So who’s your neighbour today?

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Cartoon by Gary Larsson

It seems I’m in the habit of writing about plane journeys. But on a flight yesterday it was the peculiar lottery of seat allocation that got me thinking.

I’m a big fan of Gary Larsson cartoons and this one has always struck a particular chord. Who would be my armrest sharer for the next several hours, as we float about at 35,000 feet?

My husband always sits across the aisle from me – neither of us likes to have to ask our neighbour to fold their tray to the upright position to let us pass when it’s full of goodies that can barely be squeezed onto its already inclined surface.

And a window seat isn’t all its cracked up to be when the view is as exciting as that blue painting by Barnett Newman that once sold for $43 million at Sotheby’s.

So yesterday my husband got a young couple with a baby. “Aren’t I the lucky one?” he muttered as they approached down the aisle. They were late boarding, so he’d been smug about having three seats to himself.

The Dad was of that generation when it was fashionable to reveal the brand of your underpants by allowing the unnecessarily thick waistband to peep above the jeans. Except in his case, perhaps because he was very thin, his jeans had slid down further to the low-slung crotch position that makes walking a challenge. Especially walking with a baby strapped to your thorax.

On arrival the baby was released and plonked onto the middle seat, where it sat delighted in a perfect L-shape with its cherubic legs pointed towards Gatwick – as my tall husband waited in the S-bend position in the aisle.

Meanwhile I was a bit nervous about my own neighbour who was a strange bewhiskered old man who looked like a hybrid of several characters from The Hobbit. He was slight but multiple layers of clothing and a lot of fidgeting made him feel like a larger man.

I’d watched as he was helped into position by the steward as one might arrange a foldable but fragile artwork. The effort seemed to overwhelm him and for a while his wisp-covered chin dropped down into a dead-flop position that almost had me reaching for the call button.

As we taxied towards take-off, I surprised myself by suddenly asking him if his seatbelt was fastened. Not sure what brought on this mumsy moment, but he wearily lifted his upper layers to show me that it was.

Across the aisle the L-shaped baby had been lifted and resettled onto its mother’s lap by the window, with underpants Papa in the middle. It was one of those starers. In that way you often wish as an adult you could stare. Perhaps at some peculiarity – a very long nose or the unusual contents of someone’s sandwich.

Then I realised who it reminded me of. The retired England rugby player who’s now a team captain on TV’s most boring programme A Question of Sport, Matt Dawson.

Baby Dawson was not only bald but had a freakishly large head. I hoped he was going to be a genius. But I also worried for whichever parent might be holding him in the event of major turbulence in case a rapid head movement knocked them unconscious.

Now Thorin’s grandad began the first of many trembly rummages. It was almost Mr Bean-esque, although I’m not sure his tongue actually came out during the process. After about ten minutes he extricated a small folded section of newsprint from his jacket pocket which turned out to be the Culture section of a broadsheet paper.

He later ordered a double Bacardi and single Coke and sat with it poured out untouched as he drummed his fingers on the tray and allowed his head to flop again. I’m pleased to say he was still alive when we disembarked.

Of course, armrest neighbours can be a pleasant surprise. My best ever was one of those people who raise your spirits for the rest of the day and beyond. A delightful bright-eyed 70-something lady who’d run an independent bookshop in a Sussex village. I could have listened to her all the way to Buenos Aires, but sadly we were only going to Malaga.

 

 

 

Remembering my Dad (1918-2008)

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“All that we love deeply becomes a part of us” (Helen Keller)

Yesterday I had a two-fold daughterly mission. To furnish my mother with a new, easier-to-use mobile phone. And to take a bunch of orange roses up to my father’s grave. This week is the tenth anniversary of his death – so today’s blog is in his memory.

Strange, these days partly devoted to the living and partly to the dead. It is as though one wafts over an invisible line somewhere in the sky between the two. And although in general I find cemeteries creepy, I feel quite differently about the one inhabited by my father’s remains. It’s almost as though because he’s there it must be an OK place.

To say he was everything to me sounds melodramatic. But it was true at the time; it was true when I was a child. As a teenager I put up the usual fierce fights and I now recognise he was often too protective of me. But he never stopped (and never will) being very very important in my life. My mother said it the day before his funeral, when I had a meltdown about ‘viewing’ him: “Ah yes … everything you were to each other”. It was so reassuring that she understood.

I’ve since had many conversations with girlfriends who feel the same way about their fathers.

Mine was Spanish, born in Barcelona. And crucially, I believe, for the man he became, he was caught up in the Spanish Civil War as a Republican soldier. Exiled in the bitterly cold early months of 1939 to one of the brutal concentration camps set up on French beaches, he later escaped and found himself in London. Quite alone, without a word of English, aged just 20 or 21. The details are sketchy and I will always regret not pressing him for more.

What’s certain is he graduated from Birmingham University and began a long career at the BBC, broadcasting news back to a Spain repressed by Franco’s regime. His story of survival has knocked me into shape many times when I have wobbled over much more minor obstacles.

Dad was an intensely private man. Although he had an air of casual charm, he often gave way to anxieties over matters others might consider trivial. But for those who knew him and with whom he made friends, he was loyal, attentive and often very, very funny.

He would always notice the small details of life. The way the feathers on his aunt’s canary would rise – just a little – when you talked to it, as if it was embarrassed by the attention. Or the subtle differences in the way the Germans and the French play mini-golf.

And he made a lifelong hobby of studying the peculiarities of us – the British. Our pallor. The way men enjoy sitting alone in a pub staring into a pint glass. How he once saw a woman apologise to a dachsund after treading on its paw.

But his gentle mockery of his adopted country belied a real fondness for many things English: tennis at Wimbledon, the fashion for wearing hats, Sherlock Holmes, cream teas and having cats as pets.

One thing I’ve learnt in these 10 years since our lives officially stopped overlapping is how those we have physically lost have a way of popping up again unexpectedly. Most notable is the discovery of my father’s voice as one of the recording artists on the Spanish CDs I’ve used recently to teach my adult evening classes. So now he ‘helps’ me explain, to groups of unaware students, the Preterite tense or useful expressions for food shopping.

I’ve learnt something else too. It used to concern me that as time ticked on the dead might slip further and further away from us. That they would somehow become more ‘inaccessible’ with each passing year and we’d need a stronger lens to make them out in the increasing haze. But that’s not true. If anything changes it’s us, not them, and the way we choose to remember.

 

 

Foreign words: how (not) to be a Brit

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Tony Blair ‘Bonjour a tous….’ (2007)

Two high-profile individuals from different parts of the world dominated recent headlines for meeting their premature deaths in gruesome circumstances. These sad events also presented non-native reporters and commentators with a major pronunciation challenge: how to say their names.

Should this be an issue? Yes, I think it should. Say, I were a famous novelist who met an untimely end. It would be nice to think they’d got my name right and didn’t just hurry it through as Jenny Ravioli or Jenny River-Areola. Ha ha, yes, but these are real and frequent (spoken) examples and they are wearing thin.

So should the unfortunate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, whose surname is almost as long as that Welsh railway station, be pronounced ‘Wee-chai Sea Wattena Prappar‘ (per several BBC reporters and newsreaders) or more like ‘Vee-chai Shriva Dana Prava’ according to Al Jazeera English and others?

And was poor Jamal Khashoggi ‘Cash-Odd-She’ (a popular option), ‘Ha-Sod-Jee’ (newsreader Shaun Lay), or ‘Cash-Shid-Jee’ (Turkey’s President Erdogan)? Or even, as Eve Pollard suggested on this week’s Start The Week, ‘Ha-Shag-Jee’? Which sounds more like a tasteless headline from one of the red-tops she used to edit.

Anyway weren’t namesakes Soraya and her erstwhile husband the dodgy arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi usually referred to, in the UK at least, as ‘Cash-ogg-i’? In other words, just what the word looks like to a British reader.

When I began working for the BBC in the 1980s, there was a dusty little office (now long gone) on the fourth floor of Broadcasting House labelled ‘Pronunciation Unit’. Inside lived a small team of dedicated professionals who would rather have been strangled by their old school ties than have wrongly advised a BBC newsreader on how to pronounce ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’ or ‘the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole’. I’m sure I remember Angela Rippon’s eyebrows rising even higher as she said their names.

So the BBC was proud to set the standard – but of course Joe Public was allowed to get it wrong. In fact we Brits hate no-one more than a show-off. In a kind of inverted snobbery, we even take pride in speaking foreign languages with an appalling accent. Like the ubiquitous Brit on the flight to Malaga who loudly says ‘Moo-chose Grassy-arse’ after being delivered of his fourth G&T and then laughs so much it makes his belly wobble over his ill-fitting shorts.

To many, even that is preferable to Tony Blair trying to demonstrate his good French – as here in 2007. I wish I could feel happier that he made the effort, but admit I only managed the first few sentences because he sounded and looked a little too pleased with himself.

As to our current prime minister – we can’t even agree whether Theresa should rhyme with geezer or razor. But she, at least, is more British in her approach to French with a stiff upper (and lower) lip delivery at this January meeting with Emmanuel Macron. 

All in all, it feels depressingly like a demonstration of Brexiteer insularity. Macron, of course, follows in impeccable English.

My English mother, in an attempt to bond (or narrow the communication gulf) with her Spanish sister-in-law, took a different approach. She tried to imagine how the Spanish might say it. She’d occasionally mention ‘Shack-es-pay-are-ray’ – our great bard from ‘E-strat-for’. This was usually met with a blank expression and an impatient shrug, which made me wish Mum had stuck with the real pronunciation.

But I admit I do advise the students in my Spanish evening classes to do something similar. After a frustrating visit to a pharmacy in Andalucia many years ago, I tell them if they want Vicks VapoRub they should ask for ‘Veece-Vappo-Roo‘. When in Spain…

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Theresa May: the modest but less polished approach (2018)

I’ll only ‘Alight here’ if you inspire me

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The only thing that marred a relaxing off-peak train journey up to London this week was looking out of the window at Clapham Junction (alias ‘Britain’s busiest railway station’) and seeing an annoying little sign tacked onto the bottom of the station name saying ‘D&G and You’re on the move’. On closer inspection it turned out to be an ad for Douglas & Gordon estate agents which one assumes is providing sponsorship for … what? Perhaps a ladies’ loo on Platform 9.

At least this one didn’t say ‘Home of D&G….’. That’s especially depressing – that a station name (and thus the whole town it represents) so often carries a tag-line for what must be the least interesting establishment that’s chosen to settle there.

Altrincham for example, an attractive Cheshire market town, is ‘Home of mlp Law’, while West Byfleet in Surrey is summarised even more drearily as ‘Home of West Hall Care Home’. The latter may well be a splendid place, but I’d rather settle my own parent in one that doesn’t need to advertise.

Reluctant to believe that all station sign addenda are so tedious, I found the railwaycodes.org website – a mecca for trainspotters de nos jours who, presumably missing the excitement of steam, have had to diversify into everything railway-related to keep the adrenalin flowing.

On a page dedicated to ‘Sponsored stations’ (I kid you not) I learned that Reading is the ‘Home of Green Park’ and Cambridge the ‘Home of Anglia Ruskin University’. I’m not arguing, but aren’t these going to confuse American tourists? Turns out this Green Park is the business sort anyway.

Meanwhile, long-suffering Salisbury is surely further diminished by being simply ‘Home of James Hay Partnership’. Never mind the world-famous cathedral with its 123-metre spire, here is a real reason to travel from Moscow for a weekend break.

Some sound plain immodest. ‘Wolverhampton – Shaping the World’ (which seems to be a promotion for Birmingham City University). Other educational examples have combined the rule of three with a celebration of dullness. ‘Northampton. Welcome to Northampton. Home of the University of Northampton.’ Or four: ‘Nottingham. Home of the University of Nottingham. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk. The University of Nottingham.’

All of which make me want to emigrate immediately and gaze instead out of the window of a Continental train on a branch line Michael Portillo might have taken with his trusty Bradshaw guide.

Or wish I’d lived in the more lyrical era of the old railway posters, tempting travellers to a green belt long lost to suburbia: ‘A country outing. Horsenden Hill. Book to Perivale, Sudbury or Harrow.’ The era of Betjeman’s Metroland, when sponsorship knew its place, and station signs might have read: ‘Perivale. Parish of enormous hayfields’ or ‘Pinner. Sepia views of leafy lanes.’ And Ruislip Gardens could have been ‘Home of Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer’.

John Lloyd and Douglas Adams’ priceless The Meaning of Liff definitions could also do much to spice up a dreary commute. These 1980s bestsellers took place names and invented meanings for them as if they were ordinary nouns. Thus, stopping at Kettering one would read ‘Kettering – the marks left on your bottom or thighs after sunbathing on a whicker chair’ or ‘Norwich – any kind of snack where the filling drops out.’

But my favourite real station sign is: ‘Cleethorpes – Welcoming visitors since 1863’. It seems almost confessional. That before that date they hadn’t quite got the hang of being nice to people even though, according to Wikipedia, it was already a popular health resort and bathing centre in the 1820s. Or how about: ‘Cleethorpes – the small surface areas on the inside of knees that clamp together in hot weather.’*

*not from The Meaning of Liff

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(Proof for the sceptics – see Comments)

 

 

Man and dog: it is what it is

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Image reproduced by kind permission of the artist: Sam Toft

 

It’s a warm evening in a quiet church square in Andalusia. Opposite the church is a bar. There are usually people at one or two of the outside tables, but rarely more. Often, one of these tables is occupied by a tall German man with sparse and closely cropped white hair. He likes to sit and watch, his thin face registering passers by. Or, when there are none, he watches the pigeons shifting on the church ledge. At his feet is a cocker spaniel, mainly white with some brown patches arranged as though to make him even more appealing. The spaniel has a narrow, soulful expression. Both are probably around 80 in their species’ years. And they seem to belong together utterly.

So what? You may ask. This picture – of a man and his dog – is replicated everywhere, every day. I have learnt this dog is called Bonito, because I stopped to admire him and this was the first piece of information proffered in a very short exchange. Bonito translates literally as ‘pretty’ but in the case of this male dog the intention was more likely ‘cutely attractive’.

One day I saw the German at the bar without Bonito – and I worried. I could only have raised an eyebrow from some distance, but the German knew. “He is alive,” he said, “in the park with my wife”. I felt disproportionately relieved and a bit foolish.

Another dog in the village resembles a teddy bear as much as any dog could – so much so one might expect it to be under the arm of a little girl. And it stands on legs that, although the full quota of four, stick out like an irregular tripod. Its owner, though, is also a man, and they too sit daily at the same table – of a different bar.

I’m not sure why the man-dog connection touches me so. Millions of women love their dogs. And every dog adores its owner, male or female. Perhaps it’s that this particular pairing allows men to come close to a public display of love which, though rarely overt, is clearly implied. And the quieter and more nonchalant it is, the more moving too.

The artist Sam Toft completely gets it. She has created a character (Ernest Hemingway Mustard) who she usually depicts with a Jack Russell. They are rarely doing more than ‘being together’. There’s one painting called Our daily mooch in which they simply stroll past a row of beach huts. Ernest always wears a large billowing coat. And the portly terrier replicates the shape. Strange how often that’s true, that one appears as an echo of the other. It can be more subtle than resemblance. More of an air. Like human couples who’ve been together forever.

Film Director Carlos Sorín gets it too. His movie Bombón: El Perro, tells the story of a struggling Patagonian mechanic who develops a growing affection for a large, white and ugly dog. The abiding image of the film for me is the two of them sharing the bench seat of his truck driving through Argentina’s wide landscape into an uncertain future.

Each example of this silent symbiosis is pure visual poetry. It’s not so much the dog that stays with me. But the man who is enriched just being by his side.

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From Bombón: El Perro (2004)

 

For more on Sam Toft, visit https://samtoft.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

Can a supermarket reflect a nation?

My friend C who lived in Oslo for many years swears a trip to the supermarket will tell you all you need to know about the national character. When I visited her one summer, the first port of call was her local store. Not recalling its name now, I had a quick search and found Coop Obs! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of it), Bunnpris and Joker. I think it might have been Joker, though all three sound a bit of hoot. But from what I remember the experience was fairly low-key. And though I did come away with a tin of reindeer balls (as in meatballs, not the other – though who knows?), I didn’t feel brave enough to make a quip to the Nordic on the till.

I’m spending a few days in Spain (a country I know well) so decided to put C’s theory to the test this weekend. There’s no doubt that an hour in a Spanish supermarket – unless you go at 3pm when self-respecting locals are at home indulging in what they’ve bought and there are only a few stray Germans looking for bratwurst – is quite different from its UK equivalent.

Mercadona is the one I favour. The branches I know are about the same size as a typical Sainsbury’s but there the similarity ends. So how does this food emporium (because that’s what it is) reflect the Spanish character? Partly it’s what we’ve come to expect from any Latin market: abundant, colourful – and full of variety, whether of cured hams or tinned barnacles. But here are some specific pointers:

1 – Volume

In the mornings, you practically need earplugs. There is no chance (as there might be at Waitrose) of hearing the sound of someone dropping a yogurt pot or surreptitiously squeezing a baguette. Customers are too busy yelling at each other across the aisles, asking how each other’s mothers are (I think this may be a deep-seated Catholic thing) and marvelling at how well a neighbour has recovered from a gall bladder operation.

2 – Supplies

Unless you go after 3pm on Saturday (see above – when many supplies are already on the plate or being marinaded for Sunday) they are always plentiful. No sooner has a pile of artichokes or giant green peppers run down than another 10 kilos is tumbled into the container. The deafening noise is partly down to an army of shelf-stackers with loud trolleys and loud voices who are so efficient you’d think they were afraid for their jobs. And perhaps they are: Cadiz province has the highest unemployment per capita in Spain.

3 – Weighing-machine etiquette

There isn’t any. Despite being half a native, I am still shocked by this. If you pause for breath with a bag of peaches in your hand, even if it is clear you were there first and are on a roll, it is not unusual for someone to reach over your shoulder and dump a few kilos of potatoes onto the scales, forcing you to wait. This brings me out in an English harrumph every time, which is duly ignored. It’s a similar pattern at the till. If you only have a few items and see a large trolleyful in front, it’s common to assume you can go first – and almost unheard of to be refused. So, in a Spanish version of laissez-faire, it cuts both ways.

4 – Fish know-how

I should say this branch of Mercadona is close to the sea. But, even so, the sight of the fish section (‘counter’ is just too modest and misleading) makes me swoon every time. All of marine life is there, proud, glistening and whole. Not only that, whatever you choose is prepared exactly as you want it in seconds. A contrast to one Waitrose fish counter employee who told me she didn’t have the required health and safety training to gut the fish she was selling me.

And if you don’t know your ‘langostinos’ from your ‘gambones’, it will be explained brusquely but kindly – a combination the British seem to find impossible. Most likely the customer standing next to you will chip in too, with advice on the best way to cook it. I’m still a fish ignoramus, but I learn something on every Mercadona visit.

So, yes, this Spanish supermarket is loud and business-like, queue-denying yet friendly and most of all celebratory. Just like the Spanish themselves.

I never ate the reindeer balls by the way. There always seemed to be something more tempting. But if anyone has tried them, do say…?

 

Just empty the mind? No way…

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Joining a swanky new yoga centre this summer has confirmed a suspicion I’d long held. That I am not one to have relaxation forced upon me by words or suggestion alone. While I have taken to fast-flowing 26-degree yoga like a lizard to a hot wall, I signed up for the wrong class today.

The plan (and I am paraphrasing wildly of course) was to help us empty our minds of all the little things that scurry around in them and as a result overcome mental obstacles to new and more worthwhile ventures. So what’s not to like?

And this while we were doing some simple but oddly unpleasant stretches or, later, doing nothing at all while lying over a bolster.

So as we sat with our torsos doubled up forward and our heads touching the floor, the instructor dropped a sandbag onto our backs. We were supposed to notice how our breathing became deeper and longer. Well not mine. Perhaps I’m alone in preferring that the sub-conscious mind (System 1) gets on with this vital function, allowing the conscious part (System 2) to deal with the stuff it’s needed for, including the to-do-list. The combination of upside-down lungs and an extra weight pressing down almost brought on a panic attack induced by Systems 1 and 2 together.

My mind will only empty if it is either first invigorated by lots of exercise that triggers whichever neurotransmitter will help me unwind, or if I am in a wide landscape that reminds me of my smallness in the world – and the insignificance of all those daft things on the to-do-list. The Little Karoo in South Africa springs to mind, but on a good day I can get the feeling at some of those National Trust properties where they own all the land up to the horizon and you can gaze at it while sipping a cup of Earl Grey and munching Victoria sponge.

But now it was to Ganesh we should turn. There were two wall-hangings of this elephant-headed Hindu deity who is supposed to help us be successful by sweeping aside negative thoughts. I couldn’t help noticing his big tummy, perhaps a result of his known penchant for sweet things – he’d probably enjoy membership of the National Trust too.

But the inaction of the class and the succession of poetic lines (of the Desiderata type) designed to clear away mental detritus only wound my mind up into a frenzy of unconnected thoughts. Wasn’t it strange that nearly all the men in my new Spanish evening class were either bald or almost bald? That, viewed from the back, my cat’s arthritic legs look more and more like a Queen Anne table. And was it the person lying next to me, or next-but-one who had nodded off and was making tiny little sounds like a snoring marmoset or someone getting over a head cold?

At least this class wasn’t as bad as another years back labelled ‘soundscape’. At that one we listened to a gong for 20 minutes and then had to lie still for the remainder of the hour. It felt like a torture imposed by a twisted headmistress at a 1950s primary school. And I’d had time to log every light switch in my house, plot a novel, and choose where the stops should be if a tram system were miraculously introduced in our town. At the end we were asked if we’d like to share our thoughts with the group. I had to resist the urge to say: “Yes, well definitely one outside Waitrose, then up to the tennis club – and we’ll make Argos just a request stop I think …”