Saturday 31 December 2011

Old People

It is New Year’s Eve. Most of us can think of a million people to call and, blessed with British Telecom or Orange contracts we can blag away convincing aged and lonely relatives that we really care even though we could not be arsed to climb into the car and drive over, favouring a hot and sweaty disco serving lukewarm spumante instead.

I saved my beer tokens, investing them in recharge cards instead and prayed like mad that the system would not overload and called my Granny in Germany.

I got through.

She is 93 years old but as soon as she heard my voice, delivered via an African telecommunications system and fed into God only knows what sort of international satellite system before being delivered to her aged and inefficient ear she said, ‘Andi?’

My father was English and had an excellent sense of humour, an acerbic wit that perhaps I have inherited to a degree. He and my German mother didn’t really get along, much to my distress and also that of my Grandmother who, like all grandparents, provided that rock, the definitive bearing on the chart of one’s life that could be relied upon to steer a certain course. To the rest of the world I am known as Thomas. To my Granny I am known as Andreas or Andi for short. Long time since anyone called me Andi.

What do you say to a ninety three year old who more or less brought you up yet you have only seen three times in the last fifteen years? When my Grandfather, von Borken senior died I was in the middle of Lake Albert moving an oil rig and I remember her authorative voice over the satphone telling me it was my duty to finish the job off and that Opa, since he was soon to be in his grave, would wait for me. Prussians to the end.

I wanted to tell her how much I loved her. How badly I missed her. How much I would like to be by her side, even just to make her a cup of tea and serve it to her or to hold her hand as she fell asleep while I looked upon the peaceful face of the most beautiful woman in the world.

She asked me how things were going so I lied and said ‘fine’. She isn’t stupid, if it really was ‘fine’ I would have been able to shell out for the tickets for the family to travel from Angola to Germany and pester her for the whole five minutes it would take her to get irritated and tell us to piss off. Instead she asked me about my heart.

It is pointless lying to your Granny. Grannies have intelligence networks stretching over generations so I said ‘it’ll be fine once I get the operation’.

She said, ‘you know that Opa and I gave up smoking years ago?’

How the fuck does she know I am still smoking?

‘Granny, please don’t give up’ I said.

That came out all wrong. She had binned the tabs decades ago but she knew what I was bleating about.

‘The Lord will call me when he is ready’ she replied. Well that's good. Since God is an Englishman and all his postal workers are on strike, I was in with a chance here but I didn't explain that to her in detail because she was German after all. Imagine, praying your whole life in the wrong bloody language and not being able to understand the deadly telegeram when it eventually arrived.

‘Can you at least hang on until I go? Then we will be able to meet Daddy and Opa together?'. I had just sacrificed twenty or thirty years of my life but really it was bugger all if we consider the longevity of the female members of my family against the fragility of the males who generally gave up the ghost in middle age. I guess my time was up.

‘I’d like that’, she said. See? Even my Grannny thinks so.

Then I ran out of credit.

I need to pack in the fags. If Granny is going to hang on for me, I’m going to make sure it is a hell of a long wait.

Just call me René

To paraphrase Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas message to the Nation in 1992 (God, was it that long ago?), 2011 is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure…it has turned out to be an 'annus horribilis.

Sure, there were those moments of startling success, as when three gorgeous ex employees of mine came to visit at an hour early enough to catch me clad only in a towel, just to see how I was getting on after my heart attack, reminding me of my strong views about Bosses sleeping with staff members and the fairly obvious fact I was no longer their boss. Dressed the way they were and with the barely disguised ‘come hither’ looks of the unbridled temptress, another heart attack was almost guaranteed.

But, in what would prove prophetic for the rest of the year, such brief moments of triumph were all too quickly followed by a rapidly accelerating rug under my feet, as several hours later Marcia returned and drew the inevitable conclusion suggested by the sight of her semi naked husband in the company of three startlingly attractive young ladies, the skimpiness of their attire leaving them to the casual observer, I suppose, pretty much semi naked as well. While women are pretty adept at faking an orgasm as well as hiding credit card receipts and collecting shoes, they are also pretty skilled at disguising arousal if needs must, while men are left trying to hide something as obvious as a lighthouse in the desert and, under the keen, malevolent gaze of an irate girlfriennd, about as useful.

For the rest of this awful year I have had to make a point of not dressing until two in the afternoon claiming that Englishmen (I try hard to make the distinction between 'unemployed' and 'of private means' but I suspect Marcia is wising up), do, when relaxing in their own homes, dress thus as a matter of course and there is absolutely nothing remarkable about it. I think Marcia is beginning to believe me about the dress code, if not the state of our finances, as she has tired of beating me and conjugal rights have recently been re-installed.

Foolishly, I ignored the warning signs apparent during 2010. I could not see how the global economic down turn would affect the Angolan economy, based as it is on ever higher oil prices. The fact that I could not draw hard currency from my dollar account was an irritation, not the salutary warning of impending disaster.

I was an asset millionaire and could ride out all this. Beer tokens I could earn doing the odd consultancy job. I had started a new company in 2010 and won some good international contracts in 2011 and was happy for revenue to be reinvested. After all, there is nothing as safe as houses and I had three of them along with acres of building land.

Then the money dried up. Clients now wanted to pay in local currency, not good old USD. Transfers abroad meant changing Kwanzas on the street at outrageously expensive rates of exchange and then using Western Union or Moneygram to get the money out at outrageous fees. The property market collapsed. What were once million dollar houses were now being sold for a couple of hundred thousand with maybe the sweetener of a decent second hand four by four thrown in. A once vibrant cash economy is rapidly reverting to a barter economy. Banks are woefully undercapitalised and business loans have dried up. It is the rest of the economically depressed World times ten. Meanwhile, I choked on local cigarettes and ‘whisky’ imported from India.

Nela, the very attractive spinster who moved in next door (Marcia hates her as well) is raking it in baking and decorating birthday and wedding cakes. Colonel Henriques supplements his salary with the revenue from his club, the Esplanada Triangulo, so named because of the shape of the plot of land on which it stands. Sr Filipe started his tiny little shop selling staples and alcohol and has now bought a bloody great truck to collect the stock he needs to keep the shelves of his now vastly extended premises full.

I am proud of the security and investigative services I provide my clients but in today’s competitive market, it’s a difficult way to make a million and as anyone knows, pride is both hard to swallow and not particularly nutritious for the family clustered expectantly around a dining table. Given my explosives and firearms skills I could always knock off a few banks or liquor stores but, as anyone who has read Elmore Leonard’s ‘Swag’ knows, it’ll all end in tears. Mind you, in addition to reminding me how difficult it is to walk a straight path on a winding route, the book did give me a taste for ‘Salty Dog’ cocktails.

Apart from the Air France contract and a foiled attempt at a ménage a quatre, my only genuinely satisfying success in 2011 was managing to grow smuggled English Horse radish in my garden. Now that really is sad.

‘As far as I can see’, I told Marcia, ‘the only things that make money in a recession are food, alcohol and sex. Building houses is a mug’s game’.

For once, Marcia didn’t disagree.

I have been banging on for years about the Barra de Kwanza and the restaurant and hotel I am going to build there but now I am bloody serious. I have taken a huge hit on the house in Benfica in order to get the capital I need for my mate Julian and his crew to go through the site like a dose of salts and finish it off so that I can open.

So, I will enter 2012 homeless. I have converted the roof over my family’s head to cash and will launch them on a new and exciting venture, one based on food, alcohol and sex.

I will provide the food and alcohol, it will be up to the clients to see if they can score with the waitresses or any girls attracted by the bright lights but, given Marcia’s skill with drop forged steel kitchen knives, I shan’t be interviewing potential female staff clothed only in a towel.

I am off for a shower.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Official: Wonkers Run the Country!

Wilkins Micawber. A frugal man, sadly fictitious

I link to Ian Cowie’s blog. If you are reading this, it is there on the right hand side of your screen if you scroll down to ‘Interesting blogs’

What I did not realise was that the Daily Telegraph use that link to feed any and all financial articles so when I click on it, often as not, I don’t get Mr Cowie (erudite, informed and sympathetic to his readers most of whom are bereft of a PhD in Economics), I get someone else entirely.

Today, I got Andrew Lilico and his article entitled, ‘On what is and is not an argument about Ricardian Equivalence (long and wonkish, but politically relevant)’

Merely the title he gave his tome should have served as an urgent health warning to anyone foolishly trespassing within reach of his intellectual wit. Having been fooled by the ambiguity of it and walked off that very short pier a simple mouse click entails and then floundered hopelessly in the mire of his tortured logic, I was only saved by the divine intervention that caused my laptop battery to fail (clearly God is not ready for me yet). All I can say is, don’t go there unless you are a fairly determined but as yet undecided suicidal. Even the most awful death would be a blessed release.

The worrying thing is, though, that clearly governments are being advised by an army of Lilicos (just read his CV and the comments below his post, assuming you can make it that far before suffering a cardiac infarction). There are loads of Economynists out there and not one of them can agree with the other.
George Osborne, a gullible man, sadly all too real

I self administered a couple of squirts of Nitrolingual and a handful of Inderal tablets and pressed on finally getting to the penultimate paragraph:

“Relative to a tax-funded programme, deficit-funded spending isn't expansionary in this case, because if consumers face a one-off tax increase of $100 billion they will not cut their consumption by $100 billion in the first year, either. If the spending is expansionary at all, it is precisely as expansionary whether funded by taxes or by debt. Krugman is mixing up Ricardian Equivalence with the claim that consumers are forwards-looking (which is a requirement for Ricardian Equivalence, not the theorem itself).

'Forwards-looking'? I guess that with a name like Lilico, English might not be his mother tongue but being a thick bastard, I have obviously missed the point. Besides, I really did not want to kill those few readers I have by cutting and pasting his more lethal paragraphs.

If this is the sort of educated yet conflicting advice that grocer’s daughters or Selfridge’s towel folders get when assuming office, flushed with an ardent desire to heal the world, no wonder we are in such shit and they age so quickly.

Financial markets, the basis of our economy, are based on a fiction. While exhorting Joe Public to be responsible, to go easy on the store cards, to beware the £1000 instant credit for the new plasma and to invest 70% of their income in personal pension plans and private health insurance, the government injects yet more taxpayer funded cash into the economy through the banks to stimulate yet more lending, resultant debts, however bad, that can be repackaged and turned into bottom line assets and sold on to other financial institutions some of whom, you may be shocked to learn, fail.

Western governments ridicule African leaders for their vanity projects but how would you classify Trident nuclear submarines and a high speed train link from London to the north? Who the hell wants to go up there at high speed? If I am heading north, I would at least like the time to get smashed. The Olympics, the most internationally visible expression of self adulation pale into insignificance in comparison and all are funded on the ‘never never’ of government borrowing.

Lilico described his own article as ‘Long and Wonkish’. Well, it was definitely long. I am not sure about ‘Wonkish’ though, mainly because like the rest of his article, I haven’t a clue what it means. Perhaps it is an economist’s term for gratifying one’s self over the first draft of one’s manuscript. All those big words and obscure references that plebs will not be able to understand, but the giggling Wonkers behind the bike sheds will.

Personally, I subscribe to the greatest, yet sadly fictitious, economist of all time. Would that our politicians could absolve their responsibilities for a whole country as efficiently as some of us run our own households based on the Micawber principle:

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

You cannot borrow yourself out of a hole. All you can do in such a situation is skulk at the bottom of it, foregoing the nuclear deterrent, alternative power and the plasma TV until you can afford to pay cash for the ladder to get you out again.

Mr Lilico may have given us a decisive insight, who's to know? Certainly not I. It is all Greek to me.
Andrew Lilico. Self confessed Wonker and educated person

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Get thee behind me, Soldier

The Sun in UK has just run an article under the blazing title, ‘Squaddies Are Living in Squalor in UK’

So what is new?

What I found remarkable were some of the comments posted by members of the public in response to that article. Most were supportive but a significant proportion suggested that the soldiers smashed their own accommodation (being little more than animals I suppose and a contention hard to refute, after all, when have you ever heard of a council house being trashed or anyone puking up or pissing in the street let alone engaging in riotous asssembly? Clearly, only awfully uncouth servicemen do that). Others suggested that they should pay into a kitty and perform the necessary repairs themselves (good point, perhaps we could extend that to council house tenants). Worryingly, quite a few felt that knowing what they were letting themselves in for and having signed on the dotted line, accepting the Queen’s shilling as it were, servicemen and women should shut up and get on with it, I quote from one telling comment, 'These guys volounteered and have no rights...especially if they killed in Iraq'. But convicted criminals who turn out to be illegal immigrants do have rights? And how about the fact that the taxes the poor old squaddie pays which, unlike any other ordinary expat earning his salary abroad he must pay, go towards funding 'acceptable' accommodation for asylum seekers yet Cavalry Barracks, the very barracks he lived in before deployment, was deemed unacceptable by the relevant government department responsible for housing refugees? Clearly, for refugees and asylum seekers, including convicted foreign nationals and illegal immigrants, the post code for free housing must be SW7. For soldiers SH 1 T will do.

Obviously, there were also those who blamed the officers. An easy accusation, especially in the light of articles produced in the UK media such as the one written by a clearly very bored Daily Mail correspondent with bugger all else to do but sup his pint and consider his editor's deadline. In it, the rather insensitive author, Christopher Leake, referred to General Sir Peter Anthony Wall, KCB, CBE, Chief of the General Staff and head of the British Army as 'General Two Dinners'. Why? Because ten years ago (ten years ago), while visiting Scotland as commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Sir Peter ordered a young major to get him two portions of fish and chips. So he was hungry. I have accompanied senior officers on these sort of whirlwind tours and believe me, you survive on Twix chocolate bars from the petrol stations you fill up at. No helicopters for the hoi polloi, even if they are knighted Generals, unlike some politicians I could mention. On arrival (I cannot speak for my General) I could have eaten the arse off a live cow as well as two measly portions of fish and chips, although I always prefered curries with all the trimmings (mint yoghurt, mango chutney, the red stuff guaranteed to give you burning bum by morning) and at least half a dozen Naan breads to mop up the sauce. Besides, Leake is clearly a peasant. Even Northerners, never mind the smart set, know that fish and chips is a supper, not a dinner.

And General Wall's crime? One worthy of several column inches in the Mail?

I quote directly from the article in which Leake (wonderful name, fodder for all school bullies dedicated to giving wimps a healthy thrashing) accused General Wall of being 'measured up for a new Service Dress uniform at a cost of £1,000, which he paid for himself'. Gosh. 'Man Buys New Suit, Film at Eleven!' Yet another Daily Mail scoop. Rather than try and create a story out of a fifty five year old soldier who has given his best years to the country and has now put on a bit of weight (I still wouldn't argue with him, he is a hard bugger) Leake might, if he had been astute, have noted the General's thrift. Had he been measured up at Thieves and Hawkes, General Wall would have spent twice as much and it would at least have been gracious of Leake to note that while Officers get a small (taxable) uniform allowance, it in no way covers the cost of the uniforms which, traditionally, officers are required to have but must pay for themselves. In any case, a grand for a suit is chicken shit in the city. A politician, of course, would have found some way of claiming for it.

I sense a bit of Army bashing.

Anyone remember the accommodation in Bessbrook Mill? Or Airport Camp in Belize? Or how about the transit accommodation on Hohne Ranges? Or the tenement blocks that were the married quarters in Monchengladbach, islands of British destitution and nothing more than English speaking ghettos in the midst of German affluence?

Once I was commissioned, I remember standing there in the luxuriously appointed offices of the Government appointed agency for property services begging them to fix up my lad's blocks and married quarters only to be dismissed with ‘I’m sorry, Sir, there is just no money’ and when I suggested, OK, just give us the materials, the paint, the brushes, we’ll do it ourselves to be told, ‘No chance, Sir, the work can only be carried out by qualified personnel’.

‘OK’, I said, ‘Give me one of your qualified supervisors to oversee the work’

‘Sorry, Sir, they are all busy’


Good job I did not have my swagger stick with me, I was sorely tempted to put it to good use around the smug bastard’s well fed chops.

The lads suffering Cavalry Barracks in London know it is classed as transit accommodation and transit accommodation is at the very bottom of the fetid pile that comprises housing for our service personnel, be they married or single. The singlies can put up with a lot so long as they have a bed space and somewhere to shit but how would you feel to see your kids growing up in squalor and your young wife going slowly mental wishing she had married that Polish plumber instead? Love has its burdens but some are far too heavy to bear.

And for the soldier feeling his way cautiously along some explosive laden track in Afghanistan, his mind half on the immediate business of his own survival, the other half worried about his family, it must be hard for him to reconcile his own poorly rewarded contribution to the honour of his country with those who would use the threat they pose to the honour of the same country for cynical financial gain. How can London transport employees sleep at night after threatening to disrupt the London Olympics unless they are paid some ridiculous bonus just for doing their very safe, very cosy and better remunerated jobs? Jobs. let’s face it, requiring only the intellect that even those creatures with gravel rash on their knuckles are blessed with never mind the quick wit and extensive training the average Section Commander needs to not only keep his men alive, but get the bloody job done in conditions far more primitive than a short shift in a comfortable train or bus cab. The ‘C’ word inevitably comes to mind.

With the lousy pay servicemen are expected to survive on for doing all they do in the service of their country, one can hardly expect them to dip into their own pockets to fix up accommodation they will only occupy for short periods of time risking their claim for compensation of expenditure (another suggestion by a very bright Sun reader) being turned down because it was unauthorised. And quite frankly, were we reduced to this it would be a situation close to madness. I realise that by seriously considering sharing an aircraft carrier with France we are already dancing gaily down insanity beach but aircraft carriers, or the lack of them, bear only a passing relevence to this story.

Most of the lads would happily sacrifice a couple of days on some windswept, freezing bog of a training ground in favour of fixing up their own accommodation but only if the materials were provided. Sadly, this would be against some monopoly or other. Are these civilian contractors seriously suggesting that all squaddies are thick as pig shit and that in an Army that has electrical, mechanical and civil engineers there is no one qualified to mend a pump or splash some paint on a wall? Are they saying that if a ship is pounded to shit by the enemy Admiral Lord Nelson would call in a civilian company to come to the battle zone and patch up the hull and get the engines going again? Are they saying that of all those from every walk of life who join the services amongst them aren’t a few brickies, painters and decorators or plumbers? If service personnel are reallly so incompetent, how come every back garden in UK does not boast the wreckage of a badly maintained RAF aircraft?

The fault does not lie with the lads ‘trashing’ their accommodation, a term which is in any case sensational, but what incentive do they have for taking care of the shit hole they have temporarily inherited?

Yes, there will always be one or two that abuse their accommodation but then the lads usually sort the ‘Grunges’ out themselves. Give the guys smart accommodation, something they can be proud of and they will look after it. That has been my experience anyway, on both sides of the fence. At 3 Base Ammunition Depot, we turned the otherwise spartan room we were issued into a veritable palace, for a soldier in the British Army, five star accommodation but then we knew we would, apart from the occasional ‘emergency tour’ be there for three years. Nowadays with redundancies and a never ending, ever increasing burden on manpower resources, none of the poor sods can be confident of where they will be next week.

It is not the fault of the officers either. God knows I tried to lobby on behalf of my soldiers and non commissioned officers but was always met by the impregnable wall of civil service bureaucracy. I inspected the cooker of one of my married personnel having been told by the property services agency that it could not be replaced because it was still serviceable. How can you cook a family meal on a cooker with only one working burner and an oven which would not bring a cup of water to the boil? So I told my driver to go and get the jack handle from the car and I smashed the cooker to pieces, went back to the PSA and told them that I had inspected the cooker and it was definitely broken. The family had their new cooker and I received a month’s worth of extra duties. With the most outrageous insouciance, it had even been suggested that the damage was malicious so I would have to pay for the replacement cooker myself. Fortunately my CO had a sense of humour (but told me to wind mine in a bit).

The fault lies with an enormous and desperately inefficient bureaucracy farming out maintenance contracts to monolithic civilian agencies against which there is no redress of grievance.

The fault lies with UK governments of every colour who want a Rolls Royce Armed Services so they can continue to conduct diplomacy by other means and maintain the fiction of being a player on the world’s chess board but are only willing to pay for a second hand Ford Mondeo.

The fault lies with a bloated civil service the mandarins of which could not give a shit so long as they get their Knighthoods and gold plated pensions.

But all of this is nothing new,
the suffering of the Few
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Tommy' knows,
just like he says below:

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

(Rudyard Kipling, 'Barrack Room Ballads')

'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.'-Samuel Johnson, 1778.

Why can we STILL not look after them and treat them with dignity?

As an aside, the Sun article also included: 'SAS hero and Sun Security Adviser Andy McNab said...'

Oh please...

Thursday 22 December 2011

Spot the Difference

I like his Tom Jones' hair style, let's hope he has 'the voice'

Alex, my three year old son managed to get Marcia, his mother, arrested this afternoon.

Alex had spent the night with his aunt and cousins and on the way back from picking him up, the taxi broke down so Marcia hopped a bus. Thinking he might not be going home after all, he started screaming, in English, 'I want my Daddy!' over and over again. The driver spotted a transit policeman sitting astride his motorcycle by the roadside and stopped his bus.

All the passengers testified that Marcia was kidnapping a white English toddler.

So she phoned me but I was having a kip and missed the call. Thinking I might have run out of credit on my phone and could not respond to a missed call, she persuaded the police, for by then there were many and the bus was long gone, to allow her to buy credit and send it to me. But I was still miles away in dreamland. Takes a lot to distract me from Kylie Minogue.

She (Marcia, not Kylie) just got back now and woke me up, none too kindly either and at the speed only a very irate Angolan girl can shoot off Portuguese told me what happened.

'I pulled out your photo from my purse and said "look, his father is white", she said she had told them, 'of course the boy will look white as well!'

Marcia dragged the photo of me out from her purse, waving it inches in front of my face for emphasis. Without my glasses, I could not focus properly but there was no question about it, I was white.

'Gosh' I said.

'And that black whore's son policeman told me I was too black to be the mother of Alex, as if that chimpanzee would know!'

'Outrageous' I agreed, thinking both of the Policeman's impertinence and Marcia's colourful language.

'So he asked me what your name was so I told him, "Thomas" and he turned to Alex and said, "What is your father called?" and Alex said, "Daddy", so I explained to the Copper that Daddy was English for Pai so the policeman asked if Daddy had another name and Alex said "Dad" so I said to Alex, "No, no, what else do you call Daddy?" and he said, "Andy" so I tried again and he said, "Honey?" Can you believe that?'

Marcia paused for breath while I contemplated how terribly awkward for her the results of that line of questioning had been and how I had always hated her calling me 'Honey'. Far too American sitcom for me.

'So how DID you get out of it?' I ventured.

'Oh!' she said brightly, 'the paediatrician that delivered Alex came by in her car, saw us and stopped. She confirmed that she remembered you. Do you remember the fuss you made in the hospital when they would not let you in to see the birth? Anyway, that Doctor. She told the police that she remembered you well. Do you know who I mean?'

'Would that be the one who called security, had me pinned to a chair by two big bastards while the Corporal waved handcuffs in my face and after the birth told me I was the rudest man she had ever met?'

'Yes that one, she drove us home'

'Why didn't you invite her in?' I asked.

'She didn't want to for some reason'

Well. This is an amazing tale. For one thing I am grateful that ordinary citizens have the courage of their convictions, even if they turn out to be wrong. I am extremely grateful that members of the public were willing to dive in to protect my son. In how many cultures would people just have Tut-Tutted at such an unruly and noisy child before minding their own business? One can only admire the patience of the Police who while doing their job allowed Marcia repeated attempts to contact me, even calling over one of the street vendors who (illegally) sell telephone recharge cards on the street.

Finally, apart from the enormous coincidence, it just shows how sometimes it pays to stand out. If I hadn't made such a fuss, if I hadn't been so incandescent with rage at the stupid bloody rule they had here in Angola prohibiting the presence of the father at the birth of his child, maybe the good Doctor would not have recognised Marcia and simply driven by.

As an after note, the good Doctor is, as I later discovered, the top consultant paediatrician in Angola (which probaly explains the heart stopping $6,500 bill I received for her attendance and an overnight stay for Marcia in the clinic although a good portion of that could have been a sort of revenge tax). A couple of months after Alex was born, the Doctor was on the telly being interviewed on one of these human interest programmes. Ironically, she was arguing very convincingly that fathers should have the right to be present at the birth saying that it is a good thing for them to see how a woman suffers and how their presence would help calm the mother, so long as they behaved themselves. She then went on to describe in all too graphic detail an incident during a delivery she supervised that made me feel very uncomfortable.

I am reluctant to relate some of the terminology I had used to describe the professional who trained in Europe but refused to allow me to be present at the birth of my son and yet here she was, on TV, arguing my very contention.

All she had been doing was enforcing the rules as they were at the time but was clearly an activist trying to change them. I felt like a complete shit.

Apparently now, fathers can be present at the birth if they want to.

This is the second time she has helped Marcia and Alex. It is three years too late but I think a bloody great bunch of flowers and an unreserved, grovelling apology are in order. That and finding the loudest ring tone for my phone.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Wogs begin at Calais

Nicolas Sarkozy, the small man of Europe, with Uncle Sam

It is interesting that now the Euro is imploding, dragging with it countless economies and creating more than just a little ripple through the world’s financial markets, it is the French and to a lesser but not insignificant degree the Germans who are incensed that the product of one of England’s rather more prestigious schools and now the leader of our nation is finally aware of his own balls rather than the Balls sat on the opposition benches of Parliament.

By exercising Britain’s right to veto a proposed new European Treaty, he has poured battery acid onto swimming pool chlorine with all its attendant pyrotechnic results and the caustic effluent has scoured its way viciously through UK and European politics. One effect of its erosive properties has, however, been to remove the veneer of cynicism and expose farce.

Let me remind you of a few facts. Britain had already dipped deeply into its reserves buying the kit it needed to prosecute yet another European conflagration under the ‘Cash and carry’ scheme with the US. With an absurd irony that would become apparent after the war, a vitriolic, anti-colonial country (the US), also accepted ceded British colonial territory as payment. Recognising it really is impossible to squeeze blood out of a stone, the 'Lend Lease' programme was introduced.

After the Second World War, the UK economy was trashed. Despite the beneficence of the US and then an extraordinarily generous renegotiation whereby the UK was allowed to retain the equipment ‘lent’ to Britain under the Lend Lease programme, equipment that was effectively unreturnable because it lay smashed up across various European battlefields, for a nominal value of only 10% of its true value, we still owed the US £1.075 billion. If I hired a car and failed to return it because I smashed it to scrap metal, I suppose I’d be delighted with a bill of only ten percent.

Still, a billion Sterling was hardly a shabby amount in 1945 although at only 2% interest and repayments over fifty years not bad terms either considering it was an investment which allowed us to hang on to a whole country. Mind you, they did force us to give up the Jewel in the Crown, India and then all our other colonies went like falling domino stones which made it harder for UK to service a debt at even only two percent. And while the Marshall Plan modernised Germany’s industries, UK factories retooled from Lancaster bombers and with the same old kit went back to producing pre war cars for which, suddenly, there was no longer a market. But such cynicism is best left alone.

The UK defaulted a couple of times but finally paid off its debt to the US for the assistance it received during the Second World War on the 29th December 2006. Sixty seven years after the war started. We English often accuse the Americans of being late to get stuck into a European war but no reasonable man could ever accuse them of starting one and, thankfully, they had deep pockets. Britain still owes the US £866 million from the First World War at 1934 exchange rates. Adjusted by the Retail Price Index, this would amount to £40 billion in today’s money and if calculated against growth domestic product it would be £225 billion. No wonder the hair of all newly appointed UK Chancellors turns white thirty seconds after first sight of the country’s accounts.

Believe it or not, the country is still paying interest on ‘Consul’ loans used to fight the Napoleonic Wars, erm, against the French. On the subject of the debt situation in 1934 and at 1934 prices Britain, in turn, was owed an astonishing £2.3 billion. Imagine what that would be worth in today’s money. 1934 is significant, by the way, because that was when UK’s debtors, including the French, ceased servicing their loans from which we can only conclude that while the US has always been very reasonable regarding the debt owed to them by UK, tolerant if tight lipped when the country defaulted, even declaring a moratorium on repayments to provide relief, the UK is absolutely bloody incompetent at collecting debts. Instead of all these esteemed economists employed on outrageous Day rates, perhaps we should appoint Vinnie Jones as George Osborne’s enforcer (I mean Personal Assistant) on a percentage. Bet we get a better return.

The idea of a European Union of one sort or another gained momentum in the late fifties and in 1958 the EEC began. The UK, fearful of the effect of relinquishing control to a central, essentially foreign authority, of its trade with its traditional trading partners and increasingly 'former' colonies baulked, instead setting up with Nordic countries and, ironically given the situation today Portugal, the European Free Trade Area in 1960.

After the war, there was a belief amongst the so recently liberated French, enduring to this day, that Britain had let France down by failing to make the decisive stand at Dunkirk before victoriously rolling the Germans all the way back to Danzig, the French Generals at the rear choking down the exhaust fumes of British tanks, Disque Bleu’s and bottles of unlooted Dom Perignon in hot pursuit. It was this cowardly act of the British, fleeing across the Channel or ‘La Manche’, as the French who have never managed to dominate yet still insist on calling it, that forced them to capitulate in a hurry and then through their Vichy government collaborate with their Nazi oppressors. The British fleet even had to shell the French fleet to oblivion to prevent them handing their ships over to the Germans providing yet another reason for the French to hate us and for us to sigh deeply and buy up their old farmhouses and turn them into holiday rentals..

There were some noble Frenchmen of course, a lot of them betrayed to the Gestapo by Vichy Police, their own countrymen, but as victory seemed imminent, it wasn’t them on the streets of Paris sniping at fleeing Germans, it was opportunistic French Communists who have ever since played a significant role in the more often than not turbulent politics of their nation. An attempt was made to reconcile rather shabby wartime performance post liberation when, like something out of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’, the mob emerged from their cellars and shaved the heads of all the young ladies who had survived the war by opening their legs to the Germans while ignoring, with Gallic selectivity, the many profiteers who, for a few years at least, enjoyed an unprecedented monopoly.

These were the stark, conflicting views of two erstwhile allies. Rather than allowing healthy national pride to concentrate on each nation’s triumphs and successes, discreetly ignoring the many and sometime shameful failures, now that a common threat had been removed, xenophobia and prejudice once again raised its ugly all consuming head. Hardly conducive to the spirit of European Union.

Such a stain on the French national character could not go unpunished so when the Conservative Prime Minister of UK, Harold Macmillan blinked first in 1961, recognizing that the once mighty nation he now led was to all intents and purposes bankrupt, and asked if we too could join the EEC, an absolute chancer, a man otherwise destined for a very undistinguished military career before fate dealt him a once in a lifetime hand leading to fame, prestige, a Presidency, and more than a few attempts on his life had no hesitation in exercising his veto against the country that had succored him while his own countrymen suffered. As a result, the UK’s application failed in 1963. Two years from application to rejection. Surely prescient of how European bureaucracy would work in the future?

De Gaulle’s veto was quickly followed by Adenauer’s of Germany. Amazing to consider how quickly these two former adversaries jumped into bed with one another other.

Opposition leader, Hugh Gaitskill, the leader of the Labour party, was passionately opposed to membership and issued a warning as to the effects membership would have on the UK’s sovereignty. The nub of the argument now. Those even remotely interested in British and European politics will be aware that opinions on Europe within Europe are divided and cross party boundaries. Observers might, however, be as bemused as I am to note that party policy flutters like a butterfly from one side of the Channel to the other.

The next UK leader to suffer humiliation at the hands of the French was Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who tried to apply for UK membership to the EEC again in 1967 to the delight of de Gualle, who was given an unprecedented second chance to kick ‘Le Boefs’ in the dangly bits, not only avenging Dunkirk, but Agincourt as well. Hardly surprising, that the anti hero in the book and subsequent film written by Frederick Forsyth, ‘The Day of the Jackal’, was a refined Englishman.

Finally, the evidently onerous task of getting Britain into Europe was left in the hands of part time politician, subtle orchestral conductor and clumsy sailor, Edward Heath a Conservative, whose chances had been considerably enhanced with the death of that old nemesis, de Gaulle. Sadly, as anyone who grew up in the Seventies will recollect, we entered the EEC as the ‘Poor Man of Europe’. While the Germans were banging out one brand new Mercedes after another, we were on a four day working week with power cuts and the Japanese were invading our streets with cut price cars twice as good as anything coming out of Longbridge.. Mr. Heath’s reign was short lived but we still struggle on with a legacy imposed on us by both main parties (the liberals since the war having declined to insignificance so Nick Clegg should take the advice of any old soldier and keep his head down in Europe since so many of all nationalities on the Continent have had them shot off, and remember that the English take a very dim view of disloyalty, which is probably why his party is so far down in the polls).

Given the current economic situation, the awkward relationship we have with the rest of Europe, it is hard to reconcile that it was the Conservatives that brought us into Europe against the sound advice of the Labour party at the time yet it is now the Labour party, and the Liberal part of the coalition that are castigating a Conservative leader for trying to, if not get us out, at least minimize the threat posed to the democratic institutions we invented, had enshrined in the Magna Carta and reinforced by civil war, that a Mr Gaitskill, a long dead Labour politician predicted half a century ago.

It is a farce. The French delayed our entry by twelve years using their veto. The first time the UK uses its veto they slam us. Forty years ago we were bankrupt, had given up our colonies and were pushed into Europe instead, a shotgun marriage to a woman with Prada tastes who now expects us to wash her dirty dishes, pay off her credit cards and provide her ever extending family entering from outside Europe through her soft and fertile loins, taxpayer funded accommodation and Human Rights so long as they all go to UK.

I do not hold with domestic violence (and we are part of a European family) but we do find ourselves in some unholy alliance so all credit to Mr. Cameron for swinging a good old, bespoke English leather boot right where it will make Sarkozy’s eyes water.

UK, still suffering the economic burden of two World Wars in quick succession, its colonies gone, its economy on increasingly expensive life support and ravaged by internal dissent, still reeling from the shame of Suez, the final nail in a once mighty empire, may well once have been the poor man of Europe but today, Sarkozy is the small man of Europe. In every respect. He, and his rather odd Finance Minister, have turned serious debate on the fundamental issue of equable economic relations between European States, and the rest of the world into farce.

British Admirals and Generals have regularly humiliated their French equivalents on the fields and oceans of battle resulting in the almost internationally recognised two fingered salute, now not only interpreted as a sign of victory.

Master Bowman David, Son of Cameron, an impeccably dressed English Gentleman aged fourteen and a half, pictured on the field of Agincourt by our intrepid reporter after England's most glorious victory on Friday, 25 October 1415 said, 'Old 'Enery gave us a bit of verbal before we got stuck in like, so we stuffed the Frogs in their Le Creuset armour wiv are arrers but after a hundred years service, I am a bit worried about me penshun. Still got me fingers though. and brekfust wus fucking brilliant apart fom the beer being shit and the women not laying it out like but we've come up wiv a sort of common policy, but on our terms'

Now that the Uk, however, has conceded that the costs of aircraft carriers are a burden that can no longer be carried by the exchequer (the revenue for which is derived from the humble tax payer to be dispensed with gratifying largesse by unelected Permanent Secretaries), I ask our allies who call constantly on the ‘Special Relationship’ to recognise that our cupboard is bare and consider that our only remaining alternative: the few remaining aircraft we can afford to put up in yet another ‘out of area operation’ in support of the US (my apologies, I mean in support of UN sanctioned International foreign policy) will be launched off a French aircraft carrier.

The humiliation.

To conclude, a documentary, historical, covering Britain's first two attempts to join the EEC. Note carefully the distinct differences in diplomacy. On the one hand abuse, on the other, self righteous arrogance and how at the end, the English retreat across the Channel (La manche). Note also the ingenuity of the British serviceman who, faced with the lack of kit resultiing from defence cuts, can improvise.

Saturday 10 December 2011

The Power of One

I am the skinnny bastard in red

It occurred to me this morning that we spend an appreciable part of our lives sleeping. Teenagers need loads of sleep, much to the irritation of parents who assume the issue of their loins are indolent. But the wee tykes do benefit from hours of slumber. After all, their bodies and brains are still growing while ours, OK, mine at least, are shrinking.

I woke up at ten this morning.

Can’t say I felt any better for it. Someone is playing a piano in my head. Fortissimo. No, it is Guns and Roses at full volume and my skull is the base drum, the smacked-out-of-his-head adolescent on the end of the sticks thrashing the skins of my cerebral cortex singing lyrics along the lines of, ‘now you know what it feels like to be alive you old bastard’. Undoubtedly witty but not what I needed with a headful of swallowed pillow while I tried to peel sweaty sheets off me and head urgently to the bathroom to decide which end of me required the most immediate attention. I’ve had a bit of a thrashing again.

Dominic would make an excellent paramedic. He is bright so with a bit of further training I am sure he has the aptitude to be a skilful surgeon but it isn’t normally the remit of a twelve year old to admit to having stitched his Dad’s wounds on so many occasions or to having witnessed his Dad collecting his duelling scars against invariably impossible odds. In other words, getting a good kicking.

Dominic has a safe in his bedroom. I could bust into it with a paper clip but to him it is Fort Knox, the repository of anything that is precious. In it he has his special books, lenses for his microscope, the silver coins he collected in Germany, various photographs and other stuff to ask about which would be an intrusion into his privacy. He also has my military medals (awarded for being first in the dinner queue every day for a week), as well as my boxing, shooting and skiing medals. I know he likes to hold the medals but it is the photographs that get him going.

“Look, look, Daddy! Look at the gorilla you are fighting there. The last time he was a middleweight he was in Kindergarten!”, repeating almost verbatim some remark I must have made the first time we went through the albums together and reminding me of when I climbed through the ropes, catching sight of a muscular inverted pyramid in the opposite corner and saying to my coach and seconds that the only way that bastard could have scaled in was with one foot on the ground. Bearing in mind I just made light middleweight if I drank shitloads of water so a good punch in the guts would really hurt, these fuckers fought me two classes above my weight. It was amateur boxing so just three rounds a bout which always pissed me off. I was never a slugger but I had both stamina and the legs so could have gone further, wearing the bastards down. They could punch the shit out of me but I would stay on my feet. Sure, I took a few counts when I walked onto the end of some big bugger's fist but they were standing counts and when the referee held up a bunch of digits in front of my face and asked me how many fingers he was holding up I would spit,“Pffflooor!” and hold my gloves up high and punch the air, after all, it is hard to articulate with a gob full of gumshield while sniffling blood. They always let me box on, bless them, and those valuable seconds of interrogation were all I needed. You don’t need a knock out every time. It is scoring hits that count. In boxing there are rules. That’s what differentiates it between a mere pub brawl and the honourable sport during which a swift and invariably decisive kick in the balls, the sort of quick reposte to percieved insult usually delivered in the agreeable and pleasantly seedy surroundings of somewhere with a name like the 'Crown and Anchor' or better still, 'The Queen's Head', is deemed illegal.

Marcia has a brother in his forties. He is a geologist or geoscientist or something brainy like that and works for the Angolan State owned oil company Sonangol. For the last decade or so he has served his time in Canada, has his residency and, not surprisingly, seems reluctant to come back to Angola. He had to fight for basic education, fight to get to university, fight to get the results that would make him stand out from the crowd, fight to get a job, fight to get on and, ultimately, fight to get out of Angola. I had everything, education, opportunity and I came to Angola by choice with a record of only winning on points while this guy won with one knock out after another. Which of us two is the prat, I ask you?

At the same age Dominic is now my parents must have had some sort of bust up because I found myself standing alone in Stuttgart airport in front of an immaculately dressed German immigration officer.

’Kannnst Du noch Berlinerer sprechen?‘ He said, noticing from my passport that I was born in Berlin.

“Naklaar Mensch, Ich war mit Spree wasser getaucht.“ I heard myself say.

My mother is one thing. If I had snapped back at her like that she would have hauled out her bamboo cane and given me one of the countless thrashings I had endured so far. I was used to these and as part of my camouflage, would squeal gustily while wriggling away from the worst of the blows but, unlike my Mother in her damp pinny, this was an enormous Southern German in a terribly smart uniform and even at the tender age of twelve I knew that Schwabs and Bavarians hated Berliners and my passport and snappy response marked me as part of this evil brood. Ask a Boer about the English and you’ll get the idea. Thinking about it, you can ask the Irish, Welsh and Scots as well.

Rather than a bit of bamboo, this monster, this walking advert for everything good about southern Germany, the food, the wine, the hiking up and down mountains in all that fresh air singing about hats with three corners which had nurtured him to the peak of physical fitness as well as the biblical size that delighted his tailor, it was his Macht that was now about to be unleashed on me and since my Mother had discovered God, I knew all about His Mighty Will and not so mysterious ways. As far as I was concerned, those that accepted God into their hearts spent most of their time beating the shit out of offspring who innocently asked which of the two boys, Cain or Abel, impregnated their mother in order to continue the race and if it was OK to bang your sister, wherever she suddenly sprang from, since women were so bloody thin on the ground. It was all good training. In the ring you could close my eye but I was still good for another couple of rounds and in amateur boxing, that was all you needed.

I had just flown British European Airways, a now worthily defunct airline, from UK to Germany on an aircraft which, had it been painted the colour of cow turds, would have borne a striking resemblance to those which frantically bombed the city of my birth to oblivion. I was deaf from the screaming of engines, some of the passengers and all of the crew, my ears were still popping, I was dying to go to the loo and now I had some big bastard in a fancy uniform taking the piss out of a four and a half foot Prussian. My mother, with that unshakeable respect for authority that all Germans have would have killed me on the spot for such insolence and, let’s face it, I was standing there in front of Hermann the German because I had in some way transgressed so probably deserved a good beating anyway, my Mother’s arm being all thrashed out . Instead, I couldn’t give a shit and was ready to take him on. My soon to be blackened eyes didn’t even come up to the level of the counter on which my passport now rested so I looked down and prepared myself for the inevitable thump that would allow me another first, this time for crossing a national border unconscious. I had pissed myself aged seven and my Mother had thrashed me for that too so this time I wasn’t so much bracing my head for impact as the very bored flight attendant had so recently taught me to do in an emergency, instead I was hanging desperately on to my willie, begging it not to perform what at that age I still believed was its only function.

The monster roared. It started below the belt on which his pistol was suspended, gurgled up to his chest and then exploded. With an almighty thump, he stamped my passport. Everyone who had been within earshot grinned from ear to ear. Someone clopped me across the back and said, ‘Mensch ker, du bist ‘ne witziger kerl’

‘Wilkommen in Ihre Heimatsland’ said Goliath to David as he handed me back my passport.

‘I need to piss’, I said to my Opa when I met him outside, ‘I really need to piss’.

I had just been welcomed to my home country and I thanked the gorilla who let me in without a hiding by pouring a long stream of English urine over the wheel of a Mercedes Benz in Stuttgart International Airport’s car park. Sometimes you just feel invincible.

Marcia brokered a land sale about a year ago for which she received a commission. Nothing wrong with that. So unremarkable, in fact, that I had no recollection of it so was bloody surprised when Dominic burst into the sitting room and said, ‘Daddy, there are some men outside trying to kidnap Marcia’.

Now I defy any of you, under similar circumstances, to comprehend what the boy was saying or connect it with a year old land deal. Besides, Dominic seems to be pretty Prussian too and delivered his report in almost bored monotones so it took a few seconds for the full import of his message to register. Clearly impatient with me he politely suggested that I might like to hurry and that he would go and collect my sword.

My generator is pretty old and knackered. A couple of the doors have fallen off and the exhaust is blowing so it makes a hell of a racket. Nevertheless, as I burst out of the back door, above the mechanical cacophony, I could hear Marcia cursing beyond the fence. I hurtled through the back gate closely followed by Dominic and saw only her legs frantically kicking at the door of a 4x4 as some oik was trying to close it on her. 'No, Daddy!' Dominic called out, 'One punch in the heart and you will die!' This delivered with urgency and a conviction that accurately reflected the appalling state of the major arteries serving one of my most vital organs. I hoped these blokes didn't speak English.

I only remember four guys but Dominic swears there were six or seven. Anyway, I clocked the guy at the door and got Marcia out and then Dominic shouted ‘Gun Daddy’ so I had to move a bit faster and clocked the other three I remember before getting the family back into the garden. Dominic handed me the sword and I went back out.

I could see the guy with the pistol was young and real nervous and I was scared as shit but I was pleased to see that the first guy I had hit was still on the dirt. The others were hanging around out of range. I walked up to the fatter, older guy and pointed the sword at him.

‘What the fuck is this all about?’ I am barefoot, clad only in khaki shorts and very, very pissed off. One of them must have got a lucky one in with something heavy because I was bleeding bad from the head.

Turns out that they had left it a year before applying for planning permission on the land Marcia had brokered during which time the authorities banned any further development. Hardly Marcia’s fault and given they had just been manhandling my missus I was deeply unsympathetic to their view that Marcia should force the original owner to buy back the land. The kid with the pistol, an old Makarov, a Russian copy of James Bond's famous Walther PPK but firing 9mm short was holding it sideways like all Gangstas do on TV and yelling over his shoulder at the others how he was going to 'Matar esta branco' so I took it off him in order to avoid a really nasty incident. After all, I STILL do not have my residency and now that I am divorced, my legal status here is a bit tenuous so the last thing I wanted was to stab one of these bastards and then have to explain why to partisan police looking for any excuse to bang me up in Bentiaba prison or at least see my sorry arse on the next British Airways flight out of here. Now tooled up better than they were, I had a chat with the fat man.

‘Pay them back the commission’, I told Marcia when I came back inside. She went nuts.

The courts do work here but they take ages so sometimes people try to sort things out themselves. As I pointed out to Marcia, these bastards were quite happy to try and kidnap her and were only thwarted by a lunatic white man backed up by a twelve year old kid so what would they do next time? Run Alex over in the street? For fuck’s sake, Darling, you win some and you lose some.

Dominic got the first aid kit out and started to patch me up.

‘Jesus Daddy that was seven guys’

‘I only remember four Son, but thanks for calling the gun, you did good but next time I tell you to get in the fucking garden, get in the fucking garden. Thanks for fetching the sword’

‘But how did you do it Daddy?’

How do you explain the Power of One to a kid?

Canada, as far as I am concerned is the very best country in the world. On one side of the Great Lakes they are stabbing and shooting each other to death but on the other side they say ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ and have mounted police. Royal ones. Dominic could play that game which seems to consist of a massive punch up during which an occasional bit of ice hockey breaks out. He could go camping and shooting and skiing in the winter. Instead of talking ‘about’ something he would refer to ‘A Boot’. He may even add French to his already fluent Portuguese and English. I am mad as hell with Marcia for the thumping I got but if Dominic could be sponsored by Marcia’s brother in Canada I’d accept a nightly beating. At least I would get a bloody good lie in.

But if Dominic is to end up in a boarding school a quarter of the way around the world with a bunch of Canucks all built like brick shithouses, he will need to know the secret of the Power of One.

So I told him in the only way I knew how.

When I was on my Ammunition Technical Officer's course at Kineton, we used to go to RAF Upper Heyford for a drink at weekends. It was an RAF station in name only, I think it had a token Flight Lieutenant but it was a Base, not a Station. The whole place might as well have been lifted out of the American Midwest and dropped into its rural English setting. It had Starred Generals, shitloads of Full Bird Colonels, Malls, burger bars, monster cars and trucks with steering wheels on the wrong side, even a bowling alley and the bars and discos were outstanding.

I was standing in the lobby of one nightclub waiting to be signed in when this really cool dude walked in followed by a bevvie of beauties one of which took my breath away. He was swapping skin with the other dudes and was clearly very popular but all I could see was this girl. She was gorgeous and the closest I had ever been to a black girl in all my life. So I stepped up to her and the place went deadly quiet, my mates trying to look all small and insignificant.

In my plummiest English voice I said, 'There is a very good chance that tomorrow morning I may be found face down in a ditch with a load of American bayonets in my back but at least I will have died knowing that I have told you that you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen'.

The place was still real quiet and I think my mates were now half way out the toilet window. The girl was stunned and not being one to settle for a boring death, I lifted her hand, kissed it and said, 'I shall now go out to the carpark and die'.

Sadly, I did not get the girl, she was with the Dude but I never paid for a single drink that evening and they even all clapped politely when I did my version of Springstein's 'Hey little girl is your Daddy home, or did he go away and leave you all alone' accompanied by the club's live band. I may not have been on fire but I was pretty fucking hot.

The first rule of The Power Of One is to believe in yourself. Especially if you want to get laid but since Dominic is only twelve I left that bit out and went on to fighting.

‘If you have to fight, boy’, I told him, ‘I mean if you really can’t avoid it, first you use your brain and make a plan. Then you use your heart to win. Remember, the brain makes the plan, the heart pushes it through’

I guess that holds for pretty much everything in life.

Dominic said, ‘Oh I get it, it’s like the Glasgow kiss you taught me?’

I suppose that is one way you can use your brain, especially if you put your heart into it but not quite what I meant.

'But what about the rules, Daddy?' He is a persistent bugger, I'll give him that.

I stretched out on the sofa and prepared myself for a much needed kip.

'Sometimes, Son, you have to make them up as you go along'

I can’t wait to see him on an ice hockey rink.

Got you with the left, big guy, now its beddie byes with the right.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Uninvited Guests

It’s getting bloody hot again in Angola. I am actually perspiring. How distasteful.

John Gray over at Going Gently recently posted a link to a blog called The Idiot Gardener. I repeat it here because I have not enjoyed such a good laugh in ages. I read IG’s post on the difference between men and women and sniggered all the way through. Then I read his post about Lloyds TSB and had to stop. I have not had my stents put in yet so there was a distinct possibility I would die laughing and since I had not yet enjoyed my supper, this would have been a shame and probably annoyed Marcia who hates seeing food go to waste.

John, the St Francis of Assisi in Wales, also posted earlier about a house guest he was expecting who preceded his visit with an explicit set of instructions regarding the standards of hygiene expected, an email which commenced with, ‘the house had better be fucking clean when I get there’, and went on to list all the proscribed items he did not want to see such as dead rodents in the kitchen.

I can imagine that if you were the owner of a cottage in the Welsh countryside as well as a menagerie mostly housed in the garden but occasionally found on a sofa or under a kitchen table, it would be bloody hard to expect you to guarantee the absence of everything zoological right down to the tiniest beasty and this reminded me of my brother’s first visit to my house in Angola.

If the generally benign setting of John’s cottage can throw up a sometimes overwhelming variety of unwanted visitors, just think what the African bush can offer. Only the other day I was summoned by a frantic phone call from the young lady, my new neighbour, to find that the cause of her not inconsiderable angst (OK, dribbling hysteria) was a five foot snake wrapped comfortably around one of her veranda plant pots and gently hissing at anyone within range. Her six foot six, 220lb guard was also dribbling so I told him to go and change out of his uniform trousers and back into civvies and I would take it from there. I don’t know much about snake wrangling but I have seen enough Discovery Channel to know that trying to piss on a snake may not be a good idea for any number of reasons and I certainly was not going to suck out the poison. I rather fancy my neighbour so would rather see a man writhe in horrible agony than give her the wrong idea about the bloke she has just moved next door to.

One definition of Bravery could be, ‘The extraordinarily stupid things men have the capacity to do when suffused with Lust’, the definition of lust being, ‘a condition that makes men stupider than they normally are by diverting blood flow away from the brain’. Alcohol, of course, exacerbates both conditions.

This was a mean looking snake and I had no idea what it was. I thought I could recognise the vipers we get around here as well as the harmless African House Snakes and, more importantly, make the distinction but this was something else. It most definitely wasn’t a baby python or any other kind of constrictor. This was lean and mean and, scariest of all, didn’t seem inclined to slither off with the sudden attention it had aroused. All this went through my mind in a split second along with idle speculation of just how far it could fling its jaws from the plant pot.

I could, of course, have wimped out, gone back to my house and returned with my sword and slashed the bastard to death but that would hardly be the heroic, Steve Irwin like lasting image I wanted to leave the delightful Nela to ponder as she snuggled safely between her sheets later that evening. But, we mustn’t forget, Irwin was an expert and he still got killed, poor sod. Imagine if I ended up in heaven having arrived with a system overloaded with neurotoxins and had to spend the rest of eternity being followed around by a motor mouth telling me where I went wrong. Was the very slim chance of a shag worth such a risk?

So, with the definitions of bravery and lust, and one cause of their stimuli already explained, I grabbed the snake’s tail and gave it a tug.

For the first few seconds, this was a good thing as the snake appeared keener to hang on to the pot than sink its jaws into my groin, which would not have been the way I would have chosen as a test for any blossoming affection my neighbour may have held for me. A man’s last words should not be, ‘So you don’t love me after all?’

Now I know we have all seen Real Blokes, usually in shorts and stupidly battered bush hats, grabbing snakes by the tail and the Real Blokes waving them around while giving a spellbound audience a narrative of just how deadly the reptile is but I have decided that all those snakes must have spent the night in the fridge or be doped up on something because I have never, I mean never, seen anything on earth move as fast as this bastard did. All of us blink, even with eyes like bloody saucers and veins full of adrenalin we still have to blink. So I blinked and when my eyes opened again the snake was no longer around the pot, its jaws were planted firmly through the bottom of my trouser leg and into my boot. And it wasn’t as if it was just hanging on (I told you it was mean), it was actually gnawing away. Now I really understand the expression, ‘Madder than a sack full of cut snakes’. I was only hanging on to one, and then only by its tail but by heck was it angry.

Perhaps I have been a bit flippant in my references to the late, great and hugely entertaining Mr Irwin and perhaps he was more worried about spending eternity with me (my first two wives never managed a decade between them) than I was spending a similar amount of time listening to him calling me a pommie poufter because without thinking, I reached down and grabbed the snake behind its head and was able to unwind it and display it, jaws gaping and hissing horribly at a terrified audience.

And then I was stupid again. I let go of the tail, and the snake wrapped itself around my arm. I wasn’t bothered. Much as it evidently wanted to, it could not bite me and shit, I must have looked so cool. So cool in fact, that I decided I wanted to show Marcia, my soon to be wife, which is pretty shabby really when you consider that I hoped that Nela’s knickers were moist for reasons different to her guard’s and now mine. I actually took her parting comment, ‘Now that’s one crazy white man’ as a compliment.

So I trotted off back to my house and strode into the sitting room.

‘What the Fuck! Are you mad?’, exploded Marcia as fast as she grabbed Alex and leapt over the back of the sofa.

Now Angolans, which is surprising to me since they live amongst all these beasties, are scared of anything. Even the kids, as soon as they can walk, learn to stamp on or throw rocks at anything that moves so I was rather enjoying myself.

‘That’s a Surucucu’, she said. By then she had reached the other side of the dining room table with an equally wide eyed Alexander..

‘A what?’

‘A Surucucu. It will kill you faster than we can reach the clinic’

The clinic is a recent addition to our neighbourhood established by a soon to retire Doctor who spent most of her professional life working for international oil companies so she is clearly competent and would know what to do. The salient point, though, is that her clinic is only two streets away. You could walk there faster than it would take to back the car out of the garden and drive round the block. So, the rather fetching bracelet wrapped around my arm, its reptilian blood warming up nicely as were, presumably, its reactions, came from the ‘Death in Sixty Seconds’ collection.

And that got me thinking. Reptiles can survive months between a feed. Clearly God blessed them with enormous reserves of patience and only God knows how long they can hold a grudge but most likely far longer than I could stay awake keeping my fist clenched around this one’s neck, especially considering that such a game of 'blink first and you lose' would be spent in the garden banished from the house as in Marcia’s eyes, a future husband with a Surucuco wrapped around his arm and an affinity for his new neighbour are justifiable grounds for instant expulsion. In other words, the snake was hardly likely to get bored, unwrap itself from my arm and slither off without exacting some form of terrible revenge on my exhausted and comatose form, whether that be a lethal bite or an equally terminal beating from Marcia. How the hell was I going to get it off my arm and preferably a mile away in less time than the sod could react?

A willing volunteer would have been a bit of assistance. Maybe someone who would grab the tail and help me unwind it but I think we can all imagine the scenario. I’m hanging onto the head, my brave saviour is hanging onto the tail and we are saying to each other, ‘So is it, one, two, three, throw? Or is it throw on three?’ Neither of us would want to be left hanging on to a single end of the beast and given my own reluctance to trust anyone nearby, I can hardly feel too hard done by when they, in turn, told me I was on my own with this one.

I suppose I could have asked someone to dig the garden shears out of my store and sever its head from its body but then I really would have been in for some shit when I inevitably ran into Mr Irwin, especially considering I have spent all my fatherhood teaching sons not to stamp on or stone things but to study them leading to a listing for Number One Son on the Natural History Museum of London’s website as the ONLY person to photograph an incredibly rare Phasmid, aged ten.

On the other side of my property to the delectable Nela’s, the land is undeveloped (and possibly the source of her unwelcome visitor) so even though I wasn’t entirely sure how I could persuade it to release its embrace, I knew where I at least, would prefer it to be.

I do not suppose that many of you have experienced such an unusual situation but I ask you to think about the simple physics. In your left hand, you have hold of the neck of a venomous snake the body of which is wrapped around your left arm. By reaching somewhere behind your neck you can, with your right hand, grab its tail. Unwinding it requires you to lower your left hand so that your right, clutching its tail, can pass over the left and so on with to me at least the unexpected, but to anyone of the meanest intelligence, the bleeding obvious consequence of putting a twist in the snake’s body. For a five foot snake, that’s quite a few twists to the spine and by the time I had the bugger unwrapped, it was as stiff as Moses’ staff.

Even pissed as rats, most of us are blessed with the coordination required to open both left and right hands simultaneously. This would be an action as simple as grasping a short length of garden hose by both ends, raising one’s arms over one’s head flipping the hose over one’s back as if preparing to skip, and then letting it fly. I was so scared though I actually sent mental test signals down each arm to my hands to check they weren’t paralysed with fright. I raised my arms over my head and felt the thump of the snake’s body on my back. Now I had the sudden image of me throwing my arms forward and letting go only to find the bracelet had become a necklace as the body of the snake hung up round my throat. I used to box, light middleweight, but was a tosser when it came to skipping and regularly used to tangle myself up in my own rope. While I stood there, arms outstretched, head bent forward, a snake dangling across my back considering my ineptitude, I must have looked like a Jesuit performing some bizarre penance.

‘I know’. I thought, ‘just as I throw it, I will duck my head down’

So I went for it.

When I came to my senses, I realised I was lying flat on my back on the poolside decking.

There was no sign of the snake but it did have its revenge. I had head butted the garden wall so hard I had knocked myself out.

Which brings me back to my brother, Micky.

He is a construction Engineer and works for a prestigious German company. As a result his standards are extremely high.

‘So this is the place you designed and built, is it?’

‘Yes, what do you think?’

I never knew it was possible to say ‘Hmn’ and sniff at the same time.

‘What’s that brown trail up the wall?’

‘Termites. Bastards are eating the place up and they make themselves little tunnels out of chewed dirt to get from one bit of the house to the next. Shit, with all the chemicals I use, HSE would condemn this place as a health hazard’

‘What the fuck was that noise?’

‘Oh that? That’s cats in the roof’

‘You have cats living in the roof?’

‘Feral cats, mean as fuck if you corner one. Even the dogs leave well alone but they do keep the mice down. I only wish they would go outside to piss. You see that dark patch on the ceiling above your head? I think that’s where they do their business 'cos it drips sometimes’

Micky moved from one armchair to another.

‘Are there lots of mice?’

‘Shitloads. Especially during the rainy season. You try sitting here late at night, they’re running over your feet and rattling the dishes in the rack. We use a kind of glued paper to catch them. You can hear them squeaking all night long as they struggle. I used to try and peel them off and throw them over the wall but now I just roll the paper up and beat it a couple of times with a rolling pin. That usually does the job. By the way, don’t be surprised if you open a draw and a gecko pops out. They crawl in there to catch the cockroaches’

‘Marcia has knocked you up a fish curry’, I continued since Micky was strangley mute, ‘you’ll love it. I’ll just get you a plate’

‘But there’s a clean plate here on the table’

‘That was the remains of Alex’s food, I think the dogs licked the plate clean. What do you want to drink?’

‘Anything that comes in a sealed can’

Monday 14 November 2011

Coprolalia - a compulsion to talk shit

I am now officially divorced from Dominic's mother. It only took eight years.

Before Balbina Maria Mendes Goncalves Gowans and I entered court (she breathtakingly elegant and composed, me still sweating and shocked to realise there was no glass in the window frames and that I had left the Nitrolingual at home, a couple of squirts of which I desperately needed), the clerk warned us that we would not be allowed to address each other directly, no doubt tired as they were of uncontrolled acrimonious outbursts between estranged partners, so we could only communicate with each other through the judge. Bearing in mind I had instinctively avoided all but the most essential contact with my wife for nearly a decade and that this is pretty much a male dominated society, I started to relax. Even if she had a finely honed Sabatier knife in her Hermes Birkin handbag, with such close supervision Bina was unlikely to get close enough to me to stick it through my worthless heart.

I tend to cross my legs like a girl, especially when I am nervous, so proceedings having barely started, were briefly halted again while the court clerk reminded me I had to sit to attention, crossed legs either being a sign of guilt, in which case he was doing me a favour by making me open my legs to show I had nothing worth hiding, or a sign of apparent disrespect in which case he was behaving like a typical officious git invested with the briefest moment of power leaving me suffused with the barely controlled impulse to hurl him through the glassless window to see if his Halloween black cloak would, like a swig of Red Bull, give him wings. The reason for my sudden discomfort was the awful realisation that the Judge was a woman.

This wasn't the first time I have been in court in Angola and I shan't bore you with all the details save to say that both times were scary.

The first time I faced ten years in an Angolan jail if convicted. Clearly I wasn’t found guilty as I am writing this although I suppose with good behaviour, I could have been out by now. This, the second time, I faced financial ruin so was unable to sleep the night before my scheduled appearance, succumbing instead to my well documented weakness for distilled grain and adding a hideous argument with Marcia to my woes. By the time I had covered the three hours into town early in the morning having left hollow eyed at some indecent hour after a sleepless night to make an eight o'clock appearance, jumped out of the car when stuck in immobile traffic two miles from my destination, accosted a young lad on a motorcycle begging him for assistance in extremis to help me cut through the congestion, then climbing ten floors to the family court with a heart ready to burst out of my chest and sweating like a Sowetan bricklayer knowing that the recent loss of email and telephone access due to the burglary meant I had unwittingly failed to respond to two summons and this was the third and final chance before inevitable incarceration for contempt, I wasn’t so much a lamb to slaughter as an old bull that, for pity’s sake, should be put down.

Had the Court's judgement been to throw me dehydrated out of the window saving me the effort of returning down those ten flights of stairs humiliated and ruined, I would have been grateful for the brief relief the sudden rush of cooling air would have provided as I descended by the express route.

After that I wouldn't have cared less. I do not think I would have had time to consider the effect of impact on the nice suit I was wearing, though that would have been a cause for some regret had I by some miracle remained conscious on the pavement below long enough to consider my threads and, after all, handmade shoes are handmade shoes. If there is an after life, I would have been pissed to see the Langa that tore them off the feet of the broken Branco that providence had dashed on the pavement in front of him (before the bewildered copper arrived to secure the remains of an ageing white bloke foolish enough to try and escape Angolan justice by jumping out of a tenth floor window) clomping around in them embittered because the finest English suede doesn't take a good shine.

Sitting there legs decently uncrossed in a sweaty suit that could now definitely benefit by pressing, even if only suddenly on a sun baked concrete slab by the weight of its occupant, surveying a judge who like her clerk was clad as if she had been interrupted half way through tricking or treating her way through an ungenerous neighbourhood and bore the sour expression to match, I was a tadge nervous.

By Angolan law, the judge is obliged to make one last attempt at reconciliation, even quoting the relevant parts of those laws.

Considering that I was there to divorce, it was hardly the moment to appraise the woman in black who would shortly decide if not my ultimate fate, then certainly how miserable a future I could expect on my way towards it but I couldn't help noticing that she was a remarkably fine looking lady. She must have been knocking on sixty but Naomi Campbell would pay a fortune for whatever skin cream she was using and if ever the Judge became tired of dispensing justice, she could earn a fortune dispensing dietary advice instead to ageing Hollywood starlets. This was one good looking girl and intelligent to boot. If only I had met her five minutes before meeting the estranged wife sitting so close to me.

The judge, having illuminated us with the relevant extracts of legislation, asked us if we were determined to proceed. Both of us responding simultaneously and so positively with unsurpassable conviction must have had some bearing on her decision to end this one as quickly as possible, after all, she had a waiting room full of similar cases to hear.

The issues of maintenance and access were quickly dealt with, Bina and I having agreed all this before hand and when it came to the division of spoils, I rather like my shirt so didn't feel too hard done by when I was allowed to keep it.

Recognising that Portuguese was only my third language and that Bina and I had shown little inclination thus far to rip each other’s eyes out, the rule precluding direct communication between Bina and I was steadily, if informally relaxed until Bina was acting as my interpreter. I even crossed my legs, but this time as a means to relax rather than out of discomfort or unwitting flagrant contempt.

So, the divorce was granted. Rather than the harrowing experience that, with my guts tied in knots in awful anticipation had left me sleepless the night before, it was one of the more pleasant of the frequent brushes I have had with the forces of law and order and, in this case, justice.

It may take a long time to get a case to court in Angola but once it is there, the amount of preparation that preceded the hearing is evident. The Judge was clearly familiar with every deposition and statement either Bina or I had made so knew all about our personal situation, the children involved (Bina had confessed to two more with her new boyfriend and I one with Marcia since our separation not forgetting, of course, our mutual offspring, Dominic).

In granting our petition for divorce, the Judge warned us that it was only provisional, a Decree Nisi, rather than Decree Absolute but that, if neither of us rescinded within the next ninety days, it would be final without further intervention and that after that date, we would be legally free to remarry.

While the court recorder battered out the ruling and printed it out so that we could sign, the Judge, now as relaxed as we all were, expressed her regret that she had never had children.

Now I have no idea from whence it came or why I said it. Bearing in mind even crossing my legs was a sin and I was so close to leaving the court to all intents and purposes a free and solvent man, I must have been mad or suffering from Coprolalia.

Addressing the Judge directly, I said, ‘Well, Madam, it appears that in only ninety days, I will be legally free to help you out there’.

The court recorder stopped typing. Bina’s jaw slopped open. The court clerk looked at me with the sort of vicious hatred that only triumph provokes knowing, as he did, it was me that was going to be flung through an open window and not him. All eyes swiveled inexorably towards the Judge.

Now even though my breakfast had consisted only of whisky and started around midnight the evening before, I suddenly realized that the spectre of a Langa in my shoes wasn’t so far fetched after all.

Her shoulders started to jerk. Then she sniggered, and then burst out laughing. She was far too elegant and refined to let a real belly ripping laugh go but her eyes were moist.

Turning to Bina, presumably in one last dutiful attempt to secure reconciliation she said, ‘How can you divorce such a nice man?’

To which Bina, now my ex wife dryly replied,

‘Try living with him’.

Saturday 12 November 2011


I evidently have Outlook Express installed on my computer. I didn’t install it, it must have come with one of these software bundles no sensible person wants and presumably why they are given away for free. I also have Microsoft Office Professional which was bloody expensive and use Outlook as my default email programme. Why then, every time I start my computer do I get a window pop up offering to speed up Outlook Express by compacting my messages when there are no messages to compact?

Sometimes, I do not want my computer to make all those binging and bonging noises familiar to the owner of every American made car (to remind their no doubt dozy owners that they are in a car to encourage them to please try and concentrate), so I disconnect my speakers and another window pops up to say, ‘You have just disconnected a device’. If I decide I will listen to a bit of music as I tap away, the family now bored with soaps and cartoons and all in bed so I can kill the TV and connect my speakers again, I get another pop up telling me that I have just connected a device.

Are Microsoft engineers so firmly convinced that all but themselves suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s? Maybe this boils down to intimidated Microsoft staff who, every time they open an office door are brusquely told by a startled geeky boss and his embarrassed secretary, ‘You just opened my door!’

Clearly, this is something foreign and undeniably American. We English know when we are in a vehicle. We can recognise an open car door because velocity provides an accompanying blast of, if we are in England, invariably cold and damp air that demands more attention the faster we drive and even the dimmest of us can recognise, through the rear view mirror, a back seat denuded first of our briefcase and then the son that gamely tried to catch it without the benefit of another bleeding binging noise and all of us, honestly, know when we have opened an office door or connected or disconnected a pair of bloody laptop speakers.

Japanese cars are the same.

I live in Angola, where American and Japanese cars and recently Chinese ones too, are the market leaders. They all bing and bong and yet no-one seems to mind. Why?

I stand out a bit in my neighbourhood. Not just because I am slightly eccentric, it is far more obvious than that. If someone wants to find my house they ask for the ‘Old White Guy’s Place’. I have a man who delivers fuel for the generator. He refers to perhaps his best client as the ‘Velhoto Branco’. I can hear him shouting across the Bairro, ‘No, I can’t stop now, I am delivering fuel to the old snowflake’. Even the kids call me Mr Whitey. I am not offended in the slightest. The fact that they precede ‘Snowflake’ or ‘Whitey’ with Senhor is a sign of respect and the casual enquirer will always get accurate directions to my humble abode if they describe me as I am, an old white guy, rather than try to be politically correct and then die a lonely death lost in the bush as a result of inaccurate directions

'Do you think he meant the old white guy?'

'Well, he didn't say so did he?'

'Yeah but you sent him out to the old race track, he'll die out there'


But I differ in one far more fundamental respect. I remain resolutely English, which is rather ironic for a man born and brought up in Germany.

Having a cheap plastic dashboard remind me that my seatbelt is not fastened, that the keys are still in the ignition, the lights are on or my dick is hanging out of my trousers is an affront. I once spent a day, a whole day, trawling through the wiring of a brand new company car, a Toyota Landcruiser, snipping every wire that led to a bonger or a beeper just so I could sit there with the door open, keys in the ignition and listen to the CD player without that incessant ‘Bing, Bing, Bing’.

Angolans don’t seem to be bothered, they just turn the stereo up to full volume whereas I, perhaps being English, find it all a desperate intrusion into my privacy, my right to decide for myself and an impertinent slur on my ability to drive a car.

As I said, I was brought up in Germany and when I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, I was in for a social shock. For a start, when an Englishman greets you with what to all intents and purposes sounds like a genuine enquiry as to your health and general wellbeing with a ‘How do you do?’, the natural response (assuming you are feeling pretty perky) is, ‘Fine, thank you’. Wrong. Amongst polite society in England, etiquette dictates you answer a question with a question, in this case, parrot like, repeating the question with another ‘how do you do’ delivered with much gravitas.

All well and good, I got the hang of that in no time. It was the next bit that seemed tricky for everyone, old hands and new boys (social climbers) alike. If it is considered bad form to march up to someone, anyone, shove your hand out and say, ‘Hi. My name is Tom’, how the hell do the English actually get to know one another? Clearly they do, and quite successfully as the Government is now considering ways to hold the population under 70 million a total which, for a tiny island, is admittedly rather a lot but they did not get into that situation relying on potential breeding pairs staring each other fixedly in the eye repeating, ‘How do you do’ (without the interrogative inflection because, as we have already established, it is not really a question) ad infinitum.

It is perfectly possible for a young, single chap, however keen to make friends, to go through a whole dinner party not having been introduced to anyone (etiquette precluding him introducing himself) and leave, exhausted, having discussed only the variable English weather with a succession of women he would dearly loved to have bedded amongst whom there was probably at least one who would have welcomed a decent bit of sex instead of meteorological speculation and the fruit of the host’s dubious wine cellar.

The English are sometimes appalled by the Americans. George Bush actually touched the Queen! Being English HRH had the good grace to appreciate that the man was merely demented, no doubt woeful that he wasn’t one of her subjects so she elected not to have him beheaded on the spot but then the English are like that, rightfully disdainful, yet simultaneously compassionate to those less able than themselves.

Magnanimous as we English are, it is still a shock to discover that foreigners can afford tickets on British Rail and also insist on conducting that most vile practice of testing their execrable English on anyone within earshot. Despite ruffling our Times newspapers and responding to impertinent attempts at interlocution merely with a ‘Hmmn’, we have to endure the life history of our temporary travelling companion all the way to Luton (no-one to my knowledge has, under such intolerable duress, made it further than Leicester before hanging themselves with their own tie).

The rest of the world calls our natural, well bred reticence arrogance but it isn’t. Just look at us in a social environment. The English display a degree of social ineptitude that educated foreigners find bewildering but this is due to our love of privacy and an inherent shyness.

For many it would seem that when a number of strangers gather together, an obvious ice breaker would be to ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ But this would be to commit a faux pas guaranteed to exclude anyone from every future dinner party invitation. Far better, therefore, to discuss the weather. If the English are so reluctant to reveal their own occupation, imagine how they react to the American telling them over a plate of delightful Amuse-Bouche about his wife’s recent hysterectomy?

I keep banging on about the English, ignoring that the United Kingdom, a realm under one monarch, consists of not only the English, but also the Welsh, the Scots and a still occupied portion of Ireland, regions the populations of which still have a recognisably individual identity. But with typical sang froid, the English (some of whose proud families trace themselves all the way back to the Norman French) can easily dismiss the victims of their ancestors. The Welsh are generally all ex miners or sheep farmers who burn holiday cottages in their spare time (only those owned by the English foolish enough to buy the wrong side of the Long Mynd) and are all descended from Irishmen who could not swim. Scotland is a northern province of England inhabited by a population who refuse to wear knickers under their skirts (I am talking about the male population, if you want to find females of a similar inclination you should return south to the English county of Essex where, it is alleged, the only difference between the girls and shopping trolleys is that the trolleys have minds of their own. Get fresh with a Scottish lass on the other hand, and she’ll split your lip with an infamous Glasgow kiss). The Scots are only tolerated as part of the Union because they, irritatingly like the Welsh, occupy the same small island, albeit the rougher, less fertile extremes but unlike the Welsh, invented whisky and have a decent bit of oil and gas. The Welsh did give England the coal and more than a few men to fuel her territorial ambitions. We should not overlook that.

Even the Germans, and I know because I grew up there, can distinguish between the English and the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish (with whom they have much sympathy) so those Northern and Western tribes can consider themselves excluded when I say that the Germans, not generally noted for a refined sense of humour and considered by the English at least, as even more stiff and arrogant call us Brits ‘Insel Affen’. Island Apes.

Now that’s bloody funny and a damn sight wittier and imaginative than our calling them ‘Square Heads’ and demonstrates that they too have the disdain, almost a contempt surpassing our own for all things foreign. Yes, I agree that Wogs begin at Calais but just compare a BMW, a Mercedes, a VW, Audi, Skoda, Rolls Royce, Bentley Aston Martin, even, dare I say it, the sublime French Citroen C6 with the equivalent English product and you might just start to appreciate whatever vague, meandering point I am trying to make.

Like any old man whose only intention was to stroll down to the corner shop and buy a paper but was then easily distracted by that rich soup of acquaintances and memories so spent his time discussing, as we English do, the weather instead (such dawdling being inconsequential if you had the foresight to bring an umbrella), I digress.

The point I am making is that one, clearly identifiable trait of Englishness is our reluctance to wear our hearts on our sleeves as well as a revulsion for personal disclosure. Combine this with an abhorrence for those being earnest rather than sincere and it is evident why Baptist preachers never made it big in England (we threw the last lot out on the Mayflower and banished the rest to Wales and Scotland leaving Ireland to the Pope) and we cannot make our minds up whether Presidential speeches are risible or an emetic.

Angolans are completely different.

Recently, a frustrated neighbour and wife stood in the middle of the street and speculated, at the top of her voice ,how a man with such a small dick and so useless in bed (evidently her husband) could possibly service the young lady down the road with any degree of satisfaction. Even I could see that she was bloody angry.

We all like to gossip and men do it as much as women, about two thirds of our conversation is gossip of one form or another but men and women do it in different ways. Especially in England.

Men will never admit they gossip but they do. They will stand there at the bar supping their pints and one will, in a dour voice say, ‘Old Jonesy has fucked himself’

Another will draw deeply at his beer and venture, ‘How so?’

‘His Missus caught him fucking the Au Pair’


Now notice the brevity of the conversation and the liberal dose of macho expletives yet it imparted everything one needed to know in a male bonding way. Let’s look at how the women handle it.

First of all, the girl about to impart the information must be breathless and excited and, according to English etiquette, her companions must respond accordingly, willing fish rising to the bait.

‘You’ll never guess what!’

‘What?’ All her audience with the ‘Please tell us, we are dying to know’ expression.

‘Sarah threw Alan out on the street!’

‘Oh my God! Why?’

‘She caught him bed with the Au Pair!!!’ (much intake of breath and patting of palpitating bosoms)

‘I told Sarah right at the beginning that the bitch was a slut’ etcetera.

Now fortunately for pub landlords, this is good for another hour or so of sophisticated social interaction and countless dry sherries but if a man pitches up, the conversation will stop dead.

In England, privacy is sacrosanct and by gossiping, we stray into the excitement that only being ever so slightly naughty provides. Between a man and his wife we may have a male, female gossipy interaction, but under no other circumstances can males and females gossip. To do so would mean breaking a rule of etiquette and the English, whether they know it or not, live by rules. The same ingrained rules I live by.

I was banging out a few emails on the laptop when a neighbour came by, looking pretty miserable. I said ‘Hello’ and then went back to my work leaving her to settle down in the lounge with Marcia.

I don’t, ever, listen to other people’s conversations but there were certain key words that pierced my consciousness. Like ‘Sex’. There were other words of the same ilk but you get the idea. I may not have turned my head from the keyboard but my ears had swivelled like a horse’s in the direction of the two chattering girls sat behind me.

You know that ‘Fight or Flight’ response that is ingrained in all of us? Well I was mentally pulling on my running shoes when Marcia suddenly turned to me stopping me in the starting blocks by saying, ‘What do you think?’

Bearing in mind I am now hard wired to only reluctantly hand over my name and restrict conversation to the weather with strangers, it was with some trepidation that I ventured a rather weak, ‘Think about what?’

‘Her husband!’ Marcia said with some irritation and then, recognising the usual blank incomprehension went on, in horribly graphic detail to explain that the husband of our poor dear neighbour had arranged a girlfriend as his wife, the forlorn figure now in our company, was useless in bed.

Now I am a bloke and I know that many will rise up in frothing indignation when I say this but even if a girl is comatose, she isn’t entirely useless in bed. Clearly there was more to this than I dared to know.

I knew this undoubtedly attractive lady on nodding terms. If I saw her on the street I would pay her a compliment and wish her ‘Good Day’ but now she was sitting in one of my armchairs with an unforgivable Earnest expression no less, asking me for advice on how to encourage her wayward husband back to her bed. I am supposed to be English. I am English so I am not supposed to be thinking, ‘Bugger yer husband, get yer kit off and let’s talk about the weather’, especially with Marcia within reach of the kitchen knives.

With two pairs of eyes staring at me (earnestly and possibly sincerely) this was no time for flippancy so my default reaction of, ‘Well let’s go and beat him up’, would have been, perhaps inappropriate.

Inspiration came from an unlikely source and confessing its origin means an admission that not only do I read the Daily Telegraph on line, I also read the Daily Mail. Coverage of the recent Victoria Secrets Lingerie show was far better in the Daily Mail and it was those images, transposed across the morose young lady now before me that gave me the answer.

I have been able to finish my emails and write all this while Marcia and our neighbour are out shopping for sexy lingerie. I did offer to go along with them so I could venture the impassionate but considered opinion of a man but it was Marcia, I noticed, who turned that offer down with alacrity. Maybe there is some English reserve in her after all.