THE GUARDIAN COLUMN
For ten years, David wrote a weekly column for the Guardian. One a week for ten years means there’s more than five hundred of these knocking about on the hard drive. One of them (Miss Wigan - see below) was made into a short animated film called Literacy.
Here’s a selection of the others:
THANK YOU, JEEVES
Senora H. used to come on Wednesday afternoons to learn English. Maybe in her mid-thirties - I was only 22, so it was hard for me to judge - she was the wife of a Spanish officer in Franco's army, on some sort of attachment to the Embassy in London. She paid good money for her lessons, well over the going rate, though it was hard to work out why. Her English was impeccable; an enviable command of vocabulary, tense and mood with no labial left unlabled and every aspirant asped.
We would start each lesson with a few minutes of ‘everyday’ conversation, which she liked to turn into a sort of syntactical tennis game.
“Although it is raining, your coat seems very dry,” I would say.
“I have the good fortune to possess an umbrella,” she would reply, “the impermeability of which protects me from the most inclement of meteorological conditions.”
“The umbrella in question being sufficiently sturdy, one hopes, also to resist the wind's mightiest blast,” I would add.
She would look puzzled. “Excuse me for interrupting the ebb and flow of our discourse for a matter of such seeming pedantry, but the construction of that sentence - ‘the umbrella ... being sufficiently sturdy’ - is that a gerund or a fused participle?”
I would begin to busk and bluster. She would interrupt with a concise and cogent explanation of the issue in question. Her manner was never less than modest and charming - just checking that she had her facts right rather than teaching her oviphobic granny to suck eggs. Nevertheless, I wanted to smack her ever so hard.
After a couple of lessons it was clear what was going on. It was a sex/nationalism thing. She got her kicks from linguistically humiliating foreigners in their own language and paying for it. I was an English As A Foreign Language hooker. She was my John.
During the third lesson, having won a tussle over the correct use of hypothetical inversion, she decided it was time to raise the pleasure stakes.
“In Spain I have a reputation for wit,” she told me. “And yet I find that my limited command of English cruelly restrains my sense of humour.”
Even though I suspected that what passed for ‘a sense of humour’ among the Spanish military classes of the time would, in less robust circles, be called ‘kicking socialists’, I knew it was a mistake to underestimate her powers of humiliation. Somewhere about her person, I fancied, she carried a concealed mastery of epigram. I could not let her beat me. There was more than mere personal pride at stake. The opportunity to play one's part in the long war against fascism can present itself in curious ways. Here was my chance to continue the work of Orwell, Hemingway and La Pasionara.
“For next week's lesson,” I suggested, trying to keep my face poker still, “let us study the works of the English humorous writer P.G.Wodehouse.”
We settled on a Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Mating Season. The following Wednesday she arrived puzzled and wet, discomposure having caused her to forget her impermeable umbrella.
Together, we read Chapter One. From time to time, I faked incontinent laughter and was pleased to notice Senora H. attempting to join in with the odd perplexed snicker.
“Let's take a look at the third paragraph where Bertie, ‘takes a pop at focusing the silver lining.’”
Senora H. shot me a glance of pure malice. She knew seven different meanings for the word ‘pop’, including ‘pop the question’ and ‘pawn’. She was familiar with the expression, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ and yet ....
I explained the phrase in its every nuance.
“All clear now?” I asked, breezily. She took a lace handkerchief from her handbag, elegantly fashioned from some expensive leather - probably the pelt of a Catalan - and wiped the sweat from her eyes.
“Let's move on to ... ‘You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’ Work through it yourself.”
I sat back and watched her undoing. Like HAL, the computer in 2001, she gradually regressed as her memory banks overloaded and crashed.
“Is very ... 'ow you say? ... 'ard ... er ... this mettlesome charger ... is a 'orse, no?”
She left a broken woman.
The following day, I received a letter saying she wouldn't be coming to lessons any more. Dismay can work like a virus. I'm not claiming that the whole thing was down to me and P.G.Wodehouse, but it is worth noting that, just three years later, Franco died.
THE FISH THING
Every so often, even now, I'm pestered by an overwhelming whim to get a fish.
With other people it's a dog, a cat, some busy chickens or a jaunty goat, but, after long years of experience, I have learned to discipline myself and keep my eyes on the lower reaches of the food chain when it comes to pet selection. The goldfish has two major advantages: first of all it dies quick; and secondly, when it does, you don't care because it's only a fish.
Once the fish thing gets to you, it stays with you at the back of your mind, unconsciously informing your every action. You start trying harder at hoop-la and listening out for the cries of rag'n'bone men. Usually it's best to give in before things get out of hand, otherwise you could find yourself shambling around the streets with a slice of carrot in a bucket, showing people, and men will come to your house to talk calmly. So, you give in. You buy a small one in a polythene bag, bring it home, and hold it up for your loved ones to see.
“Are you sure we want a fish?” they say.
“Everybody wants a fish,” you reply, “for a short space of time.” Luckily for us, God made the goldfish the most mortal of His creatures.
Fish contain lengths of string; ask anyone who's kept fish in a slipshod way and they will tell you this is true. While in the enclosed environment of a polythene bag, the string and the fish remain as one. Once, however, the fish is released into a roomier salad bowl or, if you've really got more money than sense, an aquarium, the string begins to separate from the fish. In a day or two the fish has a centimetre or two of string hanging from its bottom. You watch, fascinated. When the string is longer than the fish, the fish dies and you flush it down the toilet.
This is where you thank your lucky stars you were smart enough to go for a fish rather than an Alsatian. If an Alsatian has string hanging from its bottom, do you watch, fascinated? No, you worry. You take it to the vet's. You pay for expensive operations. You stand outside while the dog is under the surgeon's knife, so racked with anxiety you start smoking cigarettes again. Then something goes wrong on the operating table. The string wraps itself around the dog's lower colon so that it can only eat sauteed quail for the rest of its life. In spite of its semi-invalid condition, and because you took up smoking again, the Alsatian outlives you and you condemn the funny lady in the flats over the road who takes in unwanted pets to a life spent over a stove, sauteeing quail. Forget it. Get a fish.
It's not worth investing in anything more expensive than the standard goldfish. Once you get it home, the iridescent mauve, electric blues and magically pulsating fins of an expensive fish will become no more than a side show to the main event, the miracle of the string. Also, if you amortise the cost, you will find that for the same three days you have the fish, you could have rented a Sierra Cosgrove and driven it till the wheelhubs spark.
Also don't bother with food. I've tried feeding them. I've tried not feeding them. Feeding makes no difference to the life expectancy, and it only makes the salad bowl more difficult to clean after you've flushed.
More than one fish at a time is a mistake. Once I had a garden with a pool big enough for about ten fish. I bought three. As soon as I released them into the pool, two of them huddled in a corner and bickered about the third. The following morning the third fish was dead. There was hardly any string hanging from its bottom at all, so I suspected foul play. Furthermore the corpse, rather than floating on the top of the water, as fish corpses do, had sunk to the bottom. The other two fish had obviously weighted it with gravel, hoping to escape detection. The irony was they thought they'd pulled off a really clever stunt and they would have the pool to themselves for the rest of their lives. There they were, swimming around, smug as anything, both with about four centimetres of fatal string hanging from their bottoms. Thus death mocks our vanity and carries us the way of all fish.
OSCAR, ACE OF SPIES
An Oscar Wilde Mystery
“Down the long and silent street, the dawn, with silver-sandalled feet, crept like a frightened girl,” observed masterspy Oscar Wilde to Bosie, his young comrade-in-arms, as they sat beside the meagre fire of an underground kvas house, sucking at flagons of vodka between bites of raw beetroot.
Wilde shows signs of fatigue, yet it felt good to be back in the thick of things, and though the journey from London to Moscow, most of it spent clinging to the underside of a railway carriage, had left the scars of frostbite, any hardship was more palatable than the months of idleness in London, posing as a sodomite in order to maintain his “cover”. The fierce eyes shone with indomitable spirit and the deep tan, acquired during undercover work with Sir Theophilus Shepstone in the Transvaal, gave his fleshily handsome face the look of a young moujik from the Vetluga region.
“What's the SP, Oscar?” asked Bosie. The younger man's enthusiasm warmed the cockles of Wilde's heart as the masterspy called for a dish of wild cockle hearts, peculiar to that region, and began to outline the task ahead.
“The Tsar is a two-faced cove,” said Wilde, speaking in the Kves dialect in order to avoid suspicion, “yet Her Majesty's Government fears that an even greater threat pullulates in the sinks and stews of Mother Russia. I'm talking about revolution, Bosie.”
A troubled crease worried the frown of Bosie's customarily unfettered countenance as he stuffed green tobacco in a blackened samovar, then laughed at his own witlessness, then stopped.
“Revolution cannot be countenanced,” Wilde continued. “When Mr Bun the Baker threatens the court cards, who knows where the shuffle may end?”
At this moment a troupe of fuliginous gypsies danced into the tavern shaking tambourines and stealing horses as they came. In the flickering candlelight, a full-lipped, fully-fashioned, full-blooded girl of some sort, fulgurated in a fulsome fandango, awakening in Wilde a desire for roughish thighs and salty kisses. Throwing his flagon at the fireplace, Wilde grabbed the minx and rummaged roughly through her skirts.
“Oh, my childhood, oh my days of innocence,” mourned the gypsy. The timbre was surprisingly deep and through its tragi-comic irony Wilde recognised the authentic voice of late 19th century Russian middle-class angst: the voice of his old pal, double-agent and master of disguise Anton 'Doc' Chekhov. As the two maintained their pretence of lovemaking, 'Doc' appraised him of the latest intelligences.
“We have identified three ringleaders: a Government Official by the name of Karenin, Vronksy, an officer in the Imperial Guard, and Levin, a farmer and 'land reformer'.” Doc spat the last words. He knew a euphemism for a revolutionary when he heard one. “But there has to be another, connecting the other three, taking messages and so on. A fourth man ...”
“Or woman,” said Wilde, choking back an unmanly tear. He knew of Karenin, Vronsky and Levin, and knew too that only one person could be the missing link between the three. A woman. A woman he had once loved. Anna. He remembered droshky rides, glittering conversations beneath tinkling chandeliers, soft sable kisses and promises made, and, oh, the plunging. Anna. How he had loved her. How she had betrayed him, first with Karenin, then with Vronksy ... But now was no time for sentiment. European Hegemony was at stake.
“Come, Bosie,” shouted Wilde to his trusty sidekick, The game's afoot.”
The two men leapt upon the gypsy's stolen horses and galloped bareback into the night. The weather was brighter now, and a fine rain fell ... “Like pointless woe,” Wilde reflected as they approached the Vronsky residence, just in time to see a carriage drawn by a pairs of greys pull away.
“Follow that carriage, Bosie,” barked Wilde.
Their pursuit took them to the railway station where Anna alighted and stood nervously on the platform as the train approached. With one bound, Wilde had dismounted and was at her side.
“You ...” she said. “God forgive me everything.” A gentle push was all it took.
Afterwards, back in the tavern, Bosie was puzzled. “You're a queer cove, Oscar,” he said. “You tell me that you once loved this woman, yet still you killed her without a second thought.”
Oscar drank deep, his eyes settling on a point a thousand miles distant.
“Each man kills the thing he loves, Bosie,” he said. “It always causes pain. Some do it with a bitter look, the brave man with a train.”
We moved house when I was four years old. I knew I would miss many things about the old house, principally Carol, the girl my own age from next door who once in the front garden had taken her knickers down and politely asked me to put a cold stone on her bottom.
As soon as I saw the new place I realised I was going to have my work cut out getting it shipshape. None of the wallpaper had crayoning on it. The dirt in the garden looked as if nobody had eaten it in years. Along the way we also seemed to have acquired a cat. I mapped out in my mind a lengthy course of scientific experimentation designed to establish the extent to which cats were 'alive'. Did they melt? If you covered one with the metal bread bin and hit the bin with a boiler stick, dang, dang, dang, would it come out wobbling all over?
Then we went to the local primary school to enrol my elder brother and sister. Mrs England, the headmistress, a lady with a rosy cheeked smile that did not have me fooled for a minute, took my siblings' particulars then pointed at me.
“We'll take this one as well, if you like,” she said.
“He's only four,” said my mother.
“I'm only four,” I said.
Mrs England took my mother to one side and they whispered. I suspect money changed hands.
On the first day, at the school gates, I clung to my mother as my last link with civilisation. Behind the railings big children were hopping and skipping, activities which I had nothing against in principle but was accustomed to doing on my own terms. I was 90% convinced my mother would never go through with this if only on the grounds that it would put Britain years behind its economic competitors in the crucial field of cat research. I used the guttural scream which, if done properly, can convince experienced paediatricians that you have something wrong with your upper respiratory tract which is not being helped by the way your mother is treating you.
I can't remember what happened next. Probably the School Board Men came with giant pincers and removed me from my mother's arm, where I left bloody scratches.
The teacher was Miss Tickell, a woman who thought I'd be impressed by her collection of coloured tiddlywinks. She showed us pictures in a book of some people called Dick and Dora which did not seem like plausible names to me. Later she made us put our chairs on our desks and sing “Thank you for the world so sweet/Thank you for the food we eat/Thank you for the birds that sing/Thank you Lord for everything.” The part about the chairs on the tables had me puzzled until I realised that was where God liked invisibly to sit when He was having hymns sung to Him.
After three or four months things had grown much worse. I was Falling Behind The Other Children. When I put a crayon in my hand to write, I liked to work from right to left, like a Hebrew scholar.
Then Miss Wigan came into my life. Miss Wigan was 100 years old and smelled as if she had never understood the correct procedure for drying a cardigan. She had thick rope tied around her head instead of hair and wore stockings so thick she must have had plant hire for suspenders.
Miss Wigan was the lady who put plasters on your knee and cleaned you up if you wet yourself. The joy of Falling Behind The Other Children was that, while Miss Tickell droned on about her tiddlywinks and Dick and Dora to the rest of the class, you sat in the corner with Miss Wigan.
She would write my name in black wax crayon on a sheet of green card and then hand me the wax crayon, still wet from her palm, and ask me to copy the letters underneath. About a million times a day she would pick up my hand and move it from the right to the left side of the green card. I would start writing, moving from right to left, and, uncomprehendingly, quickly run out of green card.
“Watch me again,” she would murmur, taking the crayon. Writing the wrong way for Miss Wigan was the best game I had ever played. After a week or two, I knew I was in love.
“Miss Wigan,” I said, one day as I passed the wax crayon back for her to show me again.
“Yes, dear,” she murmured.
“Would you like me to put a cold stone on your bottom?”
“No thank you, dear,” she said. And continued with the lesson.
Eventually my brain looped the loop and I started writing left to right. After that they took Miss Wigan away from me, except for the times I fell down in the playground or wet myself, which, understandably, became more frequent.
When I die, if I go to heaven, I will meet God and I will say to God, “What's that funny smell, God?” And God, sitting with his chair on his desk, the way he likes, will reply, “It's Miss Wigan's cardigan, of course, didn't you know, that's what heaven smells like.”
THE DAWNING OF EXPERIENCE
"The Queen is angry when she goes into the cellar and turns into a witch," said the three-year-old, "but when she gives the poison apple to Snow White she's smiling so she's not angry anymore."
It broke my heart to have to do it, but it was time.
"No, she was playing a trick on Snow White. She was pretending to be a nice old lady and not an angry witch so that Snow White would eat the apple. It's called human duplicity. You'll come across a lot of it when you grow up. People are hell. Life's a bitch. You just have to learn to roll with the punches."
The three-year-old seemed to take the news pretty well. She snuggled under the duvet, golden hair upon the pillow. I decided she was ready for the whole number.
"The way I see it the whole plot is riddled with deceit and double-dealing. Let's look at the political situation. Snow White has assassinated her father, the King, but wasn't counting on the ambition of her stepmother, the Queen, who, backed up by a military junta headed by the woodcutter, has declared herself Regent. Snow White, in the political wilderness, pretends to 'love' the Prince of a neighbouring country in order to gain the support of his armies in her bid to reclaim the throne. The Prince pretends to 'love' her back in the hope of gaining suzerainty over her territory. But before he can lend force to White's claim, the Prince is committed to a campaign on his Eastern front where the Three Little Pigs have been making incursions. With me so far?"
"Uh-huh ..." said the three-year-old.
"Okay, so the Queen sends the woodcutter into the forest to kill White. This is, of course, a ploy. She doesn't really want him to kill White at all - the international press would investigate and the Blue Helmets would be there in no time. No, she just wants to frighten White into the hands of the dwarfs."
"Because the dwarfs are a revolutionary caucus, the Height Impeded Heptarchical Organisation, HIHO. If the Queen can drive White to the dwarfs, then she has a valid reason for branding White a subversive and wiping out the lot of them without interference from the UN. Okay, let's look at the dwarfs. The dwarfs are diamond miners. You know what that means in terms of oppression? I'll play you some Paul Simon records in the morning. Their demands are modest: a bicameral legislature with separate judiciary and full suffrage for the vertically challenged with no discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation."
"Look at the body language in the yodelling song. Happy is happy with Dopey. Sneezy loves Sleepy. Doc and Bashful have been an item for a long time. There used to be an eighth dwarf called Holly, but he was taken by the '82 mining disaster, which is why Grumpy is grumpy."
"The Queen, however, has underestimated White's political sophistication. White pretends to be 'fond' of the dwarfs in order to win their support. This suits the dwarfs, who affect to return her fondness, intending to use her as a dispensable stepping stone to democratic power. Realising that her strategy has backfired, the Queen turns into a witch and offers White the poisoned apple. Watch the film carefully next time. You never actually see White take that semi-fatal bite. She merely appears to eat the apple, then falls over in a feigned coma. This achieves two objectives: 1. It provides unimpeachable grounds to justify the dwarfs' assassination of the Queen; and 2. While in her coma, White can safely await the Prince's return from the Eastern front. So, the Prince returns, kisses White and they marry. After the closing credits they slay the dwarfs, murder each other, and Bambi, who has been waiting in the sidelines all along, assumes despotic power."
"You see, little one, forget sentimentality and simple motives. The world is a dog eat dog mire where the only guiding principles are conspiracy, revenge and ambition. This is fierce news, I know, for one so young, but I think you're tough enough to take it. Go to sleep now. Night night."
"Don't go, daddy, tell me another story."
"No, no, it's sleepy-time."
"No, don't go. I love you, daddy."
My heart leapt and tears brimmed, the way they do.
"All right, just one more story."
The three-year-old snickered: "Sucker."
When I first started working in radio, Denzil Riley, broadcasting legend and the hardest financial correspondent the BBC ever had, gave me a few words of advice.
“Never wear squeaky boots,” he told me, “in case you need to go for a slash in the middle of a live broadcast. Keep your whisky in a rubber bottle to save clanking. It's bad form to vomit on a Head of State. The world is full of weeping, and sometimes you will have to report sadness upon sadness. Remember that you are in a radio studio, not a crematorium, so don't, whatever you do, give way to natural emotion and laugh out loud on air. If you do, don't apologise: turn it into a cough or subtly blame your co-presenter.”
This time last year, I was presenting a Friday night programme on Radio 4. On Wednesday 3rd September, the producer rang to say that, in place of the regular programme that week, we'd been instructed to do a nationwide round-up of preparations for Princess Diana's Funeral, with live links to the crowds assembling outside Westminster Abbey, and to Cardiff and Edinburgh.
It felt wrong. At the time, the nation was divided into two groups. Having omitted to make my addition to the Buckingham Palace flower mountain, I found myself classed with the smaller group; the fiends-in-human-form who had the nerve to walk the streets with unrent clothes. This lack of sympathy with the national mood - the result, I was sure, of some hideous mental illness - would be heard in my voice on the radio. There would be death threats.
Technically, it was a difficult programme. The live links had been hastily set up. If one malfunctioned, I could be left filling time for several minutes. Unable to trust myself off-the-cuff, I spent the day copying pious sentiments from newspapers and arranging them on index cards so that reverence would never be more than a glance away.
I spoke slowly, both to add an appropriately unctuous note and to drag out the material. All went well until, about half way through the programme, the producer's voice came into my headphones telling me that we had to hand over to the newsroom for a newsflash. The newsreader solemnly announced the death of Mother Theresa.
The control room, behind the soundproof glass, was immediately in uproar. I don't know whether you're familiar with the game of 'snuff derby'. You put a fiver in the kitty and pick a name from a list of the aged and infirm. If you pick the first contender to go through the snuff tunnel, you clean up. I disapproved of the game on the grounds of taste, but had nonetheless backed Boris Yeltsin, who seemed a front runner at the time. There was no shame in this. Boris is a sporting chap, so one can assume that he'd do the same thing were there any chance of his collecting. The Assistant Producer had her money on the Saint of Calcutta and now she was dancing around the mixing desk, punching the air with her fists. What's a chap to do? I giggled like a girl.
There was an unhealthy pause. In the excitement of money changing hands, nobody had noticed that the newsflash had finished and we were back on air. The producer screamed into the headphones, “Say something!”
How long had the mike been open? Had I giggled to the nation? Like a girl? I had no co-presenter to blame. I swallowed hard, coughed discreetly, caught my breath, did a solemn time-check, and carried on where I had left off, imagining throughout the rest of the programme that the mob was marching towards Broadcasting House armed with flaming torches and knotted lengths of rope.
“Was that real?” somebody asked afterwards.
“Was what real?”
“Were you really that upset about Mother Theresa's death? You sounded as if you were choking with emotion. It must have been twenty seconds before you could speak at all. It was very touching.”
WHERE THE DEAD DOGS GO
A letter from Mr P. Scully of Boston, Lincs reads: “I recently came across the following in the Pet Tributes column of Yours Big Value! magazine (124pages for 70p): 'In loving memory of Yoola Dawn, our miniature dachshund who passed away on January 8, 1996, leaving beautiful memories and two broken hearts, Sleep peacefully my darling free from pain, Rest assured dear Yoolie we will meet again.' While one cannot deny that it is a touching and apt tribute to a much loved miniature dachshund, the last line of the verse has me puzzled. Is it true that pets go to heaven and will we meet them again when we die?”
Let me tell you about Ida Ida Sweet As Apple Cider who lived in the old isolation hospital behind the bowling green and was twice arrested for stealing bacon. Ida was a medium. Through frequent contact with dead people she had learned that death is not an end but a beginning, the victory of the soul over its prison the body, and this knowledge caused her to wear filmy layers and smile too much. “Hello,” she'd announce, as you waited for a number 14 into town, causing you to think, “This is Birmingham, what's she want to say a thing like that for?”
Once she backed me up against the R.White's display in Mrs Gibb's and told me I had an aura.
“We're having a little gathering on Thursday to contact those beyond the veil. You'd be a valuable addition. Wouldn't you like to speak to your departed loved ones?”
I said something non committal. At the time I only had two departed loved ones, Auntie Billie and Uncle Green. We'd never been able to think of much to say to each other in life and I could see no reason why death should kindle the conversational flame.
“So ... still dead, then, Uncle Green,” I'd say.
“You're a lot taller,” Uncle Green would say, “Hasn't he got taller, Billie?”
“Shot up. Would you like a Glacier Mint?”
And yet there was a deeper, seamier reason for wanting to visit Ida Ida's home. Official records showed that her husband had been killed in the war, but rumour had it that Ida Ida herself had pre-empted the Germans and buried his body under the kitchen lino. For one whose appreciation of Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy had led to a snickering interest in decaying flesh, the house was a magnet.
Seven of us assembled that Thursday evening. In order to break the necromantic ice, Ida Ida kicked off proceedings with a brisk trot around the Ouija board. The glass fair flew from letter to letter and it was interesting to note that Catherine the Great, Tommy Handley and the Red Indian spirit guide known as Two Bulls all spelt 'necessary' with two C's and one S, which suggested either that Revised Spelling has been universally adopted in the afterlife, or that Mr Headlington the greengrocer, whose 'buterry new potatoe's' were such a joy with a nice piece of fish, was pushing.
Then Ida Ida decided to go into a trance. Her eyes showed white. She shuddered and muttered. Foam came from her lips and ran down her nose like it does if you sick up sherbet.
After a while, she went calm.
“Did I turn the immersion heater off?” she said. My scalp prickled for she was speaking not in her own voice but that of my Uncle Green.
“If anyone identifies the spirit, let them answer,” said Mrs Alrewas.
“Er ... hello, Uncle Green,” I said.
“Did I turn the immersion heater off?”
“Yes, you did.”
There was a long silence.
“Has the spirit departed?” asked Mrs Alrewas.
“No,” said Ida Ida in her own voice. “Just gone a bit reticent.” Then, in Auntie Billie's voice: “You've shot up. Would you like a Glacier Mint?”
“No, thank you,” I said. Another silence. I tried to think of an intelligent question. “Do you have any advice for the living?”
“Yes,” said Auntie Billie. “Never teach a budgie to say, Can you hear me mother?' nor keep a dog that looks at you critically if you have a bag of crisps without offering. Eternity's a much longer time than I was given to expect.”
Auntie Billie's voice faded and was replaced by the voice of Mrs Alrewas's late husband who had some timely advice on mending the clothes mangle.
So, there's your answer Mr P. Scully of Boston, Lincs. Yes, death does reunite us with our former pets, but it gets on your nerves.
GREASE IS THE WORD
Of all the indiarubbermen my grandfather knocked about with, the finest was Deep-Fry Hammerskold, the Human Eel. Deep-Fry was a regular on the West Midlands 'C' tours - 'the workhouse circuit' - run by Jack and Joan Hilton out of a caravan in Dudley. The gigs mostly consisted of cheap orphanages and Plate Benefits, at which Charitable Metalworkers would have a drink, enjoy the show, and then beat cranial prosthetics for casualties of the anvil-dropping industry. A top act like Deep-Fry could expect to earn as much as £2.12/6 a week, which, in the 1930s, was rotten money.
Deep-Fry had the 14 inch chest measurement, double joints and soft bones common to his kind, but the added-value that earned him his 'Human Eel' sobriquet and made him such a hit with orphans was his slime. It was a natural attribute. It oozed from his pores and caught the arc lights such that all he had to do was walk onstage and you knew you were in the presence of a shining star. Even though Deep-Fry himself called it slime, the secretion should more accurately be described as grease. He was a greasy man. Scientists from Laboratoire Garnier, who once travelled from Paris to run tests, said he came right off their scale. Obviously, it gave him a huge advantage over other indiarubbermen. Whether you're folding yourself into a biscuit barrel or just picking your teeth with your toes over the back of the head, grease is a boon.
I don't want you to get the idea that there was anything unpleasant about Deep-Fry's greasiness. He had huge open pores, so nothing clogged or got pimpled up. Granddad told me that he smelled faintly of almonds, so you have to imagine something more along the lines of a long streak of Chippendale, with pecs - or in this case countable ribs - oiled for action, rather than anything distressingly dermatological. You also have to remember that this was the Age of Brilliantine. The Maccassar market was bullish. The memory of Valentino's funeral still brought a tear, and Xavier Cugat, the Rhumba King, had recently been voted 'Oiliest Bandleader to Appear in a Motion Picture' by the American Federation of Lady Donut Fryers. Oleaginousness was synonymous with sex. In spite of his puny girth, Deep-Fry was considered an attractive man.
Sex was his eventual undoing. After several disastrous affairs - he liked to do it in a goldfish bowl, and, after the initial attraction had worn off, women would dump him, claiming they 'needed some space' - he took up with Ellie McKelvery, the dirty aviatrix. Poor Ellie. She came on the aviatrix scene a little late. Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart had bagged all the celebrity routes leaving Ellie to mop up those that nobody had thought of or could be bothered with: first flight from Newbury to Harrogate; first woman to fly London-Paris in nipple clamps; first transatlantic flight without due care and attention, that sort of thing.
Flying too high with some guy in the sky was Ellie's idea of something to do, and Deep-Fry, because of his unique abilities to rut in the confines of a two-seater biplane, was the man she liked to do it with. On their third flight to ecstasy, Ellie tried some aerobatics and the flaw in their sexual reasoning revealed itself. A naked indiarubberman with 12-inch shoulders and a body like a one-man lard party cannot be contained by safety straps in an open-cockpit Sopwith negotiating an orgasmic victory-roll.
He fell from 4500 feet, straight through the roof of a Leicester cake factory. A vat of meringue would have broken his fall, but we all know the effect that a tiny spot of grease can have on beaten eggs. The whole whipped edifice collapsed, and Deep-Fry's head broke on the bottom of the hopper. Though the Charitable Metalworkers did what they could, Deep-Fry was never the same again. He ended up juggling multiple personalities in a Neuro-circus, which is a lot less spectacular than it sounds.
KING CHUMP AT LONGCHAMPS
Life is not a bed of roses and this is why.
It is along about eleven-thirty of a nippy Tuesday evening, and I am sitting in Mindy's wine bar on Hammersmith Broadway with a citizen they call The World Trade Centre. The reason they call her this name is because when it comes to games of chance she likes to bet high, and keep betting in this manner until she puts her hand in her purse and finds only fingers, more than which nobody can bet.
This citizen is looking at me with eyes that are I don't know what, except they are one hundred per cent eyes in every respect. It is a fact of life that when one citizen looks at another citizen with such one-hundred-per-cent eyes, the other citizen finds himself readily agreeing to propositions to which he would not customarily agree to, such as going to Paris in order to play the horses.
Now, I have learned from experience that when it comes to games of chance and other propositions under the head of scratch being won and lost, I am strictly a king chump.
Some years ago I am sitting in a bar in Kilburn with two citizens named Quinn and McCabe who wear thick tweed suits and have faces that look like somebody has been playing Mr Potato Head but using beetroots instead. It is a fact of life that when two citizens with Giant Killer Beetroot heads look at another citizen, the other citizen finds himself readily agreeing to propositions to which he would not customarily agree to, such as going to White City to play the dogs.
We arrive at White City, and Quinn and McCabe hunch together, whispering secrets. At first I think they are in love, which is a beautiful thing between two men in thick tweed suits, but then I surmise that they are whispering dog secrets of which only the word "fixed" do I hear.
I watch the first couple of races, but they seem nothing much to me. So I turn to Quinn and McCabe and say, "There is a way they could make this game better."
The two beetroots do not look so interested but I continue with my daunt undinted.
"It seems to me," I say, "That it is more amusing to see different sorts of mutt run. Maybe sometimes it is better they have a race that is all Old English Sheep Dogs, like an advertisement for paint. Or maybe labradors with Andrexes. A hundred and one dalmatian puppies running around the track would be a fine sight indeed and one that many citizens would bet large amounts of potatoes to take a peep at."
In reply to this McCabe says a word which I do not like to write in a family newspaper even though it is the name of a very upright German aeroplane manufacturer.
Well, naturally, this hurts my feelings, but Quinn and McCabe offer to make things up by placing my bets for me. So I hand over all my loose scratch, and I never see them again, although I search the White City until it is empty of everybody except a man with a broom who laughs in a way that makes me feel like a king chump.
So when this World Trade Centre proposes we go to play the horses in Paris, even though I agree to do so because her eyes are one-hundred-per-cent eyes in every respect, I become so nervous my collar feels tight in an open-neck shirt.
In Paris we take a bus to Longchamps. The bus is delayed because all the other French citoyens are on the road too, and this makes a confusion no amount of honking can solve.
Things are even more held up by three enfants who move around the bus singing songs in a way that makes you want to keep your hand on your wallet. And when I get off the bus with my wallet still intact, the enfants say good-bye so happily I begin to fear their operandi has a very dirty modus, and they maybe have my kidneys packed and ready to be shipped to the Spare Organs Market in Istanbul, which is not a nice place to have your kidneys especially if you need to process fluids.
By the time we get to the track, so late are The World trade Centre and I that we only have time for one race before we have to leave to catch our plane at the airport. Not only that, but we are so hungry we would eat dirt. We look at our cards and pick our horses, and The World Trade Centre suggests I go for sandwiches while she takes my scratch and places the bets for the both of us. Well, even a citizen with one-hundred-per-cent eyes in every respect does not make a king chump out of me for a second time, so I suggest she go for the sandwiches while I take her scratch and place the bets. She says this is fine and I go to the windows where you place the bets, but because everything is as French as long bread filled with accordions, I cannot find them. So I ask a classy looking French lady, except my Linguaphone is not so au fait, and she seems to think I am asking to borrow her jockey. The minutes fly by while we get this straightened out.
I locate the windows. There are so many citoyens standing in line that, by the time I get to the front, the first thing the window does is close in my face, because the race is already started.
I find the World Trade Centre and try to tell her about my drawing a dud on mising la chance, but she is running to the stands to see the race and doesn't listen. It is a long way to the stands and when we get there the race is so over the horses are home and in bed dreaming about softer bits and looser shoes.
But on the television screen we see that The World Trade Centre's selection has won, and she is very happy about this, and throws her arms around me and kisses my face, which is a nice thing to happen to a guy when it happens from a citizen with one-hundred- per-cent eyes in every respect, but not so nice when you know that as soon as the kissing stops you will have to tell her that you didn't get to place her bet, and she will call you a king chump, which she did. In fact it is as much as I can do to prevent her from killing me.
And, believe me, life, when the World Trade Centre wants you dead, your kidneys are in Istanbul, and you have a borrowed jockey sleeping on your sofa, is not a bed of roses.
Caroline and I ate toast and watched the twins with the same uneasy feeling that we should be doing something rather than just sitting there that you get with famine relief films. One twin lay in the butter, but was looking at the stairs. The other foraged for scraps in the carpet pile. From time to time, she crawled over her sister with a casual disregard reminiscent of maggots in a bait tin. It was six in the morning. They'd been doing this for over an hour, chuckling cheerfully. We'd lost the will to parent.
“Have you been able to work out what use they are, yet?” asked Caroline.
“They have a certain decorative value,” I said. “Walking down the road with them in the double pushchair sometimes attracts looks that could make a member of the Conran family suicidal with envy.”
“But apart from that?”
I shook my head; slowly so as to keep the toast from flying out of my slack jaw.
“It's the evolutionary disadvantage that worries me,” said Caroline. “Decorative can be a liability in the great struggle for survival. Consider the great crested grebe.”
We did so. The larger of the twins screwed up her face and grunted to let us know she was shitting herself again. Nothing as unlike a grebe could be imagined.
“If a predator were to come in here now, they'd be defenceless. Furthermore, instinct would cause us to save them, thereby compromising our own security.”
The previous day, I had watched transfixed as a leaky biro had spread a blue stain over my beige jacket. If I lacked the instinct to save a jacket - a favourite jacket - from a biro, would anything be different with predators and babies? I hid my misgivings by nodding vigorously. The toast came out.
“I mean, look at them,” she said. “They're nearly a year down the line. That one can clap hands. That one can wave bye-bye and appears to say 'dada' but you know you're only fooling yourself. A horse at the same age is adequate on the flat or over the sticks. It can pull a small cart and kick you to death. Now that's what I'd call fit to survive. Swift had it right with the Houyhnhnms.”
This depressed me. I have been inured for some time to the idea that earwigs would one day rule the earth, but didn't much like the idea of horses getting the upper hand. It's their teeth.
“I can't believe that prehistoric babies can have been so ill-equipped. Something's happened over history, and I've got a workable hypothesis as to what it is.”
“The human species has got too advanced. The foetus has evolved to the point where it can make hands and eyes and so on twice as quickly as it used to, leaving time for recreation. It fancies a drink. It works out a way of turning blood sugar into alcohol. They're all born pissed.”
It made immediate sense. You only have to look. Babies are legless, speechless, drooling, weeping, pants-shitting pissed. So pissed that it takes 25 years or so for them to sober up. Then, at the age of 40 or so, the life-hangover kicks in. We become prone to backaches and headaches, meaningless snapping and pointless woe. Then we die.
“It is significant,” said Caroline, “that when babies are born they subject them to all sorts of tests, but it's never occurred to anyone to breathalyse them.”
“We'd need to run some experiments to be sure,” I said. “Luckily we've got the two. One can be the control.”
We didn't have a breathalyser handy, but there are other ways.
The five-year-old came down to find mummy and daddy filling a baby's bottle with strong black coffee. Her comments and our resulting shame could have put scientific understanding of the human condition back several years. Anyway, when the horses take over, you'll know whom to blame.
HUMBUCKING WITH NATALIE
Let me tell you about Natalie
Oh, Natalie, sweet Natalie
No student of philately
Could e'er entice sweet Natalie.
Natalie didn't take her eyes from mine as she let her coat fall to the floor. She slipped off her shoes. The soft rustle of her stockinged feet through the shag-pile carpet sent blue static streaks crackling up and down her long, slow legs.
In the restaurant the conversation had quickly grown intimate. She'd wanted to talk and I'd let her. She'd told me that most of the men she went out with were only interested in themselves. They'd spend all evening telling her about their dull little car, or their dull little job. One had described in great detail practically every bridge hand he'd ever been dealt. But she could tell I was different. And now we were back at her place. I'd been dreaming of this moment for a long time. Natalie had it all - looks, class, money, style, and the coolest pad I'd ever seen outside an episode of Jason King.
Flocculent steps led down to a beige conversation area filled with most of New Zealand's annual output of sheepskin and a sofa big enough for a couple of light aircraft to land safely. A trolley stood within pouring distance, loaded with the usual good time lubricants. The table lamps had shades you could hide-out in for a long time. A log fire crackled in the chalet-style fireplace. I couldn't help wondering how the gleaming copper chimney-hood got that shiny. Natalie did not seem a Duraglit sort of person.
“Drink?” she purred. “Why don't you mix us both something ... amusing, while I go and freshen up.”
“You seem pretty fresh to me already. Ha ha.” I could tell I was impressing her. “OK,” I went on, a little deeper, “I'll pour us both into something more comfortable and then maybe we can comfortable ourselves into a something thing.” When the mood's right, the words come easy.
Expertly I emptied the contents of several bottles into a vase. I stirred it up with a long thin thing, added ice, fruit, veg, some small terracotta ornaments I found in a drawer, two squirts of Gold Spot and, as a last thought, my kidney donor card - no more Mr Nice Guy. The result was brown and tasted of Scotchguard.
Natalie returned looking like Rodin had given up working with marble in favour of condensed milk and smelling like the ground floor of a department store the day seven people got fired for playing water pistols with their fragrance collection. I gave her the drink. We drank a silent toast to the pleasures to come and drained our glasses. I fought to suppress the resulting nausea, knowing that if only I could keep this stuff down, my insides would be stain resistant for life. Together we sank into the sofa. Using a control panel concealed in one of the arms, she dimmed the lights and cued some sultry sounds. I recognised the silken guitar of B.B.King.
“I want you,” she murmured.”Thank you very much indeed,” I husked.
We kissed gently, mentally and dentally, and felt the strangely familiar, blindly all-seeing, moving stillness - the solitary togetherness and distant nearness, the robust vulnerability and nugatory pricelessness that men and women since the dawn of time have called pointless oxymorons.
I suddenly became aware that something was wrong - horribly, horribly wrong. I broke away.
“What's the matter?” she asked.
“That's not Lucille,” I said.
“On the record. That isn't Lucille. The guitar.”
She still looked confused. I spelt it out. “B.B.King refers to his guitar by the affectionate nickname, Lucille.”
“How romantic,” said Natalie, a little frostily.
“Perhaps it does seem strange, but you must remember the relationship between a musician of B.B.'s calibre and his instrument is closer than that which often exists between a man and a woman.”
“Clearly,” said Natalie.
“A guitar can be a very sexual thing, you know.”
“What a pity you didn't bring one.”
But I wasn't listening. B.B. had started his solo.
“That guitar is not Lucille. I'm almost certain of it.”
Natalie poured herself another drink, tinkling the bottles rather more loudly than was absolutely necessary.
“Sssh,” I said, cocking an ear to the speaker. “I need to catch every harmonic nuance.”
She laughed a wild laugh. Obviously she thought I was making some sort of a joke. People often don't understand the significance of harmonic nuance in guitar identification. I thought I'd better explain. “Lucille, you see, is a Gibson ES355. It uses humbucker pickups; two sets of coils each, of opposite charges, thereby cancelling out or “bucking” the hum. Hence the name. A humbucker pickup has a characteristic full, rich sound, packed with harmonic nuance, but lacks the bite and the edge of the single coil pickup you find on, say, a Fender Telecaster. It's a horses for courses thing, really. A humbucker for smooth silky blues, a single coil for blistering rockabilly. But I swear to God, that's a single coil B.B's playing on that track. Do you mind if I play it again and fiddle with your graphic equaliser?”
“If only,” she said, distantly.
“Never mind. You do what you like. I may have to go out, anyway.”
She picked up the phone and dialled a number. “Hello, Ralph. I'm sorry about leaving so suddenly the other night. I was wondering whether I could come round and we could carry on where we left off. Yes, you were telling me about being doubled on a five no-trumps transfer bid.”
“Let's talk about death,” said the four-year-old as she sat on the lavatory. The defecation/contemplation partnership, it would seem, is established early in life. “Grandma's being chased by dinosaurs, isn't she?” The logic was transparent. Dinosaurs are dead. Grandma is dead. When things die they go to heaven. Dinosaurs chase you, at least in playgrounds. Ergo, grandma is being chased by dinosaurs. Q.E.D..
They told her about heaven at school, when Jacqui died. If it is true that when the virtuous pass on they go to heaven, there is no doubt that Jacqui is up there with the angels. She lived a blameless life, as far as anybody could tell. Sometimes she was a bit greedy with her flakes, but she never blew unnecessary surface bubbles, nor did she swim around the tank in an alarmingly energetic manner. There were tears at her grave side when the chain was pulled. She was a good fish.
But the image of grandma and Jacqui leading an afterlife of terror with a dinosaur lurking behind each tin of ambrosia was not one I wished to cultivate in the child's developing mind.
Left to my own devices I wouldn't have started the heaven thing in the first place. I'd have gone down the Circle of Life road - we all get turned into flowers and biscuits and so forth - even though in reality, with cremation being so popular, most of us get turned into greenhouse gases. Then again, eco-apocalypse comes later in the curriculum than dinosaurs, giving you a bit more time to get your story straight.
I could, of course, have denied the heaven thing altogether, but I'm not sure it's wise to contradict teachers, at least during the nursery years. Best to keep your powder dry until the economics teacher maintains that selective culling of the indigent is a valid tactic in the war against inflation and then go in really hard.
The next possibility seemed to be to give her a watertight vision of heaven, with all the logical leaks plugged, allowing no room for confusion. Theologians have been trying to construct such a model since before Plato, but still, I thought it was worth a stab as I sat there on the landing outside the lavatory with toilet paper wrapped around my hair as a ribbon in the way which she insists makes her bowels move more comfortably.
I rejected the notion that only the baptised go to heaven out of hand. Oh yes, it's attractive. It gets the dinosaurs out of the picture and accommodates Jacqui on the grounds that permanent aquatic immersion offers automatic entitlement to baptismal status. But it does beg the question, 'Where do the unbaptised go?' suggesting an alternative heaven where dinosaurs spend their time chasing Jews, an impression which could hamper the child's future celebration of our multi-faith, multi-cultural world.
Neither did the idea of a heaven exclusively reserved for the virtuous seem much use. I am no paleontologist, but I'm pretty sure that the fossil record contains little evidence of sin one way or the other. Could I put my hand on my heart and state that all dinosaurs were wicked? No, I couldn't.
I toyed momentarily with the proposition that chief among dinosaur sins was chasing, so you don't get chased by dinosaurs in heaven because only the non-chasey sort get in, but this, I reasoned, would lead to enquiries about where the chasey dinosaurs go. Heaven is a conundrum: hell an ontological war zone.
I took a deep breath and began to say, “We don't really know what happens after you're dead because nobody ever comes back to tell us,” but the words choked me. There is a time when one must face up to the finality of one's own death, and I'm saving that pleasure for my hundred and twentieth birthday. Do it before then and it can put you off your pudding.
If God had decreed that lying to children is wrong, He wouldn't have made it so easy.
“When creatures go to heaven they don't retain their own form,” I eventually told her. “No, all beasts - dinosaurs, people or fish - turn into tiny, but active glass trilbies. This fragile millinery spends all day grazing on insomnia and chirruping to the accompaniment of the even-tempered rotisserie. There's no chasing.”
The four-year-old thought hard. Her face ballooned. Her bowels moved.
“Okay, now tell me how we see with our eyes.”
Ever since I mentioned in this column that my father was a barber, my postbag has been glutted with hair queries. Many of them concern the use of hair oils. “The Few wore Bryclreem when they drubbed the Hun. Denis Compton wore it when he thrashed the Aussies. It was the Beatles, with their drugs and their sloppy surrealism, who rang the death knell for hair control. Isn't it time the government put two and two together, realised that a groomed nation is a strong nation, rounded up all those with floppy hair and put them out of harm's way behind razor-wire?” writes Mr E.C.U.Growl of Harms Way, Mansfield.
Let me tell you about Bryclreem, Mr Growl. Dad, being by his calling something of a specialist in all forms of hair preparation, was often called out by the Emergency Services to assist with quiff accidents, which were frighteningly frequent in the 1950s. I'll give you a couple of examples.
The Brosnan Brothers were identical twins. They went everywhere together and even dressed the same. In their pink and white eelskin suits, radium ties and two-tone eezi-kleen shoes, they were alike as two pimps. Both had the kind of haircut that attracted wolf-whistles from passing ducks, and cost them 4s 11d a day in brilliantine.
The twins often bathed together - tragically in a bathroom with an electric fire up on the ceiling. The flash point of hair-oil varies according to the natural greasiness of the individual and other catalytic factors. The naturally oleaginous Brosnans, with their well-greased high-crested quiffs just four feet away from a two-bar electric fire, were asking for trouble.
When dad, the Red Adair of hair fires, was called out, the conflagration was well established. Normally in a situation like this, you can take advantage of the natural fire break provided by the parting, but a Presley pompadour has no parting. The only thing dad could do was to go in wearing an asbestos suit and carefully place explosive charges in the crown and sideburns. The explosions quickly consumed all the neighbouring oxygen, thereby starving and extinguishing the fires. Sadly the experience left the brothers believing they were Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Sometimes we'd let them open fetes.
Apart from fire, the principal hazard connected with hair-oil was environmental. Brilliantined swimmers cause slicks. In those pre-green days the consequences to wildlife were not the main concern - a few oiled-up birds were seen more as a delicacy than a disaster: but water-skiing skids were taken very seriously indeed. Shooting on the Cliff Richard film “Summer Holiday” had to be halted several times. Both Cliff and the Shadows were big hair oil users. “We're going where the sea is blue,” they sang, but it was all the colours of the rainbow by the time they'd finished with it, and the poor water skiiers tumbled like ninepins. Eventually, director Peter Yates hired dad as consultant.
It was dad who first noticed Una Stubbs's freak powers of detergence. You simply had to roll her around on the surface of the water for a few minutes before each take, and the oil was all gone. Nobody could account for it. Some said it was the result of her having skin dry enough to consume a lake of moisturiser and still be left with flaky patches. Others claimed that her miraculous powers were a divine reward for a squeaky lifestyle. Whatever the reason, no meniscus was safe in her presence.
Nanette Newman, as you'd probably guessed from her ability to wash up for a whole girl-guide troop with just one squeeze of Fairy Liquid, is blessed with the same gift. During the Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaskan fishermen reported sightings of two mermaids frolicking in the Prince William Sound. Closer inspection revealed that it was just Una and Nanette doing their bit. It's suspected that the power is hereditary, so it's a penny to a quid that Nanette's daughter, the delightfully public spirited Emma Forbes, will be out in her bathing drawers the next time a tanker comes to grief.
At one time dad tried to put together a road show - himself, Una and Nanette - to travel around warning schoolchildren of the dangers of grooming, but the advent of the fab mop-tops and subsequent hair-oil slump happily rendered such action unnecessary.
So, there's your answer Mr E.C.U.Growl. You're an ignorant prat.