he decides.
I spot a sign; HANOI 21 Km. And they’re going to charge me five-quid? ‘OK, we’ll settle for that,’ I tell him. ‘A hundred-and-twenty-eight-thousand dong...’
Now we’re at a road toll. ‘You pay,’ the Gatherer tells me.
When I offer the driver a one dollar-note his expression turns from confusion to anger. He waves it aside and gives me a mouthful of verbal scrambled egg. ‘He want dong,’ says the Gatherer.
‘I haven’t got dong,’ I tell him impatiently. ‘You said he’d take dollars.’
The two men sit yodelling at each other for a couple of minutes then, ‘OK,’ says the Gatherer, ‘driver pay now. Then we go bank. You get dong. Then pay driver.’
We push on along a dual carriageway amid the din of motorbikes. Traffic pollution hangs like sediment in the humid air. I wonder if these guys pack any unpleasant surprises?
We’re entering Hanoi now. I relax a bit. But when the bank turns out to be an ATM, I tense again. I’ll be in trouble with the wife. She comes from Scotland. She objects to paying interest to holes in walls.
I get out of the taxi and approach the machine. This is scary. All the numbers have strings of zeros after them. The ones towards the bottom are in millions. When I punch in 128,000 the machine gets violently sick and spews notes over me. I gather them up and head back to the taxi.
I offer money to the driver. He goes unstable and starts screaming at the Gatherer who waves the notes aside. ‘This small money,’ says the Gatherer. ‘Driver want big money.’
‘Looks big enough to me,’ I tell him, ‘all those noughts.’
‘Cents,’ he tells me.
‘You’d better come and explain,’ I say, jerking my head towards the machine. I’m beginning to feel uneasy. Come to think of it, I’ve never been at ease since I met this guy.
I pay them enough to stop the driver’s palpitations and trigger my own. I’m not used to dealing in big numbers. And what’s the interest on a string of zeros? Maybe I’ve just broke the bank.
Ho Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton
It’s the next morning and I’m in a taxi heading for the 5 star, £58, luxury of the Melia Hotel. After I booked the Heritage I saw a report on the internet that it was the worst hotel in South East Asia. So I switched my second night to the Melia. In the event, the £28 Heritage was value for money; clean and spacious. But it’s in the grot of the suburbs so I’m going along with the change. The Melia’s Central.
This is a pukka taxi, with a meter. The trouble is, there are three sets of figures on it... all going up at different speeds. The lowest figure is in thousands. I think the top one is in billions. It’s a long journey and the motorbikes are as thick as porridge. The driver doesn’t speak any English, only scrambled egg. I offer him 100K – £3. He looks delighted. So that’s his tip as well.
I watch a hotel porter whisking my case and rucksack away. Viet Nam is a Communist country. It’s overstaffed. The whole country specialises in inefficiency. The upper-class hotels have a bellhop in every plant pot.
An angel in a long white dress and hat that looks like a halo hands me a piece of paper with a number written on it. It’s not her phone number. It’s too short. Pity. I check-in but I’m too early. My room’s not ready. They’ll have my luggage in there at noon. ‘What’s the number?’ they ask.
‘You said the room’s not ready, so I don’t know the number.’
‘No – your luggage number? The lady in white gave it to you.’
‘Did she? I dunno. I’ve lost it.’
‘OK sir. We fix.’ Five star service, caters for idiots.
I collect a map from Reception and head outside for a walk. I like walking. I’m a walking person. But in Viet Nam, no one walks. Everyone goes everywhere by motorbike. There are eight million people in Sai Gon, that’s Ho Chi Min City, and six million have motorbikes. That’s a lorra bikes in one city. Ha Noi looks to be the same. And all those bikes seem to be on the road all the time. It’s like nobody goes anywhere in particular. Just get up in the morning, cock a leg over a bike and meander round the maze, honking your horn till bedtime.
I consult the map. There are two targets within walking distance, Ha Noi Prison Museum, that’s the Hanoi Hilton where the Vietnamese kept shot-down American pilots, and the Catholic Cathedral.
Outside, on the pavement, reality dawns. A road separates each block from the next. And the roads are no-go areas, rivers of motorbikes with a 20 knot current, every bike doing its own thing. They’re not in lanes. They’re all going in different directions on the same patch, half men, half women, honking their horns in fruitless mating calls. It’s like an ant run out here, high speed dodgems.
It gets worse. The overspill is on the pavement. They come up from behind and whiz past me. The secret of staying alive is to keep walking in a straight line. If you deviate, or stop suddenly, you scramble the equation. Everyone out there respects everyone else’s space – when they can guess where it is. The same rules apply crossing the road. Step off the kerb, close your eyes and keep going straight, repeating the mantra to yourself... ‘My Space. My Space. My Space.’ If you stop to cough you’ll have six-million bikes on top of you.
I’m a target now. A swelling convoy of trishaws keeps pace with me, yelling for me to leap aboard for a ‘ten dollah’ tour with a commentary in scrambled egg. Motorbike-taxis, one after the other, swerve in front of me, heading me off, urging me to squat on the pillion for a ‘ten dollah’ roller coaster whirl of engine-revving bliss. When I pause to consult the map, chancers step out of nowhere, applying for the job of personal guide. It’s like nobody understands the concept of somebody walking, or the joys of orienteering among flowing streams of horn-blasting traffic in the polluted air of a sweltering city.
What these guys don’t know is that I’m not a tourist. Not a real one. I’m on a beeline from Cardiff to Saigon, on a mission to find my way to the Cu Chi tunnels without the aid of a travel agent or guide. It’s a budget trip. The plane fare subsidised by Air Miles, and hotels and train tickets booked on the internet. I’m the only human involved. I was getting lethargic back there in Cardiff. I needed some action. So I set myself a challenge.
Outside the cathedral, a pretty girl in a palm hat tries to sell me bananas from one of the bowls that hang from either end of the pole she balances on her shoulder. When I turn her down she offers to pose for a photo. ‘OK,’ I take a shot and slip her 20K. Further down the line an old beggar-woman sticks out a bony arm for a handout. I’ve been along this route before, many times. If I give 50 pence to every beggar who pops out of the pavement, a few hundred of the world’s poorest will have their only chip butty of the year. The down-side is that I’ll be out of beer-tokens before lunchtime.
So here’s the dilemma. Did I give that girl 20K because she’s pretty, then go and turn the old woman down because she ain’t? Hmm? I know... I hold up 20K and my camera. The same offer’s on the table for the crone as for the girl. She turns it down with a gesture of contempt. I pocket the money and walk away. Maybe that’s why she’s a beggar. She won’t do something for something. Or have I got that wrong too?
Through the window – could it be a knotweed plantation?
Another day, another task, board the train for a 32 hour trip to Sai Gon. Trouble is, I didn’t sleep last night. A king-size bed in a 5 star hotel and I couldn’t sleep ‘cos I had Nasi Goreng for supper. It’s the best I’ve ever had, but it was big. Egg and rice are clogging my guts.
It’s raining today, muggy as hell. I’m sat in the station in a gathering crowd, waiting for boarding time. My ticket’s in my bum-bag. I’ll be in coach 10, compartment 1, berth 1. The tickets were waiting at the Heritage when I arrived. All done by mirrors, couldn’t be simpler. It’s a piece of cake. I’ve no problems.
The crowd are all Asians except for me and two European couples. I guess the couples are Frogs. The hotels are full of ’em. I suppose it’s natural. This was a French colony once. I seem to be the only Brit left in the world.
That tall thin railway worker went over to both European couples as they came into the station and showed them to empty seats. He seems to make a point of looking after Europeans. After a tip no doubt. Everyone here’s looking for the main-chance. He’s heading for me now.
It’s getting near boarding time. The ticket inspector’s opened the door that leads to the trains. We get to board an hour before take-off. The thin guy’s confronting me now. He’s making gestures. I dunno what he wants. It’s all in scrambled egg. Uh... he wants to see my ticket. Now he wants me to follow him. He’s got my case and we’re jumping the queue. He’s heading for coach ten. So he’s got it right. Now he wants my ticket. Maybe he wants to see my compartment and berth-numbers, or to show it to the guard or something. Better give him a tip. I’ve got two 10K notes here... 30p each. I’ll try him with one. If he looks unhappy I’ll give him both.
We’re in the compartment now, four bunks. There’s nowhere for the cases. It’ll be a tight squeeze if someone gets in with their shopping. The guy suddenly spins round and sticks his hand in my face. ‘Ten dollah!’ he snarls. He’s gotta be joking. ‘No way,’ I tell him, ‘ten thousand dong.’
‘Ten dollah!’ he yells. He thinks he’s Dick Turpin but he’s just a wanker. ‘Ten dollah?’ That must be the first line in the Vietnamese–English Dictionary. ‘Twenny dong,’ I tell him, shoving two notes in his hand. ‘Ten dollah! Ten dollah!’ he screams. We’re struggling now, me trying to ram 20K into his hand and him pushing it away, a strange situation. Suddenly he strides past me. When I turn... he’s gone.
‘Jesus.’ I sit down. That took my breath away...
‘I think this is my bed...’ Startled by the falsetto voice, I look up. And there’s Emo Philips, the American comedian, reincarnated as a tall gangling Chinaman, complete with a medieval bobbed haircut, hovering above me, arms and legs all over the shop. We go outside and check the compartment number. Emo’s right, it’s 24. I’m supposed to be in 1. Turpin dumped me on the wrong bed then demanded money. People aren’t the same anymore.
I hump my stuff to the right bed. The berths are filling up. There’s a Vietnamese bloke in the bed above me and a middle aged woman in the one opposite. They’ve both got luggage so there’s not much room. Now a girl in her 20s arrives with a total of 7 cases and bags. We’re overcrowded, big time. But, on the bright side, the return journey is only Two-million-two-hundred-thousand-dongs – £78. For that, I get to Saigon and back, and beds for two nights. So I’m saving something like £300 on air, hotel and food bills. And I get to see Viet Nam from top to bottom.
Nightmare! The last time I saw my train ticket was in Turpin’s hand. He never gave it back. He broke off in the middle of the struggle and strode away. I’ve got problems...
Yaah! God...! Emo’s at the door, standing there like a four-legged daddy-longlegs. This guy’s surreal. He wants a chat. That’s the last thing I need. I just want to sit and worry. My head’s in a whirl. I don’t know whether I’m coming of going. Emo wants me to polish-up his English. He thinks I should go to China and teach it. He says I don’t need to learn Chinese. They all learn English anyway. They just need to polish the pronunciation. But teaching Emo is a fulltime job in itself. His voice keeps changing register in mid-sentence, jumping from baritone to falsetto and back in rapid succession. His arms and legs are the same. He scratches his left cheek with his right hand by putting his right arm round the back of his neck. Then he does the same with the other hand. He’s come from Shanghai to Viet Nam, job hunting. He can’t speak a word of Vietnamese. And, if he could, what would he do? We have two drivers on this train. They earn £30 a week each. It’s a 32 hour journey. And they have to buy their own food. Emo, sunshine – go home!
The train’s well underway now. It’s getting dark and there’s the mother of all storms outside. The rain is like hosepipes, lightning exploding in rapid succession. It’s like the B42’s are back with the napalm and we’re the target. Now I realise, my coat’s gone missing. I go down the train to see if I left it in Emo’s place, but I didn’t. That bastard, Turpin, must have grabbed it.
The guard arrives, demanding my ticket. I tell him the tale of Dick Turpin but he only savvies scrambled egg. He goes away and comes back with two helpers. These trains pull a full coach-load of spare guards and comic-singers. There’s no-end of reinforcements. The men gargle and jabber among themselves then bring their boss. This guy’s the bad-cop... like the Jap guard on the River Kwai. ‘No ticket,’ he raps in English. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ No messing. I like that in a man.
I repeat the tale of Turpin. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he orders. I look at the window, black dark, rivers of rain, lightning flashing! The thought of leaving the train on a night like this, lumbered with luggage and nowhere to go, no bed... no ticket... no nothing... in a land full of scrambled egg... is... well... not good.
In desperation I fumble in my rucksack and produce a piece of paper with the phone number of Tony Kheim, the guy on the internet who delivered my train tickets to the Heritage. I always carry backup. ‘Phone this man on your mobile,’ I tell them. They do. He confirms that I did buy a ticket. It takes the heat out of the situation. But... I can’t stay on the train without a ticket.
‘OK. I’ll buy another one,’ I tell them. I fumble in my bum-bag and scrape 500,000 dong together. The boss waves it away. ‘I want... million!’ he demands. ‘But I haven’t got a million,’ I tell him. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he barks, in his best concentration-camp English. ‘What about this?’ I offer my credit card. ‘Pah!’ he pushes it away. ‘Its Tesco’s Platinum,’ I tell him. He’s unimpressed. ‘American dollar?’ I ask. His eyes light up. ‘Now you’re talking,’ his eyebrows tell me. ‘A hundred and twenty,’ he says, after a calculation.
‘That’s nearly the return fare. I’ve already paid for this bed,’ I tell him.
They jabber among themselves. ‘OK,’ says the boss, at last, ‘downgrade to couchette, 80 dollah.’ They know I’m no dodger and they’ve softened a bit. ‘No,’ I tell them, ‘I need a bed. I’ll pay the 120.’ They jabber again. ‘OK OK,’ the boss weakens. ‘Eighty dollah. Keep bed,’ he tells me.
There’s no buffet. A woman comes round with a trolley, doling out food to keep us alive, foul soup, chopsticks, a ton of boiled rice, dollop of soggy pickled-cabbage, fatty pork. It’s worse than nothing at all. Vietnamese music blares full-blast from a speaker in the corridor. It’s hot and stuffy. I lie on my bed, sweating and gasping for air. I can’t sleep. I prowl the corridor in my socks. All the windows are locked. I look for a toilet. It’s a squat. I come out with feet stinking of piss.
This is it. I’m stuck here till 9 o’clock tomorrow night. That’s 24 hours away. Time stretches before me like a waterless desert. There’s nothing to do, no one to speak to. Even Emo would be a blessing. But he’s on his bed, lifeless, like everyone else... corpses in a mobile morgue.
For no reason I pull the screwed-up dong notes from my back pocket and iron them out. ‘I don’t believe it!’ There, in the middle of the ball... is my bloody ticket. It’s tattered and torn, but it’s real. It must have come from Turpin’s paw in the scuffle.
In the end coach I pin a guard down and tell him the story. He hasn’t a clue what I’m saying but summons an ever increasing number of assistants. At last I’m talking to the guy from the Kwai, through an interpreter who speaks perfect English. It takes a long time and a lot of jabbering. ‘You see,’ says the interpreter, at last. ‘We have already paid 80 dollah to the government.’
I frown and scratch my head. We’re on a moving train.
‘So,’ he goes on, ‘if we give you 80 dollah, we lose a lot of money.’
‘So what are you saying?’ I ask.
‘We want you to be very happy,’ he tells me.
‘So do I,’ I tell him.
‘So, if we give you 40 dollah, we lose 40 dollah and you lose 40 dollah. Will that make you very happy?’
‘I’ll be 40 dollars happier,’ I say.
‘No... very happy?’
‘No... very happy?’
This is Vietnamese for don’t rock the boat. ‘OK. Very happy,’ I concede.
Kwai puts his hand in his back pocket, pulls out my wad of $80, miraculously retrieved from the government, and deals me 40. So that’s me... very happy!
The girl with the pile of cases leaves the train at noon the next day. And there’s my coat, under the last one. I find an open window, and air, then a European toilet – and people who speak English. I’m back on course. A little wiser, a little poorer.
Through the window
I’m in the middle of the crowd leaving Saigon station. It’s dark and I’m looking for a taxi. A weasel-faced wanker in a peaked cap and denim jacket is pulling at my arm. ‘Taxi, ten dollah,’ he chants. ‘Taxi, ten dollah.’ How does he know its ten dollars? He doesn’t know where I’m going.
There’s a taxi rank at the end of the approach – a long line of smart, white, four-wheel drives, filling up and pulling away. These are the boys I want. I head straight for them, humping a rucksack, pulling a case and fighting off the Weasel. I flag a taxi. The driver ignores me. I try another and another and another... They all ignore me. It’s like I’m invisible.
Maybe the Weasel’s got the first claim on me. OK. I can sort that. ‘Get lost!’ I roar at the top of my voice and give him a push. His face fills with hate but he slinks away with his tail between his legs. The taxi-men still ignore me. I don’t get it. Even if they can’t see me they must see my case. Ah... Maybe they are out in sympathy with the weasel.
There’s another guy at me now, in a grey uniform with an official number on it. He’s got more manners than the Weasel. He wants me to go with him. He must be a taxi driver. I follow him across the approach.
‘Oh no...’ he’s loading my case onto trishaw. I don’t believe it. I’ve landed with Gunga Din. It’s not even a decent trishaw, like the posh ladies go promenading in. This is ancient, a single-seater, moth-eaten and battered. I don’t want to know it. But I’ve no option. The taxis have rejected me. ‘Rex Hotel,’ I tell him.
‘’Otel,’ he echoes.
‘No,’ I tell him, ‘not any hotel, the Rex Hotel.’ He’s another chancer.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Red ’otel.’
‘Aahh, gerronwithit,’ I tell him. ‘Rex Hotel, fifty-thousand. No Rex, no money.’
We start off. It’s uphill. Gunga’s got a load on. He’s struggling a bit. I’ve got my feet on my case with my knees in the air and my rucksack under my chin. He’s edging into the traffic. There’s no order on the road. Just swirling eddies of motorbikes, honking horns, claiming their space. But he copes. He’s been doing this all his life – with the same trishaw by the look of things. When traffic lights go green, bikes zoom away on all sides. Gunga stands on the peddles, struggling to get momentum up the slope. The journey goes on and on. I sense he’s flagging.
‘’Otel!’ he shouts hopefully as we approach a dingy Vietnamese doss.
‘Rex,’ I tell him.
He tries it on again and again with every ‘’otel’ we pass. He hasn’t a clue what we’re looking for. I’m running out of patience. I’m tired, two nights without a proper sleep. I need a shower and a change of clothes. I’ve got Vietnamese piss on my socks. I bang the side of the trishaw. ‘Let me off,’ I yell. ‘I’ll find a taxi.’
‘No. No.’ he pleads. ‘Red ’otel. OK. OK.’
He shouts to people on the sidewalk. They shout back, pointing uphill. We’re going the wrong way up a one-way street now, in the dark without lights, against a solid wall of motorbikes. It’s like the M25 is coming at me.
He’s behind, standing on the peddles. I’m his shield. He sees my problem. He gets off the bike, comes round the front, and starts pulling me, like a horse and cart. He chickens out and makes for the sidewalk. Now he’s peddling along the pavement. I’ll settle for that.
We come to a corner. ‘There!’ he shouts triumphantly. ‘Rex ’otel!’
And there it is. ‘Closed!’ Boarded up. Dead as a Christmas turkey. I booked it on the internet. I’ve been suckered again. Gunga Din sees the problem. He thinks I’ll blame him. He shouts frantically to a guy sitting on the steps. The guy shouts back and points. We move on, round another corner. And there it is. A blaze of lights. The Rex Hotel. The boarded bit was the back entrance.
A coach has pulled-up outside, disgorging middle class, middle aged Frenchies. Gunga pulls alongside and dismounts. Then he misjudges and the trishaw crashes onto its side, shooting me nosediving among the crowd, rucksack and all. The Frenchies pause and gaze disdainfully down. ‘Another idiot Rosbeef.’
Gunga hops around on one leg crying ‘sorry sir, sorry sir.’ He can see 50K evaporating. He might be a chancer. But he’s hurt himself. And he’s no wanker. He’s worked bloody hard. We agreed on fifty. I give him a hundred. ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din,’ I tell him.
In the cool of the rooftop bar, the inevitable Philippino musicians murder Western pop music on the corner stage. A couple of aging French couples dance to the racket, clapping enthusiastically after every number. One middle aged bloke, a Chirac look-a-like, is swaying and clapping and tapping the table like a star-struck kid.
The service is crap. I go to the bar to get more drink. The local hooker sidles up, ‘you’re new,’ she tells me.
‘Not the usual description,’ I say.
She says she runs a massage parlour on the floor below. ‘Do you need a rub down?’ she asks.
‘Or rub-up?’ I wonder.
‘I manipulate,’ she says.
‘I bet you do,’ I tell her. She’s attractive, in a pale skinned 4-star well-groomed kind of way. But I prefer the girls outside, pale gold skin and almond eyes, sitting astride their motorbikes in skin-tight jeans, shiny black hair tumbling over their shoulders. They’re like dainty dolls. And they walk like dolls, little awkward steps. It’s like their mothers wind them up every morning, stick ’em on high-heel stilts, then turn them loose to stagger about till they find a bike to cock a leg over. These girls are wild flowers. Once they master the walking problem they’ll take over the world. The hooker’s a houseplant.
I tell her, ‘no, I just need beer.’ She looks disappointed. ‘I’m married,’ I say. ‘You’re against the rules.’
The next night she arrives at my table. ‘Can I sit with you?’ she wonders.
‘I’ve told you,’ I tell her. ‘I’m married.’
‘Just for a chat,’ she says.
‘Naah. You’d better not,’ I say. She looks crestfallen and goes back to her table. I bite my tongue. It’s 30-odd pence a pint in here. A double whisky’s a pound. For less than two quid she could tell me tales to make my toes curl.
I’ve booked the trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels for the second day. That’s what this journey’s all about. But I’ve got my doubts. If I end up with a coach load of Frenchies it’ll be a nightmare. And the hotel’s full of ’em.
In the morning I go to the foyer and wait for the call. The place is awash with Yanks and Frenchies. It doesn’t bode good. Then this girl comes up and says, ‘Mr Gregory?’ I say, ‘yes.’ And she says, ‘follow me.’ Suits me. She a wild flower in tight jeans.
She takes me to a chauffeur driven car and opens a rear door. ‘Am I the only one?’ I say when we’re underway. ‘No,’ she tells me, ‘there are two of us.’ It’s getting better.
We do the tunnels and the war museum. She’s the best courier I’ve ever come across. She walks with her arm round my waist and keeps feeling my muscles and saying ‘wow.’
She takes me to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. ‘I don’t eat with clients,’ she tells me. ‘But you’re nice and happy. I want to eat with you.’ She’s probably winding me up for a tip. But I can stand that. Especially after the meal, when she starts kneading both our stomachs to see which one is the fullest.
At the end of the day I follow her up the hotel steps to the foyer. At the top she turns, puts her arms round me and presses her cheek to mine. Maybe she wants a bigger tip. But it makes an old man happy.
In the bar that evening, the hooker’s back. ‘Can I come to your room tonight?’ she wants know.
‘I keep telling you; I’m married,’ I say.
‘For you, I do it for love,’ she tells me.
‘Aww shucks,’ I cover my eyes with my hand. It’s very nice of her. We hardly know each other. ‘I’ve still got this marriage problem,’ I tell her.
She plants a kiss on my lips. And then she’s gone.
Mission accomplished. I’ve done the tunnels. I’m dreading tomorrow’s train trip. But hey, I’m homeward bound.
The fun’s over for this trip...
Charlie aka Viet Cong…. Now you see… Now you don’t
Enter Antonio ...
I’m on the train now. A colony of Frenchies are swarming into the coach. This is worrying. I don’t want them in here... But I needn’t worry. In walks Miss Saigon. She looks about 19 but she turns out to be 27. She looks a dream as she clambers up and down onto the bunk above me. A woman in her 30’s is in the bottom bunk across the way. She’s nice and friendly, wants to share her water but I’ve got my own.
I wander into the corridor. The French have got the windows open. Brilliant. It’ll be great to have some fresh air in the place. But now the chief guard has come along with a key. He’s pushing the French out of the way and locking the windows. He’s a bit of a Hitler, this guy.
Five hours later the train stops and the French swarm away. The woman in the bottom bunk has closed the compartment door and we all sprawl on our beds gasping for air.
Suddenly the door’s flung open and a bloke in a khaki shirt and shorts barges in with a massive canvas bag which he dumps between the bunks. I don’t believe it... He’s wearing a blue crash helmet. ‘I’m Antonio... from der Nederlands,’ he roars in a foghorn voice, snatching off the helmet and throwing it on the vacant bunk. He points to the bag. ‘You’ll have to lift dis on der bed for me,’ he orders Hitler, who is standing behind him. ‘I have a heart condition.’
Hitler bristles. He doesn’t lift. He shoves Frenchies about and locks windows. I get off the bunk. ’I’ll give you a hand,’ I tell them. Three of us heave it up and shove it on the bunk.
Antonio pulls up a shirt sleeve, bends his arm and tenses the muscle, ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells Hitler. Now he leans over the bottom bunk and shakes the woman. ‘I’m Antonio, from der Nederlands,’ he shouts. ‘Who are you?’ She looks bemused and mutters something in scrambled egg. Antonio does the same with the girl above, and gets the same response.
‘Ratatatat!’ He suddenly crouches between the bunks, firing a heavy machine gun, full blast. ‘Bang! Boom!’ He roars, lobbing hand grenades onto the bunks. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells the girls, who are now sitting lotus fashion on the lower bunk staring at him, wide eyed. ‘I vos in Curacao.’
He’s 65 with a shock of grey hair and grey moustache. And he’s been on a 2 month cycling tour in the Meikong Delta. ‘You’ll have to talk up,’ he tells me, ‘I’m deaf.’
‘It’s all those bloody hand grenades,’ I tell him.
‘I lost my hearing aid in the der crash,’ he tells me.’ He was in a collision with a motorbike and lost his front wheel. ‘Mudder and daughter,’ he suddenly roars, looking at the women. It’s not very tactful. But it’s very Antonio. ‘Bridget Bardot,’ he roars, suddenly realising how beautiful Miss Saigon looks. He dives into the canvas bag and produces a camera. ‘You are der sex kitten,’ he tells her. ‘I take your picture.’ She’s posing for him now, combing her hair and preening herself. He’s got something going for him.
Swish! A sandal skims my nose in a karate kick. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells me. ‘Ratatatat! Boom! Bang!’ He’s off again. This guy did 2 years National Service in the 60’s and, by the sound of things, he’s lived off it ever since. But he’s no more a soldier than I am.
He’s at his pills now. ‘Von for my heart,’ he announces. ‘Von for my blood pressure. And von for Diabetes... Bang!’ he lobs a hand grenade into the corridor.
I look at the women. ‘Mad as a typhoon,’ I tell them. They nod enthusiastically. They don’t know the language. But they guess what I’m saying.
‘Dare vos dis Russian vife in the Meikong,’ he tells us. ‘Antonio, she tells me. I love you. I love you very much. You must come to me in Russia... And I vill go,’ he assures us. ‘And I vill give her much umpety-umpety.’
The women leave the train at 0700. Antonio produces pictures of his wife and daughter, two attractive women. There’s a postcard from his daughter too. ‘Come back healthy,’ she tells him. ‘And tell us lots of stories.’ He’ll definitely tell her stories.
At 0800 he decides to go a walk down the train. I hear him telling a Vietnamese guy about ‘giving umpety-umpety to a vife on the Venice Express.’ The guy hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
Half an hour later he’s back at me. ‘Meet the new girlfriend,’ he tells me. He pushes a Vietnamese wildflower towards me. He says she’s 23. But she looks younger, much younger. He says she has an apartment in Ha Noi and produces a condom. ‘I vill sleep vith her tonight and give her umpety-umpety,’ he tells me.
It’s only half-eight in the morning. He’s not had his breakfast yet. And he’s already picked up a scrubber.
I don’t know how he knows she has an apartment, or that he can sleep with her. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I think he tells her what he wants. And if she nods or smiles, it’s a done-deal.
She leaves him now and goes to a compartment further down the coach. There are two young blokes in there and she spends most of the day with them, behind a closed door.
‘I have to be careful,’ Antonio tells me, holding up the condom. ‘I had dis near miss vid a black vife in Africa. I think she had Aids. It vos new then. I had to tell my vife about der girl. Ve both had to have tests and medication.’
‘Christ. It’s a wonder she didn’t divorce you.’
‘Oh no, no. My vife understood. I vos just a young boy at the time. And I had been avay on business for a couple of veeks.’
‘Oh. That’s OK then. How old were you?’
‘Only 35; just a young boy.’
I nod my head. There’s no answer to that. But it explains his daughter’s postcard.
He wants to know what I think of his new girlfriend.
‘She’s not just an ordinary girl,’ I tell him. ‘Miss Saigon was an ordinary girl.’ I point to the top bunk. ‘She let you take photos. But that was all. Ordinary girls don’t take you back to their apartments for umpety.’
He gets another packet of pills from the big bag, takes one, then washes it down with bottled water.
‘What’s that one for?’ I wonder.
‘Diarrhoea,’ he tells me.
‘Have you been drinking the water?’
‘No. But ven I’m vith dis little vife tonight, I might be excited and get the shits.’
I nod wisely. There’s no answer to that one either.
The girl’s back at him now. Making pillow signs with her hands against her cheek. He throws me an, ‘I told you so,’ look, as she takes his hand and leads him away.
I stand corrected. Looks like he’s struck lucky.
But she takes him to the boys’ compartment, where he’s invited to buy satay and coffee all-round off the food trolley.
When he comes back he asks me again, ‘vot do you think of my girlfriend?’
‘She’s with two blokes,’ I tell him. ‘She could be a hooker, working the train. Ask the guards if they know her.’
He asks Hitler, but gets waved aside.
She’s back in our compartment now. Sitting on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. He falls for it big time. She suddenly stands up and leaves without giving a reason. Ten minutes later, one of her boyfriends comes and stands in the corridor, eyeing the Dutchman. There’s something sinister about him.
‘They could be setting you up for a honey trap,’ I warn Antonio. ‘Two men and a girl.’
‘Yah,’ Antonio gets the point. ‘I vill put my things in a safe in the station,’ he decides. ‘And take only $30 to her apartment. Nothing more. If dey pull a gun. Dat is all dey vill get – $30. But if dey have no gun, I vill destroy dem. Two fingers fly at my face. First, I take out deir eyes. Den I chop dem.’ Swish! Swish! His hands fly through the air in karate chops. ‘Den I finish dem.’ He leaps to his feet and goes kicking down the corridor, like a German soldier who’s lost control of his goosestep.
We’re getting near Ha Noi now. The girl’s back on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. ‘I love you,’ she tells him in English. ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
He looks at me, wide eyed. ‘I told you,’ he says. ‘She loves me. She has told me dis herself. You heard her.’
‘Give me a kiss,’ he cries, taking hold of her shoulders and pulling her towards him.
‘Yeeeaaow,’ she squeals and struggles like an angry cat. ‘No kiss! No kiss!’ she screams.
She rises and goes to the door. ‘Goodbye,’ she calls over her shoulder, with a wide grin. Then she’s back with the two boys, who are waiting in the corridor.
‘Vot do you tink?’ he asks, hopefully.
‘She’s taking the piss,’ I say.
He nods his head. ‘Yah. You might be right,’ he concedes. ‘So I need a hotel in Ha Noi. Is dare room at your place?’
‘Dunno,’ I say. ‘I booked it on the internet.’
‘Have you got a double room?’ he wonders.
‘No way,’ I tell him. ‘I’m not sharing. I’m not playing second fiddle to a scrubber.’
On Ha Noi station I see Antonio being towed away by one of the wankers. ‘Dis man has a hotel,’ he shouts to me. ‘He vill give me a room for der night.’
‘I bet he will,’ I say, as I go looking for a chancer with a taxi.
The pictures below might interest the historians out there...
Now Some of Charlie’s Toys
Step on it...
and down you go to a bed of spikes.
This one rolls you down and pierces back and front
With this one you hang with your armpits impaled
There’s one that opens like a window
See Saw Marjory Daw. Then down to the spikes.
Then, for your convenience
This one folds like a chair – with spikes
Get out of this when you’re under fire.
Saturday, 16 December 2017
Adrift in 2017 AD
I stopped writing stuff for my blog 2 or 3 years ago because anyone with the slightest interest has either gone over the wall, heading into whatever they’ve lined up for themselves, or they’re no longer capable of making head nor tail of it. I’m writing this to try and make sense of the world as it affects me. Therapy, if you like. I know that some of the stuff I say winds people up. But they’d get wound up anyway so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, let’s wind them up first and get rid of them. Then I’ll get on with the monologue.
First, to make things crystal clear, as far as I’m concerned anyone can do what they want with their own bodies. They can cut off their nose if they like. Don’t ask me to say it looks beautiful, that’s all. And don’t force me to do it. That’s bullying. I can’t stand bullies. That said, I have pet hates, like computers and full time offendees... i.e. people who take offence when none was offered.
So, let’s go to my latest hate target - unisex toilets. For those of you who don’t get about much, this is a phenomenon foisted on the wider world by the recently arrived Alphabet People. The first time I came across this idea was in the Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay. Liz and I had parked the car in Penarth and strolled across the barrier to the bay. Once there we went for a coffee in the Senedd. Inside, as is my wont, I headed for the, “gents,” which I know of old. If you’re not familiar with the toilets in the Senedd, I must tell you that they’re tucked away in a remote corner of the cafe, hidden from view. But now, instead of the “gents,” I was confronted by a notice that said, “This is a Unisex toilet.” I pulled up dead. “What’s a unisex?” I wondered. “I know that a unicorn is a cross between a donkey and a rhinoceros. But that’s mythical. So what goes with a unisex? Do I qualify?” I ask myself. “What if I go marching in and get met by screams and abuse? What if I get turfed out? What do I tell Liz?” Like I say, I’m in a remote corner of the building – and I’m of a nervous disposition – completely out of my depth. I push the door timidly. “My God it’s locked. There’s... somebody in there!” I have visions of an arm shooting out and dragging me inside. I lose my nerve, turn tail and scurry back to the table. “I’ll go to the proper toilet on the barrier.” I tell myself.
Like all stories this has two sides. To start with, some of us need urinals – me for starters. Let me explain... We have two toilets in our house. And I realise now that long before Johnny-come-lately arrived with his fancy labels, these were unisex toilets. Liz and I, man and woman, tend to nip into whichever one we fancy – so long as it’s the one in the bathroom which is by far the cosiest. But... and it’s a big BUT, more years ago than I care to remember, Liz went one step further and emasculated me. She made me sit down to pee, under the pretext that I’m a rotten shot. Deprived of my manhood, I was, for a while, defeated and devastated. Say news leaked out to the boys in the pub, how would I explain? But, like the French during the war, I fought back and formed a secret underground movement that she still doesn’t know about to this day... Between you and me, whenever we go out I make an excuse and go into every “gent’s” toilet that we pass. If we go into a building that sports a “gents” I’m in there as we enter and again as we leave. Liz falls for this, as women do, and puts it down to the fact that my prostate is in tatters and beyond repair. Little does she know that I go in there to stand proudly in front of a urinal and show the male population, “See, I’m not a sissy. In spite of the rumours I’m a bloke who stands up to pee.”
On a different tack, we passed the first of the year’s milestones in March when Liz woke me up at 5 in the morning and said she couldn’t breathe. This was particularly worrying because she had a stroke 2 years ago. Mind you, I suppose she would still want to breathe even if she hadn’t had a stroke. So that was a 999 job, paramedics, and 3 days in hospital with her heart doing a magnificent 140 beats a minute. It turned out that one of her stroke medications was too high. Once they sorted that out she was back to normal. Two days later we spent a full day at the races at Ffoss Llass. Liz was just fine so we declared her fully recovered. I came away with a small profit – though none of my gee-gees went half the speed of Liz’s ticker.
Still in March, on Mothering Sunday we clocked-up another milestone when our grandson’s jazz band was performing at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. All three younger branches of the family made the pilgrimage to see Mam. That’s three generations in each case. Family bonds are priceless.
Liz is into religion. And she’s always had a yen to go to Iona. So I set up a trip to the island in May. I did the booking on the internet, as you do. It was a bit traumatic at times, but nothing that a few injections of The Famous Grouse couldn’t cure. Have you noticed that all the hotels have clever little ploys for offering essential extras these days? The first one is, “Five pound cancellation cover.” That’s to insure against having a spat with the wife and calling the whole thing off. Next, they tell you that breakfast is an extra – a fifteen pound extra. In the old days you got a plateful of greasy bacon and a hard fried egg as part of the deal. Then, when you get there, they urge you to save the planet by never having your towels washed. I spend ages pacing up and down hotel rooms wrestling with my conscience. Then, guiltily, I tenderly lay this sodden rag on the bathroom floor as if it was a drowned cat I’d pulled from the toilet. When all seems quiet I sneak out of the room with my shirt pulled up around my head and scurry to the lift before the chambermaid identifies me and starts spreading gossip.
That said, I booked a hotel in Glasgow, followed by a hotel in Oban, ferry to Mull then B&B in Iona, and the same in reverse for the homeward journey. The whole trip was cemented together by a Flybe flight from Cardiff to Glasgow and a hire car when we got there. The reason any of this is worth mentioning is the fact that it leads me to another of my pet hates – big institutions that treat people like muck. Three weeks before the starting date, Flybe informed me that our flight was cancelled, no explanation given... not changed, altered, moved, shifted or any other such nicety, but cancelled. No flight that day – OK pal? Needless to say, Elizabeth and I have never been known to have a spat so I didn’t take hotel insurance against cancellation. I asked Flybe for compensation. “No chance,” came the reply, “if we give you more than 14 days notice it’s your problem. Full stop!” So, to shorten a long story, we got a flight for the next day and all the hotels etc juggled their bookings without charging us an extra penny. Thank you!
By the way, the B&B in Iona took us for £180 a night, which was more than twice the price of the hotels in Glasgow and Oban. As the island is one of the seats of British Christianity I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus doing his nut when he saw the money sharks on the steps of the temple. Fortunately we arrived on, and left Iona on exactly the days we had booked. Which was just as well, because the digs there stipulated that there were no cancellation safeguards – £180 per night, shit or bust.
To be fair, Iona is stunningly beautiful and historically unique. And from there we were able to take a trip to Fingal’s Cave, which is one of the planets wonders and more impressive than the Giant’s Causeway, nature at its most magnificent.
In June there was another impromptu clan gathering, this time springing from one of the same grandson’s orchestral concerts rather than jazz. This was followed by a three generation get together in an open air French restaurant in Mill Lane. These occasions are special and notch up precious memories. I will never stop counting my blessings.
In September Liz was off on a weekend course to Denman College in Oxfordshire. That’s a kind of bolt hole where WI members go to get away from their husbands. I don’t know what course she did but she seemed happy enough when she got back. And I lived unchallenged for a couple of days so it wasn’t all bad. Then Liz was off to Scotland again. This time it was with our daughter. They flew from Bristol to Inverness then hired a car, picked up Liz’s aunt in Wick and did a tour of the Northern Highlands.
That brings me to November and the last of my latest hates, tight car parks and sat-navs. Our eldest son is in the navy. He’s on a shore posting just now and volunteered to take part in the Armistice Parade on Plymouth Hoe on the 12th. That gave us an excuse for a short break. So I booked four days in a hotel that boasted a car park. When we got to the hotel I asked the receptionist if I could book a place in the car park. “You don’t need to book,” she tells me, “there’s plenty of room. Just drive in and pick your spot.” “Perfect,” I say, then go back to Liz who is sat in the car and whisk her round the block and in through the car park entrance.
My whole life is pockmarked by decisions I wish I hadn’t made. Going into that car-park was yet another. Talk about tight. I was on permanent hard lock on a desperately narrow track – this way, that way, this way... with Liz yelling, “You’re too close this side, that side... this side, that side.” Then I saw a space, a parking space. It was a clearly marked parking space. I’ve been going into car parks for years and I know a parking space when I see one. So does Liz. So we both agreed. “It’s a parking space. It’s marked out. Let’s go for it.” Easier said than done, “How do I get in,” I wondered. “Dunno,” said Liz. She can be very helpful. A manoeuvre of twenty-odd turns finally got us into the space with a car on either side – and just enough room for our wing mirrors. Now – my car is small, a Fiesta, they don’t come much smaller. “So how do we get out?” I wondered. “Dunno,” repeated Liz. After much deliberation, and irritability on my part, we came to the conclusion that there was no way out. And there never would be unless one of the other cars evaporated.
At this point I decided to continue the search. I was disappointed. Two cars further along we ran out of track. There was a barrier and the street beyond. We’d reached the exit. “Is that all there is?” said Elizabeth. “Can’t be,” I assured her, “we must have missed the ramp that goes to another level. Hang on, I’ll go look for it.” There was no ramp. But as luck would have it I came across a man who was about to leave. “I’ll keep this place for you,” he promised. “How do I get back to it,” I wondered. “Go out the exit and come back round again,” he told me. “Great,” I said, “won’t be a tick.”
I got back in the car and edged it towards the barrier. The barrier didn’t rise. I got out and examined the mechanism. “You seem to have to put a coin in,” I told Liz. That seemed strange, seeing we were guests. At that point I saw another man. “How do I get out?” I asked. “Put a token in,” he told me. “Where do we get tokens?” I asked. “Reception,” he said. “Nobody told me,” I said. “They don’t,” he said. This began to wind me up. I had a chap waiting for me to come back and claim his space. I had no way of getting out and I was blocking the exit. “I’ve got a spare token,” said the man, taking pity on me. “Use that.”
Then it was back in the car park. This time I’m already at the end of my tether before I start. It gets worse as I go along. After a series of this way, that way, too close episodes, I lose the will to live. Then I spot the guy who’s waiting for me and swing in to leave room for him to come out and pass me. Crunch! I hit a pillar and scrape both doors along it. As we leave the car-park we see a woman parked by the barrier. “How do I get out?” she wonders...
I’m a map person. I scorn sat-navs. I’ve been taken-in too many times by that patronising female in the satellite, “You have now reached your destination,” she tells me, after plonking me in the middle of a farm when I’d asked for a hotel. And I certainly don’t need help between Cardiff and Plymouth. Though I must admit sat-navs are useful when you’re in a strange city. And Liz never tires of pointing out that it’s often bailed me out when the routes in my out-of-date map-book have been craftily altered. Now, on the way home we decided to call in at Street and have a look at the Designer Outlet. Liz sets the sat-nav on her phone and it takes us to the door.The sat-nav is still on when we get back in the car. Like a fool, I say, “Leave it on and it’ll take us the shortest route to the motorway.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. But I sense something wrong as we leave Wells. At the roundabout the woman says, “Take the second exit.” “I’d’ve taken that one,” I say, nodding at the first exit. Then I clamp my mouth shut. I don’t want Liz reciting the number of times I’ve argued with the sat-nav and ended up whizzing in ever decreasing circles. But now we find ourselves sailing along a country road. It’s a road with no signposts, villages or anything that gives a clue as to where we are. We go for miles and miles with – nothing. “What time does it give our eta home?” I ask at last. “Seventeen thirty,” says Liz. “My God,” I say, “I reckoned we’d be home before sixteen hundred. Is the Post Code correct?” She checks, “Yes,” she assures me.” “What does it say the distance is?” I ask. “A hundred and forty miles,” says Liz. “Eh?! The whole distance from Plymouth to the house is only a hundred and sixty and I’ve been driving for three hours. Which way is it taking us?” “I can’t tell,” she says, it doesn’t show the whole route.”
At long, long last we come to a little round-about. Like a gift from God there’s a fingerpost that points among the fields and says W Super Mare 19 miles. “Sod the sat-nav,” I say, “that’s the road for me. It’s heading to a name I know. There’s a motorway at Weston. And all motorways lead to home.”
The road is winding and scattered with villages. Progress is slow. Then I get cramp in my hand. Liz offers to drive but I refuse to stop. I’m determined to see this through. The cramp gets so severe I’m driving with one hand while wincing, cursing and waving the other in the air.
In retrospect I think I’d been gripping the wheel too hard, imagining I was throttling the hotel receptionist and sat-nav woman.
So that’s the year that was.
Bye. Have a lovely Christmas and peaceful New Year.
Wednesday, 6 September 2017
Tuesday, 29 August 2017
Wednesday, 23 August 2017
Monday, 2 December 2013
New posts will be displayed here. Then, as other items get published, they will be moved to a position underneath Times Square, below.
Beards takeover trendy chins.
Fashion worships faith.
humans have rights.
The killer is still human.
The dead cannot cry.
mosques springing up like Asda
trendy men grow beards
There has been a sea-change at Heathrow. At least, in terminals 2 and 5. Get your boarding pass online then just roll up and drop your baggage at any check-in. No queuing. No hassle. Travelling is back to being a pleasure.
The last time I was in Toronto, Pearson International was just as good; passenger friendly and running like a Swiss watch. I was travelling BA that time. This time I’m with Air Canada and things are slightly different:-
I arrive at Pearson Terminal 1 armed with a boarding pass, cocky as you like. There are queues at all the check-ins. After my recent experiences, that comes as a surprise. “Ah well, must be a busy time,” I tell myself as I happily tag on the end of the first file I come across.
When I get to the desk, the woman says, “We don’t do Heathrow here. Go to Aisle 5.”
That’s a setback. I thought we’d sorted this nonsense out. But OK, on the face of it, it’s fair enough. Even so, the first feelings of doubt begin to creep in. Still confident in the brave new world I march off in search of Aisle 5.
“My God!” Aisle 5 is like Kaaba Square, Mecca, the first Friday in Ramadan, a teeming mass of bodies shuffling round in circles, going nowhere.
This is scary. I’ve a plane to catch and time’s flashing by like a peregrine with a lunch date. “Where do I go? What do I do?”
I’m getting anxious now. But I’ve no option but to slither along with the mob and hope for the best. On the plus side, I’ve got my boarding pass, so I’ll be all right when I eventually get to the check-in. Eventually... that’s the key word.
Somewhere ahead I can hear a woman’s voice squawking orders. The voice grows louder and louder. Then she’s there, like a force-fed turkey, controlling the poultry-run. “Where are your luggage labels?” she screeches. “Show your labels!”
People around me raise their hands, timidly displaying white ribbons of paper. This is new. I don’t have a ribbon so I keep shuffling. “Stop!” she screams at me. “Where’s your label?”
“That’s why I’m here,” I tell her. “They put the labels on at check-in.” She must be thick or something.
“You can’t go past here without a label,” she screams.
“Eh? So what do I do?”
“Print one at the machine!” she orders.
“I wouldn’t know how,” I tell her.
“Someone will show you,” she tells me. “You can’t go any further without a label.” This woman has power. She ain’t going to budge.
My body sags in disbelief. I turn and shuffle back through the crowd like a shell-dazed squaddie in a defeated army. Time is on the wing, but I can’t get to the plane without a label. And, to the best of my knowledge, they’ve blocked the only way to get the damn things. Clear of the crowd I see tense couples standing by machines peering at bright screens; scolding wives with browbeaten husbands poking at key-pads. I’ve developed a dread of such things. I look round for someone official who will offer guidance. Not a sausage.
Finding myself on Aisle 6 I spot a woman in uniform. She has a kind face so I ask her, “How do you get luggage labels these days?”
“You print them at a machine,” she says.
“Say you can’t use the machine?” I wonder.
“Just stand there until someone helps you,” she says. “Where are you going?”
“You can’t do Heathrow here. Go to Aisle 5.”
I’m back on Aisle 5 now. Somehow, I don’t think the idea of standing around waiting for the cavalry is going to work. I bite the bullet and confront a machine. I poke the screen. It tells me to put in my Reference Number. I put in the Reference printed on my ticket. The machine says “Not Recognised.” I panic. Time’s running out. There are massive queues. The only airport employee for miles around is there to browbeat me – not help me. I have to print my own luggage label. But, as I expected, the machine is making life difficult.
I poke in another number. It’s not the Reference Number. It’s just a number that’s there. This time the machine says, “Welcome Mr Gregory.” What’s that about? It rejects the correct number then gets all buddy-buddy when I put in a random number. They do it on purpose to keep you cowed. Never mind, we’re getting somewhere. “Great.”
The machine offers me a boarding pass. I tell it “No.” Because I’ve already got one.
“Do want your boarding pass texted?” It asks.
“No...” I’ve got a bloody boarding pass.
“No!” For God’s sake.
“No! No! No! No...!” I just want bloody labels.
I’ve got a plane to catch and this machine’s in a world of its own, asking damn fool questions. I look round for help. There is no help.
“Scan Your Passport,” the machine tells me.
“Yikes!” Now I really panic. If I put my passport in that slot, and the machine swallows it, and instinct tells me that it will swallow it, I’ll be stateless – doomed.
I’ve run out of options. I’ve hit a brick wall and the window of time is closing. I stand there trembling. I don’t know what do... My eyes are
rolling round in my head. Then I catch sight of something hanging from a slot, lower down the machine. “What’s that,” I wonder, stooping to examine it. And... “Yes!” It’s a luggage label. “I’ve printed a luggage label! I’ve won! I’ve won!” I cry.
It’s a hollow victory. They’ve built in another problem. There are two instructions on the back. “Peel Here... and... Stick Here.”
Simple enough on the face of it; but the glossy backing is designed to be immovable. It’s a clever idea. You think you’ve won. So you drop your guard. Then you find you’ve lost. I’ve got to get past the turkey-woman. That means I need labels. But I can’t get the label on the case... So I’m barred from the check-in. There’s no end to the punishment.
Twenty nerve-racking minutes later, miraculously, the backing peels off... just like that. I’m sure they designed it like that on purpose. In the nick of time, I’m off to join the Kaaba Square shuffle. As we approach the squawking turkey-woman, people around me nervously hold up their labels. Now I discover that no-one else has been able to peel off the backing. I’m the only one. Like a triumphant football captain after the World Cup, I hoist my case up high, proudly displaying the finished product.
“Who’s travelling with you?” the woman at check-in wants to know.
“No-one,” I tell her.
“So you’re alone.”
“Alone as can be.”
“And you are going to Heathrow?”
“So why is your luggage going to Dublin?”
I look in disbelief as she shows me the destination on my beautiful label... DUBLIN. “That’s what came out of the machine,” I tell her.
“Do you want it to go to Heathrow?”
“It will make life easier,” I tell her.
“No problem.” She rips the Dublin label off my case; presses a button; out pops a Heathrow label; she peels back off; whips it on my case... and job done.
So, if check-in did it as quick and easy as that, why the hell did I, a paying customer, have to go through purgatory to get there?
As we claim our seats and rearrange our meagre bits and pieces, this Chinese bloke rolls up, arms outstretched. He’s balancing two items, one on top of the other, each pushing the allowable limits in size and weight. One is a case. The other is a box, which I presume he has bought in duty free. How else did he get aboard with two pieces?
After they expel him from two seats further down the plane, he ends up in his own seat, across the aisle from me. He now decides to put his hand luggage, the case, in the empty locker above his head. He’s a bold boy, I think, because from where I am sitting it is obvious that the item is much bigger than the space he is trying to fit it in. Undaunted, our hero tries every which-way to get it in, rotating it through every angle between and zero and infinity and back. He fails.
He looks intelligent enough; young... early twenties; mop of dark hair; horn-rimmed glasses; smart suit. He could be a student or an escapee from a science lab. Unfortunately, he was off school sick on the day his class got the lecture on The Square Peg Theorem.
“Ahhh!” His little eyes light up. He’s spotted the empty locker above my head with its door hanging open. It’s bigger than his locker and I don’t have anything in there. I travel light. Same goes for the Dutchman sitting next to me.
Chinaboy points at the locker and looks at me. “OK?” he pleads.
“Be my guest,” I tell him.
He tries to put his case in this locker. But, struggle as he does, he is heading for failure – only because he’s trying every way except the right way. He’s tiring now and there is a real danger the case will come down on my head. I wonder if my insurance company will quibble at compensation for a broken neck.
“Ah so!” He gives a great yelp of delight as the case, accidently, falls into place and the door closes. “Thank you, thank you,” he says to me, bowing profusely, as if I’d just solved the problem.
“Shucks,” I tell him.
He now turns to his next problem – the box, similar in size to his hand luggage. He stands for a while looking down at it with his mouth open. Then he looks at his empty locker. No, he decides, it won’t go in there. Then he looks at my locker. Full.
“Ahhh!” Suddenly seeing a solution he forces the box into the space between his seat and the one in front. Now he clambers onto his perch
and sits with his feet on the box and his face peering at the gap between his knees.
The penny drops. He can’t sit in that position for eight hours. He looks for another solution. Spotting one, he drags the box into the aisle, leaves it there and clambers back into his seat.
He has no sooner fastened his seatbelt than a massive stewardess appears. “You can’t leave that there,” she roars. “Put it under the seat in front of you.”
Now, on his knees, he goes through the same performance he did with the lockers. This boy has not been headhunted by The Canadian Space Programme, I decide.
I always fall for the sucker punch. We buy a new shed. The door’s too low and scalps me. My wife puts up a hanging basket. I walk into it twice a day. Now I think I’ve got concussion. I decide to feed the roses and go into the house so the stuff won’t blow in the wind. I pour fertilizer into a plastic container; pick the container up and find there’s no bottom in it. I don’t know why there’s no bottom in it, but now there are pellets all over the kitchen. I hate roses anyway, more claws than a feral cat. The bastards can starve from now on.
“I hate Sunday.
There’s nothing on Sunday, unless you’ve got money. And they’ve stopped my spends.
I woke early this morning and set up the drums all round my bed. They’re not really drums, just boxes and tins; and Granny’s old jar that rings when you hit it.
I must practice, you see. I’m starting this group when I leave school... Heavy Metal... or something like that.
I was drumming real good when Granny burst in. “Stop it!” she yelled. “Stop all that noise!”
I hate my Granny. She’s always complaining about me and my noise. I’ll be glad when she’s moved to that old folks’ home that Dad shouts about when she’s gone off to bed.
She knocked the jar off the stool when she opened the door. It fell on the floor and smashed into bits. She burst into tears and fell on her knees to pick up the pieces. She’s a big baby sometimes.
Then she rabbited on about crystals and things. But there were no crystals there – just a broken old jar.
She shouted for Mam and kept blaming me. But it wasn’t my fault. She broke it herself when she opened the door.
I tried to explain, but she only got worse. So I grabbed for my clothes and ran down the stairs.
I got my football and went out for some training. I use the old shed because it makes a good noise. The harder you kick, the louder the bang. You can spot all your best shots. I might turn professional when I leave school.
Dad charged from the house in his vest and pyjamas. “I’ll kill you,” he yelled. “Yer all flamin’ noise.”
He’s ugly, my Dad. He looks worse in the mornings. Mam says it’s the beer. His hair hangs down over his face and his eyes are all red. He’d look like a monster if he had any teeth.
He tried to hit me and missed. His hand caught the wall and started to bleed, so he danced up and down, howling and cursing.
I was glad. I hate my Dad. He shouts too much and spoils all my fun.
Then next door’s barred cat jumped over the wall into their garden. It looks like a tiger. So I climbed over myself and started to stalk it, on my hands and knees through all the flowerbeds. I might be a trapper when I leave school.
When it went in the coal shed I set up an ambush. I hid in the sheets on the whirly bird clothesline with a handful of mud. Then, when it came out, I let fly – splat! Right on its head.
Then fat Mrs Bailey came waggling out, shrieking and skipping and flapping her arms, like a panicky old hen trying to fly.
“Oh, my sheets!” she screeched. “Oh, my flowers! Oh, my cat!”
I kept saying, “Shush, you’ll bring out my Mam.” But she just wouldn’t listen.
Mam came out then and they both got me cornered. They dragged me into the house and kicked up the stairs. Mam clouted my head and yelled, “Get in that bath!” She knows that’s the worst thing that can happen to me.
I hate my Mam. She sides with others and keeps on about bathing and washing and things.
I ran the water and splashed it around so they would think I was in it. I got this tray that they use for the soap, and set it afloat. It made a good boat. I stood a plastic bottle on top of the tray and it was just like a mast. Then I got my sister’s clean knickers from over the towel rail and rigged them up as a sail.
I like sailing boats. I might be a sailor when I leave school.
Then my sister came in, bleating as usual, about the wet on the floor. She ran to my boat and snatched off its sail and shouted and thumped me and called me bad names.
I hate my sister. She’s always like that. She stands for hours in front of the mirror, squeezing her zits. That’s why she can’t get a boy with a motorbike – because she’s got zits. She reckons Roger’s a boyfriend. But he hasn’t got a motorbike, only a car.
I gave her a kick, hard, on the shin. She shouted for help and screamed when it bled.
Dad and Granny ran out of their bedrooms. They all tried to punch me, Granny and Dad and my sister. But I gave them the slip and dashed down the stairs.
Mam went to grab me, but I pushed her aside and ran out of the door.
I ran to the woods. I like the woods. There’s a swamp, with water and mud and all that kind of thing. Billy was there, making a damn.
Billy’s dead lucky. He gets loads of money. That’s so he’ll be good when his Mam and Dad go down to the pub. And he gets pounds from his brother, so he won’t grass about the glue and cannabis and that.
I helped him with the damn. It’s good practice really. I’ll build a big damn when I leave school, then let the water run out and drown all our family. After that, I’ll move into Billy’s and get lots of money.
I slipped and fell in. I was wet through and cold and covered in mud. So I ran home and sneaked in through the back door, and crept upstairs to the bedroom to change.
That’s where I am now.
Mam’s running upstairs. She’s screaming again, about the mud in the kitchen and over the stairs. The rest of the family are running up with her, Dad and Granny and spotty daft sister.
I hate Sunday.
but I have to tackle it. The cabin of a Boeing 767, stuffed with 300 human beings, is not a place where a man can happily break wind.
I come across this problem an hour into the flight. Being of a diplomatic disposition I decide to do battle with nature. This consists of a never-ending succession of bottom shuffling, muscle winking and facial contortions.
Six hours later I’m so full of methane I fear I will float from my seat and drift round the cabin like a stray hydrogen balloon. I batten down with my seat belt and continue the self-flagellation.
A glance round the plane reveals many strained faces and clamped seatbelts. Is this how a jet-plane defies gravity? I wonder.
When I was on my bike the other day, a ray of sunshine revealed a forest of wind turbines covering one of our beautiful wild hills; grotesque, like the stubble on an old man’s chin. When the sun went in, the turbines disappeared and I had my hill back.
That gave me another brainwave. I get lots of them. They’re all as good as this. If they painted the turbines purple, they would blend in with the heather and we wouldn’t see them anymore. In the army they call it camouflage.
All we need is a few volunteers with tins of purple paint and oilcans. They could start at the bottom, paint their way up to the top, oil the wheels, then come down and start all over again – forever.
Then, in one fell swoop, bingo! No more windmills, free electricity for all – and a booming Purple Paint Industry.
I can’t join in myself. I’m too busy thinking up ideas. But the best of British luck to the public spirited.
OK. So this week’s best story is about the pilot whose false arm fell off when he was landing a passenger jet at Belfast airport. My first reaction was, “you couldn’t make it up.”
Then I remembered that, when I worked as a bus conductor, we had this awful driver who used to throw me and the passengers all over the place, like bingo balls in a barrel. Like they do, the British public took it out on me, whining and moaning at every bump of the head.
So there was me in the back, taking all the stick, while the culprit lounged in his cab sucking a fag. To get them off my back, I started telling the passengers, “It’s all right for you lot, but that poor bloke’s got a wooden leg and a glass eye. Could any of you do any better?”
That story got a mixed reaction, ranging from cries of horror and screams of disgust – to sympathy and a steady supply of sweets, ”for the poor man up front.”
Unfortunately some of them wrote letters of complaint about the one legged driver and I lost a month’s bonus for, “making it up.”
Fate has a way rubbing these things in, and a few months later I found myself working as the mate for a Magoo-like truck driver who went by the nickname of “Blindie...”
I come down stairs, yawning, and rustle up coffee for Liz and me. The cat rubs round my ankles so I pour him fresh water while telling my Kindle to download the paper. Through the window the morning vapour is paling a cloudless blue sky. Transatlantic jets trace countless lines of white cirrus. The cat is back at my ankles so I rattle some biscuits onto his plate. The morning sun casts long shadows across the garden as I scatter a few Dreamy Treats on the moggie’s breakfast. Outside, the trees in the copse and distant woods are clad in thick fresh coats of early summer green. I add a handful of Hairball medication to the cat’s breakfast so he won’t feel the need to eat grass and spew on the carpet. In the world beyond, blackbird is singing in his tree. Swifts dart after invisible insects. I scoop the cat from the floor and give him his dose of Metacam to ease his arthritis. A crow, perched on a chimney, eyes the world through beady eyes. I pop a pill into the cat’s mouth to control his heart condition. A couple of magpies skulk round the gardens, up to no good. The cat picks at his breakfast. The rooks have left their home in the trees and headed for the fields. Branches sway lazy in the breeze that flickers leaves among the shrubs. The cat makes for the door and stands like a pointer. I pick him up and rub sunblock on the bare skin of his nose and ears so he won’t burn. I open the door and gulp the morning air. The cat shoots past and rips the throat out of a sparrow that was foraging on the lawn. I close the door and read crap in the paper.
It is the best of spring days in Porthcawl, warm sunshine and a balmy breeze off the ocean. Topped up with fish and chips we decide on a four mile hike along the coast. Seabirds wheel and cry over the dunes beside Rest Bay. A skylark, fresh down to earth, dances, singing among the scrub. Breakers crash on a distant sandbank in a streak of white foam. Beyond, lies England, shrouded in mist.
The bus is about half full. We sit, relax, and people-watch. On the seat in front of us, a middle-aged man talks into his mobile. In front of him, a young bearded chap sits reading notes. Over to our right, a fat woman stares into space.
In Bridgend, most of the passengers decide to leave and form an orderly queue in the aisle. A similar sized queue stands in the bus station, waiting to board. It’s always the way hereabouts.
The young bearded man stands and joins the rear of the disembarking queue. The fat woman prizes herself out of the seat to the right, stands at the back of the queue for a moment, then drops onto the seat vacated by the beard. Now the middle-aged man puts his phone away and joins the queue as it speeds up. As he passes the fat woman, she once again decides to leave and follows on.
As the new arrivals settle into their seats, the bearded man reappears and boards the bus, mutters something to the driver, then makes for the seat he has just vacated. “I think I left my wallet behind,” he says anxiously. With that, we all stand up and peer under our seats. But there is no wallet to be found. The bearded one turns, defeated, and hurries back into the bus station.
“That lady sat on that seat for a moment,” Liz reminds me. “I thought she was changing seats. But then she got off the bus.”
“So she did,” I say, getting up and heading for the driver. I tell him the story. Then an official from the bus station boards the bus and the driver repeats the tale to him.
As the bus pulls away we catch a glimpse of the bearded man standing alone and crestfallen in the concourse. The fat woman has melted.
“Spoils a nice day,” says Liz.
Ages ago, Liz enrolled us both as members of the M&S Premier Club. That means that, for £10 a month, we get a “Free” cup of coffee every week. Yeah, we know there’s a catch but we can’t work it out. To even things up, Liz gets a £5 bonus every now and again, in gift vouchers which she can only redeem in a Marks’ store. That’s the best bit, ‘cos to get the £5 she has to spend about £20 on something she didn’t want in the first place.I’m always taking the Mickey. But to be fair, they do give us “Free” worldwide travel insurance until the age of 80 which, in reality, is worth hundreds of pounds.
That brings me to the point. The other day, on one of our trips out, we go into the local M&S store to grab a brunch. The only difference this time is that we are accompanied by Saga, aged two, who doesn’t want to be there anyway. She doesn’t say that she doesn’t want to be there, but she develops symptoms. The first sign is that she loses the power of speech. The second is that her lower lip inflates into a big red balloon. And the third, and most problematic, is that she loses all flexibility. It’s like she’s suddenly been dipped in starch. She won’t bend. I lift her from her buggy and attempt to sit her on a chair, but it’s like trying to fold a railway sleeper.
While I’m trying to fathom out a way of bending a two year old child, Liz has gone up to get coffee and order food. By the time she returns, Saga is lying prone on the long seat that runs along the wall and I’m pretending that’s what I wanted all along. However, among the drinks, Liz has a fruit juice and a straw which seems to render the child more flexible, though it doesn’t deflate the lip or cure the speech impediment.
Liz says that she has ordered a sausage toasty for me and she will share a cheese and ham toasty with Saga. “Great,” I say. “Bring it on.” The only obvious snag is that we don’t have a number. Usually, when you order food they give you a stick with a number on it. Then you balance the stick on the table and, somehow, that tells the serving wench who is waiting for what.
But we don’t have a stick. Liz ponders over this for a moment and says, “The chap behind me was given number 5, so we must be number 4.” At that moment, her eyes fall on the empty table next to us where there is a stick with a number 4 on it. “Oh,” she says, “maybe they gave me a number 4 after all,” and sticks it on our table. Then we wait. We wait for ages, but nothing happens. Table number five are served and tuck into their grub but we, on table number 4, have nothing.
I must say that during this waiting period that Saga behaves extremely well. She still exhibits some of the symptoms, but conceals her inner feelings with aplomb.
After an age, Liz decides to go back to the order-counter and find out what the delay is. “No problem,” they tell her. “brunch is on its way.” So, again, we sit and wait. But there is still no food.
After another age, the manageress of all the caterers approaches our table. “I’m very sorry,” she tells us, “but we are out of sausages can we offer you something else?”
I have a flashback of Basil Fawlty and the ruined dinner. I see the M&S kitchen in chaos as the chef runs around swatting porters with a spatula and screaming that someone has wolfed his last sausage. I decide to put them out of their misery. “I’ll settle for a mushroom toasty,” I tell the boss-lady. “Oh, thank-you,” she says, gratefully, “we’ll reimburse you for the sausage and give you the mushroom for nothing.”
I nod. Saga remains unimpressed.
We enter another period of waiting. Then the original serving wench comes up and says, “can we give you another coffee to thank you for your patience.”
“We’d love a coffee,” I say. “But we’d prefer the toasties.”
“I thought you’d had them,” she says.
“This is where we came in,” I tell her.
There are some feelings, no matter how basic, that I cannot capture on paper. Not even in a poem. For me, one such experience would be walking with Liz along the front at Porthcawl on a sunny spring morning, with a fresh breeze gusting off the Atlantic. On such a day you find yourself looking over the Bristol Channel to the Devon hills, or along the Welsh coast to the where the Celtic Sea embraces the Mumbles; whilst, in the other direction, the white village of Southerndown straddles the road to Nash Point. There are fine south-facing bays of golden sand here too, at Treco and Sandy Bay. And, over there, just round the corner on the Gower, is Rhossili, the third best beach in Europe and ninth in the world. Maybe the words I’m looking for are freedom, nature and love. But I can’t string them together.
That brings me to another point. Accompanying Liz around the vast blue characterless shed of IKEA in Cardiff, an escalator spits me out on the road to nowhere. I find myself drifting along in a procession of the living-dead, on a trek that goes on forever through an endless forest of chunky square lumps of wood.
After an age, the forest gives way to the suburbs of some vast abandoned city, as mile after mile of uninhabited living rooms merge into abandoned bedrooms and lifeless bathrooms. From time to time, my zombie companions drift to a standstill, peer haplessly this way and that, as if looking for a way of escape, then meander resignedly on. Is this an away-day for the Amazonian androids? I wonder.
The IKEAN inmates render the experience evermore disturbing. Poor pasty-faced creatures, men and women alike,
clad in sinister yellow shirts with blue vertical stripes which conjure up nightmares of those pictures that appeared in the papers at the end of the war – gaunt figures in striped uniforms peering through the bars of concentration camps.
“Look! A Scotsman in a kilt,” Liz breaks the eerie silence, gesticulating at a solitary man-mountain who stands, dominating an otherwise empty bedroom.
“That’s not a kilt,” I tell her, weighing-up his sand-coloured skirt, “It’s a skilt”
“Does that mean he’s an Australian clansman?” she wonders.
“Dunno,” I say. “He looks like the last of the desert rats.
“I thought they were all dead.”
“They probably are. Keep moving.”
At that moment, a yellowshirt appears at the door of an otherwise empty bathroom and stares at us blankly. I get a flashback from that film, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Whatever became of Anne Frank? I wonder. “Keep your head down,” I tell Liz.
Then, at last, we are outside in the car-park with Liz clutching a cut-price lavatory-brush – our only purchase – as we argue about where we left the car.
“Where do we go now?” Liz wonders, when we accidently stumble on the vehicle.
“Dunno,” I say.
“It’s our 51st Wedding Anniversary,” she reminds me.
“We could go for a curry,” I say.
“That Indian on the cliffs, overlooking the sea in Fontygary. Remember?”
“Where we stayed with the kids in a caravan, 39 years ago,” she says.
“Yeah. It was great. It was that long hot summer. I used to come home from work in the evening and jump in the pool for a swim.”
“And you took us to Swansea and went round a roundabout seven times, arguing about which was the road home.”
“Fifty-one years, eh,” I say, adjusting the rear-view mirror, “and never a cross word.”
We are off to Toronto to see our Canadian branch, flying British Airways... I’ve been here before... you know, flown places with BA. The initials, BA, say it all, especially when it comes to allocating leg space to passengers... BA = Bugger All.
This one’s a 787 Dreamliner, straight out of the box. The captain’s just been on the intercom, boasting that it’s brand new. Brand new? The top’s missing off my armrest. My right elbow’s jammed in among the cogs and wires of the mechanism. Dreamliner... Now where do I put my feet?
I was watching a film just now on this personal video thing they give you these days. Suddenly the screen flies back and arrives on the end of my nose, like something leaping out of a 3D film. I thought it was a poltergeist. But it turns out that the dude in front can’t support his body any longer. So, at the poke of a button, he prostrates himself and sends the back of his chair, which includes my TV and table, flying through my space. He’s trapped me in a straightjacket. The only way out is to hurl the back of my seat at the bloke behind. If everyone does it, it’ll be like the collapse of a domino run.
Now it’s victual time. This woman dragging the trolley tells me I can either have chicken or Vegetable Bolognese. It’s what my granny called Hobson’s choice. Vegetable Bolognese? That’s like saying, “Vegetable Pork Chop.”
The alternative is chicken. Now don’t get me wrong. I love chickens. When I was a kid I nursed day-old chicks until they were big enough to kill the cat. Chickens grow into Hens. They lay eggs and things. They look beautiful going round on spits in butcher’s shops. They smell even better. But... and it’s a big but... where has this chicken come from? What are it’s credentials?
OK. So I sound faddy. And I am – now. I didn’t used to be. I would eat anything they put before me. No questions asked. Faddy is a luxury that comes with age. I now have the time and money to worry about animal welfare. I like to think my lamb chop has gambolled in a meadow and my chicken can tell tales of outwitting Reynard the fox. So I only do certificated ‘free range’ these days. OK, so the ‘free range’ animal that I am eating is reluctant to be on the end of my fork. But, at least, it had a happy, if unavoidably, short life.
But... Vegetable Lasagne? I settle for chicken.
Six sleepless hours later, the woman returns with her trolley and a second meal. There’s no choice this time, “Chicken sandwich,” take it or leave it...
Back in the UK, in my beloved roll as a pedestrian, motorists are my pet hate. They charge around in their steel missiles like Roman conquerors in chariots, sending sheets of filthy water over the poor peasants fighting the wind and rain on the pavement.
What really annoys me is when I arrive at a pedestrian crossing and find that no one has pressed the button. Then, when I press it, someone says, “I never do that, in case I inconvenience the drivers.”
What!? Inconvenience that lot, sat there in their mobile palaces, listening to the radio, talking on their mobiles; left home at the last minute, so now they’re charging along, cursing inanimate traffic lights
and cyclists while blasting each other out of the way... “You’ve got to be joking mate. Press that so and so button and make ‘em stop. I’ve stuff to do.”
But it’s not like that on other side of the Atlantic; not in Canada anyway. The motorists just tootle along and stop at every intersection. And if a pedestrian wants to cross the road, the motorist waits and lets him amble across. On a busy road, when motorists want to turn into a side-street, they stop and give the pedestrians right of way. Sometimes they’ll be there for ages, waiting to turn while people just wander across the road in front of them, and nobody dreams of giving way to them.
Coming from the UK I find this difficult to live with. I’m used to half-crazed drivers bullying and honking me out of the way. I’m full of inhibitions. I feel quite guilty and find myself giving them little waves and mouthing, “Sorry...Thank you...” Poor drivers, I think. Nobody cares about them. Funny how the mind works.
I was out shopping with Liz, and we were wondering what we would get for the evening meal. We ended up in Maxi’s Deli on Bloor Street. Now that really is a shop worth looking into. There’s a glass-covered display-counter that goes on forever, full of all kinds of delicious dishes.
Being me, I spot the pie. This is no ordinary pie. “This is the mother of all pies,” as my old friend, Sadam, would say. The little card by its side announces that it is, “Silverside, simmered in Guinness.” But it is the pastry that mesmerises me. I’m a pastry connoisseur. I come from Manchester. They weaned me on homemade meat-and-potato pie. After a few pints of beer, my soul still guides me to the chippy for pie and chips.
But of all the pies I have ever seen, I know, instinctively, this is the best. That pastry is melt in the mouth short-crust – and silverside, slow simmered in stout – say no more. “That’s what we’re having,” I tell Liz. “There are six of us, so we’ll need two.”
Now Liz is a thrifty housewife. And that’s good. But it has its drawbacks. “One will be enough,” she tells me, “with some nice vegetables.”
“One!” she decides.
Comes the long awaited mealtime and my loved-one places my plate before me. But... my piece of pie is a mere slither. If it was wine, it would be the gulp they give you to see if it’s corked. I look at Izzy’s plate. She too, has a slither. Then Diz’s and Liz’s plates – slithers! The best pie I have come across in my life, and we’re down to slithers. I told Liz we needed two.
Then come Dan’s and Charlie’s, aged 12, portions. And they are comparatively massive; man sized helpings. “What the...?” I do some crafty scrutiny and mental arithmetic. Liz has given Dan and Charlie, age 12, a quarter of the whole pie each. She has given me, the senior, a quarter of the remaining half. What’s that about?
The way to a man’s heart, I muse... I bite my tongue. I might as well. There’s precious little pie.
In my other world we had a thing called pecking order. You got points for being male. Then you got extra points for age. I didn’t agree with that system, but it’s all the rage again these days. They call it positive discrimination.
My old granny will be spinning in her grave.
When you think about it, toilets, everywhere in the world, fill the same function. So you’d expect them all to be pretty much the same. But they’re not. They vary from country to country. I don’t know why. I can only think that it has something to do with evacuation procedures.
Without going into any unnecessary detail, in the UK you aim everything into a cupful of water at the bottom of the pedestal, then try to flush it down with another cupful of water from the cistern.
In Canada, on the other hand, the pedestal is half full of water, so your target area is vastly enhanced, and the flush turns into a whirlpool that sucks everything into oblivion before half filling the pedestal again – much more efficient.
Ah but, in the UK the pedestal is designed like a throne, so you sit like a king, or queen, in state. So there is no problem until you come to the flushing bit. While in Canada, the pedestal is designed like a footstool, so the problem, at least when your joints begin to creak, is getting yourself down there, then hauling yourself back up. But that’s not the problem today.
I’m in Toronto airport and I need the loo. Right, I go into the first gents I see and head for the cubicles. The first one is empty – but there’s no paper. I try the second; the door is part open, but there is someone in there, and he is trying exclude the world by keeping one leg straight out, jamming the door with his foot while trying to perform his number two’s. There is either no lock on the door, or this bloke is some kind of masochist.
I head for the third and final cubicle. It’s almost the same story, except this dude has got the door jammed part closed with a massive rucksack. He’s either on the toilet or squatting.
I leave that place behind and continue my trapes to the distant boarding gate. Then, spotting another toilet, I wheel in and head for the first cubicle. It’s empty; with paper; great! I lower myself onto the dwarf-sized pedestal then – “Yaah!” My dangly-bits are suddenly submerged in ice-cold water. This is a problem. I don’t want these bits in there when the other bits arrive. And, worryingly, how do I dry them? The economy paper they have in these places has about as much substance as cappuccino-froth.
In the split second that all these thoughts fly through my mind, the toilet gives an automatic flush, and my buttocks are now immersed in that same ice cold water. I leap up. “Damn!” No wonder these people call it a “Washroom.” But I’ve nothing to dry myself with. If I pull my trousers up now, I’ll look as if I’ve wet myself. But I still need the loo. Stupidly, I squat down. But the same thing happens over again; dangly bits submerged; automatic flush; even wetter buttocks. I leap up and listen. No other toilet is flushing. Neither is this one. But once bitten, twice shy. Out comes my handkerchief. I’ll try my luck on the plane.
This is the same plane I flew out in; different seat. We’re getting ready for take-off and there is already a bit of commotion a few seats down. The steward is bending over these people and trying to reason with them. Now this big fat woman has stood up and agreed to follow him to the back of the plane. “You’ll be fine back here, he assures her. “You will get a full row to yourself.” No wonder she has a self-satisfied smile. The two
people she left behind have now stood up and are sorting themselves out. Neither of them would qualify as a sylph.
Now I see what’s happened. This obese woman has sat down on the middle seat and seeped over the people on either side of her. Then, half crushed, half suffocated, they’ve pushed the help-button and summoned the steward who has gone all diplomatic and led the problem away.
That’s all very well, but she now gets a full row to herself, without paying extra. That’s not right. What about us anorexics? We’ve worked hard to look like the boys from the Burma Railway. All that exercise on five a day. This is how class warfare begins.
The solution to the problem is staring us in the face. In Toronto airport you put your hand-luggage into a frame at the check-in desk. If it fits – pass. If it doesn’t, it goes in the hold and you pay extra.
So why not have a buttock-box as well? “OK madam, your hand-luggage is fine. Now wedge your backside in this...”
At an opportune moment I nip to the toilet. There is already somebody in there. I wait for ages. In the meantime, a queue forms behind me. Then, after a wrestling match with the door, this woman emerges, like a glassy-eyed zombie, then staggers off down the cabin. I step inside... “Ah,” the place is covered in spew. There is nowhere to sit or stand. I decide to abandon ship. I give a cheery smile and nod to the next person in the queue. “All yours,” I tell her.
An old Mystic once told me that, “Life is a cryptic crossword, clues about the present and future are concealed in the past.” His words came into my mind during the recent rains, as I watched politicians of all hues turning Green, paddling about in floodwater and promising to mend it all with a forest of windmills and Green taxes.
Has anything on this scale happened before? I wondered. If so, when and where? What caused it and what were the consequences? And does any of that have any relevance today? A bit of simple research produced some interesting answers.
During a period lasting from around 950 to 1350 AD the world went through a bout of global warming, known as the Medieval Warm Period. This warming coincided with increased activity on the sun that produced temperatures on earth that were on a par with those experienced in recent years. So warm, in fact, that the Vikings were able to explore and colonise the far reaches of the North Atlantic and establish farming communities in Greenland that were a going concern for nearly 500 years. At the same time, Europe enjoyed bountiful harvests and fine summers. These easy years resulted in a population explosion.
As this warm phase ended, the world went through nearly 400 years of global cooling. This cold phase culminated in the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1645 to 1715 AD, when the winter weather turned rivers like the Seine and Thames into ice-skating rinks. This era of global cooling goes by the name of “Maunder Minimum” – a time when sunspots were few and far between.
The years from 1310 onwards saw marked changes in weather patterns as the Medieval Warm Period began to collapse. There were storms in early autumn, and a series of cooler and wetter summers had an adverse affect on agriculture. The weather was worsening all the time; 1312 and 1313 were particularly bad in Germany. Heavy rain hit England in June 1314, wrecking the grain harvest and causing a famine. Then, in the spring of 1315, the continuous rain was especially heavy and made it impossible to plough the fields. The few seeds that people did sow began to rot before they could germinate. The rain went endlessly on throughout the summer.
By now, right across Northern Europe and the UK, the winters were longer and the summers cooler and wetter. The Baltic Sea froze; fisherman couldn’t sail and merchant ships couldn’t bring in much needed supplies. Salt, which was the only way to preserve fish and meat, was in short supply because the wet conditions prevented the evaporation process by which they obtained salt. As crops failed, there was a scarcity of straw and hay for the animals. Wheat prices rose by 300%.
The Great Famine really began to bite in 1315 when it wiped out a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants. Life expectancy fell to 30-35 years.
The harsh winters were not only hard on people, trees and animals, but also on buildings and bridges as ice floes battered the foundations. Builders and thatchers had no turf or straw for roofs. Quarries flooded, so there was a shortage of stone. Watermills flooded. Snow in winter, and deep mud in the wet summers, made roads impassable. Rain washed away topsoil and flooding was everywhere. And so it went on: Normandy saw terrible windstorms in 1319. Flanders flooded in 1320. It took until 1322 to restore some kind of normality. Even then, everything went downhill towards the Little Ice Age.
Adversity never comes alone. There were side effects, like extremely high levels of crime when the weather deprived people of life’s necessities. There were epidemics of disease and pneumonia. There was infanticide and parents abandoned their children. Some older people starved themselves to death so that the younger ones could have their food. There were tales of cannibalism – the story of Hansel and Gretel has its origins in this period.
Then, as now, people looked for scapegoats. Who, or what, was to blame for the bad weather? This was before the days of motor cars and gay marriage, so it wasn’t CO2 or the Government’s fault. The unknown author of Vita Edwardi Secundi, written in 1326, blamed it on the wickedness of the English people who were “too proud and crafty.” But, in most people’s minds, the church was responsible. In those days, that meant the Catholic Church. People turned to the church for help, but the clergy were powerless against the weather. Prayer didn’t work. For the first time, people began to question the power of the Pope. Although nothing happened immediately, the tide of discontent began to flow. This paved the way for the birth of Lutheran Protestantism in 1529.
So, how is all this relevant to today’s world? Well, it boils down to cause and effect. Remember that, in medieval times, there was a period of global warming, followed by a period of cooling and a Little Ice Age. These different phases depended upon the amount or lack of solar activity. And, for a short period during the transition from one state to the other, there was a period of unsettled and unpredictable weather. Bearing that in mind, we can compare conditions as they are now with those of the medieval years.
The current solar maximum has run from 1900 to the present day, accompanied by the well-documented rise in global temperature. This mirrors events in the Medieval Warm Period. But now, scientists have observed that solar activity is on the decline. As solar activity decreases, we can, by the laws of probability, expect colder winters to become the norm in the UK and Europe – as they were in the Maunder Minimum. If the predictions are correct, we are now going through the transition from a warm period to a cold period. And, by coincidence, we are going through the wettest winter since records began. This is similar to what happened in medieval times.
Keeping to the available facts – in November 2013, scientists at CERN said that, “If the current lull in solar activity continues until 2015 it could bring about conditions similar to the Maunder Minimum that caused the 17th Century Little Ice Age.”
In 2000, two scientists, Perry and Hsy, both predicted a gradual cooling over the coming centuries that could bring about a Little Ice Age.
Experts at NASA have observed that Mars has experienced a period of Global Warming over the same period as we experienced it on earth. At
the same time a Russian solar physicist, Habibullo Abdussamatov, based at St Petersburg Astronomical Observatory, one of the world’s best-equipped observatories, came to the same conclusion.
Habibullo Abdussamatov says: "Mars has global warming, but without greenhouse gases and without the participation of Martians. These parallel global warmings, observed simultaneously on Mars and Earth, can only be a straight-line consequence of the effect of the one same factor: a long-time change in solar irradiance... The sun's increased irradiance over the last century, not C02 emissions, is responsible for the global warming we are seeing... and this solar irradiance explains the great volume of C02 emissions... It is no secret that increased solar irradiance warms the Earth's oceans, which then triggers the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So the common view that man's industrial activity is a deciding factor in global warming has emerged from a misinterpretation of cause and effect relations."
Habibullo Abdussamatov has even more to say on the subject: "Ascribing the 'greenhouse' effect to the Earth's atmosphere is not scientifically substantiated," he says. "Heated greenhouse gases, which become lighter as a result of expansion, ascend to the atmosphere and give the absorbed heat away." Abdussamatov goes on to say that, “The cooling that is now occurring in the upper layers of the world's oceans demonstrates that the Earth has hit its temperature ceiling. Solar irradiance has begun to fall, ushering-in a protracted cooling period beginning in the years 2012 to 2015. The deepest depth of the decline in solar irradiance reaching Earth will occur around 2040, and will inevitably lead to a deep freeze around 2055-60, lasting some 50 years, after which temperatures will go up again.”
So where does all this leave us – the punters?
Politicians want to be seen as good fairies with magic wands in times of crisis... So they tell us the present flooding in the UK is due to global warming and, somehow, it can be cured if the willing European countries, unilaterally, cut back on CO2 emissions and, inevitably, pay higher Green taxes.
Well – maybe. But many eminent scientific bodies tell us that we are heading into a period of global cooling and that, for the next century, the problem is ice, not heat.
History, and nature, tells us that this has all happened before and, no matter what politicians, scientists and the clergy do, it will all happen again.
When a man a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything – G K Chesterton. Yesterday afternoon my wife bought a top for our 10-year-old granddaughter. Then, last night, as I watched my wife showing it to our daughter and getting a second opinion, I found myself agreeing with the Pope. You see, we live in Wales and our daughter in Canada, and the Pope said Skype is a, “Gift from God.”
I decided to buy a cover for our Kindle Fire so I went to Tesco Online. I filled in all the nonsense on the form. Then they asked for my address, which I gave. Next, they wanted to know the nickname of my address. Now this may sound a bit strange, but I don’t have a nickname for my address. So I left that line blank. But when I pressed the “continue” button, it wouldn’t take me forward unless I put in a nickname. I tried three times, and three times it rejected me. I wouldn’t mind if it had caught me out telling a lie. But it’s a fact – I don’t have a nickname for my address.
I must admit that I’m a bit nonplussed. Not selling alcohol to someone under 18 is one thing. But refusing to flog a Kindle Cover to a guy who hasn’t got a nickname for his address is something else.
I watched The House of Fools on the tele the other day. Afterwards, I moseyed around to see if there was anything else worth watching, and stumbled on Benefit Street on channel 4. Some up-and-coming television producer should combine the two. It would be hilarious.
As always, no names no pack-drill.
A golden rule of mine is that I never buy anything offered by someone knocking on door with another bargain. This is based on the old adage, “Don’t you call us, we’ll call you.” But, like all rules, it’s there to be broken.
The other day, your man knocks on the door and says, “Your roof is getting past it’s sell-by date. We’re offering a free survey, with a no obligation price-quote for a renovation, guaranteed for 12 months. Our surveyor will only take up 20 minutes of your time.”
Now time is worth more than gold. I don’t like wasting it. But a free survey and no-obligation quote – in exchange for a mere 20 minutes? OK. Why not? “Your on,” I said.
“Our surveyor will be here tomorrow at 1400 prompt,” says your man.
Comes 1400 the following day, and there’s no surveyor in sight. Two-fifteen came, and that was me browned off. If he found himself held up somewhere, then a phone call would fix it. But there was nothing. This guy was wasting my time so I went out and pumped-up the car’s tyres.
Then, at 1430, he arrives and, sans apology, goes into action with his tape measure and binoculars. Then we go indoors to get the price. This is when the, no obligation, free-quote, turned into a hard sell.
First of all, there was a lecture on how a roof is constructed. OK, it was very interesting, if that’s what you wanted to hear, but a slate-by-slate commentary on how to put a lid on a house is not my way of passing a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Then came the bad news. Our roof was at the end of it’s life expectancy and was already showing the first signs of rigor mortis. But, thank God, this man knew the cure and had a gang of experts on tap.
He followed this with a blow-by-blow lecture on how these guys would renovate our failing dome. I’m too well mannered to tell people to bugger off but...
To cut a long story short, he now pulls out his calculator and does a complex calculation before announcing that all will be well if I part with £4,465 sometime in the next 12 months. “How does that sound?” he wants to know.
“Not a clue,” I tell him. “I’ve nothing to compare it with.”
“Did my colleague leave a pamphlet?” he wants to know.
“Yep,” I said, producing the folded paper and stuffing it in his hand.
“Ah,” he exclaims in surprise, opening the pamphlet and producing a voucher. “You qualify for a 25% discount. That’s very rare. I’ve only ever seen three of these since I started with the firm. Let me see...” He does another calculation. “Ah!” he exclaims, “that brings it down to “£3,349. How do you feel about that?”
“Fine,” I say, because I do feel fine.
“My colleague must have spotted something special about your location,” says the chancer. “I’ll have a word with my boss and see what he says.” He now produces his mobile and proceeds to call his boss – in my time.
After a load of verbal play-acting on the part of himself and his master, he says, “My boss is looking at your house on Google Earth right now, and he says it would make an ideal show-house. If you agree to have an advertising board in your garden we can drop the price to £2,500.”
“I’ll think about it,” I tell him.
“With an offer like this, you have to make the decision today,” he says, producing a wad of papers. “If you put £650 down, we’ll arrange the rest of the payments by instalments.”
“I was offered a free quote, valid for 12 months,” I told him.
“But if you don’t take the offer now, it will revert to £4, 465,” he told me.
“Well, if that’s the quote, that’s the quote,” I told him.
He finally departed at 1600, having wasted 2 hours of my precious time.
So there you are. The man could come and go with £2,000 and still make a profit. So, if he had started at £2.500 he might have been in with a chance... I said, “Might have.”
Moral: never break your own golden rule.
I’m sitting here sucking my thumb and banging myself on the head with a frying pan. It’s not serious, just a bit of therapy. You see, I’ve done it again. I’ve tried to book something over the internet. On the face of it, it’s an easy trap to fall into. But I’ve been down this road so many times that you’d think I would have learned by now. But, oh no, not me.
You see, Liz and I decided that this was the day that we would book airline tickets to go and visit our daughter and her family in Toronto; and we plumped for a date in March as a good day for the outward journey. So far so good. But being us, we can’t agree on a return date.
Liz thinks that, if we are going all that distance, we should stay out there for 3 weeks. Which makes sense. But we have a cat. And the cat needs looking after. And I’m the one nominated by the cat, and tout le monde, to be the keeper. OK, so we have a neighbour who will feed the beast whenever we go away. I’m very grateful for that, but this animal is growing old like me. In fact, my abacus tells me that, in cat years, pussy is exactly the same age as me. And the animal is beginning to feel its age. He’s got arthritis and a heart condition, so he needs medication. Unfortunately, though my friend down the road is quite happy to run around after a moggy, he draws the line at shoving pills down its throat. Fair enough.
Jon, our youngest son, and his wife, have volunteered to do the pilling. That’s brilliant, but they live 20 miles away, so every pill means a 40 mile round trip. There’s a limit to what you can ask of people. Please don’t suggest a cattery. This fellah gets a nosebleed if he goes past the gatepost. So that’s it. I’ve put a 14-day limit on my stay in Toronto.
So, getting back to the booking fiasco. Liz and I decide to travel out on the same plane, but come back on different planes, a week apart. Great. So, as you do, I Googled a flight-price comparison outfit, then set about booking. Unfortunately, most of these booking thingies gear themselves to normal people, so they don’t cater for couples who decide to travel out together, then come home separately. Come to think of it, I bet that happens more often than people are prepared to admit. There could be a business opportunity for someone here.
No problem, I found an outward flight that suited us fine and then did a price and availability check... £497 return for me and £447 for Liz. I can’t fault it for the flights and operator we chose. So, because I had to book our tickets separately, I booked my round trip first. Then I went to book Liz’s ticket. But now the computer said, “Can’t do. No outward seats available.”
“But, just five minutes ago, you said there were seats,” I screamed.
“No outward seats available,” replied the computer. And it kept saying that, no matter how many times I asked.
Right, because we were determined to travel together, I decided, to cancel my flight, then start again from scratch. But, search as I might, there was no escape button anywhere on the site. So I went through to the outfit’s main website and searched. But there is no way to cancel a ticket that you’ve just bought. So, as so many times before, while sitting fuming at a stubborn laptop, I felt the will to live ebbing away.
It was then that I found the phone number. “My God,” I thought, “there might still be humans out there.” So I dialled this number and, lo and behold, a woman answered. OK, so she had a Yorkshire accent – but she was decipherable. “What’s your problem?” she wanted to know.
I told her the story, then said, “So I want to cancel my booking.”
“I’m just checking,” she told me. Then she said, “The tickets have been issued, so they won’t cancel them.”
“But I don’t want the flight,” I said.
“But they won’t refund the money,” she said. At this stage she must have sensed that I was edging towards the gas oven, because she said, “Explain why you don’t want to make the flight.”
“Because I want to travel with my wife,” I told her.
“But there are lots of empty seats on that flight,” she told me. “I’ll book one for your wife.”
“But the computer said it was full,” I sobbed.
“Don’t believe what the computer tells you,” she said...
On a completely different note, but still on the subject of business opportunities, the phone went this afternoon. I don’t often answer the phone, and the chances of me answering a number that I don’t recognise are negligible. But on this occasion I did answer.
“Mrs Gregory?” a woman wanted to know.
“Mr Gregory,” I said, coughing, and trying to make my voice deeper.
“My name’s Claire, and I’m from the refund department,” she told me.
“Well done,” I replied.
“I think you might be due a refund,” she went on, “can I ask you a few questions?”
“No!” I told her...
That struck me as odd. Who in their right mind would start a Refund Business? Let’s face it, there can’t be a lot of profit in it. You’d definitely need a bank loan to start with. Then you’d probably need many more as business picked up. But then, who would want to spend time and money, phoning people and offering a refund?
We have a saying up north, “There’s nowt so queer as folk.”
Continues hitting himself on the head with a frying pan.AW
Dear anyone happening along.
The Chinese think this is a year of the snake, but I disagree. This is the year of the anus. I know that, from personal experience. A few weeks ago, I had this sciatic pain in my leg. So, mainly because it was a damn nuisance, I eventually went to the surgery and took potluck on seeing a doctor... A young lady doc eventually called me in. “What’s your problem?” she wants to know. “It’s my leg,” I tell her. So, OK, when we finish with the leg she says, “We don’t often see you in here.” And I say, “That’s ‘cos there’s nothing wrong.” And she says, “I think it’s about time you had an MoT. How are your waterworks?”
“Seen better days,” I say, “but I get by.”
“Do you want me to check your prostrate?” she wants to know.
The next thing is, I’m lay on the bed, trousers round my ankles, with an attractive young lady standing beside me with her finger rammed firmly up by backside. OK, so it makes your eyes water, but you have to count your blessings. As we speak, there’s many a shifty-eyed bloke trawling the internet, credit card in hand, hoping to get anything approaching that experience for less than a three-figure sum...
Going back to the MoT, well this thing covers every intimate aspect of your being, from blood to spittoons, from your heart to your bowels – and all nooks and crannies in-between. It’s all good fun, put the pièce de résistance is Sigmoidoscopy. Your mother doesn’t tell you about such things, so let me enlighten you.
You end up on a bed again, with a giggle of women around you and your trousers round your ankles – all on the NHS. At first, you think it’s going to be as much fun as the prostrate exam, but they soon put paid to that. You can’t see what’s going on, but a sudden searing pain tells you that one of these madwomen has leapt on a forklift truck that has a camera tied to a boom, and she has driven at you at full speed and rammed the lot up your backside...
Over the years, I have heard many a woman shooting a line about the terrors of childbirth. They assure you that birthing pains are the ultimate torture. And, as a man, you can’t argue. Then, as if to drive the point home, the posh actresses who, in real life, always opt for sedated caesareans, build on the myth by issuing end-of-life screams as they give birth to a doll in the comfort of a soap opera studio.
Well, let me tell you, Sigmoidoscopy is like having the world’s biggest baby rammed the wrong way up your private parts, without the aid of a water bag. Then, to prove the point, it traps a room-full of air in your guts, which turns into the devil’s own excruciating form of agony. So, in the end, you’ve not only experienced a reverse dry childbirth, but you’ve also got the equivalent of galloping labour pains, from which there will never be any relief until you manage to force a zeppelin’s worth of air through the tattered remnants of your rectum. It’s significant to me that smirking females performed both these internal examinations.
I had a nightmare the night after the examination. In it, I saw two witches, Sigmoid and Oscopy, talking wicked...
“Have you come up with any more evil spells recently?” croaks Oscopy, “because I’m fed up with all this cat’s eyes and skinned babies nonsense.”
“Yep,” squawks Sigmoid, “dreamed of a lovely one, last night.”
“Aaah, tell me about it,” croaks Oscopy, rubbing her arthritic claws together in glee.
“Tee hee,” squawks Sigmoid, “in my dream I saw this innocent man. ‘Ahha,’ I said to myself, ‘the perfect victim.’ So I leapt on me broomstick and began to circle him. Then I started going faster and faster and ever faster in ever decreasing circles. Until, at last, I put on a mighty spurt and rammed the thick end of me broomstick up his arse!”
“Wonderful,” screamed Oscopy, “let that be our new evil spell for the 21st century. And, even better, let’s tie a camera on the end, so we can see...” That’s when I woke up, leapt out of bed, fled to the kitchen, and rammed a bunch of garlic down my pyjamas.
Talking of hospitals and things, reminds me. The world gets ever madder. Everyone is talking in numbers these days. These things sneak up, without you realising. But looking back, I can see that it all started with the Chinese. When their junks first sailed up the Mersey, no one thought much about it. Then they all swarmed ashore and opened duck and noodle restaurants. But we didn’t know what it was all about because they were all yodelling at each other, and writing in hieroglyphics and stuff. Being in a Chinese restaurant was like being in a Mumbai call-centre. Nobody knew what anybody was saying. When the first Chinese takeaway opened in Liverpool, a man and a woman ran it. He did the cooking while she served. But she only knew a couple of words of English. The Scousers called her, “Effin Else,” because, after every transaction, she always said, “effin else?” That’s what started the numbers game. Customers wanted to know what was in everything. And she either didn’t know or wouldn’t say. In the end, to shut people up, she put numbers against the names of the meals. I don’t blame her, “I’ll have a number sixty-three,” sounds far more appetising than, “Fried rice and a boiled dog’s thingamajig.”
I can see the point in the number-language of course. In a country where we have over 50 lingos on the go at any one time, you can’t show favouritism by saying that one tongue is more important than the others. That’s racist. So it makes sense to invent a new idiom unrelated to any of the other languages. And what better than numbers? Numbers are international. After all, a number two is a... But, the trouble is, people like me have a problem.
You see, I’m mathematically challenged. I failed the 11+. It runs in the family. I remember the last time that we took my dad to A&E. He was lying on a bed, writhing in agony with terminal bowel cancer. When up comes this nurse, armed with a tick sheet. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” says she, “how bad is your pain?” Need she ask? I wondered.
“Agony,” gasps my dad.
“Where would it be on a scale of 1 to 10,” says she.
“Aaahh...” groans my dad, beads of sweat bursting out of his brow.
“But what is that on a scale of 1 to 10?” she insists.
“Agony,” he moans...
And so it goes on, until a porter comes up and wheels the old man behind a curtain, where a doctor, blessed with a smattering of English, takes over.
That was over ten years ago. Number-speak was in its infancy then. But numbers are now the lingua franca of that same hospital. Even the doctors are into it. They all carry clipboards for use when they give
patients the third degree. If you go into the knee clinic and score 20+ correct answers, you get a new knee; 15-20 and you come out with a Zimmer frame; 10-15 is a walking stick... and under 10, “You’re wasting my time – hop-off home.”
It’s just as bad in the psychiatry shop; 20+ on the Richter scale and they put you in a straight jacket; 15-20 and you’re in a padded cell; 10-15 is Care in the Community, and under 10... “You’re just thick. Live with it.”
Going back to my labour pains. When I doubled up with a spasm, a fully-baked nurse asked me, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?” How does a mathematical dummy like me answer a question like that? “I’m only trained in English,” I told him. “I don’t do numbers. But every time the pain hits, it doubles me up.”
Then, when I got the next wave of cramps, he was at it again. “Where was that on a scale of 1 to 10?” he wanted to know. I wouldn’t mind, but this guy could actually speak English. He was Scottish. But he kept on with the mathematical interrogation until a Filipino nurse came up and rammed a fistful of ginger-biscuits in my hand. “Get those down you,” said the Filipino. “They’ll make you fart.”
I’m getting old now. So, eventually, I will have to accept the fact that I will be spending more time in institutions. Being aware of the pitfalls, I have now embarked on a teach-yourself numbers project, so that I can talk on equal terms with mathematical nurses.
You need a reference point for such a project, and it has to be something that you are sure about. So I thought that the best place to start was 10 = Dry Reverse Childbirth – as being the most painful thing in the world. But, almost immediately, the voices in my head challenged me. “Is that more painful than being boiled alive?” said the first voice... “Or eaten by a lion?” said the second voice... “Or mangled by machinery?” asked a third. “Or hung drawn and quartered?” challenged a fourth. “Burnt at the stake?” whined another. Hmmm... In comparison to these more mature forms of suffering, having a baby backwards sounds like... well... child’s play – even if you are doing it dry. So it’s back to the drawing board. Effin Else has a lot to answer for.
We’ve not been travelling this year, what with one thing and
another. But we did nip up to Sheffield a few months back, to see granddaughter Katie in a fencing tournament. We stayed in Chesterfield for a change. It’s a great little place, in Derbyshire, just over the border from Yorkshire. This is real Robin Hood country and well worth a visit. It was good to be back in a north-country town. Good atmosphere, friendly and... well... northern. I knew I was on home territory when the dinner waitress asked if we wanted a bread-roll. “They’re mad ‘ot,” she says. “Just out o’t’ th’oven.” I visualised this girl in a stone floored farm kitchen on a Peakland hillside. But I won’t go into my fantasies here... At half-eight the next morning we walked along a street with the market in full swing, and the local worthies already on the go.
David is still in the navy after 28 years. He’s still the Chief PO Engineer on HMS Scott, a survey ship. This is his second draft on that ship. He did a three year stint once before. This ship’s got some advantages for him. He has his own decent sized cabin and works 2
months on and 1 month off. His wife, Penny, is still working in a hospice, and daughter, Katie, is at university. Katie is also in the naval reserve, which supplements her income. Time will tell if she intends to go into the navy proper.
Diz has just given up her job as head of child psychology in Gwent because her husband, Dan, has accepted a move to Toronto. So that part of our family will be moving oversees in January. Charlie and Isobel are not too keen because they have loads of friends in Cardiff and have an incredible amount of activities, which includes brownies and scouts, music lessons and drama school. They have both been in loads of performances in front of paying audiences. And, at the moment, they are appearing in a professional production of Aladdin. As well as all that, Charlie got about 5 accolades for achievement in various fields of endeavour in the junior school that he left in the summer. And now they have named him as the star pupil in his year, after one term at Cardiff High School. So you can see why the kids are not keen to move.
Jon and Sylvia are still running their music producing business up at the top end of Cwm Rhondda. They are having a lot of success in Norway, writing and producing the scores for a series of nature films, which the Norwegian and other Scandinavian television companies then screen. They still love life in the valleys. It’s seems to be a lot freer than it is in the cities. And the place full of characters, like the bloke who takes his goat for a walk on a lead, as if it was a dog. Their little girl, Saga, is two now and has started to attend a Welsh nursery. It’s funny to hear her. She holds conversations with her mother in Norwegian, and with her father in English, and now she is breaking into Welsh. When she is at our house for a babysitting session, she sometimes comes out with a Norwegian expression that we can’t make head nor tale of, and she can’t translate. I think she thinks we’re a bit thick.
Well, that’s the letter from Cardiff.
All I can say now, is that we wish all who pass by
A Merry Christmas
and a Peaceful and Contented New Year.
I see that the panel of “experts” who invented units of alcohol, and then told us what quantities of their invention it is safe for men and women to consume, have now come clean and admitted that they picked the figures “out of the air” based on no scientific basis. What’s more, it turns out that every country has its own “safety limit” and no two “limits” are the same. Smell a rat?
For example, in Saudi, the limit is zero-blank all round. You can’t even get a packet of bacon-flavoured crisps in an Arab pub. “Ganja flavour? Yes pliz mister,” but, “Bacon flavour? Oh no, mister. And pliz removing shoes!”
I’m 79 and I’ve been a happy drinker since I was 17 – beer, whisky and, for the last 15 years, wine as well: and I am reasonably fit; no prescription drugs whatsoever – zilch! I don’t have a beer gut either. I’ve got piles and a bad knee, and that’s enough to be going on with. The doc says that the knee is not alcohol related. But he’s not sure about the piles, because larger drinkers spend a lot of time on the thunder-box. I didn’t mention that, for the last 60 years, I’ve spent most weekends bouncing off my knees on the way home from the pub.
I’m no alcoholic though, oh no, not me. I may be an ageing piss artist, but I‘m no alcy. How do I know? Well, one of the symptoms of being an alcoholic is that you keep denying it... and hiding the evidence. Is that one symptom, or two? I have difficulty focussing at this time of night. But I’m not alcoholic, oh no, definitely not. And anyone who says I am an alcy is lying. I hardly drink really. All that stuff I keep among the gardening tools in the shed keeps disappearing. So does that stuff behind the paint tins in the garage. That’s why I keep renewing it. Every time I go back, it’s just empty bottles. So I can’t be alcy... there’s nothing there... nothing... I think the wife’s drinking it. Shhhh...
How can I be sure that my hobby isn’t eating away at my insides, and that my liver doesn’t look like a sponge that’s been festering in a sewer for the last 10 years? Well... at my age, it wouldn’t matter anyway. But the fact is that my liver is not disintegrating. I know that, because I’ve been for a voluntary medical look-see...
...Which brings to mind another medical I had about 10 years ago. It was one of those things that was on a half price offer, like smelly fish. So I went for it. A nurse checked me from head to tail, and then, while we waited for the results, a doctor interrogated me about my vices.
“Do you drink?” he wanted to know.
“Of course,” I replied.
“How many units do you drink in a week?” he wanted to know.
“None,” I told him.
“But you said-:“
“I said, I drink; but I don’t drink units; just pints of beer and litres of spirits and wine.”
“OK,” he conceded, “how many pints and litres would you consume in a week?”
I rattled off some figures. It was easy. I’m a creature of habit.
“My God,” he croaked, scribbling on a note pad, “that’s nearly ninety units.”
“They don’t do units where I live,” I told him, “only pints and litres.”
“Nevertheless,” he said, “we’ll have to have a close look at your liver result, and then move forward from there.”
Needless to say, my liver was tickety-boo, as was my cholesterol and sugar, blood pressure and any other result you can think of. Funny thing is, that doctor looked at my bottom too, but he didn’t spot my hemma... haemi... emmaroy... piles – even though they were hanging down like a bunch of grapes. Wonder what he was looking for down there.
It’s over a decade later, and nothing has changed much. Maybe I don’t drink as much as I did. You slow down as you get older. But, all the same, I drink a full bottle of red wine every weekday evening. Then, over the weekend, I’ll clear a reasonable amount of beer and about a third of a bottle of whisky. So why don’t I put on weight? Well, alcohol is liquid. You pee it out. Yes it’s calories. But so is food. And food contains fat. Fat clings. So when I go on a diet, I keep my alcohol supply steady and cut down on food, either carbs or fat, sometimes both. And it works. I take a modicum of exercise too. I burn about 500 calories on the exercise bike, four times a week, plus plenty of stretching. I used to hike for miles and run and jog for a hobby, but the knee put paid to that. Mind you, piles can be a menace on a bike... They keep getting tangled in the moving parts.
So what is all this unit nonsense about? It’s about control, that’s what it’s about. They use units of alcohol and the 5 vegetables a day dogma as steps towards controlling your leisure activities. Then the PC doctrine kicks in to control your thoughts, speech and behaviour. The commies and Nazis have done it all before. Granny covered all that by giving us a healthy diet and teaching us to be well mannered and to accept people for what they are – like, “Do onto others as you would have them do on to you.” To my mind, that covers about everything. Mind you, Granny didn’t have to contend with all these foreign weirdos we have today.
It’ the same story with the immigration freaks...
“Mass immigration’s good for the economy,” they told me.
“Whose economy? Because it ain’t mine,” I answered.
“Racist!” they snapped – another control word, like units and portions – “it’ll be a different story when you need a plumber.”
“I don’t need a plumber I told them. At least, not a CORGI. I want a stomach plumber to fix my hernia.”
“You’ll be grateful when you meet all those nice foreign nurses in hospital,” they told me.
“Hospital?” I echoed. “What hospital? I’ve been waiting 12 months on a 6-month waiting list.”
“Ah, you just wait ‘til 2014 when the Romanians and Bulgarians get the go-ahead. There will be over a million brilliant surgeons on the boat from Calais – all armed with scalpels of one sort or another,” they assured me.
“Hope they’re as well qualified as the Roma cash-machine technicians who photographed my bank card,” I replied.
“Racist!” they screamed.
“Shurrup. I’m going for a hike,” I told them, tucking in my hernia and folding my piles into a nosebag, before limping towards Windturbinewoods, singing “There’ll always be an England” – quietly to myself, lest I upset my neighbours who gabble in strange tongues.
No names, no pack drill; but we’ve always used Company-A to insure our household utilities. They are probably the biggest player on the field, so everybody knows them. Liz always maintained they were too expensive, and didn’t give value for money. But, being a logic-master, I explained that we were purchasing cover, not a commodity, and you can’t see a cover, it’s just there when you need it. Mind, I had to agree that at £549 a year, £45.75 a month, they didn’t come cheap.
I don’t know how this guy from Company-B contacted me on the phone, because I don’t answer cold-callers. In fact, I don’t answer warm friends unless my conscience tells me it’s time to do penance. But he did get hold of me and offered 15 months cover for £300. OK, his offer wasn’t as comprehensive as company-A. But it was far better value, so I took him up on it.
Now I went back to Company-A to cancel my insurance, and spoke to Wee Willy or someone. “I want to cancel my cover,” I told him. “Why?” he asked. “I’ve found someone cheaper,” I said. “I can give you a £60 discount if you stay with us,” he offered... Cheeky sod, I thought, why didn’t you offer me that before I threatened to leave...? “Peanuts,” I told him. “OK, I’ll make that £100,” he said. “You’d have to up your game by £250,” I said. “Give me a moment,” he told me, pretending to do a calculation, “OK,” he said finally, “I can drop your monthly payments to £21, if you stay.”
Do you get that? When I said I was leaving the company they were willing to cut my payment by more than a half. That means that they have been ripping us off for years. “No thanks,” I said. “Why not?” he asked. “When it’s time to renew, you’ll rob me again,” I told him. “We’ll negotiate,” he said. “You bet,” I told him. “Goodbye!”
Brits are always moaning. If it’s not the weather, it’s the government, immigration, royalty or the Daily Mail. But, come on, be joyful, this place is brilliant. Like the bard nearly said, “We’re all players in the pantomime.” Take the last few days: An Al Qaeda terrorist, wearing an electronic tag, walked through an MI5 cordon disguised as a mobile tent, while the Prime Minister was playing at being a Diwali... or should I say doolally... Indian: Paxman, the BBC’s political Rottweiler, says he can’t find anyone to vote for: A council in Derbyshire towed away the wood for the November bonfire and accused the villagers of fly-tipping: Two policemen took time off from the war on crime to interrogate a 12 year old boy about flicking an elastic band at another boy in the school playground: A woman who was sacked from work is claiming £5M compensation: And, thank goodness, the UK has plummeted to 23rd in the world education league: Which guarantees us plenty more comedians in the pipeline. Bring on the clowns and follow Maggie Thatcher’s advice. “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Last of the Brits
We tend to leave home around about ten in the morning when the world is having its second mug of tea. The travellers haven’t hit the road yet and every-where is quiet. We’re on our way to town today. We don’t go there all that often, maybe once a month, but it’s always worth the trip. No need to spend a fortune on foreign travel anymore; the circus has come to town.
Take this trip, for example. We’re cruising along, half-chatting, half-listening to Ken Bruce on Radio-2, when a Chinese woman zooms past on a motorbike with a toddler sprawling on the petrol tank. There is nothing holding the kid in place, and neither of them is wearing a helmet. “My God,” I tell Liz, “That poor woman’s taken a wrong turn coming out of Manky Pooh and ended up in South Wales. She’s probably trying to find her way back home, but the signposts are in gobbledegook. Poor girl; she’s doomed to wander the valleys forever.”
“How do you know she’s from Manky Pooh?” Liz demands cynically. She challenges all my deepest revelations.
“It doesn’t matter,” I snap. “The implications are horrendous. There are umpteen zillion motorcyclists in China. If they all make the same mistake and come zooming through the Channel Tunnel like a plague of locusts, they’ll end up choking our motorways and roads like so much sludge in a gutter, to say nothing of the towns and villages. Before we know it, everywhere will be knee deep in noodles and fried rice, and we won’t be able to move.” As a responsible citizen, I take these things seriously. “Something has to be done, and quickly,” I tell her. That’s when I was inspired to start my online petition to have the Channel Tunnel bricked-up at Folkestone.
“In the meantime,” I tell Liz, “we should get everyone to lobby their MP to have all road-signs displayed in English and Chinese, in the hope of helping these lost souls to find their way back to Yingyang County. Get the WI onto it.”
By now we are moving through the inner city. Bearded men in white nightshirts walk paces ahead of black shrouds that glide over pavements, silent and unswerving in hypnotic obedience. The ghosts of the night being led back to their daytime hidey-holes, I deduce. “Hold on,” I whisper, and step on the juice.
In town, we mosey up High Street on the way to the market. Along the way we pass a gypsy woman. She’s been standing there ever since Romania boarded the EU gravy train, pumping furiously on a tuneless accordion, like a desperate blacksmith aiming bellows at the last spark. I’ve mentioned this girl before, not a note in her head, poor soul. I’m no virtuoso myself, but this critter has been practising for months and getting nowhere. “I hope she’s saving up for lessons,” I mutter.
In a department store, I need to powder my nose and head for the toilet. A gathering of Muslim women is blocking the foyer. They’ve kicked off their shoes and are having a prayer session, facing Mecca via the urinals. I navigate through them and point Percy at the wall. If I felt the need to pray while I was in this place, I muse; I would head for the Lingerie Department and meditate among those shapely dummies in flimsy knickers...
Outside, we encounter the last of the Brits; teenage girls with glazed eyes and heads full of din, lugholes bunged-up with earpieces. They could be robots; electronic cigarettes sticking out of their mouths like teats. Further along, a posse of women gather at a bus stop, singing protest songs... They carry placards that announce, “Every woman has a right to abortion.” I avert my eyes. I don’t know the rights and wrongs, but I am scared of madwomen.
A young bum sprawls in a doorway, unshaven, unwashed and unkempt, begging for, “Any loose change.” The Asian shopkeeper comes out and moves him on. “I hate this place,” growls the bum, as he stands in the rain wondering where to waste his life next, a derelict on a sea of hopelessness. The guy needs a job. He should link up with that gypsy woman. They’d make a great team. He could take over the accordion and attract attention with the cacophony. She could squat beside him, carving pegs out of twigs and hissing curses at anyone who won’t buy. Find your niche... that’s the road to success.
On the way home, we see that a main police station has closed-down and the building is up for sale. Nearer home, the police station has gone on part time. The law has capitulated and I’m reaching for the whisky bottle.
Poky dingy café;
workmen shout and curse;
she floats among the tables,
tending like a nurse.
She pauses when she sees me;
breaks into a smile;
skips behind the counter,
lingers for a while.
chatting while she's serving,
shedding all her pain …
I am leaving,
a nurse again.
The label said they were “Gazanias.”
“Dodgy,” I thought, “Gazania’s a country. Went there on safari once. Full of lions and mambas and things that give you the squits. So what do the flowers get up to?” Anyway, nothing ventured nothing gained. I put them in the ground and rewarded myself with a whisky-beer chaser, like you do. The next time I squinted out of the window, all these Gazania things were slouching, shoulders hunched, petals over their heads, sulking like Friday night girls when it rains on the queue at the Club Kids. Now I read the label. It says, “Must be in full sun.” Full sun...? We live in Cardiff, the wettest place outside Dogger Bank. We don’t do full sun. So that’s another thirty quid down the plughole. Like I say... I’m the fall guy.
I dunno why, but my logic seems to have been twisted along the way. Some things that appear normal to the rest of humanity, seem out of kilter to me. Take our local surgery – again... One day a couple of weeks ago, Liz was feeling poorly. In fact, she felt she needed a word with a doctor.
So, at 0830. she starts dialling the surgery to make an appointment, like you do. As usual, all she got was the engaged tone until 0825. Then she got through to reception, who told her that, “All the appointments have been taken, so you don’t get to see a doctor today.” That’s not good when you feel ill, but you can’t fault the logic.
Anyway, a week later it was my turn. I had a weird pain, so I thought that I had better get some medical advice. But now, this is my logic, I knew that there was no point in joining the 0830 scramble, only to be told that, “You can’t see a doctor today.” So I waited until the rush was over, then I dialled and asked to make an appointment for the following day, which was Thursday. Clever?
A woman with a mechanical voice, who sounded as if she had swallowed a computer, answered me. She said, “Appointments for the day are released in the morning.”
“I don’t want an appointment today,” I told her, “I want if for tomorrow.”
“Appointments for the day are released in the morning,” she told me, “call tomorrow.”
“But it takes half an hour to get through,” I told her, “and by then all the appointments are taken.”
“Appointments for the day are released in the morning,” the computerised person replied, “call tomorrow.”
“Friday?” I ventured.
“Appointments for the day are released in the morning,” she repeated mechanically.
“Say I want to see Dr X?” I wondered.
“Dr X has an appointment vacant next Wednesday,” said the mechanical one...
Now this is where my logic falls down. If they only release appointments on the day in question – so you can’t book them one or two days in advance – how come you can book them a week in advance, like next Wednesday. See what I mean? I’m out of kilter.
time, so the main bargaining point in any prayer-deal was that
if I was goo... not as bad... God must let our side win. Which,
fair doos to the bloke, he did. However, another part of the deal
fell down badly, because I asked him to, “Bless all our
soldiers, sailors and airmen and keep them safe.” This last
bit didn’t come off. I knew that because, every day, our local
rag sported a list of the latest hometown war-dead. So,
for me, God fell at the first post and I matured into a
of prayer. “It’s ridiculous,” I thought, “for me, a grown man,
to expect another grown man, i.e. – God, to sit there, up
in the sky, and hear and understand every prayer in
every language that comes bellowing out of his loudspeaker
from every quarter of the globe. “Even madder,” I thought, “is
to expect this guy to attempt to fix everyones’ problems at the
same time.” With those words, I closed the book and became
a fully-fledged doubter.
personal neck of the woods, and asking my satnav, in my
language, to, “Guide me,” to some obscure alleyway in
some one-horse town that even my neighbours haven’t
heard of – and it does. And, I presume that, at the same
time, millions of other people are, in their own language,
asking similar questions about their space in their part of
the world, and getting... “Guidance.”
believe it if you prove it.” So, true to my beliefs, I think
God’s a satellite.
pink-tinted by the setting sun, drifting in from the sou’west, like
exotic fish in my vast aquarium of deepening blue sky. Bedtime
rooks shout from the copse beyond the roofs, last of the birds
chirping in the trees; flowers closing for the night, cool air
drifting in with a damp night-smell of nearby fields where a
crow coughs and scours for supper, cat slinks by with wicked
eyes, on the prowl for a vole or mouse... I open a beer and
thank God that my love is by my side.
Wife of Bank of England guv says teabags waste paper and wreck
the planet. Maybe Basildon Bond eats a bit of rain forest, but
While you’re passing why not pop inside and see the actual staff demonstrating