Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Wounds of Armenia I


Gyppo Byard's heather-hawking Armenian anabasis has reminded me of my long and inglorious association with that fine country.

Although shaped like one of those moulded bed pans men toy with in NHS hospitals, Armenia has everything going for it in terms of attracting a Welsh:

  • it, like random chunks of the Amazonian rainforest, is about the size of Wales (see also other fun countries Albania and Israel);

  • The Armenian for "good morning" is "Barry Lewis" (բարի լույս);

  • Their big neighbours are still a source of annoyance, and they don't let you forget it;

  • They used to live on the plains, but are now stuck in some useless mountains;

  • They are short and dark, while their history is long and darker - think of The Crow, but with better music;

  • Their menfolk are largely engaged in loafing and criminality; and

  • Turks killed my great-grandfather at Gallipoli in 1915, the same time as they killed most Armenians' great-grandparents.


There are differences, of course, Armenian women and the weather being the most striking, but these only add to the allure.

As a student at the University of That London in the 80s, I was always on the lookout for ways of funding my Art Pepper way of living (this was the time before lifestyles).

Stints as a ballet impressario and art dealer had brought me deep joy, some cash and the attention of law-enforcement agencies in countries where civil servants wear sunglasses indoors, so male-modelling and sperm donation seemed the next step. Until an academic, whom I shall call Dr Steffan ap Sioncs, advertised for Armenian lessons.

Dr Sioncs was a Welsh, and a specialist on Georgians (the Stalin-boosting wine merchants, not the lynching-prone peanut fanciers or lady-dodging poets) who wanted an insight into the language of their frumpier neighbours. I spoke no Armenian beyond basic greetings, enquiries about alcohol availability and slanders on the Turkic national epic Crazy Dumrul, but possessed guile and a copy of the CIA's marvellous "Spoken Eastern Armenian". We went to work.

I would prepare a lesson the night before my weekly class with Dr Sioncs, and rebuff his polite questions about grammar points and non-spook vocabulary with assurances that he must not harrow his narrow Silurian mind with too much Armenian at this delicate early stage.

I even persuaded him that the Georgians had lifted their spaghetti alphabet from the elegant Mesropian Armenian script rather than from the commonly-received tin of soup. This had the virtue of not being true and of getting him into immense trouble with any Georgians he might want to share it with.

This nonsense went on for months, to the benefit of all. The landlord of the Friend in Hand got his tab paid, Dr Sioncs could order a bottle of prolapse-friendly Zhiguli beer in Yerevan, and any number of distressed young ladies avoided being seeded with frozen shots of Chateau Boyo.

But this was not even the beginning of my dealings with Armenia and its ungrateful denizens. There was a prequel, a sequel, and a tragic coda. Of which more anon.

12 comments:

M C Ward said...

First class, Boyo! I find I can't add anything even remotely as articulate.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Paying for bogus language lessons is the kind of fraud no one goes to the police about, for fear of looking like a complete dick. Armenian men can't be that bad, because I once heard the wife of a Scotsman yell "I wish I'd married the Armenian" during a domestic row.

Gyppo Byard said...

My Georgian colleague Tata told me a lovely urban legend, allegedly believed as true by all Georgians, that a Mingrelian gentleman found himself in the Russian Far East back in then 1970s, and devised a scam to teach English to the locals. Undeterred by his lack of English, he taught them Mingrelian for some years, only being rumbled when one of his pupils applied for an English course at Moscow University.

It ought to be true. There ought to be a film about it...

My teaching of British History at an Indonesian university followed a not dissimilar course.

"So what happened after Henry VIII's divorce?" my students would ask, eagerly, for example.

"Ah, you'll have to wait until next week to find out!" I would say with a knowing smile, deftly concealing that fact I would have to wait until I'd read the next chapter too.

Although actually, I had a pretty good idea of roughly what happened in British history from the magnificently researched and unbiased book "Our Island Story".

And in any case, my students were more interested in the grand narrative of Welsh supremacism than any of that nitpicky stuff about original sources and birthrates that proper historians have to plough through.

No Good Boyo said...

I've heard that Georgian story too, and it would make a great film.

"Our Island Story" has its shortcomings, but sound narrative history told simply would do children the power of good, rather than being expected to write about how they would have felt if they'd been drowned in barrels of malmsey etc.

Moscow University's English Department was run in the late Soviet period by a Tatar madwoman called Akhmanova, who sent back all British Council teachers who didn't sound like Joyce Grenfell. She herself spoke with a bizarre accent, and her English was only middling. She's responsible for an entire generation of Russians saying things like "Thenks, Mortin, you're a brick".

GB, Armenian men don't deserve the loveliness that is Armenian ladydom, but have marked advantages over the average Scot: they can grill meats, drink without resort to violence, and don't know a Catholic from a Protestant.

Their own variety of Christianity is based on the theory that Noah discovered Armenia and if Jesus had moved there he'd still be alive today, wearing a black pointy hat.

MC, inarticulacy is also welcome.

Mrs Pouncer said...

And what, pray, is wrong with sounding like Miss Grenfell? Cordially etc

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

By coincidence, another Welsh-Armenian link - in two hours time, my Bethesda (US) football team is to meet an Armenian-organised team in the semi-finals of the Montgomery County Over 35s League Division Two Spring Playoffs. We've had several lively encounters with these lads down the years, and it's fair to say there have been more red cards than memorable goals. They like to debate aspects of the game, both with the opposition, the referees and ultimately each other, should they start losing. There may be a deafness problem on the team, as they often raise their voices and strain their facial muscles in order to make themselves heard. Two weeks ago we beat them 5-0, and they appeared to wish us hearty good luck and all the very best for the summer holidays as we left the field of play, albeit in a unique manner cunningly disguised as threatening the imminent outbreak of total war. Now joy, for fate hath thrown us together once more in the realm of sporting endeavour! With 90 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures outside, events promise to stay warm. Full update next week, hospital traction permitting.

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Pouncer,

The only reason the Glorious Soviet Union paid good money to have these lolitas learn idiomatic English was so that they could seduce businessmen etc into betraying their country.

The only men who find Miss Grenfell stimulating are a certain type of British diplomat, and all of them were already Soviet agents.

Glad to hear the Armenians are bringing their usual subtlety to the game, Pop. They may have an advantage in that sort of heat too. Greet them with "Bar lav em, dzez het tsenethalanous hamar!" and you're guaranteed a chivalrous time.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

The main thing I learned about Armenians, somehow having this corner of the world missed from my itinerary, is that it never pays saying anything good about them in the presence of even a single Georgian. More than a single Georgian and it can turn ugly.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The Armenians are indeed a beautiful people. And, err, another link with Wales: the sheep in the film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) is Armenian.

Gyppo Byard said...

The Georgians I met were quite mellow about Armenians. Mind you, they were in Armenia at the time so I suppose they had to be. The Armenians mentioned Georgia as a model neighbour. But again, while I was sitting next to a Georgian. Tblisi is high on my shortlist of Places I Hope To Get Sent, so I may well get to investigate further. All the Georgians I've met have been either stunningly beautiful or endearingly batty or both.

No Good Boyo said...

The Georgians speak an ergative language, like the Basques and Mayans. That makes them officially mad. Get one to recite the celebrated Georgian tongue-twister "A frog croaks in the water" (baqaqi ts'khalshi qiqinebs).

To be accurate, Gadjo, the shepherd is Armenian. The sheep may have wandered across from Naxcivan. We just don't know.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Sorry about the sheep reference, Boyo; I feared retribution from the Rouge, but you seem to have taken it in good part.

I also found the Georgians pleasantly mellow, compared to their neighbours. Most of the men seemed practically comotose, permanently standing in doorways, chain-smoking and providing "security". Linguists I met there asserted that the Proto-Dené-Caucasian language theory, linking Basque and Georgian, is a bit pants, which will cheer isolationists of both parties and no doubt fuel their madness.