Friday 27 January 2012
Regular readers of my blog, and I gratefully acknowledge you gallant few who wade through the ‘Long Form’ as SBW calls it (I haven’t a clue what he means and can’t be bothered to look it up assuming it means nothing more than rambling and long winded), will know that I am an avid follower of a blog penned by a Nurse hailing from Sheffield and now living with his partner Chris in Wales on a small holding that, according to John (for that is his name) and much to the irritation of my half brother, Vladimir from Kyyiv, looks like a Ukranian village.
John’s blog has all the ingredients of a soap opera, a Welsh one. Some may call it banal, who wants to read about the day to day activity of a Welsh crofter? But believe me, just like any soap, once you are drawn in you are hooked. John is a sucker for a sob story, especially if it involves animals. Not a week goes by without him adding to his menagerie. God knows how his partner, Chris, copes and when John recently displayed the human fallibility we all have by allowing a sink to overflow and flooding the house I could only imagine Chris’ reaction when he was issued a set of flippers, mask and snorkel in order to swim into the kitchen and fix his breakfast (presumably Sushi, the only necessary ingredient of which he shot under the floating kitchen table with the spear gun the ever considerate John provided him). And we have all read about how careful John is with anything valuable, such as antique furniture.
As I said, John is a nurse by vocation. And nursing is a vocation. If it were considered a profession or even just a trade, nurses would enjoy a decent salary and the respect they deserve. John is basically one of those really nice guys the rest of society use as foundations for their own existence. If anything goes wrong, there will always be a John. Won’t there?
I will be the first to admit that while I read every single comment on my blog carefully and with consideration, and have never deleted a critical comment, I do sometimes skim read the comments posted to the blogs I follow. However cursorily, though, I do take the time to read them as often, they can be the best part of the blog post even if they drift way off topic. Imagine how boring the dinner party if you, as guests, were only allowed to discuss the one topic your host had presented?
I was scrolling through the comments on one of John’s posts when I came across one from a Nick. Nick was complaining that John had posted a comment on his blog that had caused controversy and that John should hurry over and clarify what he meant.
John? Our John? Controversy? John causing controversy would be about as likely as the singing nun doing a striptease on Oprah. So I had to click the link to Nick’s blog and see what all the fuss was about. Nick’s blog is easy to read and entertaining. Some of the posts are frankly brilliant but I do live in Angola so anything even half well written is likely to be entertaining in comparison to state controlled media. And this is what I like about the blogosphere. I can’t remember how I first stumbled across the blog of a Welsh St Francis of Assisi (John) but undoubtedly it was through a link on someone else’s blog, and I discovered Nick’s blog the same way, through John’s.
Nick’s post detailed the trauma of a mother accused twenty five years ago of killing one of her sons. Her husband left her taking with him with her one remaining son and she was ostracised by her community. After a quarter of a century and a life of abject misery, she has finally been cleared of wrongdoing.
John’s comment suggested that the death penalty would have helped in this case.
Evidently, the concept of irony, so fundamental to English Sangue Froid and humour escaped many of Nick’s readers as some of the subsequently posted comments expressed varying degrees of disquiet over John’s comment. Even Nick admitted he did not understand it. For all I knew, John could have been on a night shift and by the time he returned home, had slept himself back into some semblance of humanity, speared some Sushi in his kitchen and logged on, he could have been nothing more than well flamed charcoal. So I dived in there and posted my own comment explaining what to me was blindingly obvious, that John felt this was yet another example of why we should NOT have the death penalty, a post that was graciously acknowledged by Nick.
Skim reading the comments, however, I had failed to notice that a poster called Ursula had already made this point, a correct supposition that neither Nick or I had acknowledged, something that evidently upset her enough to provoke her to post a further comment leaving us in no doubt how she felt. I read her original comment carefully and there was no arguing, she had hit the nail on the head early on. So what was the controversy Nick referred to? As far as I could see it had been cleared up within hours of John’s comment appearing on Nick’s post. So I posted another comment apologising to her. After all, I was new to Nick’s site and would hate to have upset one of his regular readers. She came back with a caustic but very witty response and I suggested that since this was Nick’s site, and we were now off topic, a very serious topic at that, we should go over to each other’s blogs and continue. In the meantime, I swung over to Ursula’s blog to learn a bit more about who had briefly clashed swords with me on what was turning out to be an enjoyable jousting field.
Ursula, I have decided, is barking mad. Sadly, this isn’t the sort of yoghurt knitting, tree hugging lunacy so easily dismissed. She is witty but the wit I am talking about is not the beer fuelled ready riposte one might expect to be flung from one end of the village pub bar to the other, this is a wit born of serious intellect but tempered by a lifetime’s experience I could not begin to fathom. Mad as a hatter yes, stupid no. After all, she was the first to correctly interpret John’s comment, the catalyst for all this. I am told that it was impossible to have a serious conversation with Einstein and I know that senior Army officers were always nervous of subordinates with any notion more abstract than climbing over the top when ordered to do their duty and bayonet the enemy. I have no idea who Ursula is or where she calls home so I am relying on the remoteness of Angola to prevent me, moth like, being entranced into her orbit only to be found the morning after our night out at the Chinese Restaurant porcupine like having been stabbed with every chopstick to hand merely because I suggested sex with her. All I know is that really clever people make normal people nervous.
Nick posted that he agreed with me, it was his blog and, rubbing salt into an unexpected wound, not only deleted all our comments but posted a comment telling his readers he had done so going on to say that if we did not understand why we had upset him so terribly (he laid it on a bit thick) he had nothing further to say. Gosh. I am reminded of the expression that when one is up to one’s arse in Alligators it is hard to remember that one’s original intention had only been to drain the swamp. I really would like to be able to visit John in Wales and see his Ukranian Village but, if I go out for a pint with him I might think carefully about swinging a punch again on his behalf. So far I have only been savaged.
My father was quite fond of dinner parties. Except he never referred to them as such. He merely invited a few friends around for Supper. Sometimes he would delight my Mother, reminding her how important she was to him, by pitching up after work with the as yet unwritten guest list in tow, pulling fridge doors open and muttering there must be something in there and what the bloody hell is a microwave for before drifting off to the drinks cabinet.
His was truly an open door policy and if he did realise that one of his guests was being insufferable, he would pour two large scotches and invite him for a walk in the garden claiming a sudden irresistible urge for a puff of his Three Nuns tobacco. There, no doubt, they would look at the stars together while my father explained how, in the Western Desert, he would navigate by them. If that proved insufficient, he would then talk about conkers. His trees, he would say, have produced champion conkers. All the school kids from miles around would come to gather his conkers. If a boy was particularly polite, he would even show him how to tie the best knot so the conker would hang in there despite the most intense thrashing. Even the most belligerent guest would return subdued to the dining table.
I have been wading through a book by Kate Fox called ‘Watching the English’. To acquire the material for the book she put in a lot of field work, much of it consisting of identifying a particular norm of behaviour acceptable to the English and then deliberately disobeying it. She is an anthropologist so I guess it is her job. It is entertaining and I would commend it to anyone, even be they English, to read it if they are even remotely interested in what makes the English, well, so identifiably English.
I have learnt, for example, that I am not ‘posh’. Posh is a working class term. Neither am I ‘smart’ (not an indication of my intelligence but a measure of my status in England’s class ridden society) because I have always referred to the place I sit now, typing this, as my lounge. Smart people recoil instinctively from anyone who calls his sitting room a lounge, merely tolerating them from then on rather than accepting them. It is an interesting book, certainly more so, and a damn sight easier read, than Debrette’s bible on etiquette.
I’m not really into abstract study. I like empirical measurement. Hit someone annoying you hard enough under the jaw and he will fall down. There is plenty of empirical evidence to support this and laws designed to preclude further casual experimentation in the high street along such lines.
When it comes to children (and I have a three year old that refuses to sit anywhere else but on my lap as I type), we adults have to resist the temptation to introduce our offspring and their many, invariably highly irritating companions, to the soporific effect of a swift kick under the chin.
Alexander is too young to understand what a ‘baleful’ gaze is. Perhaps someone should take a photograph of me as I observe him and his delightful little friends trampolining on my lounge (sitting room) furniture while I struggle between paternal love and homicidal instinct.
Sorry, I have to return to this distinction between lounge (not very smart) and sitting room (terribly smart). If we follow Ms Fox’s very illuminating line of reasoning based on her accurate observation and then progress slightly, are we suggesting that smart people lounge in their offices all day before returning home to sit in their prescribed place on a Sofa in a room set aside for such purpose and so named to avoid confusion while explaining to Mummy (smart people refer to their mothers as ‘mummy’ until mummy dies after which they contact their solicitors to contest the will, Daddy long since having shot himself in the drawing room) how busy they have been since breakfast and how much they are looking forward to Supper since lunch was so ghastly? And that Plebs sit in their offices all day before returning home, collapsing on their settees, complaining about the crap dinner in the company canteen and lounging, in a room set aside for such indulgence and appropriately named, while their wives cook tea?
I have drifted on to the subject of food through the misery of boisterous children, only one of them attributable to the issue of my loins. The staple diet here in Angola, and the rest of Africa, is pounded yam, manioc, a tuber given many names but essentially starch. It fills the stomach. It doesn’t just fill the stomach, it pastes it, glues it into one glutinous mass. A full belly and an overloaded digestive system will stave off the pangs of hunger and help the child to sleep but this stuff provides no nutritional value whatsoever. Bereft of protein and the vitamins and iron only found in meat and green vegetables, these kids exhibit all the characteristics sadly associated with Africa: indolence and distended bellies, an inability to concentrate and a consequently retarded physical and mental development.
I cannot compare Alexander with his European contemporaries but here, he is very big for his age. He is as big as an average five year old. He has taken to wandering the neighbourhood to visit his friends so I have taken to ensuring the gates are kept closed. He has taken to jamming himself between the waterpump housing and the main gate and forcing the gate open so I have taken to ensuring it is padlocked. He has taken to climbing over the six foot high boundary wall so I have taken to giving up. Short of chaining him to the wall, about as acceptable as knocking him out every time he wakes up, I am at a loss.
Every morning, therefore, I unlock the gate and let the kids in. I abandon any notion of Sky News and switch over to Cbeebies or whatever the channel is called. I am fluent, as far as, ‘Please do not jump all over my blasted furniture’ is concerned, in English, French, German, Portuguese and the Lingua Franca of their various tribes. Inadvertently, I am running the local crèche.
Come lunchtime, I have to feed Alexander. It is no use asking him what he wants. He likes Pappa, a mealy porridge. He likes Funge, the wallpaper paste made from manioc I mentioned earlier. Meat, vegetables? Forget it. But he will bite your arm off for a lollipop. So with Alexander, I learnt to be sneaky. No good placing a plate in front of him with meat and two veg clearly delineated on the plate. He’ll just ignore it. I made stews, exotic stir fries, dishes baked in the oven all of which he helped me to make (sort of), all of which concealed the essential elements of healthy nutrition. He wised up in no time. If it wasn’t accompanied by an enormous pile of funge, he’d feed it to the goose.
It was the same with my Crèche kids. Obviously with a houseful of snot nosed little bandits I couldn’t just feed Alex and leave them to starve so I made for everyone. I even laid the table with place settings and glasses for all. Unless it was pappa or funge, they ignored it. Sure they drank all the juice off the table and checked my desk drawer for lollipops (Alex knows all my hiding places) but would they eat a decent meal? Not a bleeding chance.
Last night I made a frankly quite outstanding stir fry. This had everything good in it. Beef filet, countless Chinese vegetables, mushrooms, the most exotic sauce. Everything these kids refuse to eat. I made a bucket full of it and once it was cool enough, I stuck it in the fridge and went to bed. The kids had turned my furniture into the Somme and having shouted a mere ‘Halloo’ over no man’s land in defence of John I was now nursing a gutful of internet shrapnel.
This morning I was ready for the little bastards. I am rebuilding my truck so there are bits all over the yard. All morning I had them wheeling truck tyres from one end of it to the other. There are plenty of verandas to sweep so I had the girls doing that and picking litter.
In the past I have put an extraordinary amount of effort into getting them to sit around the table. So long as I remember to switch off the TV they will do this but they won’t eat. This time when I called them in, there was no table nicely laid out. On the coffee table, in front of the TV, there were a dozen forks and one, nicely reheated, bloody great pot.
Alexander went first and hauled out a forkful of Chinese cabbage and grimaced. Not to be outdone, the other kids went for it. Alexander, realising he was losing ground, started to fork like mad. It was a race, who could stuff the most into their face, Cartoon Network no distraction whatsoever. In no time at all, the pot was empty and they were clamouring for juice to drink. Competition. It is healthy and yet there was no animosity, just a shared joy and some pretty full bellies. I was pretty chuffed too. Finally I had managed to get the little bandits to eat a decent meal. So I unlocked my desk drawer and fetched out the lollipops.
With the kids content I checked my emails and surfed the various blogs. Nick has expunged me. He has even eradicated his own replies to the comments of mine he deleted such as ‘Hippo - Thanks for that. Clearly none of us quite understood the irony John intended, even though I for one am solidly English!’ and ‘Hippo - Please do put a link on your blog. The more links, the merrier!’.
The fact that Nick hates me enough to try and eliminate me from history should be no impediment to you visiting his blog, it is rather entertaining. But be warned, catch him on the wrong day and he can be bloody sensitive. So just be careful what you say.
Ah well, John’s impeccable reputation remains intact, I have been barred and, best of all, I have finally found a way to get the kids to eat using psychology. Thanks Ms Fox.