Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Weremen of England

Halloween, like much of modern life, works well in America but collapses like a suet soufflé when we try it over here. Escape if you can. I'm at work, having let Arianrhod loose on the neighbours in the company of some friendly Gypsies, and it's the safest place to be. You think you're alright down the pub, but maybe you're not. Maybe it's a werewolf pub.

To live in Wales is to be unaware of Halloween, as it's like that most evenings, and every village pub is a werewolf pub. So I was delighted to find these establishments existed in England too. Perhaps they still do.

When I lived in Oxford I ventured into the Kite Inn, on Mill St. The sort of place that could easily have been called The Spread Eagle, with a graphic, swinging sign to make the spatchcocked point, The Kite was my near local. O how my heart sang when I pushed open that creaking door and every Morlock within stopped talking and looked at me with a combination of mistrust and hunger. It was just like home.

To be Welsh is at various points in your life to meet some onion-breathed bore who once walked into a pub in North Wales - well, it was a friend, actually - no, the friend of a friend, come to mention it - and no, he can't remember where - anyway, they were all talking English and suddenly they switched to Welsh.

To be Welsh is to point out the extreme linguistic improbability of natural-born Anglophones switching to anything but spirits as the evening wears on. What the mythical traveller heard was not Welsh but bat-hooting mockery - they sound similar.

It is true, however, that people in matching shoes and perpendicular teeth still get stared at. That's what made The Kite so special. In a city like Oxford, where soap and vegetables trickle down from the 'Varsity like syrup in a scholar's navel, there are few corners of crabbed and cussed rusticity left.

I'm not sure where The Kite's customers came from, but their's were faces you could imagine on Cromwell's men. You would not ask them for a latte. An eminent historian told me his father once visited The Kite during the War. "Do you do sandwiches?" he asked. "Only fur 'em as wants 'em" he was told with a mahogany finality.

Were they unfriendly? No, it's just that The Kite was a werewolf pub. The Weremen of England once howled and carrolled on All Souls' Eve, now they polish and porter at All Souls College. Always at a disadvantage when it came to edjucation, these hairer handymen retreated to tanneries where they could gnaw at a hidden hide, and supped in backstreet bars where gentlefolk never strayed. Well, never more than once.

The drinkers at The Kite and other werewolf pubs know we could easily occupy their last lines, so they wait with the patience of beasts for us to down our daquiris and head back west before they draw the blinds, bolt the doors and slip scarred boots off their docked claws.

Caversham is too bonny and alice-banded to host a werewolf pub, but lupine youth would sometimes venture into The Travellers Rest.

It's another tasteful, lightwood eaterie where college girls take their parents for lunch these days, but I remember it as a dank crimson mortuary for broken chairs and hacking pensioners, with one corner a shrine to fruit flies. The staff as such huddled behind a partition and never managed to pull a decent pint in a clean glass.

I spent a lot of time there with Sioba Siencyn and the Dog, wondering why it looked like the Overlook Hotel and had a massive Masonic Lodge bolted onto the back like a bustle of spurious cosmology. Indian burial ground, was Siencyn's theory.

Once we saw the werewolves. In they came one early evening, three lads in white sports casuals and baseball caps. Affable but detached, they sat at the bar and took a lava lamp out of its box. After a quick nod to the pink-eyed bargirl, they plugged the '60s geegaw into the mains and gazed as the turquoise ooze undulated for their pleasure.

I stood beside them for the ten minutes it took to order a pint of Johnson, and overheard their conversation.

"His hair was like Dracula's."

"What, black and slicked back?"

"Nah, all grey and up like some fucking wig."

Something about their caps, seen close up, said that the hair concealed beneath was also grey and abundant.

As dusk fell there came a rap at the window. The lads slid off their barstools as one, picked up the lamp and headed for the door. Curious, I made as for the gents to observe their depature.

Outside, in the shadow of an overgrown hedge, an ancient Ford Corsair estate spluttered as the youths piled in the back. It eased out into the car park, then stalled. It bucked and snarled in the yellow murk.

I wandered over to offer my help. One of the lads wound down the window and asked for a shove. I pushed, and the car started easily. I waved as they drove off. And then, in the gauzy streetlight, I saw their ears.

So watch where you drink when the wolfbane blooms. You may wish your fellow-drinkers were speaking Welsh after all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cain Rising

The salons and lavabos of Europe have trilled with talk of riot and revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a country close to the kidney of all Welshmen if only for proving that there is life without consonants.

I once provided readers with a sheath-bursting tour d'horizon of Central Asia, in which I characterised the Kyrgyz thus:

The Kyrgyz are the Welsh of Central Asia. They're jolly, profoundly democratic, and inhabit a beautiful, mountainous country that no one visits and which has no natural resources at all except for some gold and clapped-out mining.

They are divided north and south in lifestyle and geographical orientation, and are widely associated with sheep-related activities.

They still practice droving, and have the worst cuisine in the world. Their southern valleys are home to heroin connoisseurs.

They have never ruled anything, not even Kyrgyzstan, and don't really seem to care. They think their neighbours are soft and that they secretly wish they too were Kyrgyz.

Their neighbours rarely think of them at all, except in a comic context, but if pushed will say they distrust them as sly and two-faced.

Russian spittle-licking suits them just fine, and hey, Ivan, why don't you buy some of our lovely smack while you're here?

Prophetic words, you'll agree, and compassionate too. But not, I'm ashamed to say, entirely truthful. For there is another political factor at play in Kyrgyzstan beyond the Russo-American strategic rivalry, beyond the scheming Uzbeks of the South and the patient Han of the East.

Some chap from Dubai took time out from driving his Mercedes round and round to pen a few hundred cheerily uninformative words for The Guardian's web-based Comment is Free rubric on why the bold ouster of Kyrgyzstan's tawdry Mr Bakiyev was not likely to be repeated with the Arab world's sullen satraps.

It's difficult to read past his endorsement of Noam Chomsky, but Mr Al-Qassemi deserves praise for not indulging any of the conspiracy theories common in his part of the world - for that you'll need to read the remarks on his article by the Jocelyns of the Comment is Free crew.

The fact is that the Assads and Al-Sa'uds can rest their rectangular heads, for they do not have to contend with the most occluded factor in Kyrgyz politics - the Yeti Lobby.

Some background: The Soviet conquest of Central Asia only really took off after the various inept and insane White Generals had been dispatched to the four corners of emigration, execution, incarceration or promotion.

Commander Mikhail Frunze, a native of what is now the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, took the Red Army with him on his trip back home. The corpulent pederast Alim Khan sought to shore up his Bukharan throne by casting gaggles of gap-toothed dancing boys before the advancing Bolshevik hordes, only to see the bacchás shorn, shod and shown how to shoot sodomites.

(The Emir himself fled to Afghanistan, and his pragmatic decision to transfer his affections to young girls prompted peasants to cake their daughters' faces in dung as he passed. A fashion that has not died out entirely in the Zaamin area, I can testify.)

While Frunze was shriving Tajiks at the head of the terrier-shaped tyranny that would soon become Uzbekistan, one of his officers was busy sorting out the Khan of Khiva's troops under its Khwarezmian tail.

Divisional Commander Morgunov's method, in an eerie pre-echo of Comrade Stalin's quondam Nazi allies, was to line up the captured mingbashis and fit their skulls into types of fruit - a round, watermelon match marked the bearer as a subtle urban Sart, while a Mr Punch honeymelon profile meant a Turcoman desert nomad.

The latter were instructed in the ways of Leninism, given fresh horses and sent against the British Dunsterforce on the Caspian. The former were drowned in buckets or something.

This policy of gourd-based divide and kill took on a new, hairier dimension in High Badakhshan, where the questing Bolshevists faced Alim Khan's last line of defence - the sepâhe 'âliye kojâkân (the Noble Host of Abominable Snowmen).

Yetis remain elusive in the Himalayas, as they resent being scalped by monks, tracked by Germans or mounted by lonely sherpas, but they rub along nicely with the chilled Isma'ilis of the Pamirs.

Alim Khan's ancestor, the debased martinet Nasrallah Bahadur Khan, had regimented these loping vegetarians into a fearsome phalanx in return for their exercising droit de seigneur over the monobrowed maidens of Soghd. Frunze's commissars, however, persuaded them through the media of mime and crude surgery that Socialism offered a chance to build a new world, one fit for all bipeds.

The Yetis donned the Red Army budenovka and drove the Last Manghit across the Jaxartes. Stalin granted them regional autonomy, an alphabet, and the right to send delegates to the Grand Soviet in Moscow, but as ever there was a catch.

In order to prevent a powerful Yeti presence in still-volatile Central Asia, the Bolsheviks partitioned their historic uplands between the emerging Kyrgyz republic and Tajikistan.

On the Kyrgyz side of the frontier was the Lower Abominable Snowman Autonomous Region (Нижняя cнежнe-человеческая автономная область), and on the Badakhshani plateau stood the less-developed Upper Abominable Snowman Autonomous District (Верхний cнежнe-человеческий автономный округ).

The result was that the Yeti of Tajikistan were subject to institutional speciesism, and soon embarked on the Great Lollop (Yettish: Tümőnt'z Nyi'ařl) - a mass migration across the cordillera to British India. Their spiritual leader, Yebhamoth the Marmot-Slayer, shaved closely and enlisted in the 5th Baluchi Lancers, with anti-Soviet vengeance on his single-lobed mind.

He quickly rose to the rank of corporal among the mainly Welsh troops, but General Sir Anthony"Bracing" Shower had him court-martialled and shot for sloppy kit. The whereabouts of his grave are unknown, although his manhood was used as the parade-ground flagpole in Quetta until it vanished after a visit by Lady Mountbatten in 1947 (see Maj Gervaise "Neither Know" Nacquere: "The Abominable Snowman - A Frightful Consequence of Miscegenation", HMSO, Quetta, 1947).

Meanwhile, the Yetis of Kyrgyzstan embarked on a long shamble through the institutions of Soviet power. Their position was strengthened during the Great Purges of the 1930s - not through collaboration with Stalin and his henchmen, but because Russian-made bullets merely bounced off the back of their heads. Uncle Joe admired that, and promoted Yetis to all major party and government posts in the republic.

Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinisation eclipsed the Abominables who, in an exquisite example of Marxian anti-thesis, then became the literal backbone of the dissident movement. On the fall of Soviet power, the ethnic-Kyrgyz and Russian party leaders were swept away by a liberal faction led by a close-shaven Yeti physicist who used the nom de l'homme of Askar Akayev.

The new Yeti elite ran independent Kyrgyzstan better than their human peers managed in the other Central Asian states. As cryptozoological creatures they were able to rise about the seething ethnic, religious and musical divisions of the land, but tensions soon emerged that doomed their hirsute hegemony:

  • The Kyrgyz in their bigoted way thought a country called "Kyrgyzstan" ought to be run by Kyrgyz;

  • Russian men complained that their russet-haired, slatternly wives were discarding their greasy housecoats and running off with sober, upwardly mobile and downwardly endowed Mi-Go;

  • Tajikistan complained that their own downtrodden Yeti were seeking secession in order to create a Great Yetistan astride the Ferghana Valley; and

  • Muslim clerics were appalled at the staunch secularism of the Snowmen and the prospect of anyone having a good time.

This coalition of the insulted and injured toppled Akayev from his eminence, and ushered in the recent Time of Troubles where crowds of men in piss-stained brown flares struggled to find the keys to the presidential drinks cabinet.

The Yetis bided their time. They quietly built alliances, promising Uzbek irredentists, Russian militarists and cosmopolitain drug barons a fair deal. And now they're back.

I shall not speculate on the likely policies of the second Yeti administration, although the abolition of VAT on hair-removal products, nail-clippers and extra-strong mints is a fair bet.

I will only suggest that we cast our eyes southwards. The success of the Snowmen of Bishkek may galvanise the Yetis of Tajikistan - where they largely work as street cleaners - Kashmir and Ladakh.

Above all, we ought to consider Nepal. The fall of the monarchy and the recent outbreak of Maoist syndicalism have created an atmosphere in which the mountain men may decide to intervene. A Yeti-led state literally atop the world and on the borders of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan is not a matter that Russia or China can regard with equanimity.

I leave you with this item that I translated from Vatanparvar, the entertaining organ of the Uzbek Armed Forces (16 September 1995, p 4).

The border-violator was a yeti

An unusual occurrence took place at the M. Strelnikov border outpost. At night, a border patrol saw a two-metre-tall creature, moving ahead on two legs, similar to descriptions of the yeti - the abominable snowman.

Its eyes gleamed in the dark. The leader of the patrol there and then made a report by telephone to the outpost. A search party, sent promptly to the scene, found half-metre-long human-like footprints. A dog caught the trail, which crossed into the border demarcation zone.

And on they lope, like Wells's tripods, towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, there to bathe their steaming extremities and comb out their matted hair with the rib-cages of our upstart race.