31 August 2008

What's in a name?

Johannesburg. Pic by Michael Heilemann
When we lived in South Africa I made an unusual friend.

It was 1994 and I was 31, but Vaatjie must have been nearly 40 when I knew him: a large man, a South-African man, a boertjie oke, and he looked it.  Indeed every inch of him looked the Afrikaans-speaking, beer-swilling, braai-loving no-nonsense-taking, very restless prop forward that he was.

There was something dangerous about him.

"I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, Alibert" he'd sometimes tell me over over his third Castle. He never elaborated but one winter afternoon outside the Loftus Versfeld I witnessed a chance encounter with an old acquaintance: a burst of Afrikaans swearwords (I'd learned those), raised voices and a flash of anger; and it was easy to believe him.

Vaatjie was a middle manager in a large South African bank where he was in charge of a chunk of one of their change programmes - the change programme that evidently required hot-shot, 31 year-old international management consultants to help run it. If ever there was a fish more out of water than Vaatjie hunched over a spreadsheet in the Programme Management Office, then I never saw it.

In twelve months living in Africa he was the only white person I ever heard speaking native languages to black people, "What was that?", I asked one time, after a bunch of kids had agreed that they would 'watch' my car for only 5 Rands, "Ah, look, man, it's a mixture, ja? but mostly Zulu, it's how people speak at work - in the mines in the farms". I asked him where he'd learned it  "Ah, see, Alibert I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks".

When we moved back home it was hard to keep in touch - he's not really much of a letter writer. In 1996 I was back in Jo'burg and I looked him up; we went to Ellis Park to see Gauteng Lions play the Crusaders and outside the stadium the women handing out leaflets for the local lap-dancing club greeted him by name.

Around 2000 Vaatjie emailed me to tell me that had been, as the South Africans have it, retrenched.  Like so many jobless bankers before him he found work in Saudi Arabia.  On the personal scale just as much as the international geography is destiny, and I live in England. He did come to London once - we saw England beat South Africa again - and that was the last time I saw him. It must be the best part of 10 years.

Vaatjie is pronounced Fikie. It's not a  name - it's a nickname; it means 'barrelly', in English he'd be called 'Tubby'. Not so dangerous after all.

27 August 2008

Good Things Come...

picture by bob the lomond
Is WH Smith the new Post Office?

Why does shopping there always involve standing in a painfully long, painfully slow moving queue? All I wanted was a Private Eye... 8 minutes!

For the longest time I imagined it was a problem just with the branches in Waterloo Station. Well, yes, all three of them. But holidaying around Britain last week I discovered that there's a queue in every single WH Smith in the land.

Is it that WH Smith is fewer, or dimmer, staffed? Do they have till software designed by ETS? Is it because they spend too much time trying to cross-sell Toblerone at the checkout?

I know, I know, I'm grumpy, but there's something cruel about returning to work, with London shrouded in some sort of permanent autumnal gloom, after a fortnight's break: two weeks, just doesn't work does it? Not long enough to forget your work-worries, only your password.

20 August 2008


Bass Rock bathed in Scottish sunshine. By D.Y
After nearly two weeks holiday in Scotland I think I can safely report that:
  • it's true: Global Warming really has stopped.
  • Indeed if the prevalence of wetsuits on the beach is any guide at all, then an ice age is imminent, again.
  • fortunately we can rely completely on the ever-present lukewarm rain in Northern Britain to melt the glaciers and save us from the spreading menace.
It has to be said that the Kingdom of Fife isn't at its best in the rain. Which is a shame, because it seems to rain a lot.

"Out in the distance", proffered our guide, as we traipsed round the local National Trust castle "you can see Bass Rock. Keep a wee watch on it ev'ry morn" [Look, you'll just have to imagine the accent, work with me here, OK?] "and ye'll see it's a different colour every day, do ye ken? Perhaps you've even noticed some different colours already in your stay?"

Yes. Grey.

At the Cocoa Tree cafe, chock full of damp tourists, I divulged to the cheery waitress that I was from London. "Oh, well ye'll be wanting the internet access, then", she said (No, she wasn't Scottish).

But she was right! It's not at all a bad place to sit and blog over a small and extraordinarily good cup of intense hot chocolate with a dash of chilli (recipe kept determinedly secret despite two separate and heartfelt requests)

"When I was your age, you know, we didn't have wetsuits", I sniffed to the Botogol children.
I felt about 74.

18 August 2008

From the Fringe..

Translation: It isn't very funny. With PR
like that, who needs critics?

The fringe festival is raw market capitalism at its best: while the official festival ballet and opera rest on their arts council subsidised backsides (more money than on wind farms, but less than on Olympic Cycling) the High Street throbs with hoards of performers pressing flyers into the hands of would-be play-goers, with hardly any hyperbole to speak of (we went to three world premières and fourteen five-star shows)

"Do you think they target who they give their flyers to" asked the Botogol girls, and their friend, after a particularly arduous ascent of the Royal Mile. We sat down over a deep-fried Mars bar with cider on the rocks, and compared our stash: the three teenage girls had received invitations to a dark drama about teenage suicide, the Women's stand-up comedy awards, a dark drama about bulimia nervosa and the Chippendales. I had scored a leaflet for The Scottish National Trust's Georgian House in Charlotte Square.

Later that evening, in an iconoclastic defiance of stereotype, I woke up Mrs Botogol to take her to the Supper Club in the Assembly Rooms at Midnight. I promised her relaxing cabaret, soulful jazz, tearful blues, the whole spiced with erudite and witty comedy. What we got was sub-1930s Berlin Cabaret, but more squalid and more low-brow. It's a good job we are broad-minded.

The lowlight of the show was the German MC in wig who sang songs of unbearable crudity, without rhyme or metre and totally devoid of wit. Perhaps in the original German they rhymed

The highlight? Well, Mrs Botogol told me not to mention the pale stripper who excitingly fought her way out of a gigantic parcel in a bikini (the stripper, not the parcel) for Mrs Botogol doesn't like strippers. So let's, rather, go with the middle-aged luridly eye-shadowed black man, 23 stone if he was a kilogram, encased from top to tail in a neon-pink lycra body suit, singing... well, I quite forget what he was singing, I was too busy shrinking into my chair trying to avoid attention, for I recognised him - indeed he knew us - for he was none other than the big guy who had plonked down in front of us earlier, and politely apologised for blocking Mrs Botogol's view "Don't worry, I'll be going in a moment".

Now on stage he picked us out of the crowd with no trouble and beamed and waved enthusiastically, flickering his mascara eyelids at us, until the music stoppped. I knew what was coming next.
"So what's your name dear", he asked me, "yes, yes, I do mean you"

I swallowed, sat up straight and looked him firmly in the eye: "I'm Brad Majors, and this is my fiancee, Janet Weiss"

13 August 2008

Protest Songs

petulance by Foxtongue
We were in the country (not far from the lip of the Cotswold escarpment etc, etc) and Mrs Botogol ordered a Chinese takeaway. "Ready in forty minutes", they said, so I had to set out immediately, taking a sandwich for the journey.

It came to exactly £90. Well there were 11 of us, and no one ever said that the countryside was cheap. Although it is low-tech:

"Sorry, no credit cards"

I was unaccountably furious. Red-mist, fist-slammingly cross. Why didn't they say on the phone?

I emptied all my pockets. Not enough.
"We do take cheques"
Cheques???? Cheques??? They might as well take ten-shilling postal orders. I haven't written a cheque since 2004.

I went back to the car and fetched the parking stash from the glove compartment and piled the tiny coins into a heap on the counter before the startled Chinese owner.

"There you are", through gritted teeth, "eighty-seven pounds and forty pence. It's. All. I. Have. You'll just have to take out £2.60's worth of food. HA!"

Protests don't make you popular, do they? I could almost hear my Mother's voice in my ear "Stop it Alibert, it's not big and it's not clever".

But protests are also irresistible.

I don’t remember much about my life before I was about seven; for instance I have no idea if I even wnet to nursery school, and from the two years at the primary school I attended from 1968 to 1970 just one event made a lasting impression on me, and that was a protest: a rainy day, an over-long playtime, and fifty or sixty of us mixed infants lined up in the yard desperate to be allowed back in.

It was Lester Deakin who took the blame for starting the singing: Why are we waiting? (And sung all the way through!) but it wasn't really fair: it had been all of us, but to my shame I didn't stand up for him and and that day, as well as the of futility of protest (we waited a long time in the rain that playtime) I also learned about the importance of isolating the the ringleaders, for it was poor hapless Lester who was sent to see the headmaster while we the rest of us filed sullenly past the incandescent Mrs Briers, back into our classrooms.

However the urge to protest has never left me, whether it is against the Chinese Government strutting self-importantly around my town or walking the entire route of the wrongly-compulsory Junior House Cross Country race in 1980 (no, it wasn't big and it wasn't clever) or sneaking unsuitable words into important, senior management Powerpoint presentations, or now harnessing the power of Google to tell the whole world to beware of the holiday apartment at 17 Dunhamish Street, Edinburgh for every single window has been painted shut and consequently it's stiflingly airless.

At the takeaway we were in a stand-off situation, but the owner was the one in possession of the silver topped cartons. She took out the Crispy Aromatic Duck (half) with Pancakes. "Hang on", I said, "that's worth more than £2.60". She opined that I wasn't really in a position to negotiate and I wondered if, on reflection, I could have handled the whole thing a little better; could I have been a bit bigger and bit cleverer?

For protests never work, do they?

Although the window one did! This morning a carpenter arrived and unstuck the kitchen, the bathroom and two bedrooms. Addresses have been changed to protect the - actually - very responsive.

09 August 2008

In the country

picture by Andrew Stawarz
Weary and footsore, we paused to rest at the very lip of the Cotswold escarpment.

The evening light had that dreamy, golden quality of a perfect English day, and we could see for miles. Far beneath us a real, live steam train crossed patchwork plains and centuries; and either Patagonian physics had spread to Gloucestershire, or the air was ozone clear for I could make out flocks of sheep grazing the slopes of the Malvern hills twenty miles away.

In the sixteenth century, so local legend has it, Thomas Cromwell sat just a few yards from our resting place and watched the righteous fires of the protestants consume Hailes Abbey where in happier time his friend Stephen Sagar had been Abbot.

Five hundred years on, in more peaceful times, we rested against a low gate set in a brand new, spanking-smart, dry stone wall. A Narnia-door to nowhere, at first glance the pointless gate merely connects two fields, but look sideways! ... it stands exactly at the mid-line between two newly planted avenues of trees that march from the field behind, two miles or more, down the escarpment, through the village of Wood Stanway, across a wood, all the way to the simply ludicrous but awesomely splendid Stanway Fountain, the largest gravity powered water jet in Europe.

The Stanway Estate was leased by Hailes Abbey to Richard Tracy in 1533, the very year of Henry VIII's divorce, with the writing on the wall for the Catholic Church in England. The Lessor was none other than our well connected Abbot Sagar who evidently understood not only the way the national wind was blowing, but also local politics, for when the Dissolution Act of 1536 was passed, who else was appointed head of the commission to dissolve Hailes Abbey but one Richard Tracy.

Sagar held out, negotiating terms, for three years, before he and his 21 monks finally acquiesced on Christmas Eve 1539.

The Abbey and its estates were eventually sold for a total of £539, and one can suppose that as both sitting tenant and vendor Tracy's purchase of the freehold of Stanway was on not unfavourable terms.... and that neither was Abbot Sagar disappointed with his pension of £100pa (His monks, you ask? ... £8). And now, get this, Stanway has remained in the Tracy family ever since. In these sort of deals is won possession of our green and pleasant land.

The last time we walked that way we were soaked to the skin, and it was miserable and misty.

Today it was just beautiful.