Saturday, 29 September 2012

When In Doubt Chicken Out

When you think of the times we have come to blows with China throughout history, the Korean War will probably be the most memorable event. For those with a greater knowledge it will be the First or Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion or the incident on the Yangtse when H.M.S.Amethyst was fired upon.

The one which doesn't readily spring to mind is the pitch battle outside the Chinese Legation in London. In August 1967 Red Chinese wielded iron bars and traded punches with police and members of the public who had been demonstrating and taunting the officials. The result was a draw with equal injuries on all sides.

The Cultural Revolution was at its height and some Chinese were standing on the pavement quoting from Mao's Little Red Book and the place was ugly until a truce was called.

I am used to seeing people's passions running high and situations escalating quickly. I have found myself an innocent bystander in a riot in Warsaw once, where the police were lobbing teargas cannisters indescriminately at the crowd. I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time in London, when police were charging at a group of people with their batons raised.

What do you do?

I took the least brave and ran like f**k in the opposite direction. Boldness be my friend and all that, but self preservation kicks in. At times being a bus driver brings out the same responses.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Allo, Allo, Allo Now What's Going On Here? My Many Brushes With The Law

Not many people can say they have been searched for by the head of the Metropolitan Police (or the Comissioner of Police of the Metropolis to be absolutely correct) in person. When on my gap year or two in Australia,  I had been having such a good time that letters or any form of communication home had become non-existant. My worried parents mounted a search party and as luck would have it, the future top policeman, who was then just Chief Constable of a regional force, happened to be going out to Brisbane on holiday.

He arrived equipped with my last known address, the appropriately named London Road - no number - no suburb - simply London Road, Brisbane, Queensland. However on arrival in Brisbane, he discovered that there were many London Roads and London Streets. Undeterred he set off and managed to go to all bar the one I was actually living in. He never found me. Nonetheless it was a remarkable achievement for anyone to spend some of their precious holiday searching for a semi-dysfunctional son who was living too much of the good life.

It would be economical with the truth to say that it was my first 'brush with the law.' At the age of five I remember a Squad car (pictured above) coming to the door. Though I look remarkably calm and interested, I seem to recollect that was just a veneer and I ran off into the bushes and hid. I was petrified they had come to arrest me for a succession of evil deeds over the last few months;

- asking my mother whether she liked bonfires. When she said yes I went and put a match to the tablecloth ....... while it was still on the table,

- stealing an extra 3d bit when I had already been given the bus fare,

- locking an elderly nanny in the cupboard under the stairs. Fortunately she was burly enough to push the door so hard that the hinges broke and nanny, the door and a whole lot of other stored stuff came flying out and landed in a heap on the floor,

- and probably the worst was going into the wood, do a No. 2, carefully wrap it in wrapping paper and hand it to my grandmother telling her that I had a present for her.

No wonder I ran off at the sight of the Police. I was an evil child at best. It didn't get any better as I got older. Dysfunctionality as a teenager abroad was forseeable on past performance. Later I was put in my place by a policeman. It was on New Year's Eve, just outside Trafalgar Square. It was 1982, the year when two women were crushed near the barriers. It caused massed panic and the crowd turned and ran. It was one of the most frightening things I have ever been in. You had no control, having to walk fast in the direction being pushed from behind by a huge weight. Blimey, I thought, if I fall or trip now, I'm a gonner. One of the girls in our party did just that and the crowd ignored her and trampled her like a cattle stampede. I managed to hold her hand. As the crush abated, one man stood on her and remained standing on her so that he could get a better view. I swore at him. Obviously I swore loudly because he immediately got off and from behind a John Nash Regency pillar protruded a helmet head.

'Oi, you,' yelled the policeman. 'You with that language must have gone to school at Harrow.'

In a bizarre moment, I forgot about all the mayhem around me and felt briefly despondent, before laughing. I had been to school at 'the other one' Harrow's deadliest rival. I wandered off to find a bar which would, in the most unlikely event be open, with a warm glow inside me.

In times of adversity the British are still the best.  

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Funny Faces And Heart Humiliation

How do we see ourselves? How do I see others? Do I think all French artists look like the above? Will I end up looking like this? Do I look like this already?

Does my wife look like this? Will she ever? What does she think?

I have no idea. I sometimes ask myself these sorts of questions as I look at myself in the mirror each morning. I like looking at myself in the mirror. Not out of vanity, but out of interest. I try to amuse myself by making funny faces, see how far I can raise each eyebrow and distort various muscles in a way that promotes an amateur form of gurning. I have been inspired by the Gurning Championships which are held each year in Cumbria at the Egremont Crab Fair.

A little too inspired as I received some strange stairs from other motorists when I practiced in my car mirror, to try and relieve the boredom of waiting for the accident ahead to be cleared. Though I came off better than a friend who used to tell me that one of the best facial expressions is to put your hand in front of your mouth and as you remove it say- 'Prunes', which makes you appear to be blowing a kiss. He unwisely said 'Prunes' to a truck driver who had cut in on him and carved him up. The trucker's reaction was to get out of his truck and punch my friend on the nose.

The rest of the journey was agony and humiliating, he said, because everyone he spoke to on the hands free microphone of his mobile phone aked him if he had a very heavy cold.  

I understand humiliation. It has happened to me all through my life. It is not a bad way of stopping me getting too arrogant or pompous. It happened to me recently when I tripped over a branch while mowing the lawn and damaged the muscles in my thigh.

It was awkward having to tell the organiser of my Heart Rehab Class (I have to since having three stents in my heart) ?' that I couldn't make in front of many more senior patients eyes who were recovering from far worse conditions than my own.

Eyes were raised all round the room.

So What's New?

'So, tell me babe what's new? And how the scene is with you?' sung Peggy Lee in 1966. Not a lot is the answer. 46 years later, the British are still mesmerised by the weather. Yes the floods were bad yesterday in places, but they've been worse.

I loved listening to a woman being interviewed in her flooded house, somewhere in the North by a radio reporter asking silly questions.

'So how do you feel? Will you have to sell your house?'

'NO,' said the lady, horrified at such a thought. 'We're quite used to this. It's fine. Everyone rallies around. Everyone helps. It usually gets the carpet, but we've lifted it and it's got the underlay this time.'

She was cheerful and honest. In a world where everything is on tenterhooks, it was wonderful to hear some straightforward common sense. 

'The only thing we get mad at, is these motorists who stop outside to take photos. White van was stopped this morning while I was baling out the water. When they do that, their cars seem to push the water back through the front door.'

At that precise moment you could hear someone shouting in the background.

'That's just my neighbour,' she replied.

Yes they were writing letters about the weather in the 1960's.

And as for what is about to happen in Scotland - the political parties were banging away years ago too.

I find it all rather consoling.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Anyone For Tennis? My Failed Sporting Career

The clever thing about Wimbledon, a friend reminded me, is the fact that it has changed dramatically, yet kept the same atmosphere without anyone noticing. Different from other large sporting events, barring the rowing at Henley and a few others, which have succumbed to the X Factor school of presentation and encourage drinking, flashing cash and other ways in which to show off.

Wimbledon has quietly changed its always good facilities into outstanding ones with state-of-the-art grandstands with sliding roofs etc. This has made sure it has maintained its rightful place as the best tennis tournament in the world by a mile.

Look at the above list. It was always organised in a slick military way. It would be interesting to see how many people are employed today. Probably not many by the Club itself, but there may well be more agency and sub-contracted staff.

I love tennis. I have always had a great admiration for Andy Murray, partly for his superb athleticism but mainly because I have always viewed him as the original 'Grumpy Scot' with a very good, hidden dry, sense of humour. On the basis that it takes one to know one, Andy will improve with age and may well become an excellent and funny commentator in years to come. Just look at John McEnroe. Who would have thought he would be such a great comentator when he was stomping around the court, smashing racquets as he tried vainly to beat Bjorn Borg.

As for the Accidental Bus Driver's career on the tennis court? The best way to describe it is in similar terms to his driving. Patchy. Good in parts. Promises much yet fails to deliver. In fact my complete sporting career I can be summed up in the following events and here is some good advice associated with my failures:-.

1. Never play football with a relative and a dog. I did. Whilst playing football with my brother, my mother's wild Dalmatian called Sheila (she was called Sheba when she came from the dog pound but my mother vhanged her name), who loved the sport, came hurtling down the hill, missed the ball and connected with my ankle sending me tumbling. I ripped all the ligaments. My ankle was never the same again. My unpromising career at the time became even more hopeless.

2. Never play snooker with jockeys. I did - in Hong Kong once. Never again. They looked so innocent before they say 'let's have a little bet' before playing like Hurricane Higgins and relieving you of a great deal of money. I was taken to the cleaners in Hong Kong. One of the jockeys, Brian Taylor, who had won the 1974 Derby on Snow Knight and four years later tragically died after the horse he was riding, Silver Star, stumbled and threw him out the saddle at the finishing line, smoked a pipe as he cleared the table in one sitting.

3. For a safe life avoid jockeys altogether. They love the high life. They used to head for the most dubious of clubs. Once I took an American jockey around London. As I drove, he sat on the front seat, on his girlfriend's lap in the front seat and everytime I pointed out a famous landmark, he would enthusiastically shout 'Wow!'.

4. Never agree to take part in a charity running race at a greyhound track. I did. At Hall Green in Birmingham. I had no choice. My boss entered me in, with some other representatives from rival bookmakers, a Warwickshire county cricketer, a small time actor, whose name I cannot remember and Sonia Lannaman who had just won a Bronze Medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 4 x 100 m Relay. It was meant to be a bit of fun.

It wasn't.

It was an arduous trip from London to Hall Green in those days. No M25 and the M40 only went as far as the outskirts of Oxford. I wasn't meant to be there. I had entered a girl from our firm, who when she was not working for us was a near top class athlete. The race was at 9pm. She rang at 5pm saying she had a bad cold.

'You'll have to do it,' said my boss. 'There's no other option. Go now.'

I jumped in the car and arrived just as the others were limbering up. The cricketer took me to the bar and made me sink a couple of pints, which I later realised was a deliberate attempt to nobble me as he thought it would be like giving a horse a bucket of water before a race. He needn't have bothered as I was a smoker then. A heavy smoker. Between 40 and 60 a day.

The other bookmakers representatives were already on the track. They were dressed in the latest athletics garb, looking every inch the professional, feigning the fact that they were unfit and hiding the truth actual that they had been in serious training for the last six weeks. As I had left London in a hurry I had no clothes, so I had to take off my jacket and tie, and ask for a pair of scissors to make my white jeans into shorts just above the knee. In the hurry the symmetry was all wrong and one side was above, while the other covered the knee.

We were paraded in front of the stands. As the spectators were behind glass, there were few detrimental comments, though I did hear a gateman say:

'Look it's Del Boy's twin brother,' as I walked past.

We walked as the bugle tune 'First Call' was played over the loudspeakers, as it usually was when the six greyhounds were paraded before any race. We were taken round the bend, lined up in starting blocks and started by a starting pistol. The bookmakers representatives shot off into the distance, closely followed by the cricketer. I lolloped a long way behind and Sonia Lannaman gently trotted a metre or so behind the puffing billy. We jumped a hurdle and with all my effort, I thought that the indignity of finishing 5th out of 6 would soom be superceded with the pride of beating a Commonwealth Champion. This was not to be as with ten yards to go, Sonia Lannaman swept past with grace and ease as if she was walking up her garden path.

Afterwards I stood at the bar, trying to ease the pain. I did. But not the humiliation as, having no other clothes, I stood there in my frayed, uneven shorts.

5. Never take on past champions who are now pensioners. I did. On several occasions and to my cost.  Henry Cotton was as good at golf in his later years. Runners can still run fast. Footballers can still score.

So, if you are tempted by an elder who was a good athlete in their time, who suggests having a little wager for interest's sake - take care, be wary.

You have been warned.  

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Trouble With Being 6' 6" And A Half - Stay Away From Tanks

Stopping at a petrol filling station last night brought not only a most unusual sight, but some unhappy memories as well. Parked at the HGV pump was not a truck or a bus or even a tractor, but a tank. A military tank. A soldier was was standing alongside, filling her up (if tanks are indeed female). It was a surreal sight which stopped other motorists in their tracks. People got out of their cars and gawped.

The soldiers were great. They posed with children for photos. 

'Is there a problem?' a customer asked the man behind the till.

'No. Why?'

'Seeing the tank, I thought that some of the locals might have got out of hand.'

'Aye,' said another who was waiting in line to pay. 'I remember Esso used to say Put A Tiger In Your Tank,  but this is going too far.'

Me? I thought about something completely different. I thought about the difficulty of being 6' 6" and a half, or 1.99 metres in newfangled language. There a tendency in today's world towards tallism and everything being catered for the average, the smaller and the wider. Low cost airlines, train companies, car manufacturers, clothing stores, shoemakers and many others make life difficult for us ganglier and heightened members of society.

The army too. Seeing that tank brought back horrible memories of the one time I drove a tank. It should have been one of the greatest excitements in life. The sheer exhillerance of being in control of such power, charging through the countryside, demolishing anything in my path.

Instead I got my knee wedged between joy sticks and the side of the tank, meaning that we went round and round, on the spot at speed, like some grotesque fairground ride. The Sergeant managed to claw his was onto the front, defying dizziness and poked his head into the driver's compartment and yelled:

'Turn the f***ing engine off, sir. Turn the f***ing engine off now.'

I couldn't reach the keys, so he had to do it. That was my one and only attempt. The Sergeant made it plain that he would resign if I ever set foot in any armoured vehicle again, in any way except as a passenger. Maybe it was a lucky break. 

I met one incredibly brave Soviet tank commander once, who found his position being overrun by the enemy and ordered his own guns to fire on him. Miraculously he was one of the few tanks which survived the bombardment, but the battle was won and he received a Hero of the Soviet Union medal. He was braver than one of his colleagues, who came over to do a publicity launch for a charity in the UK. Following the formality of the official ceremony in the boardroom at a well known company, one of the staff noticed that an old gold lighter, which had sat on the boardroom table for a hundred years, had disappeared. Many suspected it had found its way into the officer's briefcase and was taken back to Russia.

I do not know about modern day tanks, whether they have better legroom. I daren't go near them. My father's favourite song was ironically George Formby's Frank On His Tank:

'He does look a swank, does Frank on his tank,
He does look a swank, does Frank
See him dashing around with
The clickety-clickety-clank.....'

I felt I'd let him down a little. I was definitely no swank.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

China Commands The English Language - Er .... Maybe Not

English is a difficult language to muster at the best of times. Pronounciation, grammar and vocabulary are challenging as is the difference between written English and spoken English. What probably confounds every foreigner are the nuances around the British humour which is widely found even in the most unlikely corners.     Sarcasm, understatement, sublety, disgusting, 'ooh er Missus', 'nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more', political and insulting asides and sharp jokes in times of adversity must take some mastering.

It is no surprise to say that the most amusing English is written by the Chinese. It is technically the best (far better than I write or speak) but the nuances go over their heads, hence making it funny. I know they were technically correct calling the hotel in Shandong where I stayed, the Traffic Mansion. It was situated on a busy intersection. The copper plaque from the bathroom, describing the state of the water (above) is now in my bathroom. It makes me smile each morning.

'Will you check our business brochure?' asked one of the civil servants based in the town municipal office who was responsible for international relations. 'We want to send this to many businessmen and women in Europe.'

I had to tell him that it might be a good idea to change the line: 'we wish to have intercourse with you', however technically correct it may have been. He didn't seem to mind.

A communist apparatchik from Poland was little better with his English, when he lost his temper.

'The trouble with you English is that you think you know f**k everything,' he said, 'when, in fact you know f**k nothing.'

Again I had to tell him that, though it may have been technically correct, there were better ways of saying it.

He did mind and started shouting more.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Supermarkets - Allegories Of Our Times

I hate supermarkets in general. I always have. They are soulless places where the customers scowl and try to aim their shopping trolleys at the calves of their fellow humans in the fiercely competitive area around reduced price bin. The staff try their best to look cheerful, but it is impossible for them to keep it up. If you ask them how things are, they usually look mournfully back and say:

'Not too bad, my shift finishes in four hours.'

But maybe I won't in the future. I will see them in a new light following my visit to one last week.

There seemed to be messages eminating  from every corner. It felt like an extension to the news which are bombarded with from every orifice of the media and the political arena. It felt like an allegory of the times we live in. An overview of typical life in Britain today.

What am I banging on about? Pseudo-romantic bilge? Let me explain.

The posters displayed well lit photos of faux-French bread. It was similar to the faux-French bread in my local shop. The difference being that the staff in my local had felt guilty about misleading us and had sellotaped a handwritten note on the wall by the bread oven which read:


Please note there has been some confusion. 
The French bread here may have a French sounding name ....
but it is not French, it is made in Ireland.

The above poster therefore typified the current trend in Britain of 'nothing is what it seems'. 

The heavy yellow lettering typified the war which is going on in Britain between ordinary people and shopkeepers on one side and the councils new found revenue earner of making less parking spaces, upping the charges and flooding the conurbations with parking wardens. There are petitions to get rid of these unpopular measures in practically every place I have visited. 'Little Hitler' headlines spring out of many local newspapers. 'MP Calls For Truce In Parking Storm', shouted mine.

Even the airports have jumped on the bandwagon and now you are charged a fee to drive up and drop someone off, let alone park. London Stansted is up to £9-90 for one hour.

In Scotland I got a ticket because, the ticket fell off the window. The parking warden was pleasant and told me where to write to reclaim the money.

'I'm sure the council use cheap glue deliberately,' he said. 'We seem to have an awful lot of these cases.'

So the supermarket is only following the general trend - yellow lines, number plate recognition cameras etc.

But the most interesting was the horse which was tethered to the gates where the delivery trucks drop their goods. It was an unusual sight in the North East of England. I expected the ghost of Gary Cooper or John Wayne to appear out of the store.

Perhaps it is the most powerful symbol of life in Britain. That times are tough. Recession has bitten and is still biting. A shape of things to come? Who knows? It is certainly a reason to keep visiting your supermarket.