Thursday, December 22, 2011

Uneasy rolls the head

This week saw the anniversary of the Penmachno Document, by which the True Prince of Wales and Owl of Aberffraw, Madog ap Llywelyn, granted a sod to my crested ancestor Ystlum ap Llewpart Goll, four rods below the forest of Calahir just off Ynys Seiriol.

Because of accretions of mulch and poetry since 1294, it is impossible to dowse our plot's exact location, although each year the local, decayed branch of the House of Boyo proceeds there bearing a kinked Radix Jesse to beat the imagined boundaries around what is now the Trwyn Du lighthouse.

In truth, December is a typically cruel month for Welsh monarchs. Madog had to treat with my leprous forbear on the shortest day, and his stormy predecessor Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was cleaved in two at Cilmeri a week and twelve years earlier.

Llywelyn's grandfather was Llewelyn The Great, a hard act to follow, and the boy had to settle for the dismal title of Llywelyn the Last. Some English types, or possibly their Welsh proto-New Labour hirelings, cut off his head and paraded it around London until its constant arguing and harmonising began to turn the milk sour.

Although there is no evidence to prove this, the royal head was eventually sent to Ludlow's experimental Close-Contact Constabulary College and used to teach Marcher watchmen how to identify a Welshman by palpating his crown.

After catastrophic casualties and a few scandalous elopements, the sheriff reverted to the more reliable method of having watchmen ask the suspect "how are you?". If the answer continues beyond the 20-second mark, pike him.

On the 700th anniversary of Llewelyn's royal rending I was plashing through the wintry rain to an early-evening seminar on the Medieval Body Politic at University College, Swansea. I was in a sombre and thirsty mood, as both the weather and the hour cried out "pub!", where the college branch of the ultra-nationalist League of the Cousins of Rebecca's Daughters was holding its annual wake for Our Last Rudder.

I went to the seminar anyway because of my admiration for the mind, manner and moustache of Professor Sydney Anglo, its chairman. Dr Anglo spoke Cockney Baroque and looked like Napoleon III with Savoy in his pocket. That surname didn't help my excuses to the Cousins, and sharpened suspicions about my Cambritude already half-aroused by my bald cheekbones and filtered cigarettes.

Young scholars paddled into the room, shaking out fringes and flares (we had a lad down from Lampeter). Dr Anglo scattered slabs of Carolingian minuscule about the table and set off on his anabasis about the tripes and tendons of the early European state.

I was gazing out of the window as scrawls of lightning sketched out mountains in the night sky. Suddenly Dr Anglo addressed me: "And what of the head, Mr Boyo? The head?"

"The Prince is the head of the body of state, the 'corps estat'," I managed "As Christ is head of the 'corpus mysticum'. A subject, as a mere digit of the body, must rise at the Prince's command to defend the regnum, just as Christ, via His Vicar, commands the soul."

"So what duties does the Prince, as head, have to the rest of his body?" asked a nearby blue stocking.

Dr Anglo, with a clear nod to Ernst Kantarowicz, noted "Mr Boyo is racing ahead of the lances with his 'corpus mysticum', which Carolingians would have taken to mean The Divine Host, but he has accurately weighted the seesaw of state, Miss Bensberg. As Christ died for the sins of Christendom, so should the Prince be ready to sacrifice himself in battle for the common weal."

"A simple parallel - Christ and the Church, the Prince and the State?" probed Miss Bensberg.

"Not so," I countered. "What if John of Salisbury had been sensitive to pagan passions still pounding through the P-Celtic pustules below the Saxon surface? Perhaps the Prince is a worthy sacrifice, but must that be in battle?"

The rain beat a steady, ever more insistent tattoo on the frail window frames. Dr Anglo gestured to me to continue.

"On this night the Romans marked one of their Agonalia, to Sol Indiges. With Wales crumbling through his twelve fingers, might Llywelyn not have fallen victim, or perhaps submitted, to the call of the Old Religion?

"As the Sun faded in the wintry sky, did a band of Anglesey islanders seek to summon Summer with a more terrible sacrifice?

Was Llywelyn's last vision not that of an uncomprehending Norman sword, as often thought, but rather a sleek Silurian sliver of slate, a dagger dedicated to the gods of the orchards and the fields?" I concluded.

The thunder passed, leaving a static silence. "A most particular interpretation, Mr Boyo," Dr Anglo noted. "Any sources you might want to cite? Of a non-cinematic nature, please?"

The exchange of smiles around the room stopped when our Lampeter visitor opened his notebook and read "'Fight for your patria and suffer even death for her if such should overwhelm you. Death itself is Victory."

To Dr Anglo's raised eyebrow he added "Saint Dubrick of Caerleon, writing some time after Llywelyn's defeat, or should we say with the saint - 'Victory'?"

Dr Anglo cracked his knuckles and snorted towards the skerried skies. "To summarise, my Gwalian gentlemen, you are suggesting that Llywelyn II did not die in an English ambush, but was happily dispatched by his fellow Welshmen so that through his blood sacrifice Wales might live?"

"Still here, aren't we, despite everything?" I muttered.

"Hmm, a thesis indeed, and with your living evidence before our eyes." grinned the professor. "An historian must not of course let himself be led astray by such, ah, 'heady' speculation!"

On that note we set off for our various digs and burrows. I shared an Embassy under the eaves with Bell-Bottom Boy. "What do you think happened to Llywelyn's body, then?" I asked.

"The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that... a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated," he recited.

"Galen?" I ventured.

"Cotton Mather's 'Magnalia Christi Americana', after Borellus," he whispered, before hunching off into the rain.

The following morning I turned on Radio 4's "Today" programme to hear court Welshman John Humphrys relate that, during the previous evening's storm, a fireball had torn down the valley from Cilmeri and skittered out to sea like a wheel of Greek Fire.

"Perhaps a little less saltpetre next time," I noted in my diary, and went back to sleep.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Three Keiths

One of the many serendipitous delights of parenthood is discovering children's television. Not rediscovering - I mean discovering for the first time. There may be North Country funnymen who make a career out of recalling how kids TV "were better in them days", but in my case they are wrong.

In Welsh Wales, children's television consisted of "Miri Mawr" ("Big Fun"), a programme hosted by a yeti farmer, Japanese war criminal and the thing you see at the end of "The Fly II", all cooped up in Osama bin Laden's utility cave. You don't believe me? Then watch:

Apart from a programme about poaching hosted by a cardboard cormorant, that was it.

Nonetheless, there's a lack of role models for children in current cathode fare as well, unless they aspire to be Rastafarians, "mangas" or relentlessly perky Mexican moppets. That's why I've come up with my own proposal for pre-primary entertainment:

"The Three Keiths" are a trio of superheroes, each equipped with special powers to deal out kinetic justice rather than the usual self-righteousness to adults, wrongdoers and those boys in Year 6. And they are all real.

Keith 1 - Keith Richards, alias "Keef". Fashioned entirely from inside-out crocodiles and "Accessorize" tat, Keef is the leader of the pack. His special powers are immortality, demon-summoning riffs and the keys to "The Magic Pharmacy", where he distills potions to ward off squares and help the other Keiths relax - "just take the edge off things with this, man".

He speaks proper English too, not the semi-Canadian nonsense children hear elsewhere.

Keith 2 - Keith Floyd, alias "Floyd". Made out of three old uncles bound together with bow-ties and raffia, Floyd provides the trio with all they need to keep going in the fight against tedium - top tuck, refreshing elixirs from his "secret cellar" ("The steps are a bit steep for you children, and even for Old Floydie of an evening!") and an array of grown-up ladies whom girl viewers can totally identify with.

Floyd's special powers are immunity to weights & measures and indifference to human laws.

Keith 3 - The Right Hon Sir Keith Joseph Bt, CH, PC alias "Sir Keith Joseph". The ganglion that connects the twin synapses of the team, Sir Keith Joseph is often called upon to get Floyd and Keef out of a terrible fix - in all senses of the word. His swivelling gaze can hypnotise reptiles, and he conjures up bad ideas decades ahead of their time to tie up gangs of villains long enough for our heroes to get away in the Bentley.

Sir Keith Joseph also carries a mysterious object loaned to him by the fearsome "Magg Witch". Called simply "The Handbag", it has voodoo economic qualities that keep afloat Floyd's various front organisations for the Three through fire, submersion in lakes and the wretched inflexibility of magistrates.

I chose these three Keiths from a highly competitive field - Chegwin came close - because they alone address the main banes of pre-teen life: bad music, dull food, and inadequate transparency in the management of public finances.

Having got that far during an episode of "Fifi and the Flower Tots" - a sort of nursery take on "The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" - I decided to celebrate with an amphora of Makarios's Revenge, and so have managed to outline only the following pilot:

At their secret Berkshire base - a picturesque inn-cum-recording-studio-cum-monetarist-think-tank - the Keiths prepare themselves for battle through a training regimen of bushido rigour, designed by Keef and featuring feedback, flashbacks and blackjack.

The lady of the manor, Penelope Keith ("The Fourth Keith"), alerts them to various dangers gleaned from sherry-laced parsonage gossip. Keef immediately cranks up the Bentley, which Floyd has left parked either side of an oak tree, then has a bit of a lie down in the barn while Floyd packs a hamper. Sir Keith Joseph bores a hole through the estate gates with his unblinking emerald eyes, and they're off!

This week, jobsworth music teachers Bono & Sting (frequent villains) persuade the village fête to play their listless ditties over the public address system while a mantis-like Mrs Sting from the cooperative Café Ortega doles out quinoa-burgers with "Amazonian chewy grub salad", thereby compounding the misery of parents who've driven children with computer-withdrawal symptoms 20 miles to meet a pregnant goat.

The Three Keiths lope to it. Keef drops some "magic pirate potion, man" in the eco-punch before plugging the PA into his amp and launching a 12-bar open-G rasp through "Rocks Off" that paints the village green a bluesy shade of black.

Meanwhile, Floyd has set out a trestle of truffled turkey and trifles to tempt teen and termagant alike, as the punch works its wonders on the mums and dads. Everyone's having a good time by now, but - oh no! - Bono and the Stings are complaining to Ms Polly Tecnick the Headmistress and Mr Spendthrift the Mayor. This is a job for Sir Keith Joseph!

Quick as a slide-rule, Sir Keith delves into "The Handbag" and whips out a brace of Magg Witch talismans - one in Mrs Sting's name for employing non-unionised Paraguayan waitresses in her cafe, and another in recognition of Mr Spendthrift's discreet acceleration of a council house sale shortly before the local ban.

"And how is your holiday companion Fräulein Proll settling in there?" Sir Keith asked of Ms Tecnick, before handing over a Krugerrand pendant for her elegant redrawing of the school catchment boundary just short of the Reg Varney Estate and that Irish tinkers' site. He then let the Invisible Hand of Recrimination go to work on the gruesome quintet.

The Three Keiths slip away from what is now a seriously happening free festival, their work done for another week as rainbows, brandy butter and sink estates light up the Chilterns - but not before offering the Paraguayan ladies a gallant lift home or somewhere.

I believe "The Three Keiths" will inspire, educate and alarm in the correct proportion, thereby forewarning tots of all the gluten-free golems out there who want to keep them in locked-rhythm serfdom.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Universities: Restauranteur

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react when they pass a deconsecrated church.

The demise of Soviet Communism means that 150 million previously cheerful Slavs now wave their hands around their torsos as if swatting away a lustful giant bumblebee whenever they survey some of Stalin's finest handiwork.

British town planners used to think "bank!", but now that we all know what happens in such establishments they prefer to mumble "er, supermarket or mosque - is there a way to combine the two?"

The average Welshman thinks "the wages of Episcopalianism is being turned into an XXX porn cinema, though but".

Maximum Bob Friog and I were making steady if bow-legged progress past the Methodist Church on York Road, Reading, after another lesson on why The Moderation was the least appropriate name for the given pub. I noticed the church had recently been closed down, and admired the way its Gothic twin steeples parted the red clouds.

Bob looked it up and down, took one of the cigs out of his mouth, threw his head back and bellowed "MEAT!!!"

We proceeded to The Hobgoblin, where Bob elaborated on his new kind of cuisine.

Prospective diners arrive at MEAT! - a deconsecrated church in the Caversham borders - guided by the Frankenstein sparks that leap from one tower to the other thanks to the Van Der Graaff generator that long replaced the bell.

The bone-studded doors of solid Boerewors swing open to unleash a mounting barrage of timpani rolls that turn out to be a fusillade of evangelists catapulting into the giant tureens of nutty slack that dangle across the dining hall.

You are welcomed by Bob's then girlfriend, a comely Persian with a degree from Shiraz University in Advanced Mindfucking (egregia cum laude). If your clothes please her, she passes you on to a friendly Hells Angel who rides you to your assigned place at the sole, endless table. No, not a Harley. He rides you.

Any remark about anything at all, and she sorts you. Your young lady is propelled into one of the many kickboxing-movie-surplus dancing-girl cages to win back her freedom through tearful hip-gyrations, while Sir joins the vagrants, lepers and endangered species down in the larder.

MEAT! dispenses with the outmoded restaurant system of menu, crockery and service, opting instead for a guided dining experience.

Your place at the table comes complete with hollowed out tree-trunk stool - there are no toilets - meat trough and booze dimple. Every ten minutes or so the pig-iron doors to the kitchen fly open to reveal Gran Maître Bob Friog, naked apart from a bloodsoaked leather apron, framed in flames.

His trademark cry of "MEAT!!!", fedback through the over-amplified speaker stacks under the table, releases a phalanx of bikers with hunks of half-cooked beast impaled on their Pickelhauben. You get what you're given and are vocally grateful, in unison.

The meat is real meat. Fish and chicken are classed as vegetables and dropped live through grills to the Vegetarian section in the Crypt. Salad is provided throughout, for use as ashtrays. Smoking is not compulsory, and the righthand side of the table is reserved for lungcoddler weaklings.

In order to keep MEAT! the right side of at least one law, tobacco is banned.

MEAT! is ecologically aware, so drink is served by the bottle it comes in. Brown Booze = ale, Red Booze = wine, Yellow Booze = scotch. All booze is selected by your designated Hells Angel, Filthy Al, in line with the meat you got and whatever he hasn't already necked or poured down your date's cleavage.

Vodka, lager and all other mixers are banned, except in the Snakebite Express takeaway outlet in the Vestry.

MEAT! works with the local community, and encourages the pupils of the nearby primary school to befriend the animals on its Great Beast City Farm at all stages of their furry odyssey from pallet to plate. This culminates in the Imbolg Wolf Cub Challenge, at which lucky children compete to see who can eat their way out of a boar revolving on a spit before the flames take.

Dessert is more meat, served with a pineapple on top. And leave your wallet at home because you won't be presented with any bill. Instead Al and his mates will ransack your house and sell what they need to cover your meal. For a perfect end to a perfect evening, they may still be there when you get back.

I was impressed by this vision, and set to designing an advertising campaign. Readers will recall my previous attempt at promoting Start, the world's least appetising breakfast cereal, through guerrilla TV shots of Dennis Skinner MP yelling "Eat Start, it's Shit!", not to mention my promotion of Matthew Ward's Robo-TEFL Teacher screenplay.

I decided that MEAT! required something a little more sophisticated, and came up with the three following ads:

1. A man is driving through a grey London late afternoon. The wife at his side is droning on about some new restaurant with "to-die-for" goat's cheese crêpes. He stops at the lights, and a squeegee-merchant starts soaping his windscreen.

From the driver's point of view we watch the sponge circle hypnotically, as the wife's adenoidal litany of lettuce recipes fades away into steady crescendi of pounding timpani. Almost imperceptibly, the sponge turns into a raw, red steak, smearing blood all over the windscreen, and the woolly-hatted merchant morphs into a gurning Bob Friog, naked apart from his sanguinary leather apron.

The driver turns to his wife and screams "MEAT!!!"

Cut to a black screen, with the simple caption "Bob Says Eat My Meat".

2. A wife sits in her underwear at the dressing table of a well-appointed bedroom. She puts on her make-up and jewellery as her husband chats from the en-suite bathroom about the restaurant they are about to visit - steamed fish and sustainable samphire a speciality.

His prattling fades out in the mounting march of drums, the bedroom door bursts open and in stalks Bob in trademark déshabille and clotted apron. The wife turns, mouth open. Bob draws a raw steak from his crotch and rubs it bloody in her face before flinging it against the cream silk wall. He leaves.

The husband's voice fades back, asking "So what's it to be, darling, tipila linguine?" He wanders into the bedroom and drops his towel as his wife shrieks "MEAT!!!" through bloody teeth.

Cut to black screen etc.

3. Whitechapel, the autumn of 1888, and Old Jack is at his exercise. A petticoated figure is slumped in a grimy midnight doorway. Over her hunches a top-hatted figure in black, a Gladstone bag by his side. A blade flashes in the guttering gaslight. Two policemen advance slowly on the scene of slaughter. We hear only their panicked breathing - "at last! at last!"

A uniformed arms reaches over and grabs the killer by the shoulder, spinning him round. In a crash close-up we catch only the bloodshot eyes, the stubbled, sweaty cheeks, the rotten teeth twisted into a grimace.

The policeman releases his grip. "Oh, sorry, Bob," he mutters. The two officers salute, and move on down the cobbled alley.

The camera pans up to a killing moon as the Victorian London skyline is torn by a cry of "MEAT!!!!", slowly subsiding into a bestial snarl. And fade to red.


The York Road church is now sheltered housing for the bank managers who heard our initial business pitch, but Boyo-Friog Associates are still in talks with some East European investors and actively seeking unhallowed ground.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Jeremy Clarkson Book of Happy Endings

Unlike Wales, plain women and his BBC paymasters, I like Jeremy Clarkson. The obsession with motor cars and himself does not move me, but I enjoy his unmasking of lettuce and willingness to wander around in public looking like Jeremy Clarkson. His facial tributes to John Carpenter's The Thing (mid-transformation) never cease to please.

News that he had taken his first wife as a mistress - a lady who must be an echoing cavern of self-loathing - ushers him into the Alan Clark Waiting-Room of Caddish Eminence. The time has come to drop the sports jacket and jeans for a gap between the front teeth, trim 'tache, cravat, blazer and personal tankard behind the bar of a country pub near Maidenhead - where they call him "Major" and keep a room upstairs in case the Jaaaaaaaaaaag breaks down and he needs to comfort his secretary.

Jeremy also puts me in mind of a niche Christmas gift market for unpopular men that has not yet been skewered by the axis of socks and cologne. I call it "The Jeremy Clarkson Book of Happy Endings".

The target buyer is a recently-divorced woman. She has the house and most of the money, but there's one thing she can't take from the noisome octopus to whom she was lately wed - his puerility. And divorce gives him the chance to rediscover it.

He's already kitting out his batchelor hutch with all the apparel of midlife adolescence:

  • a water sofa-bed
  • a fridge with easily-distinguishable bacon and lager sections
  • a PC with patent "Plasterer's Radio" self-degumming monitor
  • a compact recording studio, still in its box, and, above all,
  • a giant flatscreen HD television on which to wallow in the films of yesteryear.

What he least expects is such an apparently-thoughtful gift as "The Jeremy Clarkson Book of Happy Endings" from his ex-wife. This bangs all the right gongs:

  • It look like a Ladybird book, evoking teary memories of childish thumbing through the "Kings & Queens of England" in search of good beheadings
  • It is endorsed by Jeremy, which guarantees wit as dry as a Martian Martini, and
  • "Happy Endings" reminds him of something that happened to Mike on a golfing holiday in Bangkok, which would have been alright if the girl in question hadn't turned out to have been a chap.

Plus the fact it's a book means that, alongside his car manual and bound volumes of Viz, he now has a library.

And so he settles down in the director's chair with his feet up on the boxed set of Japanese import "Wacky Races" DVDs and opens "Clarkson". On the right-hand page he sees a picture of a Turkish gangster shooting up a seraglio. Excellent. On the left he reads the following text:

Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze in "The Usual Suspects".

The nightmare begins. The picture lured him in, then the words delivered the coup de grace. Before he can cover his eyes, the film is ruined. But he cannot stop. Jeremy beckons. In misery he turns the page. A sweaty man in a baseball cap stares at him.

Soylent Green is people!

He blinks back the tears as his fingers flick across to the wheaten features of a brown-suited child, receding down a Georgetown sidestreet.

The psychiatrist is dead. Obvious since the scene with his wife in the church, when you think about it.

On he goes, through the wreckage of his film archive. Merry is the widow, for she has understood and overcome a fundamental male survival technique.

Men have no long-term memory. That's why we compile lists - not only because we believe in wasting time better spent shoe-shopping or listening to women, but because otherwise we'd forgot your names and where the kids' schools are.

This is a true blessing, and proof of the existence of a genial and thoroughly clubbable God. It means that we rarely reflect upon the essential shallowness of our own existence, have no problems with enjoying football and will, after a shandy, chat up your sister at a christening once again.

It also explains why we watch the same films over and over. I for one can never remember that Stapleton's sister is in fact his wife, despite the mundanity of such arrangements back in Wales, and therefore approach each reading/viewing of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with a lamb-like skip.

Women, on the other hand, need to know. This is why they read the last page of a book first, to assure themselves that it is worth reading. This is also why they ask what men are thinking all the time. Men, like my near namesake in "Under Milk Wood", are either thinking of wet corsets or nothing.

And so the divorcé looks forward to evening after curry-stoked evening in his celluloid back catalogue, with the flicker of the cathode reflecting his rapt gaze of amazement as the Mafia and entire US Government kill JFK from all possible angles, some gunman takes out Carter on a charcoal Geordie beach, and the Christian copper dies at the setting of the pagan Summerisle Sun.

"The Clarkson Book of Happy Endings" is the ex-wife's silent revenge, for her former spouse can't stop reading on despite the horrors it holds. Men are all addicts, and if it's bad for them they just can't stop. His meagre interior life dissolves in each acid page, but forward he goes like Scott of the Unconscious, snivelling "Why Jeremy, Why?", until the last page.

There Edgar Allan Poe meets his red-rimmed stare, holding a rubber mask in his ivory hands.

And you would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids.

It's "The King in Yellow" for this post-decadent century. Buy it now ladies, and our world is yours.

"Pa vo beuzet Paris, Ec'h adsavo Ker Is."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sobriety as Spectacle

There's a touching Soviet film called "Autumn Marathon", in which a random Dane gets thrown into a Glorious Socialist drunk tank. He returns to his Leningrad hosts the next morning with the sort of look in his eyes that you'd get after a particularly invasive bout of alien abduction. "There were many new words there," he muttered into his kvass.

That Mr Putin is a ghastly man by any standards. When not punching bears or switching off Belarus, he's throwing away the good bits of the Soviet legacy and hanging on to the rotten ones.

So Stalinism and screwing up the Middle East are ok again, but the cosy violence of your local yokel bobby is not. Instead the Russians have to put up with armour-plated sacks of steroids with guns that work and a licence to park their giant motorbikes in the crack of your arse.

Most shameful of all is Putin's decision to close the drunk tanks. The вытрезвитель (sobering-up station) predates the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks gave it the lacquer of pseudo-science, priggishness and theft that helped it endure to this day.

The Soviets scorned the sentimental, bourgeois practice of encouraging doctors to shelter alcoholics and their families until they were fit to return to serfdom. Instead they handed over the drunk tanks to the the police and let them:

  • hose down random drunks, not necessarily with water,

  • steal their remaining shoe,

  • show them a graph correlating the impact of drinking "Natasha" perfume on the output of self-combusting television sets,

  • kick them in the danglers; and

  • dump them in a snow drift
but not before billing them two kopecks for the trouble. One minute you're warming up for a midnight Stockhausen serenade outside the ex-wife's flat, and the next some single-cell Siberian soaks are trying to use you as a wind sock. Once you manage to stagger home the first thing you need is a stiff drink and a fight, and back to the tank you go.

This may sound reactionary, but in fact it displays Scientific Socialism at its most exquisite. Capitalists require a professional police force to repress the workers and their annoying middle-class representatives, while feudal rulers intimidated, entertained and sometimes fed the cowled masses with spectacular public punishments.

A Socialist society, requires no such agencies of doom. The Soviet police simply brought members of the drinking classes together and allowed them to exchange teeth, fluids and experimental impregnation techniques in the seclusion of a basement urinal until their anti-people manifestations were spent.

The police then put the given parasite's actions in their socio-economic context, provided "look-no-hands" washing facilities and returned him to society. Seizing items of the visitor's clothing provided him with a tantalising glimpse of the Victory of Communism, when money is abolished and goods and services are simply exchanged.

The two-kopeck fee was a reminder that this dazzling future when, to quote Engels, "state interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself" (Anti-Dühring), had not yet arrived.

The kick in the nuts was free.

President Gorbachev, like all busy little reformers, had no time to sit back with a glass of horseradish vodka and a crackling pipeful of perique to peruse the lessons of history. That's why he thought Prohibition would sort out the problems of alcoholism, falling output and commodity fetishism, just like it didn't in America.

The result was tumbling mortality rates as the man in the stalling trolleybus took to drinking flight fuel, the total collapse of the economy as everyone spent all their time making, procuring and drinking red-eye, and the rise of the Russian Mafia. Oh, and the Soviet Union shrank from super-power status to the back of Gorbachev's limo, which had had its hub caps stolen and fashioned into rather fetching earrings by the eternally drunk President Yeltsin. Cheers!

Putin is so busy that he can't even be bothered to learn from Gorbachev's mistakes, which is why his new big idea is to shut down the drunk tanks and shunt their clients off to the Accident & Emergency ward of the nearest hospital.

Perhaps he's trying to return to the medical as opposed to dialectical approach to sobriety pioneered in Tsarist Russia. If so then he, above all, should know what happened to the Romanovs. Another country that adopts this approach is Britain, whose record on public drunkeness is admired only by dead Vikings.

From a strictly Marxist point of view, there may be some benefits to this. Even if you have never been to Russia, you should be able to conduct the following thought experiment:

  • Imagine a British hospital that was last equipped and cleaned in 1964
  • Imagine it staffed by angry, underpaid medics
  • Imagine it full of know-all hypochondriac grannies.

Now imagine this happy scene flooded with bellowing men in piss-stained brown flares, waving pickled gherkins about their bandaged heads, and draw your own conclusions about Mr Putin's chances of completing his third presidential term.

I never made it to a Soviet drunk tank, despite the best efforts of friends and colleagues, but a couple of my fellow students in Voronezh were once called upon to bail out "Major" Farid Bouaouni, an Algerian Situationist shepherd who looked like Major Easy.

He had refused to pay his bill at the Hotel Brno, prompting a visit from the police. They were minded to let him go with the standard clout and shake-down, but he insisted that he only wanted to "converse with socialists". So off to the tank with him.

The desk sergeant was delighted to deliver The Major into the custody of Her Britannic Majesty's student corps, as the boy had caused major delerium tremens among his cellmates by enacting Berkoff's "Metamorphosis" while swinging from the ceiling with his unusually adhesive palms.

This made Farid the only man to have emerged from a Soviet drunk tank drier than when he went in, and with his genitals largely in the same location and configuration.

He celebrated his release by stealing the wreath from the Tomb of the Unburied Soldier, placing it on his chest and trying to ignite it through an act of gastric acrobatics on Red Army Day. He was deported to Algiers on two separate flights.

The Russians were proud of their drunk tanks, and sought to share their cultural wealth with other, meaner nations. While holidaying in Soviet Armenia I read in the local paper that the first drunk tank had opened in the capital, Yerevan.

I asked my hosts what the point was, as Armenians drink in the Mediterranean style - wine with meals - rather than in the Slavonic traditions - turps with knives. Tigran the Jeans-Wrangler flipped the paper over to the Stop Press column, which noted "Yerevan Police Dogs Congratulate Man From Omsk On Becoming First Drunk Tank Customer".

Readers dismayed at Russia's abandoning its worthy Soviet heritage need not despair, for there is always Ukraine. With their Neapolitan attitude to public service and legal mildew, Ukrainians continue to bask in the Soviet glories of nepotism, unregulated shed building and policing as a form of improvisatory street theatre.

A friend has a wooden summer house in a village outside Kiev, where his good lady wife was spending a pleasant morning grinding chillis into her baby food. A drunk approached, demanding 7.35 hryvnyas for a bottle of monkey juice. She demurred, as had a number of neighbours already. The drunk declared that he would burn the village down, and was still trying to drop lit matches onto his amber stream of urine when the police arrived.

As the coppers dragged the drunk away, the lady of the house asked how long he would get in jail - attempted arson being a serious crime in Ukraine.

"Jail?! D'you think we're going to feed this git for five years? Don't worry ma'am, we'll just take him to those woods, macerate him thoroughly with the help of these excellent new Polish truncheons, point what's left towards Obukhiv District and tell him never to come back again. All in a day's work. A couple of chillis? Why, thank you - they'll come in handy if his attention drifts! Mornin' all!"

British stag parties must have tired of using the Baltic States as lavabos by now, so drunk-tank tourism is one of the many income funnels that Ukraine may yet drain. Russia misses the boat once again. But then Putin reserves the right to sink it any time he chooses.

It's good to be the Tsar.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Untergang heut Morgen

Whenever I hear Miriam Makeba my thoughts naturally turn to Spengler's theory of pseudomorphosis.

Spengler, a ponderous interbellum Teuton, was not keen on jazz or any other form of "negro" music, so it's fair to say he would not have enjoyed Mama Africa's democratic syncopations any more than the on-beat flow of Ices Cube or T.

Ms Makeba is the name I always associate with the anti-Apartheid campaign, the cause closest to the lapels of my fellow students in the 1980s. And Spengler springs to mind whenever I think of students.

Oswald Spengler's insufficiently underrated book "The Decline of the West" falls into the same category as the works of Ayn Rand, namely philosophy for people who don't like philosophy.

Nonetheless, the old boy died in the happy knowledge that he was the only man in 1930s Germany who could get away with belittling Hitler as an "heroic tenor", thanks to the popularity of "Decline" among damp-palmed Prussian professors and their pimply charges.

"Decline" is an attempt at a cyclical analysis of history. Cultures rise, atrophy into civilisation then decline, because people are basically a bunch of clowns and everything new is rubbish. Egyptians, Chinese, Europeans - none of us stand a chance.

Democracy, hip-gyratin' music and priest-baiting are particular signs that the West is finished. Perhaps a military dictator might help. Spengler wasn't sure, and took two volumes a decade apart to say so.

Anxious youths - the sort who think "Steppenwolf" is all about them - loved this sepulchral sludge. Kissinger gave the already miserable Richard Nixon a copy for his bedside table - proof if ever it were needed that Henry was a Democrat mole.

Still, a book that size can't all be wrong, unless it's written by Quakers, and "Decline of the West" has its moments. Pseudomorphosis rather appeals to me - new, vigorous cultural growth cannot break out of the trappings of senile civilisation, and so turns on it with Oedipal fury.

Antonio Gramsci, up the other end of the geographical, political and coherence see-saw, had a similar insight in his "Prison Notebooks", when he wrote that the "old is dying and the new cannot be born". Gramsci saw this as a mere stumble on the trek to progress.

But when you look at student political engagement since the heroic tenor days of 1936, it's hard not to agree with Spengler that the "morbid symptoms" are really here to stay.

In 1936 the cause was Spain. A few Papal oddballs saluted Franco from the safety of their armchairs as the Condor Legion thundered over their tonsured, straw-filled heads. But the Republic was joined on the battlefields of Málaga and Madrid by Oxbridge's finest poets, Wales's hardest miners and England's better Blair.

It's easy to point to Soviet skullduggery behind enemy lines, as I've done before, but Spain was the opening skirmish of the Second World War. Hitler wasn't truly defeated on the Western Front until Franco died, and anyone who fought the squat Galician is all right by me.

British youth has since had its native Beserker genes blunted by the pacifist bromides of higher education and its rage against tyranny sapped by a spurious sense of pseudo-socialist solidarity with the Soviet. This explains how its epic performance in Spain and Normandy was followed by the shameful slouch towards Aldermaston in the 1950s, and the reduction of Vietnam War protests to grandstanding for Ho Chi Mindlessess.

Things improved in the gritty '70s and '80s - perhaps due to unemployment and the declining quality of smack. Chile, in particular, was a noble and often practical campaign against a squalid dictatorship, despite being tainted in Wales by Dafydd Iwan's neverending "Cân Victor Jara".

But those decades were defined by anti-Apartheid. The movement had its fair selection of heads both hot and soft, but even a strong aversion to Desmond Tutu couldn't stir much sympathy for the Vogon Bothas.

In Wales the political is personal, and the personal is critical. My sympathy with the Anti-Apartheid Movement stemmed from having had to listen to my distant cousin "Uncle Robin", who had emigrated to South Africa to join the Bureau of State Security. The last time I'd seen him was May 1979, when he'd popped back to Britain for the general election in order to see "that Communist, David Owen" lose his seat.

With such sawtooth political sense it's frankly a miracle that Apartheid lasted as long as it did. I was glad to see the sunburnt back of it. Uncle Robin was last heard of in a Christmas card from "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" before decamping to Bournemouth with a lady from Lourenço Marques.

As May turned to December and Mandela made way for whoever, I would sometimes bump into the anti-Apartheid scarf-wearers of my college days and ask them how they thought the new South Africa was getting on. This sobering but far from sober experience helped to formulate the No Good Boyo Iron Rules of Student Politics, applicable to all causes:

1. The Dana Condundrum: All Kinds of Everything was happening in Africa, but getting rid of Apartheid was the only one that mattered, and somehow made the others go away, even though it didn't.

2. The Ilf & Petrov Thesis : Once Apartheid was defeated, everything in South Africa was ok. Based on the novel "The Twelve Chairs", by the aforementioned Soviet writers, in which we find the slogan "No one can save the drowning but the drowning themselves" ("Дело помощи утопающим — дело рук самих утопающих").

3. The Fintan Stack Amendment: Evidence against points 1. and 2. suggesting that Africa still had problems, and that South Africa was letting the side down over Mugabe and AIDS, were met by a blank look that said "I had my fun, and that's all that mattered".

Very patient readers will recall that my unfinished doctoral thesis concerned university unrest in Tsarist Russia, and one of the reasons I gave up - apart from finding out that some rotter had already written it - was the realisation that politics at the student stage suffers from precocious senility.

The charity-shop shufflers get involved, get laid, get jobs and get lost. They then leave quotidian politics to the dullard dynasties of Kinnocks and Milibands and single-string campaigning to the tone-deaf sectarians of the far left.

Meanwhile, their place in the student trenches is taken by more Home-Counties Hillaries on a three-year stretch. It's like a First World War opera by Philip Glass - slight tweaks to the same theme, with some modulation but no development. And then you graduate.

University College Swansea, where I studied slate maintenance and cockle husbandry (joint honours), was one of the least political campuses in Britain. Seventy year of drunk Labour MPs and the conviction that Mrs Thatcher wasn't really prime minister because she's a "bird" had dulled the already rusty hoe of student activism.

The Student Union was largely concerned with scrabbling around for a quorum, every mention of which prompted a bellow of "scrotum!" from the Rugby Club props who seemed to think the debating chamber was their changing room. It was so apolitical that we had an SDP Union President for about five years - the SDP being the political party for people who don't like politics.

The rare debates amounted to the curlew cry of the Athletic Union pleading to opt out of the college bilingual policy. This obliged them to submit every poster - "Headbutting Club members please assemble in the bins at Harper's Disco at 2300 sharp, please" - to someone like me, who translated it into Middle Cornish and threw the original English away.

There were also attempts to expel the Federation of Conservative Students. These porky date-rapists produced my favourite ever poster during the 1983 General Election: a picture of a British Army tank with the word "Benn" underneath it. Made me think.

The Union printed a newspaper called "Swansea Student", which sandwiched oddly prescient notices like "This Union deplores the US bombing of Libya" between music reviews copied from the NME and letters complaining about the Rugby Club's altruistic "bathe a lesbian" campaign.

The most active political group were the Socialist Workers - a shrill of Kentish girls in cardies led by a future accountant who looked like Béla Bartók. She focused on berating a politics lecturer for failing to see the sexism inherent in Tom Paine's "Rights of Man".

The only campaign that had any coherence or momentum was anti-Apartheid, although this largely amounted to shouting "Amandla!" at confused West Indians, picketing showings of "Zulu" and frowning at the Rugby Club's "Springboks" fashion range.

I have recounted one occasion when polishing a Silver Age college quip cost me dear in the coinage of love, and my sole contribution to anti-Apartheid at Swansea also dropped into the crusty sock of woe.

Everyone read the "Swansea Student", but I alone glanced at "College News", the university administration's tedious and ill-set bulletin. It was even printed on bilious orange paper - the eternal colour of the loser, from 70s porn actors to the Continuity Liberal Party (Meadowcroft Faction).

"College News" announced one day that our first principal, Professor Fulton, had died, and that in his honour College House would be renamed Fulton House. Sure enough, the following day the sign went up on the main administration building.

The Student Union, which clung to the back of College/Fulton House like an amorous beetle, had voted to rename its drinking hole "The Mandela Bar" only the day before. This seemed appropriate enough, as it resembled the rumpus room of a condemned Congolese jailhouse with worse beer and less female company, but these were the 1980s and irony was only allowed on Radio 4.

(It was later renamed after a series of children's TV characters and most recently Rob Brydon, before being sold to a Saudi engineering student as a garage for his gold-plated vacuum bed.)

I was sipping a cloudy half of SA in "The Mandela Bar" that lunchtime with a group of Union activists, mainly because I was taken with the Women's Society secretary. This followed my lifelong pattern of being attracted to women who instinctively disapprove of me.

Kay, despite the stripey tights, undyed cheesecloth drapes and general air of umbrage of her calling, liked having me around as I represented the native Welsh in her selection box of oppression. I was just happy for her braided hair to hover over my coal-streaked shoulder as she head-tilted to me about our Great Vowel Famine.

Conversation turned to the question of College House. "Who is this Fulton, anyway?" asked Kay, with customary distrust at any college decision.

Now, I could have told the truth and impressed the Union Executive with my ace reporting skills. Maybe Kay would have thought I was tapping into some mystical Celtic ley line of matriarchal knowledge about the soil and committee meeting rooms of my ancestors. I might even have drawn wry comparisons between the then principal's bookkeeper triteness and Professor Fulton's scholarly humility.

Instead I glanced thoughtfully across at the poster of Mandela and mused "Fulton? Isn't he the governor of Robben Island Prison?"

It took a day or two and some urgent clarification before the pickets dispersed and the Cuban delegation found its way back to the docks, but Kay had firmly struck me off the list of Insulted and Injured.

Student politics still follows the Boyo rules of instant irrelevance, in so far as the gowned masses can be roused from their rent-book torpor at all. Spengler and Gramsci would have picked up the gamey reek of decadence and nihilism in their chosen causes - The war in Iraq was "Not in My Meme", and the "We Are All Hezbollahas" are indifferent to the bigots Medieval and modern who litter their rallies like trousers in a Whitehall farce.

But then single-issue campaigns are the stripped-down chassis of politics, and inevitably attract the superficial. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, despite its occasional false starts, was a powerful motor of human progress. And it certainly had the best tunes.

When its official history is written I may try my luck again, assuming that Kay & Co are now busy shipping kohl to Gaza, and submit my chapter on "The Fulton House Siege" and its part in my downfall.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Lone White Sail Gleams

With summer ending, The Welsh Tourist Board of Wales is stepping up its campaign to bully some imaginary English poshboy into spending a few weeks glaring resentfully at his made-up wife over a slate of flummery in Lleyn.

And why not? We Welsh have so far been spoiled by the quality of our summer visitors. The questing Dutchman, panning for Mawddwy gold; the German couple with gunmetal eyes, calibrating their theodylites to sort the mountains from the hills; the vanful of Poles a-kindling in your copse - they all love Wales for what she is, so why not ring the changes and welcome a fellow who calls the game "rugger" and watch how long it takes before someone paints him green and sets his car on fire?

This raises a related question. While the world roils in Wales's tepid embrace, where can a Welshman go? Like Italians we are not great travellers, as we already live in a country that has everything - cakes, more than one coastline, y-front-rending women and no Highway Code.

I suggested Ukraine as a worthy holiday destination way back in the days when I still blogged in Wenglish. So let me now highlight its fine port of Odessa.

As close readers know, Madame Boyo and I spent our honeymoon in this Black Sea Tangiers and promptly dubbed it cymreigiol - worthy of the Welsh.

Russia's relationship with Europe has always been awkward. Peter the Great intended St Petersburg to be Russia's "Window on Europe", but built it on a troll-dark Finnish swamp miles from anywhere. Catherine the Great had the advantage of being an actual European, but still laid out Odessa somewhere over the Ottoman Empire.

It was a French-run free port for much of the Romanovs' reign, and managed to maintain its louche, Interzone buzz through Civil War, Stalin and Stagnation, topped up by a few war years under or occasionally straddling the corsetted Romanian officer corps.

When the various states of the Soviet Union just stopped turning up in late 1991, Odessa found itself, minus one "s", as Ukraine's main port. The Odessites adapted to the new country in their cosmopolitan way by speaking Russian but acting Ukrainian, and soon found a steady income from channelling the hinterland's chief exports - construction workers and whores - to Turkey.

Odessa has not allowed the advent of democracy to stifle its picaresque heritage, and the happy proximity of the brigand republic of Transdniestria to the northwest ensures that there's no better place for car thieves, vote-riggers, plutonium smugglers and taxi drivers to flourish.

Moreover, if there are any cocks trying it on, Odessa will snook them:

1. The Romanian occupiers killed almost all of the city's Jews, who themselves weren't too popular with Ukrainian or Russian nationalists either, so free Odessa chooses the splendidly Semitic Mr Edward Hurwitz as its elected mayor whenever the central government allows.

2. Viktor Yanukovych, the cloddish Ukrainian president and Kremlin fluffler, is no fan of Odessa, given its overall high IQ and lack of coal mines, so the Odessa Port Authority has reciprocated by putting up a Soviet-style banner of one of his most banal statements over its gates - "Professionals ought to work in the transport system" ("B транспортной системе должны работать профессионалы"). Yanuk of the North is flattered, and everyone else chuckles into their breakfast cognac.

The Soviets renamed the city's streets after random anniversaries, mass-murders and root vegetables - "Yeah, I'll see you at the corner of 29 Years of the Armenian Power Grid and Turnip, opposite Boston Strangler Square". Ukraine expected free Odessa to give them suitably Cossack monickers - "Jewbaiter Passage", "Square of the Sacred Sword of St Skovoroda" - while the looming Russians wanted the Lenins and Great October Socialist Revolutions to stay where they were.

The Odessites simply ressurrected the French names of the past, so you can still flâne down Richelieu Boulevard and De Ribas Street with a sprig of hibiscus in your lace-sleeved hand.

But the true jewels of Odessa are its women. Ukraine, like most Slavonic countries, is a British sit-com writer's dream - the men are oafs, while the women are sharp yet easy to handle, like Stanley knives.

Not in Odessa. The local men are cheery drunks, of course, but the women wander around as if they were auditioning for "Post-Coital - The Musical!", with hair akimbo, 3-D lipstick and thoughts that tune in and out.

Madame Boyo and I sought ice-cream, directions to French Boulevard and some sense from several Odessitas, and got nothing but asymmetrical smiles, Expressionist hand gestures and a rant about why President Yushchenko wasn't doing something about it (he'd been out of office for months).

But the finest tale of local womanhood came courtesy of Captain Ponomarev and the Odessa Yacht Club. This enterprising mariner and his chums ran a tourist entrapment service. It consisted of dressing an unusually coherent young woman in garments a size too small, positioning her on the coastal path with some Yacht Club brochures, and letting male lechery and female patience do the rest.

Within moments she had delivered us to the Captain, who put us to the test. Would we like a cruise around the bay in one of those motor yachts you see accountants fall off all along the Thames, or in a proper sailing boat? We passed, and hopped aboard his bilious barque.

We sat towards the prow with neither life-jacket nor harness, as Capt Ponomarev swung his great boom about our heads and scythed between tankers and towlines with the occasional arcane order to Bo'sun Grafich.

We clung to one another through more degrees of list than non-Odessan geometry allows, while the Captain recounted the proceedings of the local Pirate Society, of which he is Secretary and Keeper of the Plank of Justice.

(The chairman, as it happens, is a dentist. He carries out surgery in full rig on public holidays, reserving antique equipment for members of the City Council.)

I asked the Captain whether he had many local passengers on his Ship of Ghouls. "You know we call the city 'Odessa Mama'?" he began. "Well, one day a couple of our own Odessa mamas drifted down here and asked whether I did cruises of the bay. I said I did. With a satisfied cluck they parked themselves at the prow, so off we went.

"Once we'd left harbour one of them asked whether I had any coffee below deck. I did. 'Two coffees, please.' I fixed the coffee, passed them the cups, and out we surged into the swell.

"I gave them the big tour. 'Here's where the Germans bombed the Crusier Shnorbitz in '41, and just over the top of that crane is the Palace of Hadji Girai' - but I might as well have been yodelling.

"We crested some bell-bottomed waves, we tasted a whaler's spume, we passed through the shadow of a shark, and all the time they were like this -

"'Mrs Lyakhobiy, her as isn't no better than what she oughtn't to be, well, you've seen the hat, of course? If you can call it a hat. I had to whack my Grisha's cockerel with an icy spoon, if you catch the drift - '

"'Ooh, she never? Her neighbour, the one whose sister ships those dodgy plums from Romania in her stays, well, she robbed a couple of mackerel from the market, and there was no way of telling, if you know what I mean. And that Tymoshenko woman, if she is a woman - '

"A good hour and a half this went on for. I got them back to harbour, they thanked me for the coffee, stuffed enough money in my mitt and wandered off. They weren't wrong about that Mrs Lyakhobiy, either."

We reflected on the Eternal Mystery of Woman for a while as Grafich tacked us back into the little harbour. Suddenly we found ourselves beset by a Lilliputian fleet. Tiny sailing boats, each bearing a small boy, bobbed about us. A man by the quay in sinister Soviet-era tinted specs was yelling random orders at them. "Yura, haul your mainbrace! Shura, your boom's awry! Dima - are you listening? Dima?! - "

Dima, in Tot-Yacht No.9, was a lad apart. The others, none older than ten, acted either assured or appalled as we cleaved their convoy. But Dima, kitted out by his guilty dad in sailor's peaked cap and braided jacket, was pure Odessa in his indifference to our hulking hull. He sailed on as the others scattered. Capt Ponomarev ordered Grafich to steer sharply to starboard.

"Who are they?" asked Madame Boyo, as the junior service regrouped before their quayside commandant.

"That's the kids' trainee yacht club," beamed Ponomarev proudly. "We take them from five years onwards. Even give them life-jackets. Our little pride and joy."

The children stumble shaken-shanked onto the decking, all apart from Dima. He still sat at his mast, watching the sun soar over Trebizond, ethereal and unconcerned.

I can't help but think that Odessa and her Dimas of all ages will always hover between sky and sea, like Tadzio on the Venetian sandbank, just out of the ruffians' reach.

"What's your junior yacht club called?" I asked as we slid into our mooring. Ponomarev glanced over at the boys, nodded, and replied - "The Optimists".

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Welsh Artist Responds to Just Criticism

I salute Madame Boyo's indefatigability in guessing my password and subjecting my film treatments to literally unanswerable analysis.

She had been similarly unimpressed by my first effort, "Escape From Bikini Island", and its radical revision - "No Escape From Bikini Island".

I acknowledge my error in following the decadent individualist advice to "write about what you know", which in my case is the porn/sci-fi axis around which the fulcrum of my mind rotates.

Hence "Alien vs Predator vs Dalek" and "The Lion Tamer", featuring Rt Hon Theresa May PC MP, HM Secretary of State for the Home Department, and a still-warm pelt.

I can only adopt the Deakin Defence - "I shouldn't ought to have done so, but I did it anyway. Let History be my judge" - and go back to Les Cahiers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Stone of Oblivion

Keen readers of my web blog will recall a previous foray into management consultancy, in which I explained how best to use the office sociopath. I've given the topic more thought of late, and reached the conclusion that most managerial problems can be solved at the recruitment stage.

The overwhelming majority of managers, and "overwhelming" is a word readily associated with them, are unsuited to the job. The reason is that anyone who seeks to attend meetings, read memos, conduct appraisal interviews and associate with other managers is a drainage channel for moral slurry.

How to stop these "cc" zombies from taking over your world?

1. Advertise your managerial post with the usual verbiage about "top-shelf thinking", "disaggregating the transformational foliage" and "synergising the priority valve", take all the applications, and throw them away.

2. Find some normal colleagues. Normal people are those who laugh when they read newspapers, like to play sports rather than go to the gym, and have moderately untidy hair. They gather in bars and smoking areas, even if they neither drink nor smoke. They do not own Morcheeba CDs. If you have no such people or places at work, get another job.

3. Appoint these normal people as managers. They will instinctively know what to do, which most of the time is nothing. But, when danger looms in the shape of visit from Head Office or some sort of inquiry from the Personnel Department, they will lope into action like Lytton Strachey by interposing themselves between their staff and the incoming idiocy.

The result is that work will proceed, unhindered by "evaluations". Budgets will blossom, freed from the weeds of outside consultants. After a few months you will be able to say "pass me a form" to a colleague, and they will hand over a betting slip. An inquiry about "issues" will elicit a copy of the Racing Post. They may even have circled Ham Spanner for you in the 2:30 at Chepstow. In red pencil.

Some readers will nod with an uneasy sense of familiarity. For this is how we used to recruit in the days before management became an industry in itself rather than a way of keeping twits away from heavy machinery. Back then we were the toolbox of the known world. We invented interesting games, as well as gravity, the telly and the wireless, built two empires, won several wars against all comers, and had decent lunch breaks.

Now we do little but sell one another houses, loan our army to desert kleptomaniacs and wonder idly whether we ought to learn Chinese as we nibble a sandwich-style snack unit in a "breakout area". And all because of the wrong type of manager.

Take our spies, for example. They are all fools. Why? Because MI5 and co recruit their staff by asking "Hi there, does anyone want to be a spy?", then have to find safe things for the shiny pods of public-school fascists, child-molesters and Territorial Army rejects to do. Some turn up to interviews in tuxedos and scuba-masks, and bring their own car batteries.

How did the KGB find their own excellent bunch of spies? Imagine you were a bright student at some Soviet university. A chap with proper shoes would sit next to you at the trolleybus hangar one day. He would say that they had been observing your progress with interest for some time, and invite you to join the KGB.

The correct answer was "Rather!", unless you really disliked your parents and fancied a few years of underwater shale-dredging above the Arctic Circle.

Britain did something similar in the 1930s and 40s, but made the mistake of restricting its trawl to Oxbridge inverts - a small pool of talent if what you're looking for is brains and discretion. There's no surprise that the best fellows we recruited were already working for Uncle Joe, and somehow managed to live with the conflict of interest.

We need to return to this simple form of recruitment. Those dead-eyed weasels who do slip through under some New Labour full-employment scam can be dealt with through my Workplace Psycho Deployment Programme. (Remember: "If the Job's Worth Doing, Let Someone Else Do It.")

The righteous manager still has to deal with unenlightened organisations, such as the Personnel Department, for all our sakes, and here I offer a simple technique that worked for me.

My sole stint as a manager came during a posting overseas. We had a general manager who dealt with the local police, firemen and blackmailers, leaving one of the remaining expats to handle staff and editorial matters.

As in all well-run offices, this grisly job fell to the last man in - just as the tardiest reporter to file his copy with The Western Mail had to don the didacoi 'kerchief and write the horoscopes.

My turn came once I'd worked out how to switch on the special computer that contained the email link to Head Office back in Britain.

The special computer had one purpose - to send me strange messages from blonde PAs called Nikki "regarding" various matters of breathtaking inertia, requests for arcane information from the Personnel Department ("Does Mr Rashid have the capabilities to speak Kabbalist?") and misspelt threats from various Health & Safety 'droids ("There have been a case off rabies in your country in question and request your evcaute expatriate staff with IMMEDIATE effect, thank you regards.").

I would have turned to my predecessor for guidance, but he had already waved a quick cheerio and headed off to be languidly fellated in some souk. I remembered that he had told me to print off all these messages and deal with them "in order of some sort of priority". So I printed them off, stacked them on my desk, and ignored them.

Several days later the wind started to blow from High Tartary, buffeting the drapes and scattering reeds and papyri about the place. I found a large stone in the garden, which on reflection may have been the fossilised skull of an Sogdian betel trader, and adopted it as a paperweight. I put all my managerial emails under it and ignored them.

The Stone of Oblivion was born.

I soon found an agreeable managerial rhythm:

If Nikki or one of her revolving-door cohorts sent me a follow-up email ("Hi this is regarding an email I sent you regarding the issue regarding..."), I would fish the original missive out from under the Stone of Oblivion, put it in my in-tray and ignore it.

If the correspondence stretched to a third plea ("Mr Rashid's file does not indicate whether he is a man or a woman, please clarify") I would dispatch the Standard Stalling Response ("We are dealing with your inquiry"), and that would normally be the end of that. The original email would then go back under the Stone of Oblivion.

At the end of each month, I would sort out my paperwork. Everything under the Stone would be binned, and everything in the in-tray would go back under The Stone of Oblivion.

I estimate that I had to reply to fewer than one in ten of the emails I received, and only a fraction of those merited anything beyond the Standard Stalling Response. That fraction almost entirely consisted of pitiful attempts on the Nikkis' part to deal with one of our simple requests, such as some money to pay staff wages.

The Stone of Oblivion still has its place in a wired-up world where even journalists have computers, wap-drives and ceefaxes. A managerial spouse of mine handles much of her correspondence by funnelling it into mailbox folders that cannot be accessed and which, through the loving grace of technology, send back a conquering worm that destroys all evidence of the original message.

In this new age of austerity all the justly employed must bar the way to this Managerial Moloch. As companies close and municipal programmes implode, wingèd monkeys of misery flit through the heavy skies in search of new perches.

Before you know it, you have more Human Resources Facilitators than human beings on your payroll, and all your corner offices belong to diagonal roll-out directors and their clumpy-heeled 5k-a-day consultants.

Decent managers owe it to their colleagues to repel these powerpoint pirates through a cannonade of common sense and, if necessary, some dirty rock and roll. (Fact: managerial parasites cannot withstand the weaving guitars of late '60s Rolling Stones).

Or you could always rent a farmer. He'll spot the bullshit for you, and his rough rustic ways will send the interlopers fleeing for the nearest latte bar.

Otherwise you'd better invest heavily in quarries, because your Ziggurats of Oblivion are going to split the skies.

"Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me."

Friday, August 05, 2011

I Misteri d'Italia

Mr Cameron, the occluded laird who heads This Great Coalition of Ours, let us all down with his gauche refusal to tip a Tuscan waitress.

The young lady told the prime minister she was too busy to carry his cups of coffee out onto the terrace. In primary-school pique he withheld the 150,000,000 lire she might have expected to find stacked under a saucer. Perhaps she should have been grateful that he didn't scoop up the loose change left on neighbouring tables and wheelbarrow it away to keep Mr Osborne quiet.

I see little point in allowing aristocrats back into power unless they show the world how to behave. We might as well have stuck with Mr Brown, who would not only have tipped correctly with the help of a slide-rule but might even have taken the used cups back to the kitchen.

But remember where we are. This isn't Greece, where you can wander around dressed like a refugee yet still get a slap-up fish grill. This isn't Spain, where the locals have set up zones of tolerance for the English and their deep-fried ways. This is Italy, and Mr Cameron not only broke some of its most fearsome laws, but fundamentally missed the point.

Italy, like the bumblebee, shouldn't get off the ground but it does. It seems anarchic:

  • no one pays taxes;
  • the South is run by the Corleones;
  • the rest is run by a priapic TV mogul;
  • buildings look as if they were recently strafed by a vengeful Ethopian air force; and
  • post a letter and three months later Il Postino may disentangle himself from your wife long enough to piss in the pillar box then set it alight.

And yet it's an excellent place to live. Why? Because Italy is Schelling's nightmare and Germany's antithesis - instead of elemental chaos boiling beneath a crust of civility, you have a rigidly conformist society that charms the world with its raffish air. The locals work hard to bring you the illusion of languor.

Italians travel relatively little, not only because they already live in Paradise but because we clearly see their Shinto uniformity when the Bel Paese spell is broken. Remember the plug of identically-kitted language students blocking the exit of the Tube carriage, or the Knightsbridge boutiques selling a sort of silken tweed and cavalry twill only worn in Milan.

The Italians do their best to shield the tourist from the secret mechanisms of their society. You can eat and drink whenever you like, padding about their cities with your trainers, singlets and water bottles, as if you were about to enter a bumpkin marathon. They say nothing, but have already silently allocated you a status just below lunatic and a little above leper.

Other European countries also understand that first impressions are always right, but play fair by letting you know about it. A lady friend popped out in her tracksuit to buy a pint of milk on Vienna's Graben, and still winces at the memory of trudging home with matrons pointing her out to their amused but wary grandchildren.

Dress like that in Paris and a foie gras seller may ask whether you've lost your house keys while nervously beckoning to the gendarme.

The Italians have no intention of sharing their social miracle with passing trade. Let us never know that the crumbling façade conceals a polished palazzo. But once in a while a kindly Etruscan may break ranks and tactfully try to tempt the wanderer into fare bella figura.

Mr Cameron's waitress was one such Samaritan. The prime minister thought he was simply ordering a couple of cappuccinos, a milky beverage that's conquered the world but which in Italy is spooned into infants. No one takes milk in their coffee after breakfast.

Most Italian cafés will gladly churn this out for the tee-shirted barbarians, but our waitress must have taken pity on Mr Cameron. By bearing the cappuccinos to his table in the late morning she would have exposed him and the willowy Mrs Cameron as little better than Dutchmen.

By feigning preoccupation she left Mr Cameron to carry the cups himself. A strolling local would then have taken the prime minister, with his crumpled shirt and bizarre shoes, to be an anæmic Albanian beggar earning a few florins by ferrying froth to some backpackers, and thought no ill of him.

An English gentleman would have learned enough Apennine ways on his Grand Tour to have instinctively understood the waitress's selfless gesture. But she overestimated Mr Cameron, who would have done better to take Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, in particular The Roads Round Pisa, as his holiday reading rather than the usual dim volume of American social philosophy. Truly was it said that no good turn goes unpunished.

I was once lucky enough to see a chip in the lacquer, and appreciated how tartly Italians treat their errant own. I was at Bologna airport, whiling away the minutes before my flight over an espresso. A 30-something man, clearly Italian, dressed, pressed and crimped with designer shades, man-bag and tender shoes, nodded to the waitress and asked for a macchiato - an espresso with a gust of hot milk.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon.

The waitress paused. He repeated his order with a pleasant smile, but might as well have asked her to top the cup up from her own tawny teats. The rest of us pretended to read our Calvino novels, but every plucked and vaselined eyebrow was arched in his direction.

The waitress nodded, approached the coffee dragon - Claudia Cardinale's jilted and unforgiving aunt - and gave the order. The dragon cast a glance at the cheery customer, grunted and made him an espresso. She set it aside and let the waitress bustle about until the fool's flight was called. Only then did he get his coffee, with no time to collect his change.

We saw nothing. Thus does Italy guard her secrets. Silendo libertatem servo.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Woe from Wit

I avoid making controversial political statements on my blog, but feel safe in saying that little good ever came from Adolf Hitler and his trans-Alpine ultras.

I'm also sure that Catholic priests' chosen way of life rules them out as sources of emulation. Cardinal Newman was right to say that a liberal education is its own reward, but would have been more honest to note that it is its sole reward. One glance at the sort of stuff Newman enjoyed -being unhappily celibate, not eating much, arguing with the Pope - suggests that his advice was an introit to woe.

Indeed, a steady theme of this blog and therefore my life is how knowing things has constantly frustrated my mojo. A splendid series of articles by former colleague, literary colossus and all-round Spaniard Jason "De Vere" Webster on visiting Hitlerian holy places recently reminded me of another such missed opportunity.

I always felt sorry for historians of Nazi Germany. Scholars of less lurid eras display their professional envy with the odd sneer: "Don't worry, I'm sure you're purely interested in post-Gleichschaltung welfare policy, and aren't at all turned on by the shiny boots and pederasty, old man."

However much they protest, academic specialists on the Third Reich get lumped in with Colin Wilson and people who "research" serial killers, not helped by their high profile on TV strands ostensibly dealing with history but in fact entirely devoted to archive film of Himmler signing death warrants.

Jason brings out the awkwardness of having your genuine interest in some of the most significant loci of recent history mistaken for an obsession with skull shapes, department-store ownership and moving Poland around the map once every generation.

One part of Europe where people are refreshingly relaxed about mentioning the War is the Baltic States.

"Rorschach-blobby countries
With a dodgy Nazi past,
They disappointed Stalin
And left the Jews aghast"

as I once dubbed them, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had a decidedly mixed 20th century. A scattering of squat peasants teetering above a wintry sea, the Balts speak abrupt archaic languages and annoyed the Tsars so much with their dour folk songs that Alexander I subcontracted their government to the local German squires.

This made the Baltics easily the best-administered and most developed part of the Russian Empire, which was otherwise as baggy, inept and truculent as the "Madchester" music scene. It also meant that the suicidal Tsarist combination of idleness and cruelty reconciled the hitherto hostile freeholders and Junkers in an anti-Russian bond that holds true to this day.

Lenin had the novel idea that millenarian mumbo-jumbo and killing all the smart people would somehow improve Russia's condition, but should not have been surprised when the Balts opted instead for 20 years of frugal independence.

That lasted as long as it took for Hitler to elope with Stalin. This gruesome couple, despite their rapid falling-out, managed to scupper the Germano-Baltic alliance by respectively repatriating the Junkers to the Reich and setting up East Germany, a one-pot meal of a state that reduced the worst flavours of Prussian and Soviet bombast to a lignite jus rancid enough to repel even the squarest-headed Lett.

Nonetheless, the consistently beastly behaviour of the Soviet served to keep the Balts' Germanophilia simmering away under the tight lid of the Socialist saucepan until the whole Communist kitchen collapsed in 1991. Since then these new European Union colleagues have proudly rediscovered their Hanseatic and some other less edifying Teutonic ties.

I found this out on a visit to Estonia organised by the Soviet Ministry of Public Enlightenment in 1986. The Soviet Union would grudging allow a couple of dozen British students of the Russian language to spend a year in their string-vest satrapy, but worked hard to retard our linguistic progress by penning us in a crypto-Cossack backwater called Voronezh.

They'd let us out on the odd trip to places like the Baltics, Azerbaijan and Armenia, where speaking Russian usually earns you a kick in the pods. With this in mind, I prepared an Estonian phrasebook in cooperation with the Tallinn-born girlfriend of Young Young Aherne, whom we have met before.

Earnest analysis of Estonian society and intimate knowledge of my fellow-students helped me strip the required phrases down to a pair: "Vabandage, ma ei oksa eesti keelt" ("Excuse me, I don't speak Estonian") and "Neli õlut, palun" ("Four beers, please").

This proved to be an outstanding success. Deploying the first phrase melted the average Esth's features from a frosty furrow to an almost mollified maw of gold teeth and onion breath, while the second christened our new-found friendship in the amber dregs of State Brewery No. 17's sphincter-sapping ale.

It also helped to break the packed ice of prejudice between us and a group of ten East Germans whom the Soviets had also sent to Tallinn. The Politburo thought that bolting some Brandenburgers onto our party would comprehensively poop it. The Soviets were convinced, largely through study of our war films, that we shared their disdain for all things German.

Not so. Jerry always buys his round, for one thing, and is grateful in an older-mistress manner for any overtures from non-Axis chaps.

As usual, what really annoyed the Russians was a fault of their own making. East Germans were taught to see themselves as heirs to the Valiant Communist Resistance Movement, and so felt no guilt about Hitler and his chums. And what the average Russian really likes, next to a dead German, is a contrite one.

It didn't help that the East Germans had made a better fist of Socialism that the Soviets, and rather rubbed it in with their non-laxative beer and functioning cameras.

Moreover, the Russians underestimated the common ground between the British and the Germans. Apart from awful clothes, overcooked pork and talking about cars, we share a suspicion of the French, to whom life seems to come far too easily.

On the overnight train to Estonia, we and the pared-down Prussians decided that our Russian hosts were indeed no better than Frenchmen. True, their wine and weather scarcely recall Bordeaux, but they have a certain Gallic gift for all-day drinking, haughty women, toxic diplomacy and smoking through their rare ablutions. By the time the Baltic Express pulled into Tallinn Central, our carriage sounded like an pilot episode of "Meet the Bismarcks".

Our North-Sea Alliance was strengthened by the absence of the East Germans' "scharfe Hund" Stasi minder, who had gone too far in parading his pro-Soviet sympathies and actually eaten a Moscow railway station packed lunch.

One of the first Leipzigers to leap the psychological Anti-Fascist Defence Wall was Beata. The two of us hit it off together, as she combined a bürgerlich fondness for tailored tracksuits (as good as East German fashion got, believe me), unpermed hair and being photographed lounging on the bonnets of BMWs with a scholarly knowledge of German history. She also had a name full of southern light, unlike the crowds of Heidruns and Edeltrauds.

One morning a group of us were ambling towards the Kadriog Palace art gallery. I asked Beata whether she was also planning to join the afternoon jaunt to the Kilingi-Nõmme Experimental Synthetic Fabrics Plant.

She gazed out across the field-grey sea and mused "My room-mate Margit will go, as she has an interest in nylon tricotage. This alas I do not share. I shall rather spend the afternoon in our hotel room, examining the Hungarian lingerie that I purchased yesterday at the flea market. Are you interested in lingerie?"

I mimed that I was very interested in lingerie. "Good. Maybe you will join me?" Further Noh theatre gestures indicated my consent as we stepped, me bent nearly double, into the gallery.

The Kadriog Palace had, I heard, briefly been the residence of Estonia's interwar heads of state. So modest was Estonia's political class that it had taken until 1938 to appoint a president, and then he had had to seize power and appoint himself.

Welsh nationalists of the time were great admirers of the Baltic states, seeing their rude agrarian independence as a model, and m'Lord President of Wales and the Marches Dafydd Elis-Thomas later championed their captive cause through the long Soviet twilight.

This Quaker cult of simplicity lives on in Jan Morris's "A Machynlleth Triad" and, like everything Quaker, is doomed. It doesn't even have the random, redeeming élan of the Jacobites and Carlists. Mad-hatted feudal Poland survived the war against all odds, as did Regency Hungary and kleptomanic Romania. But the humble, horse-hoeing Balts spent 50 years as an insanitary shopping mall for Leningrad fishwives.

I should have been content to nod at a few "Girl Meets Tractor" efforts in oils then rush back to the hotel and help Beata sort her new purchases with my teeth. Instead I decided to try out my languages and ask a few edgy questions.

In the Soviet Union all checkpoints between the public and sources of fun were patrolled by leathery female War veterans who'd never needed such bourgeois baubles as weapons to dispatch the enemy. Restaurant lobbies, hotel floors, art galleries - each had its attendant Gorgon, her hydrae hidden by a mauve knitted beret.

I approached the Modernist Room Medusa with a caution born of Classical learning and numerous midnight flights from hotel balconies. "Excuse me, I don't speak Estonian," I opened.

"Wha'?" she stirred.

I tried again in Russian. "Can you help me? Is this the room where the Estonian presidents used to live?"

"Deutsch?" she ventured.

"Ja!" I replied, meaning that, yes, I do speak O-Level German.

"Good! You know, I remember during the War when you lot were here. My mother worked as a maid for the Generalkommissar, and he used to review the troops from that window over there. They were so smart! Everything was good, then the Russians came back and ruined it all."

I backed away, smiling, towards the door as she muttered to herself in German. I gave a final wave, which she again misinterpreted.

"Heil Hitler!" she beamed. I grinned like a chimp with rictus right arm as the East Germans filed into the room, turned smartly on their Cuban heels and filed back out again. And like the man queuing for tea in British 1950s horror flicks who's the first to see the monster slither out of the Thames, I could only stare open-mouthed at Beata as she marched past with no word spoken.

Still, the Vinalon alloy socks from the Kilingi-Nõmme goody bag have lasted me to this day.