Friday, December 28, 2012

In Winos Veritas

The Mighty Norman Tebbit once compared our prime minister, Mr Cameron, to Pol Pot, quondam leader of the gangster element in the Khmer Rouge. Now even I thought Lord Norman had allowed his rhetoric off the leash on this occasion, as Dave and Pol seem to have little in common apart from cherubic looks and good connections at Court.

But the Chingford Cassandra has proved me wrong again, as the Coalition's proposal to increase the minimum price on booze is a measure straight out of the Bumper Book of Bolshevist Blunders.

I spent a year in the Soviet Union developing a humble appreciation of market mechanisms as the hapless Mr Gorbachev launched his reform programme in the manner of the Isle of Wight ferry - in reverse order and a miasma of hot air.

It's easy to mock glasnost nowadays, given its Fabian faith in patience and cooperation, but any attempt at marrying neo-Stalinism with a Quaker sensibility was going to provide piquant entertainment at the very least for the heartless voyeur with a British passport and return ticket.

Sage entrail analysts have long pondered the reasons for Gorbachev's failure. Did he promote political reform at the expense of living standards? Did he send mixed signals to liberals and conservatives alike? Was the Soviet model too atrophied to cope with even minor change?

All interesting, all wrong, for I knew perestroika was doomed on 16 May 1985 - the day the Kremlin hiked the price of booze.

The aim was to discourage the virtuoso drinking that passed for Soviet recreation, apart from the allied art of random procreation. In the absence of any decent television or many Jews to persecute, that left only football to keep the Russian punter happy.

Then Denmark beat the Soviet squad in the World Cup qualifier, and that was that for perestroika.

The price rise, coupled with restrictions on where and when you could buy vodka, beer and the Soviet equivalent of wine, was meant to turn the Great Russian Public into sober connoisseurs of didactic literature, fossilised ballet and slow-moving epic cinema.

The predictable result was a run on alternative sources of alcohol, in particular boot polish, flight fuel and the "Natasha" brand of perfume. This led in logical sequence to the collapse of the Soviet Army, Air Force and feminine hygiene, in so far as anyone noticed.

My Soviet room-mates Kolya and Seriozha would rarely venture far from their encrusted cots without a splash of aftershave around the chops and tonsils, just to keep them topped up until Sergei Kartoshka (Serge the Spud) returned from his collective farm some metres below the village of Kozloyobsk with several demijohns of finest King Edward Red-Eye.

If they made it out onto Friedrich Engels St at all, they would slick a couple of poltinniks into the green and furred paw of a mathematics student to sign them in on their Dialectical Materialism Theory Class before joining the two-hour queue for a bottle of flat lager outside State Gastronomic Emporium No.13 In The Name Of Mikhail Suslov.

With good timing and the serendipitous demise of pensioners and invalids further up the queue, they might be able to down a couple of intestine-pounding Zhiguli Lites and still make it for an impromptu interrogation course at the Rosa Luxemburg Nurses Hostel, only pausing to void themselves in an Afghan postgraduate's  hat.

Russians back in 1985 cherished two aspects of Soviet life that made Stalin, plastic shoes and exploding television sets all seem vaguely worthwhile, and these were the Red Army's Wurst-bursting victory over the Germans in the Second World War and the way Scientific Socialism let the Ivans lord it over shifty Tartar types and the thoroughly suspect natives of the Caucasus.

Mr Gorbachev, with the unerring step of a deluded somnambulist clambering into a wolf enclosure, then trampled over this remaining pair of patriotic pluses in his soggy bedroom slippers:

1. Instead of jeering at the Armenians' alleged addiction to propositioning poultry, Russians now had to hand over two weeks' salary to Chechen taxi drivers for a still-fermenting bottle of Uzbek brandy and look suitably grateful into the bargain.

Prohibition is also how local crime really got organised, so that it was flush enough in the post-Soviet shambles to buy up all of Russia's steel mills and our (association) football teams.

Mass racketeering and English public schools plump with Rolexed Muscovite brats had never featured among  Gorbachev's agenda points at the XXVIIth Party Congress, at least not according to the banner I'd ended up carrying in the Revolution Day parade that year.

2. Russian war films pre-Gorbachev were refreshingly free of qualms or any factual plotting in a way that Hollywood accounts of the same conflict can only dream of.

Hulking straw-haired lathe-grinders, goat-bolters, schoolgirls and progressive livestock would swing as one from the wholesome task of stuffing Siberia-bound trains with Polish schoolteachers, don dashing khaki tunics and pave their rapid path to Berlin with the skulls of cloddish Ukrainian collaborators.

The live skulls of cloddish Ukrainian collaborators.

The Germans were always skinny degenerates in sagging, sallow uniforms. High Period Soviet war films (1945-1956) would not even inflict the objectively Fascist German language on the gnawed and noble ears of the Great Russian People, insisting instead that actors should communicate in guttural yelps the sort of which Dr Moreau would have despaired.

So, no matter how grim their turnip-fuelled economy might be, the Russians could always seek solace in the prospect of the Germans still bartering their teeth for kindling in the owl-haunted ruins of Nuremberg.

They were therefore unimpressed to discover, through the magic of glasnost on their tellies, that Germans ate heroic sausages in dappled market squares, strolled around in clothes made of cloth, and had better uses for garter bands than as surrogate fan-belts for their space-age, four-wheeled cars.

And they did all of this while drinking foaming lager - yes, Germans can get lager to foam - from mighty glass buckets, delivered to their heaving tables six at a time by hearty farmgirls who'd lost the ability to fasten their blouses.

Suddenly, Stalingrad didn't seem such a bargain after all.

One morning I had joined Kolya and Seriozha for a troika - we each had three roubles, which was enough to buy the cheapest bottle of vodka. It was some special occasion - Seriozha had washed his neck, I remember that - so we'd decided to spend two hours in the booze queue.

After about 50 minutes of our smoking, muttering and round-corner hawking, a pensioner in the standard-issue damp brown flares, pigeon-daubed beret and cardboard jacket marched up, his medals for driving a tank over a pile of Romanian hussars glinting in the low winter sun.

"Out of my way, slackers!" he snarled, brandishing his get-out-of-queues-free war veteran card as he shoved through the steaming mob at the shop door. "I was in Berlin, so move it!"

He'd served in the Red Army, he'd used the palace at Sans Souci as his lavatory, and he'd lived for forty years on birch bark and bitterness. The crowd would have been instinctively sympathetic to him, having at least one such Spartan each in their families. But along came Gorbachev and his Dry Law, and everything was changed, changed utterly.

He emerged from the shop clutching two open bottles of Zhiguli. He necked half of one right in front of us, retched, then spat it out over an audience of sparrows.

"Pisswater!" he gagged. "To think I fought the Germans for five years - one of them on my own - so that I could drink this muck. Bollocks!"

Pisswater or not, it was more beer than the rest of us had, and the mood of the crowd was restless. Then one voice rang out:

"Think - if you hadn't fought so hard, grandad, we'd all be drinking Bavarian Pils right now!"

I braced myself for the inevitable lynching. No one in the Soviet Union joked about the Nazis' winning the war.

But instead there were a murmur of appreciation, then laughter and a brief round of applause. The Hammer of the Goths shuffled off, trailing his bottles behind him. Mr Gorbachev and Soviet power followed suit, six short years later, to be replaced by the ever-thirsty Boris Yeltsin.

Perhaps Mr Cameron should put his feet up on Mr Clegg one evening and ponder these lessons of history. Ed Miliband may be a Diet Coke kinda guy, but out there in the heaving darkness you can just make out the embers of Ken Clarke's cheroot.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Scott of Arabia

My forthcoming novel:

A mix-up at Thomas Cook finds Capt Robert Falcon Scott and his chums deposited on the shores of Arabia Deserta.

Undeterred by blistering heat, expiring huskies and the constant chafing of sand under their thermals, the men of the Terra Nova Expedition trudge off, Aqaba-bound, shod in tennis rackets and furs.

With foul pipes clenched in sunbleached teeth, they drag sleds of fermenting pemmican and donkey corpses across the Devil's Anvil.

Salvador Dalí, a young Catalan artist diverted from Tangiers by a Cox & King's clerk with a loathing for Modernism, strokes the unshaven half of his chin thoughtfully, and pens a pneumatique in betel juice to Luis Buñuel.

But, as Scott approaches the Red Sea to turn the Turkish guns, he sees a Norwegian flag fluttering above the Mameluke fort...

Meanwhile, a North German Lloyd cruise ship debouches etiolated Welsh invert Capt T.E. Lawrence near Ross Island, Antarctica.

His white robes billow in merciless squalls while he pitches a tent of sheer muslin. Lawrence squints into the ebbing Sun. His etchings and easel fly out across McMurdo Sound.

"I shall name this frigid landfall Cape Dahoum..." he apostrophises an iceberg, just as an orca describes a perfect arc through the inky skies and snaps his head off.

Lawrence's body teeters on the marbled strand for a moment, before toppling into the deep.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Integrae servandae

BBC types, like Eastenders, the panda-eyed weatherman in Groundhog Day and wrong-trousered Alpine symphonist Anton Bruckner, wake up every day and make the same mistake, as I've noted before.

They derided my advice over Brand, Ross & Sachs - who really should be a firm of Borders solicitors specialising in sheep-rustling - and spurned it over Savile.

In the hope that they might listen this time, I'm suggesting that they should grovel to the Tories gangbang-style by handing over their news output to The Royal Horticultural Society, broadcasting proper war films all day on BBC4, and launching the following right-thinking programmes elsewhere:

Police, Camera, Traction!

BBC3: Warning from History Jim Davidson comments wryly on webcam footage of minor villains being helped down the back stairs of Britain's busiest police stations, then takes some ratepayers and mental patients round to visit them in hospital.

Moominsummer Murders

CBBC: Inspector Hemulen and Det Sgt Groke drive around Moominvalley in a vintage motor, eating berries and scattering Snork Maidens like petals.

Episode 1: Mrs Fillyjonk is found impaled on her own broomstick. Hemulen and Groke supercharge some Hattifatteners and lie in wait in the Lonely Mountains until springtime, for Romany rover and therefore prime suspect Snufkin to come rambling through.  

I'm a Celebrity, Get It Out Of Me!

BBC1 & Interactive: Viewers with shires phone numbers select dyed women and men with piercings from off the telly, who are then literally carted off to Clun for the recently relegalised Marches Eel Festival.

Revenue raised from DVD and programming sales worldwide will more than cover the inevitable legal fees, and Newsnight and Panorama can spend all year investigating leaks of the uncut footage onto the Internet.


Tuesday, October 02, 2012

We'll Keep a Whetstone in the Hillsides

We met beneath the pigeons at Reading Railway Station - Sioba Siencyn, Iago Anffawd and I. We paused, for the Spirit of the Sesh had descended upon us. Far from silently, we set off for the "Яevolution" bar on Station Rd to commune with our profound Cambritude.

Subterreanean lakes of ale were siphoned through our slate-slaked systems as we laboured on the screenplay for a Welsh James Bond film. Little survived of my notes the following day, apart from "HELENA BONHAM CARTER - LESBIUN!" scrawled on my forearm in Żubrówka.

But I do recall a scene in which we imagined the childhood trauma that warped the Welsh Bond into working for MI6. Being abandoned in a slate quarry by troglodyte parents would be one:

[Dark interior of the Llechwedd Slate Mine, Blaenau Ffestiniog. A small boy in grey flannel shorts, blazer and cap stands alone, holding a gently deflating balloon. A canary perched on crag provides the sole splash of colour as water drips hollow from the walls]

Boy [plaintively]: "Mam!"

[The canary falls dead at his feet]

Siencyn and I knew Blaenau well. He, a southerner from sunny Llanishen, had been scared sobbing to his brackish bed by tales of the Bwgan Blaenau - a trouserless quarryman who sharpened insolent children into bradawls for the splitting of the slate.

I had often peer through the clouds crowding over far Ffestiniog and thanked Hendwrch, the Badger God of Unforeseen Coupling, that I was a native of neighbouring Dolgellau.

But Iago was different. Like his native Swansea, he burned with the brio of sodium in a swimming pool - fast and fierce, but warm and always watchable. He decided that we were brandishing the Welsh-speaker's sawn-off sense of humour in Blaenau's general direction, thinking that we complain and denigrate solely to indulge and exalt.

For one of the few occasions in the history of our crab-clawed country we were in fact being totally and utterly honest  - a word that did not even exist in Welsh until we filched it from the French. That's right, from the French. Iago trusted in our duplicity, and we let him down.

Even the all-embracing National Park shuns Blaenau. A sooty enclave within the painted playground of Snowdownia, it has few links to the sunlit lowlands beyond a steam railway and the unicycle path over the Crimea Pass hewn by circus fugitives.

Blaenau is industry's vision of that disembowelled baboon in Cronenberg's "The Fly". It is Wales's last revolt against progress, and a warning to the curious geologist.

A few weeks later Siencyn and I were relaxing with some mushroom flummery among the oak garlands of our living room, when the telephone rang. We stared it for a while. Siencyn picked up Pshîla the cat and pressed what he thought was re-dial before I found the receiver and yelled a greeting over the cacaphonous Celtic Katzenjammer.

"It's me Iago, mun!"

"Arright Iargs, where are you? Pshîla's got Siencyn in a five-point pindown and the nettle brandy's taking the edge off my evening. so why don't you pop round? Bring the missus."

"Can't. We're both in bloody Blaenau Ffefuckingstingiog."


"Second honeymoon. Surprise for Kylie-Marie, like."

"In Blaenau?! Bet she's delighted. Don't you remember what me and Siencyn told you about the rain, the slate, the Council Scousers whining in the slagheaps, the Sundays, the consonants - Oh God! the consonants?"  

"I thought you was joking and it's really some Tenby in the sky. Kylie-Marie could be crying, but I can't tell 'cause of the rain. And we're indoors."

"Well, Iago bach, I'd love to chat all night but this perique won't smoke itself, so -"

"We need your help mun!"

"Again, Iago, I'm several hundreds of miles away, simultaneously and at the same time overstimulated and sedated by fermentation and fungi, and own neither a car nor a sense of empathy, so once again -"

"Can you just tell us where to get something to eat? We're in this guest house, and they laughed when we asked about dinner. Laughed without opening their mouths..."

Iago had once spent an evening buying drinks for an "SAS officer" whose convenient knowledge of Welsh had helped him recruit the "Tibeeshans" of Tibet to imaginary espionage. Sending the boy into a Blaenau pub would lead to his having "Deddf Eiddo!" tattooed on his intestines with a tool fashioned from his own overdeveloped coccyx.  

"Drive down to 'The Grapes' in Maentwrog," I counselled. "The village is twinned with Roger Corman's out-takes, and you can expect the longest silent stare since the doomed London type arrives in the Cornish pub in Hammer's splendid 'The Reptile', but they do pre-killed food and the main road to Minfford and freedom is but a black and lurid tarn away".

"We got here and was so shocked that we just smoked this bag of weed and now we can barely move. What we going to do?"

"You could send out for fish and chips, but don't ask for scampi - some of the blokes who come up for air from Llechwedd feel for amphibians and might track you down. Your wife is a woman - surely she must have some chocolate?"

"Like I said, we're half-Marleyed so the Valleys Family Pack of Revels is long gone. Plus the freezing fog keeps the blow swirling at knee-level, or chest-height for the staff, so everytime we try to go downstairs we gets another hit. It's mental."

I thought hard, then rapped out a number. "This is my brother Morthwyl's phone. Just say the following - 'Blaenau. Stoned cormorant. Bird's yours. Duw ffyc aye'. Ignore the gnawing sound. He'll find you. Now hang up."

Morthwyl located the creature that had once been Iago deposited at "The Brondanw Arms" in nearby Llanfrothen, a hamlet celebrated throughout Wales for having expelled its vicar in the 19th century - from the business end of the giant Sumatran rat that the Independent Calvinist-Methodist (Calvinist) minister has raised like a son, rumour has it.

A word with the Assembly Government, and Iago got a job fashioning Welsh-shaped marital aids for the enervated satraps of Umm al-Quwain. Parts of him feature on a series of Emirati postage stamps.

Kylie-Marie stayed in Maentwrog, where she entertains the impious with her cimbalom at the 24-hour graveyard. And as for the good people of Blaenau and Llanfrothen, they sing and dance and await their next visitors at dusk.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blind Narcissus

Facebook, the simpleton's way to start your day, has let the mask slip of late. Big-palmed creator Mark Zuckerberg pitched it as a sort of computer smoothie - no chemicals, no plastic wrapping, no monthly book selection blocking up your letter box, no bailiffs biffing your old gran because you skipped the small print.

Its acolytes sailed gaily through the Gates of Spontaneous Order, eager to share their news and photos with friends they don't see every day. But this band of pure users has long been smothered in the mental dandruff of:

  • Night bus nightmares lacking the trip-switch betwixt brain and fingers
  • Brazen blogpost pluggers like me
  • Playground showoffs impressing the girls with their update push-ups
  • Link jockeys with news and weather updates for people who don't have Internet access, and 
  • Bored secret policemen.

The difference between the early innocents and these human retreads is motive. The former want to share; the latter need to sell. Now that Facebook is stuffed with hand-me-down opinions and stale jokes, Mr Zuckerberg has set aside his bucket of soda and commanded the macro-minions to slip back into their "Yo La Tengo" t-shirts and get messing with some minds.

My favourite coarsening of the Facebook grain is the "Highlight" button. This lets buffoons shuffle their latest brain daubs to the top of his friends' feeds for a small fee and no conceivable reason. Those who avail themselves of this new service might find it cheaper and more effective to change their avatar to an animation of an endless deflating phallus.

I'm reminded of the lager pump in Reading's Hobgoblin pub (now the Reading Alehouse - flavoursome as ever but far less intimidating). This establishment still caters exclusively to men in beige who gave up on women when Felicity Kendall married and now dedicate themselves to flat beer and books with gnomes as the protagonists.

A student absorbed in mobile phones and dance music might occasionally press through the fog of halitosis, survey the barrels of Old Hedgefumbler and alight with relief on the cheery, elf-free Fosters label.

"Pint of Fosters, please!" he'd chirrup.

The matted mass of sinew, soup and Ulster Scots belligerence that was Paul, the crepuscular landlord, would then ring the Lager Bell, and all would gather round and mock.

The Highlight button is Facebook's Lager Bell, a tool for showing others you're a tool.

Another sign that Facebook is toying with its creatures like a kettle-wielding toddler bestride his ant farm was Mr Zuckerberg's twin decision to float the company on the stock market then get wed. These two acts are calculated to sweep all Facebookers into a handy tray of rage.

Users see Facebook as a self-sustaining anarchist cooperative of fisherfolk, where money has long yielded to black flags and free love - or at least amusing photographs of the like. They don't like markets, unless run by tie-dyed white-flighters posing as farmers, and they certainly don't like their blow-up Internet doll being sold as someone's dowry.

But Mark Zuckerberg's most galling gag, set up long before he careered off in his ironic "Just Married!" titanium Heinkel bubblecar, was Timeline. One morning you log on, and your neat ribbon of thinks has been spliced and jammed like some hipster's birthday party retro mixtape.

Some sigh and live with it, others flee to Google+ ("Where The Manager's Golf Buddies Are"), and the rest go all haiku and lose themselves in Twitter. Luis Buñuel shot his films in a linear fashion - I imagine because he wanted to know what happened next - and Facebook has blundered into the hag-haunted halls of hubris if it thinks it's further out there than Spain's top Surrealist and smoker.

So how can Mark keep us down on his farm now that he's seen Gay Paree? One way would be to adopt my Update Displacement and Disclaimer Editorial Reversal System (UDDERS). How does this work?

In its present, pedestrian configuration, Facebook allows the user to post and delete their own updates, and merely like, dislike, share or comment on others. UDDERS works in reverse. It allows you  to post solely on the feed of others and, by the magic of hacking, via their IDs.

This is much more like it. Imagine four old friends - John, Paul, George and Ringo. It's easy if you try. John is a bit of a dick and packed full of mordant conscience. Most of his chums quietly block his updates, so how can he get across these urgent views on Vietnam, hair and decreasingly imaginative music? Well, UDDERS allows him to post as, say, Paul.

Paul is a bit of a dick but clings to a shotglass of self-awareness that keeps his ideas about Ireland and meat largely to himself. Consider the interest, then, if updates like "Playing for HM The Queen's Jubilee! Fantastic!!" and "Playing at the Olympics! Fantastic!!" were superseded by "Hey Mr Obama, yer Agent Orange gives me the blues!" That's one deep cavity search booked at JFK next time Paul plans to give his regards to Broad St.

Or take Ringo. He's a bit of a dick, but affable enough when he concentrates on Bond girls and practicing his signature. Unlike John, he doesn't want to force his helium opinions on others. Like all drummers, he is one of life's terrible simplifiers - if you don't believe me, listen to Buddy Rich's version of Birdland - and so prefers the "altruistic elimination" application on UDDERS that allows you to delete other users' posts.

George is a bit of a dick - lives on a trampoline in Henley - but funds terrifically tasty films. Ringo deletes all his posts, replacing them with "Peace and Luve", and George really doesn't mind. Everyone's happy.

I have other ideas for applications to make Facebook a site fit to loll in:

1. The Political Chameleon. A young lady asks to befriend you, and you idly wonder whether she might be a nympho whose father owns a brewery. She earnestly comments on a cheek-streaking array of stuff. You have neither the time nor inclination to read them, but would like to leave either a pithy comment or knowing link to keep her sweet.

Lo - the Chameleon codes her updates by colour and shape, so you know where she stands and you may stoop.

  • Red Wedge = Old Left: trade unions, banners, her lips move when Ed Miliband speaks.
  • Red Crescent = WikiLeaks Left: trustafarian or Oxbridge-via-pinched-suburbs. Media fringes, Trotskyist blogs, hates daddy.
  • Green Thorn = ditto, but lives in Brighton.
  • Grey Goth = Occupy, Obama, Ovaries.
  • Blue Frigate = Rugby Club Right: Clarkson stalker, strike breaker, loves daddy.
  • Rainbow Vortex = Cthulhu Central: Ayn Rand, Ron Paul - Run Miles.

You might manage to steer a Frigate into harbour, but you'll be hosing down the docks for weeks afterwards. Otherwise look out for the Pink Glove (Blairites) or Swedish Flag (Coalition) - they're all looking for love right now.

2. Automatic Arguer. You post something bold and arresting, such as a merged photo of Presidents Bush and Obama, or a European Union flag with a For Sale sign on it, hoover down a can of lager and await the debate. But nothing happens, apart from a few "likes" and "uh-huhs". You've hit rock-lobster bottom on the Shelf of Self-Knowledge with a clammy slap, as all your Facebook friends - apart from the Japanese cosplayer you suspect might be your old chemistry master - clearly share your scintillating Weltanschauung.

That's where Automatic Arguer comes in. The free app generates ill-humoured snarls, threats to defriend, or photographs from children's hospitals in your target country.

But for a small fee it will post your erudite update on the wall of the Middle Eastern political movement you'd least like to be kidnapped by, embellished with some swastikas, Stars of David or amusing fusion of both, along with a composite of your profile photo having good times with their best daughters.

Then it will disable your "mute" button and sign off with your home address. In Comic Sans.

3. We Live As We Dream. Depression is the Plimsoll Line that divides healthy societies from Britain. Post something about bipolarity and your American friends will offer all sorts of encouragement. But from the Tamar to the Thames comes the sound of distant shuffling. Why? Beats me, but here's what to do.

Install this app, as it's ideal for the chatty melancholic. If there's an election, weather event or excellent new film going down in America and you simply can't find anyone on Facebook to put their arms around your updates, click on one of the three settings to get the desired result:

  • Sympathy. This hacks various friends' accounts and sends you inspiring thoughts etched on stock photos of domestic animals at sunset, and makes your laptop smell of chocolate.
  • Retired Colonel. Comes in "2nd Duchess of Gloucester's Own Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire Battalion" or "US Marine Corps" modes. One counsels brisk walks, cold showers, thinking of the regiment and marrying well. The other suggests that you might want to drop something and give him twenty thereof.
  • Head Tilt. When words only wound, this tips all the photos on Facebook by a reassuring 25 degrees.

Please note - despite some persistent complaints, there is no Voices In My Head setting. It just means you've stumbled onto Twitter.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Recoil after Volleyball

I missed the Olympic opening celebration of Britishness, because I fell asleep reading a Max Hastings book. That's how Daily Telegraph I am.

Danny Boyle did himself proud, I'm sure, but only if his show featured:

  • Steptoe & Son;
  • couples taking their dogs for romantic weekends in Cotswold hotels;
  • Mrs T trailing a bottle of Bells about her bedroom, wearing slippers made of Argies and miners;
  • students trying to force down a Guinness;
  • Ollie Reed mumbling an apology to an understanding Eddie Izzard;
  • pink-eyed kids marching down a Newcastle street, playing kazoos;
  • synchronised tutting;
  • Sir Sean Connery wearing one of the Scottish man-skirts, pissed on a Marbella beach;
  • The Question Time audience waking up in Iran;
  • Shaky wrestling Richard out of Richard & Judy; and
  • Edward VIII finding out the hard way that Wallis Simpson was a man.

All narrated by the ghost of John Osborne. Anything less, and we might as well be westerly Dutchmen.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ich, Eich Dyn, Dien

Apologies for the lull in blogging - my bid for the directorship-general of the BBC required considerable time for mental, spiritual and other refreshment. I wish my rival, the late John Entwistle, the very best in the dusty tasks that face him. I would have been a tough act to follow, and how harder will it be to lurk in the mighty tripod of my shadow.

With the grace for which we Welsh are noted, I hereby put all my previous programme proposals at his disposal, in the certain knowledge that, if spared due legal scrutiny, they will prove nothing if not stimulating.

I would also like to mark this 4th of July by suggesting that Mr Entwistle should ponder the article in which  Nick Cohen wonders why the BBC does not produce the sort of pant-shredding drama that the Americans have made their own.

The reason Americans fashion such telly excellence as "24", "The Sopranos", "Treme" and "The Wire" is simply that they have massive, brass balls, and they like the sound these make as they clack together while their owners stride down Main Street, sparks flying from their leather chaps.

The pallid knackers of the BBC, by contrast, are clamped in one of those devices that Accident & Emergency crews regularly have to remove from the damper parts of Anglican clergymen, and so bring us the likes of "All The Small Things", a stack of ticked boxes in flight from the audience.

The plucky resistance movement at BBC4 tries hard to serve up steaming hot television, and they deserve some praise for their Scandinavian Knight's Move - a cheeky ploy to resell pasty Danish remakes of ITV's Mirrentastic "Prime Suspect" as Euro neo-noir. But we can't rely on six million herringheads to provide all our two-dimensional dramatic needs.

The BBC will not slough off its sub-Rattigan cosiness overnight, so I propose a manageable transition by literally bringing American elements into existing British formats. Here are a couple for free:  

Ponty PD. The United States takes over the Gwent Police beat in Pontypool, if only to make damn sure that any new Piers Morgans are dealt with in situ. In episode one, Chief Inspector Serpico Terminaterwitz sends a SWAT team to Mrs Prys-Price-Parry-Jones's late husband Gwil's pigeon loft, where their layabout son has been flattening pennies so that they will fit in the 2d slot of the pre-decimal cigarette machine at Pontypool leisure centre.

Donnie Darkie. The dense, multilayered psychological teen thriller is rewritten as a British 1970s sitcom. Robin Askwith is the psychiatrist, Liz Fraser is the mum, Jim Davisdon is a giant racist rabbit.

The BBC Drama types in Cardiff could knock those out with a flick of a powdery mirror and still have time to catch the last train to England. I await the call.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Du côté de chez Swan

"What are you staring at?" Annette asked the pair of blurry-faced soaks across the bar. "Ewer tits, luv," one grinned. He raised his glass and returned to the pleasures of the contemplative life.

"Swansea," I said, "is another country, they do things differently by here."

Annette had been a student at University College, Swansea (formerly Sketty Anglers Club) long enough to have shed her Saxon, secular resistance to the direct and deeply spiritual sensibility of the Cambrian aesthete. And Swansea is where you are most likely to encounter this Epicurean approach at its most expressive:

  • Cardiff's twin tongues are caught between the bump of business and the grind of ambition,
  • Llanelli's cheeks are still pinched by the chapel pew, and
  • all points between are hobbled by proletarian piety.

Swansea, however, is Wales's Casablanca. Bohemia sups with the picaresque in the curved and shingly Rick's Bar that is the bay. High above, Mumbles maquisards lead thirsty refugees from Calvinist Carmarthenshire through the Rosehill Quarry corridor. And there's no Major Strasser to spoil your good times, although the local Captain Renaults retain a professional interest in bribery and Bulgarians.

Just as Ray Liotta in Goodfellas always wanted to be a gangster, I've endlessly yearned to live in Swansea. My father used to drive the Trawscambria coach down there from Dolgellau, and it was a regular treat to accompany him. We told the school I was off gelding shepherds or something suitably rural.

Our day out in Swansea began with an early lunch in one of the bombsite pubs near the bus station, a rummage in Ralph's Bookshop, then a Bond film on the Kingsway (first watched, then acted out) before herding our day-release Yetis back to their Snowdon sanctuary.

That first descent into Swansea stirred my Manichean soul, for the town is bisected by two axes (NB "Welshisms" will steadily creep into my copy. There's a prize for the reader who spots them all. For an explanation, follow this link from Madame Boyo).

At the end of one axis pearly Mumbles bobs in a cornflower sea, while at the other Port Talbot steams in the sulphurous Sun. Between them curls the Bay, a drunken proscenium for the cast of local strolling players.

The other axis of diametrically opposed opposites gifts the town a sunny, palm-strewn esplanade that makes Cannes look like Clacton, while simultaneously and at the same time drawing a veil of widowed rain across the Swansea Valley. This shields our Shangri-La from the hairy-handed hordes beyond Cwmbwrla.

The fulcrum around which these twin axes revolve is the Swansea Jack pub on Oystermouth Road. They say the flâneur draped across a chair at Les Deux Magots will see le Tout-Paris pass by.And if you crouch beneath the boarded windows of The Jack for long enough, all the town's burglars, fences, cock-wrestlers, shapeshifters, amateur apothecaries and punch-up paramours will whirl before your eyes on a fist-shaped carousel.

The off-yellow omphalos of The Jack was, in my day, ringed by the bus station, magistrates' court and jail, like the crust on a teenage self-piercer's navel. Its patrons would spill out of the station into The Jack, wake up in jail, drag their truncheoned pods across to the magistrates' court, return to jail, get released, back down The Jack, wake up in jail, and so it goes.

I am convinced that it is this very perpetual motion that agitates the Earth's polar axis, rather than some fancy science talk about gravity, the Moon and ley lines. The Blind Watchman sets his Seiko by the opening times of The Swansea Jack, and you knows it.

Like every downy-bearded blow-in, I dreamed of becoming a latter-day Kardomah Boy. All that's left of these efforts is some unusually bad verse and a draft screenplay. Provisionally named "It Happened By Here", It toys with motifs from Astérix in a Britain occupied by the Nazis in 1941:

The King's in Canada, Churchill's in his cups, and the sole beacon of resistance is The Swansea Jack, which has held out against what the defenders call "them fucking Frenchies" since the Battle of Muswell Hill. It ends with what my co-writer Sioba Siencyn dubbed a "brimstone barbecue of the Boches", and would have done for Oystermouth Road what Twin Town did for Dunvant.

S4C were interested, but saw problems with getting European Union funding.

Then the dam of life burst, and cast me on the lower reaches of the Thames where I wallow still. Yet Swansea moments recur even here, like a madeleine dipped in oyster water.

Siencyn and I were enjoying a pint of Felinfoel, the force that drives the green fuse through Gorseinon, at the Reading Real Ale Festival some years back. The juxtaposition of beer with Englishmen - and this alone - naturally bade us speak Welsh.

A young fellow sidled over and asked whether we were from Wales. We were. "Can I ask you a question?" he ventured. "No doubt," we replied, nodding that he should first prick our tongues with hops. He returned with three more pints, and proceeded:

"I was at a stag weekend in Swansea - you know it? - a month ago, and we'd just drunk our way alone the Mumbles Mile to the pier. We were merry but hardly boisterous, let alone lairy. Just waiting for the last cab back to town.

"Then a bunch of local lads come up and say 'scuse us, but, fancy a fight?'

"We pointed out politely that if it was all the same to them we'd rather not, when they began pleading. 'Go on, mun, just a quick scrap!'

"I was about to explain that we were social workers who work at returning mental cases to the community, and therefore had full respect for Wales's unique and endangered culture, when each of them launched himself at one of us, and we rolled to the ground.

"I expected the worst, but was surprised to find that I was on the receiving end of little more than a gentle kneading, like a patty of breakfast laverbread. I parried in kind, then after a few minutes one of the locals yelled 'hey, they're letting us in at Cinders!'

"With that our opponents stood up, dusted off their stonewashed jeans, beamed 'magic scrap, mun, cheers!' and were gone."

"What was all that about?"

Ah, where do you begin to explain the Friendly Fight, Wales's most potent yet unsung contribution to world culture? We're not talking about Khrushchev and Bulganin stopping their limos at Kuntsevo for a drunken rumble in the tundra, or some John Wayne saloon-bar blarney. This is the altruistic sharing of theatrical violence, with the aim of fostering the Welsh Classical unities of "closing time", "two-fisted action" and "any place will do".

A Welsh night out - or "sesh" - cannot whimper away on a wave of "see-yas" or drown in a repeat kebab's chili sauce. It must soar to new heights of purpled-panted passion at the Pontarddulais bus stop, or else vault slag-heaps of convention with a slow-burn scrummage.

Only then, all split-lipped, slapped-up, sung-out and spent, can the Welshman return in peace to greet his waiting wife, whose silhouette already arches like a curler-crowned Medusa amid the wheelie-bin pillars of his home.

Swansea's genius for geniality cushions the cosh of conviviality as it cracks your coccyx on a warm West Cross night, I expanded to our rapidly retreating guest.

Nothing sums this up better than one of my last sights of Swansea on a college visit many years ago. Some kindly councillor had put up a concrete island in the middle of Oystermouth Road to help civilians flee to the safety of the beach. As we drove by, a vest-clad veteran had commandered the island in the name of The Jack. Girdled with cider, he swung his septic fists at the cars flying by on both sides, spinning and roaring like a Cambrian Caliban.

The drivers ploughed on, sure they had just missed a glassing. But the Man of the Jack wasn't warning them off. He was inviting them in for a few jars, some seaweed, and a chat with his friends dead and living. This sawdust-stubbled Cyclops will endure when all the marinas dry up. And while guests from the future puzzle over our cryptic cycle paths, he will still be drinking down The Jack. And it will always be your round, mun.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Black and Blue Moon

Wales to fire Englishman at Moon

Text of report from Taffinfform news agency 

Morgangrad (formerly Cardiff), 23 April: "I's proud to announce that Wales will put the first ever man on the Moon," Minister of Technology, Cars and Fishing Mathonwy ap Scarmas told reporters on day release from the Martyr Cerys Matthews Corrective Ink Detention Centre on Monday [23 April]. "And that man is going to be an English," he laughed.

Responding to international and some indistinct domestic criticism of previous official celebrations of St George's Day (see Taffinfform report "Welsh Police Apologise in Advance for St George's Day violence", passim), Ap Scarmas assured whoever that the Cymru Rouge decision to entrust this task to a representative of Wales's largest non-badger source of infectious diseases was evidence that the People's Government was totally and utterly committed to "diversity, the Millennium and that".

"Ever since the dawn of time, thousands of years ago, Man has looked at the Moon and wondered what the fuck it is," the minister expanded, over the impromptu lunch he had just poured himself. "And none more so than us Welsh.

"Your Egyptians worship the Sun and mad animal things like in science fiction," Ap Scarmas held forth. "The Jews and Arabs stand around mountains, twatting each other with their heathen versions of the Bible. The Aztecs stick bones through their cocks. Good luck to all of them, we says. But Welsh scholars and visionaries have always had a thing about the Moon, from our main lady goddess Arianrhod, right through to Martyr Max Boyce. So it's only fair that we get to conquer it first. The Wirral is not enough."

"Cheers!" he added.

Answering questions about the technical aspects of the Moon mission (codename "Anghenfil yn y Lloer - 2012"), the minister waved vaguely at a powerpoint presentation screen, onto which he had sellotaped a drawing of an Acme cartoon circus cannon perched on top of Mynydd Morgan [formerly Mount Snowdon].

"Out of this big gun we will fire a specially adapted Hillman Imp," he continued. "It will be aimed at the Moon, which research on the government's computer indicates is about 32 miles up and as flat as a posh bird's chest.

"In that motor will be Wales's and the world's first moonanaut, Dave Eversough-Sorey." [chairman of the banned Plaid y Sais (English People's Party) and the country's most persistent, longest-serving and widely-dispersed political prisoner - see Taffinfform report "Welsh opposition leader rushed to prison in two separate vans, again"].

"I can't say how pleased the government is that Dave is going to accept this momentous honour, because we're keeping it as a surprise for him," the upcoming Cymru Rouge luminary and future convicted Manx spy explained.

"He'll have all mod cons for his trip, innit," Ap Scarmas set out. "There'll be 800 Embassy for him, another 800 for the aliens, and 200 Regal for their women. And Silk Cut in case there are any poufs. Fair play."

Asked about food supplies, the former goat-butter conceded "We've been pumping the poor bugger with girl hormones for weeks, so he'll be able to produce his own breast milk for the journey, mind. There's a sack of flummery and a churn in the boot, running off the battery."

Ap Scarmas sounded a note of caution to the late Eversough-Sorey. "He'd better have the Hillman back by Friday, though but. That Chancellor Merkel is visiting from Germany. The president wants to take her up the Rhinogs." 

"And!" he leered officially.

In response to a reporter's query about any research experiments that the orbital Englishman might be expected to carry out while "flying between God's uprights", the minister concluded "Absolutely. Dave's chief scientific objective will be to work out how to get his self back by here, 'cause we've got no clue."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The clock struck eleven yet again as Jethro Gill shouldered his way into the British Film Institute. It's now called Old Peculiar's Pelicular Panopticon, he had to remind himself. And it was only nine-thirty on a damp March morning. "A trifle inclement," as the wireless had chuckled in Banter - the new English standard.

It was always eleven o'clock - opening time - since the Great Shiving. Getting used to the lingo was only the half of it. Jethro reached for a cigarette, only to realise he'd left his stash at home. Since the Shiving only pipes and roll-ups were allowed, and a cigar on the wife's birthday. The me'm-sah'b, Her Indoors.

"Briars and rollies - the whole country looks like a Cornish town council," Jethro muttered as he rifled through the in-tray.

He remembered the revolution well. It had all happened so suddenly. The last pub in Henley had put up its shutters in the face of a thirsty party of Thames walkers, just as a Community Patrol officer was telling a joiner outside a Bermondsey bookies to put out his Benson.

The resulting riots spread nationwide. The shires, suburbs and inner cities marched on Westminster, the politicians fled, and the people stood bewildered and triumphant. The triumvirate - Clarkson, Lumley and Vegas - had time only to design a coat of arms for the New Commonwealth (a Jag hub cap, with pitbull rampant and can and ashtray gules, motto "Circum Tuum") before they fell to squabbling.

Then came the "Sallying Forth", as the chap with the plan, the CAMRA Man, launched the Great Shiving. Soup-stained Savonarolas of the Campaign for Real Ale exploited the national binge and endless smoke-ins to seize the gutted shell of the Mansion House and total power.

Tribune Joanna Lumley alone survived as the figurehead of state, wheeled out on Jerome K Jerome Day to smash a cask on the hull of a new naval skiff.

The rest was a nightmare, a nightmare of horror. Jeans were banned unless elastic-waisted, all lager was drained into the Thames, filter tips, trainers and shaving kits were thrown on the bonfire of the vanities in Trafalgar Square.

Within days all the good-looking women had fled to Wales before the punishment battalions of dieticians and flatscreen TV salesmen were forced to raised Offa's Anti-Taff Defence Barrier high into the Marcher sky.

England was no longer England. Now it was Camrastan, a chillingly jocular epithet intended to "win over our Mohammedan charges to the ways of the wort". You couldn't laugh anymore, you had to "chortle", "titter" or "guffaw". Doors didn't open, they were "portals" to be "negotiated". The profiles of Pratchett, Tolkien and Felicity Kendall graced the new Guinea currency.

Even buying a pint of "cooking" was like sitting an extended oral exam for your Masters in Halitosis. "Special" and the maltier brews were reserved for the Old Campaigners - the CAMRAts as the malcontents called them - and the dreaded Porter Police.

Jethro shuddered, and turned to the flickering Amstrad with its fashionable tweed trim. His job was to bring films into line with Campaign teachings. No lager, no grooming and no girlfriends, unless they were chaste and mumsy barmaids.

There were technical teams tasked with etching beards onto Bogart, cutting Grace Kelly's highballs down to halves of shandy, and curling Private Walker's Woodbines into Bent Rhodesians.

Jethro was a writer, and had to recast dialogue to accommodate tepid ale, flannels and cricket in every imaginable plotline, while excising references to non-comic sex. This proved surprisingly easy with most British films, and hardly needed doing to anything before 1954, but Jethro took grudging pride in his adaptations of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealists.

"Les Quatre Cents Coups" became a teenage seaside musical, and "La Dolce Vita" followed a Brummie motorcycle rep as he persuaded Romans to dress warmly and appreciate the superior horsepower of the Triumph Bonneville.

But Jethro knew his time was up. There, at the top of the pile, was his treatment of "Ice Cold in Alex". He had agonised over it for days, but could find no way of persuading even the most anoraked frothblower that the Desert Rats would have yomped through Libya, eschewing all that Afrika Korps beaded Pilsener, for the promise of a cloudy tankard of Champion's Speckled Johnson.

With a reflective "Fuck this", Jethro rolled up his radical reworking of the John Mills classic as "Warm and Soapy in Suez", a 70s sex romp, jammed it in the pneumatique and stomped off down The Tethered Goat.

The Goat looked like any Camrastan ale house. Walls as jaundiced and uneven as the landlord's teeth, faintly amusing notices to the toilets, a bar pocked with men in broken spectacles peering through the murk of their pintpots at some point below the barmaid's chin, and an aroma of dog and slipper tainting the Burley fug.

Jethro nodded to the barmaid. "Pint of Johnson?" she asked. "The Abdication Special," he wheezed. "I'll need to check the cellar." She left the bar and unlocked a door tucked away behind a screen. Returning a moment later, she said "It's off". Jethro nodded and, while no one was watching, slipped through the unlocked door.

He rapped out the "Satisfaction" riff on a mildly disturbing amateur portrait of June Whitfield. The eyes came alive, and a bloodshot glance took him in. "Grolsch!" Jethro hissed. The portrait slid aside, and he stepped into The Fist and Fury - Soho's most notorious lagerama.

Glass, smoked chrome, prawn-homage crisps and every variety of lager, from premium to pig, came at him from all corners. He lit a proffered Lambert & Butler, necked a Budvar and drank in the scene.

In the corner was an illegal feed of Scottish MTV full of Shakiras for the youngsters. The only drawback was poor soundproofing, which meant the jukebox was silent. But at least he could watch the vids - Clash, Stones, Jam, Oasis and Idol. And all the birds were still slags.

Then a Boadicean prow crested the waves of crop tops and cock jokes. Beach bleached hair framed 70s blue eyeliner, Caligula lips and an embonpoint you could eat your breakfast off.

"I call them my Full English," she breathed, "And you just drank my beer". She opened another bottle on her navel. "Want to try that again?"


Jethro and Marianne awoke on a bed of crisps. "Oh Jethro, I thought I was a lesbian until I met you!"

"No doubt,"
he grunted, dragging himself across to her record collection. Disappointment. It was all CAMRA approved bumptious hilarity - skiffle, Flanders and Swann, Your 100 Best Tunes, Macc Lads. Then he tugged out the vinyl itself - Cockney Rebel, the Kinks. He nearly wept.

"What did you do before They took over," Jethro asked, balancing his head on her breasts.

"I ran my own boutique," she sighed, drawing deep on her Silk Cut. "South American fabrics, Mayan calendars, panpipes, bowler hats, that sort of thing. Then the Board of Trade came round and restocked us with pre-frayed cardigans, Goblin Teasmades, meerschaum pipes and pomade. I kept the bowler hats, but sold up once they ran out."

Jethro mused that CAMRA wasn't wrong all the time.

"I've been sort of drifting since then," she continued unbidden. "I do some black market highlighting, the Belfast lingerie run. How about you?"

"I've just burned my bridges,
" he began. "Proposed turning a grim Brit war film into a saucy romp. Well, it did have Liz Fraser in it."

"That was 'Desert Mice',"
Marianne added. "You mean Sylvia Syms."

Jethro felt clammy. He tried to sit up, but the breasts held him fast. "How did you know I was working on 'Ice Cold in Alex'?"

Marianne paused, then released him. "Don't worry, they just want a word, that's all."

The bathroom door creaked open, and in ambled a Porter Police patrol in crumpled corduroy. "A beard in your earhole, old chap," grinned the commander.

Jethro stared at Marianne. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "But they had Baileys."

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Hendrix Hundreds

"You're on now, Mr Bendix!"

Jimi muttered for the hundredth time, which meant they'd been getting it wrong on average five times a year since he arrived.

Jimi shouldered his axe and edged past the pint pots to the tiny corner stage.

"The Bontddu Hall Hotel is proud to present Jimmy Bendrix's Experiences," coughed the manager into the squawk of dust and feedback.

"Hi, croeso cynnes, I'm Jimi Hendrix, out of Washington. That's Washington State, in the US Northwest, not Washington on your Tyne. Whay aye, maaaan."


"Yeah, uh, here's something from way back. Perhaps some of you remember it. I've got some tapes, if you, uh. It's called 'All Along the Watchtower'."

"Bloody Jehovah's Witnesses!"
came a voice from the bar. Some laughter.

"Yeah, uh, cheers, diolch. So, uh, here it goes...."


"You want to warm them up with some 'Streets of London' or something before your own stuff, bobol bach! Give them a fucking chance, innit?" The manager crammed some twenties into Jimi's NCB donkey jacket pocket. "You driving home?"

"Uh, no. Gwenllian's picking me up in the Cortina."

"Have a nightcap on the house then. Shame not to. You must be parched."

"Half of lager, if that's ok. Not the Wrexham, though."

"No problemo."


"Go ok, love?"

"Sure. Some of them dug 'Foxy Lady'. Rest were pretty polite."

They clattered over the Penmaenpool Toll Bridge and headed for the coast. Jimi liked the long way back to Borth, so he could hear the waves and catch a gust of salt air with the windows down, even through the rain.

"Meic's got a new record out. I taped it. Fancy a listen?"

"Meic Stevens? Sure, why not."

Gwenllian fumbled with the stereo. A guitar struck up, and the tight, familiar voice cut through the dark in Welsh:

"See the fire in the still of the night, and smoke on the chilly breeze?... Must we pray with the Living Dead?... Too many vampires, everywhere... don't turn against your own blood..."

Jimi's head rolled down on his chin, his eyes fluttered.


"Good idea to go up country, chance to get my head straight."

"I thought the Cardiff gig went well."

"Engelbert fucking Humperdinck, man. What was that? Backstage he told me I should go for an opera name too - no one will ever get 'Hendrix' right. I told him to announce me as 'Madame Butterfly'. Fat prick."

"Chill, man. Look, we're coming up to Aberystwyth now. There's some great blokes I'd like you to meet, they've got their own scene going."

"OK, let's drive."



"No, Meic. Ah, there's not much in it. Have a drink first?"

"Sure. What's that you've got there?"

"Red wine. Pretty rank, mind. The bitter here's ok."

"I'll stick to the lager beer, thanks. Cheers."

Gwenllian brought over the drinks as Meic and his friends struck up.

"So you guys do your stuff in Gaelic?" Jimi asked afterwards, rolling a fat one.

"Welsh - fewer vowels, but more people," grinned Mike. "Like a smoke, do you? We grow something special out here in the woods, blow your mind it will."

"I'm listening,"
grinned Jimi.

"'shrooms, man. Don't have to plant them, just keep your eyes open and your nose to the ground. Not hard for us, like. Once you've gone 'cap' you don't go black, if you don't mind me saying!"

"Just show me where it's at."


The sharp bend at Aberdovey jolted Jimi awake. Across the estuary a corpse candle beckoned the unwary to Borth.

"Jesus, that brought it all back!"

"What d'you mean?"
Gwenllian changed down a gear and the sea scent receded.

"I was back in the summer of '67, when I first came up here, after the Cardiff gig. Bottom of the bill at The Capitol, behind Cat Stevens. Heh, never thought that would be me saying goodbye to the big time!"

"You miss it, don't you?"

"Dunno, I guess. I see those guys, you know, Clapton, those guys, and I think, shit, that's just the basic blues they're doing, year in year out. In the mountains, there you feel free, you dig? I'm laying stuff down for the grandkids. Maybe they'll get it, you know? Fragments, shored against my ruins."

"You what? The stuff you record down in Talybont with those stoners, on their eight-track?"

"Five-track, if it's working."

They smiled as the car crossed the Dyfi and tacked back along the shore.

"You ever hear the bells out there?"

"The Bells of Aberdovey? Don't be daft. it's just a petrified forest, like on the planet of the Daleks."

"Yeah, I do not think they will ring to me. I reckon they ring to Meic, though, don't you? You hear it in his music?"


"You miss him, don't you?"

"No! it's just, just that he's doing stuff, got records coming out, got his own company, you know? You could be doing that, instead of this - busking."

"What we're laying down, Gwen, it's -"

Silence. They drove on. Borth came up in the near distance, the sea close on their right. The Moon lit up the fringes of his hair.

"You tired, babe?"

"I like our life, Jim, I do. I like our caravan, the t-shirt printing, the market stall in Aber, the pot in the oil drum, the hunting of the 'shrooms up the Rheidol. I do. It's just that sometimes -"

"I meant, you tired of driving?"

"It's not far."

"Let me take the wheel, you rest a while".

Jimi walked around the car, and Gwenllian slid across to the passenger side. He breathed in the night air. By the time he'd settled at the wheel, she was asleep.

Jimi slipped the tape out of the stereo and back into its case. He fished in a pocket for one of his own, and set it to play. He carried Gwenllian out and lay her down in the dunes, then steered the car onto the beach.

The wheels sank down gently, but soon gained purchase as he struck out seaward towards the Atlantic waves.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Anti-Danube: Chapter X

By way of Introduction: Some years have passed since the last chapter of Anti-Danube appeared in English. For previous sections, see here and here.

As this month sees the centenary of the Ruthenian Moonshiners Uprising of 1912 against the Austro-Hungarian Temperance League, it seems appropriate to resume the autobiographical novel shortly after where we left off.

Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko (nationality - poet) is having to interrogate Agent Agent Kafka (his real name) over the disruption of a folk concert that they were meant to be guarding. The event was voted the most popular act of sabotage in the People's Popular Democratic Republic of Ruthenia that year, beating even the collision of a steak lorry with a mobile red wine dispenary in the village of Bragg.

Zhatko sets out the chapter in the form of a transcript, which has the virtue of sparing the reader his prose style, but not mine.

Chapter X: In Which Socialism is Threatened by Dissident Reality

(Protocols of the interrogation of Agent Agent Kafka, conducted by Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko, at NAKRO Secret Police Chief Headquarters, "The Cellars", Former Castle Jurex, August 199- )

[Zhatko] Well, Agent Agent Kafka, The Organs have asked me to question you about what happened at Zhakhiv Cultural Agitational Facility No.17 the other day.

[Kafka] Was Hungarians.

[Zhatko] So-called Hungarians?

[Kafka] No. This time real Hungarians. Ha ha - Kafka joke.

[Zhatko] Hmm. You may recall that we were observing a concert by former Ruthenian musical-vocal ensembles Kava Break and Izotop.

[Kafka] Kafka focked them!

[Zhatko] Yes, that's true - so much so that we had to requisition the articulated lorry the Central Committee uses to move Comrade First (General-)Secretary K. Novak around, because the musicians' weeping, swollen orbs would not fit through the doors of the prison van, despite quantitative easing with shovels.

[Kafka] They are womanly men! I void myself on the boar that mounted their sister, also on their sister, and on the dung that eased their congress-

[Zhatko, interrupting] The chief medical officer of Depravnik State Penal Isolator Unit agrees that "womanly men" accurately describes the musicians' "transitional state of pelvic alteration". Colonel Nadroth asked me to congratulate you on this surgical breakthrough before the formal interrogation begins, in case you prove unappreciative afterwards.

[Kafka, maudlin] Colonel like distant step-father to me.

[Zhatko] Indeed. Colonel Nadroth was pleased in particular that you achieved this without formal medical training. This will help promote the People's Self-Medication Programme at the forthcoming Party Congress, involving as this does the reorganisation of all hospitals and nursing homes into grain silos.

[Kafka, cheered up] I redouble effort!

[Zhatko] The Colonel and other responsible agencies were also impressed with your dual-use of gardening tools and a type of lizard-

[Kafka, interrupting] - incorrect fact. Was large termites.

[Zhatko] - thank you - and a selection of patriotic forest insects in this protracted and highly invasive procedure, which will encourage the outgoing medical practitioners to surrender their scalpels, kidney dishes and fillings for the People's Popular Armed Forces war-drive prior to their fair trial and execution.

[Kafka] Termite - friend of working man. And of working bear.

[Zhatko] Quite. Colonel Nadroth does note, however, that transitional gender status is "objectively bourgeois", and has therefore asked that "promotion of decadence (non-literary)" should be added to your formal charge sheet if, as it is hoped, you or anyone else confesses to being a monarchist wrecker or otherwise a connoisseur of non-gourd-based music.

[Kafka] Oh.

[Zhatko] Moving back to the evening in question, the alleged concert was attacked by dynasto-deviationists, hyper-nationalists, anarcho-Trotskyites, agraro-revisionists, the Latto faction of the Democratic Rhomboid, Continuity Langerites, the Shutak List (Renewal), so-called Hungary and - as we can testify - some pork tapeworms, under the parasol of the League of the Wives of Dr Bohdan Naxajlo.

[Kafka] Whores!

[Zhatko] Later, perhaps. To continue. The assailants broadcast the former Royalist anthem of the former regime, "Hey Ruteni, masluy mi sztifli!" ("O Ruthenians, Oil My Boots!"), tainted five quarts of slyvovytz with red snapper, left a hornpipe wedged inside Zhakhiv Urban-Rural District Local Party Secretary "Blind" Iancu, and defiled a banner espousing Scientific Socialism with saltpetre and pre-revolutionary orthography.

[Kafka] Blind Iancu's brother, Mad Iancu, countersigned Kafka's first arrest warrant. It was for Kafka's parents. Kafka feel for Blind Iancu.

[Zhatko] Duly noted. But Colonel Nadroth, the Supreme Higher Party Council of Organs, both Iancus and History Itself demand to know how these revanchists managed all of this and yet vanished into the night undetected.

[Kafka] Zhakhiv Public Order Militiamen blind, mad or have no leg. Iancus promote freaks, hope to win State Prize for abolition of local hospital and lunatic asylum, build People's Space Rocket out of salvaged manacles.

[Zhatko] Socialism leaves no room for doubt, Agent Kafka, and Communism will leave no rooms at all. We shall tear down the four walls and outhouses of convention and romp free on the riverbanks of creativity. In the meantime, however, we remain tethered to the leaden buoy of probability, and that suggests that the League of the Wives had someone on the inside of the concert working for them. I fear that Colonel Nadroth hopes it might be you.

[Kafka] Why is?

[Zhatko] The true origins of his suspicions are beyond our feeble, polyester-uniformed reasoning, Kafka, but I do know that Special Agent Tschtjetz is waiting outside the door with a weather balloon, a tub of schmaltz and some fish hooks. He is writing "Kafka" on the balloon in your wife's lipstick, and laughing like a Cossack in a convent bathtub.

[Kafka, animated] Kafka just remember! Have important information about Naxajlovite deviant 6th columnist at concert.

[Zhatko] Excellent! Let me wind-up the recording engine and dust off some fresh shellac...

[Kafka] Regret to inform that this information is for ears of full agent of NAKRO alone. Comrade Probationary Agent Zhatko is only probationary agent, therefore not yet ideologically refined enough to hear details of dissident thought without danger of straying into wrecking mentality. Permission to have report heard by Special Agent Zhloba Tschtjetz!

[Zhatko] Granted, I suppose. [winds open door] Special Agent Tschtjetz, Agent Agent Kafka has a report to make about the Zhakhiv Cultural Agitational Facility No.17 anti-popular reactionary cabal, for your remaining ear only.

[Tschtjetz, wheeling in a trestle of sharpened plumbing attachments and a sack of ammonium] Right, Zhatko, plug this pump in over there and start wrapping the sandpaper-

[Zhatko, interrupting] A field report, Special Agent Tschtjetz, not a confession.

[Tschtjetz] Don't worry, sunshine, it'll be a confession by the time they unwind him from those railings-

[Zhatko, interrupting again] No, it really is a field report. I'll get some ersatz tea, shall I?

[Tschtjetz] Yeah, which will, by the dialectically-approved theories of Lamarck, had better have turned into slyvovytz by the time it gets here, you Carpathian trouser-press! Now, Kafka, what's going on?

[Kafka] Well, comrade... [door closes]

(Six minutes pass)

(Protocols of the interrogation of Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko [suspended - literally], conducted by Agent Agent Kafka, Special Agent Zhloba Tschtjetz, Progressive Woodland Ranger Bodjo the Largely-Tamed Bear, a wild boar [unspecified], and NAKRO Chairman Colonel Nadroth, at NAKRO Secret Police Chief Headquarters, "The Cellars", Former Castle Jurex, August 199- )

[Tschtjetz] Well, Traitor Grade III Zhatko, The Organs have received a confidential NAKRO field report that you were the revanchist grouplet that disrupted that concert of Turk-loving danglyboys the other day!

It's not looking good for you, Zhatko. Bodjo here's lonely, and so is Mr Snouty [ed. possibly the wild boar, but could be reference to Tschtjetz's regenerative member, which he usually dubs "Captain Power Eel"]. Now let's see how fast and loud you can confess without the balloon coming out again, shall we?

[Zhatko, with some emotion] Agent Agent Kafka, I don't mind telling you that I feel let down by your behaviour.

[Kafka] Kafka not let Traitor Grade III down, at least not until fish hooks snap.

[Zhatko] Very well, I confess that I, a traitor-

[Tschtjetz] Grade III, dammit - it's important for our key performance indicators this quarter.

[Zhatko] Yes, yes, Grade III - I did knowlingly and with counter-revolution aforethought cause rotten liberalism to damage the fabric of society and a progressive banner sewn by the inmates of the Panda-Eyed Waifs Orphanage, Skargil District.

I also occasioned the performance of the former royalist anthem, misused state reserves of Greek Fire for non-recreational purposes and incited a riot by gum-cheeked peasants.

I deny the charge of tampering with the food, as that's just the way they like it in Zhakhiv.

In mitigation, I would like The Organs to bear in mind that I did stop the performances by the musical-vocal ensembles Kava Break and Izotop.

[Tschtjetz] Your plea for mitigation will be noted, distorted, and used against you on the first episode of "The People's Pillory", a television programme that will replace the courts under the forthcoming "Judiciary Reform (Abolition of Legal System) Bill". Agent Agent Kafka, inform Colonel Nadroth!

[Colonel Nadroth, who is standing behind Tschtjetz, rolls his eyes, perhaps from the smoke curling from his Karbin filter-tip]

Prisoner confessed, Comrade Colonel, and we didn't have to divert electric from village this time. "Economy is Not Just a Swear Word," like Party said.

[Colonel Nadroth] I see. Well, Zhatko, this is a surprise. I thought you might have accused the ultra-nationalist turncoat Slavislav Kodoba, whom we have been holding in that crate over there for this very purpose, but then there's still room for one more inside. Anything else you'd like to confess to? There's space on the back of your file, you know.

[Zhatko] I would further like to bring to the Citizen Colonel's attention that I, a Traitor Grade III (definition - did not destroy personal property of senior officials, owns no livestock), infiltrated the ranks of the NAKRO security police in contravention of Law #13,480 of 1953 "On the Prohibition of Traitors' Infiltration of the Ranks of the NAKRO Security Police".

[Nadroth, looks angrily from Tschtjetz to Kafka, and back again. Then, when this fails to elicit a response, hits both of them with a chair] No! This also means that NAKRO itself violated Law #13,481 of 1953 "On the Prevention of Traitors' Infiltration of the Ranks of the NAKRO Security Police", which states specifically in Article 1 that "NAKRO Security Police Agents are to prevent traitors' infiltration of their ranks, on pain of being demoted from rank of Agent to that of Traitor Grade II (definition - did not damage personal property of senior officials, owns some livestock)". This, like Zhatko right now, cannot stand.

Comrade Zhatko - a cigarette? Oh, yes, lips still don't fit - anyway, NAKRO will have your sentence in the Concert Affair commuted from eventual death to community service, such as checking that the lingerie imported from Gaullist France for the staff of the Central Committee's Physiotherapy Clinic fits properly.

In return, we will cascade the paperwork in the Infiltration Affair to Agent Agent Kafka as part of his Elementary Literacy Course homework. That should keep it away from The Organs, until Control Department Secretary Razvjorstka develops some advanced crayon decryption skills.

There, I think that went rather well. Now, Tschtjetz, please lower Comrade Zhatko, for he has work to do. Under his guidance the workers, peasants and progressive managerial echelons must clench their matted palms into one, six-fingered fist of vengeance against the Naxajlovite Latifundistas, and that calls for further training.

[Zhatko] May I keep the schmaltz, Comrade Colonel? Breakfast seems a long time ago.

[Nadroth, patting him on the nose] You people! Oh, and Tschtjetz - deflate that thing and switch the other stuff off too, would you? But not before giving Bodjo and that boar something to play with. Kafka will do.

[Kafka] (indistinct)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Judicium Dei

I'm always on the look-out for ways to spice up my home life with Madame Boyo, so it was only a matter of time before I investigated witch trials and their possible rendering in a suburban setting.

We have a pond and plenty of kindling nearby, but my eye was caught by the African tradition of ordeal by poison.

From the steaming Casamance basin to the lung-clutching Malagasy highlands, suspected necromancers, Lutherans and those with fancy ways are presented with various lurid gourds and chrisms to consume before crowds of bat-eared loafers, schoolchildren and passing camera crews.

If you disgorge tooth-flecked tapioca all over the rapt onlookers you're free to go, as your innocent gullet would not suffer the tainted tuber to pass. If you die in pus-gummed convulsions, God's Justice has been served. Everyone is happy, and not a barrister in sight.

I have no intention of offering Madame Boyo calabar beans on toast or a buta-buta nut cutlet. She is Ukrainian, and can therefore eat the following with no ill effects:

  • Salo - fatback rind stuffed in the communal kippering shed since the war. Best taken with horseradish moonshine and a riding crop.
  • Kovbyk - pigface in vinegar jelly. Tastes better on the way back up than on the way down, so make sure your bucket is handy.
  • Varenyky - dough balls moulded round a cabbage and the pieces of pig left over from the above. Sometimes cooked, but it's hard to tell. Crimean Tatars use them in Sharia executions.
  • Kholodnyk - take your kitchen composting bin, pour week-old milk on the contents and serve. Best arm yourself before offering it to strangers. And
  • Bihos - fill a hollow loaf of bread with three different types of rotting cabbage, add plums and any remaining pig. Place under your grandmother's bed. When it's ready she'll let you know, from one end or the other.
So Gambian mambo beans are only likely to make Madame Boyo angry.

There's a lot to be said for this direct African approach to rooting out deviants. Decades may have passed, but only now do I realise that the hospitality rained on me during my sojourn in Central Asia was a similar and rigorous rite of passage, a testing of my masticatory mettle. But, as is the way of the East, it was done subtly.

Food is central to the Uzbek way of life, which ideally consists of sitting on a dais while your extended family rush around killing, cooking, skewering and serving up sheep in a variety of rice-based guises.

Unlike their White Sheep Turcoman and Black Eye Kirghiz neighbours, the Uzbeks had enjoyed the use of houses, pots and tables long before the Russians turned up, and so developed a cuisine more complex than eating whatever you'd been riding lately.

So literally all-consuming is their gourmanderie that Uzbeks looked at a pair of sinuous Arabo-Persian words meaning "food", blinked slowly, then slapped them together like a pair of hams to emphasise how much they like dinner ("oziq-ovqat").

And so highly do Uzbeks revere mutton pilaf that they refer to it simply as "osh" - "food". Like the ethereal beings in Calvino's "Invisible Cities" who will not place profane foot on the hallowed avenues of their citadels, the Uzbeks don't bid friends to eat the pilaf without any ceremony, but rather first invite them to admire its gleaming perfection - "oshga qarang!"

A visitor can aspire to the status of "guest" only if he honours the pilaf.

  • He must eat it with the right hand in an elegant scooping motion, having first allowed the host's eldest son to bejewel the dish with gouts of choicest mutton fat.
  • He must sip the green tea steadily, but never drain the dainty bowl.
  • He must eat heartily, but not clear the plate.

Once the meal is over, a few questions about the particular variety of pilaf marks the guest out as an acolyte of the "oshpaz" (pilaf chef) and allows access to the back table at the teahouse - the one near the door to the opium den. And to pass through that particular portal takes another half-century or so of bobbing and blinking over mounds of foggy, foggy stew.

Myself, I was happy to rest right there on the pilgrim path and savour the unique harmony with inertia that comes from being an Uzbek. Freud never travelled to the Oxus, which is a shame, as the locals provide ample evidence for his oft-derided concept of Nirvana:

They seek a steady state of contentment rather than stimulation, in common with nuns and yokels, but manage to achieve it without abandoning the pleasures of the marital bed or teeth. Theirs is truly the Golden Section of the Silk Road.

Old Soviet Hands weep with gratitude on encountering the Uzbeks' transcendent indifference to all things beyond their idle oases. No demands to know how much a St Albans taxi-driver earns, no speeches about "Misty Albion", no suggestions that you marry their daughters - merely a polite enquiry about your hometown and whether you have pilaf there too, then off to lunch.

This would apply to any Martian who landed on the banks of the Jaxartes as much as to the passing Welshman. "So you don't have a mouth as such, Fleet Commadore Qʈħätɬʼɯŋ? Well that's fine, you can just admire the pilaf!"

And sad to say that's as far as I got, thanks to an ill-considered attempt to adapt the Uzbek culinary code to interior design.

I used to rent a flat in Tashkent, the country's patchwork capital. My landlord, Big Rustam the Unreliable Attorney, would often drop by for a chat, and I began to spot signs that I might be invited to join the lotus-eaters at the back of the chaikhana. Just the odd hint, but full of dusty promise - "Boyo-jon, there are some people I would like you to meet." "What do these people do?" "They do nothing, and they do it slowly."

Hubris drove me down to the gentleman's outfitters at the racetrack to get cloaked, skullcapped and belted like a Bokharan Beau Brummell. But no aspirant to "O'zbekchilik" can approach the Wispy Beard of Wisdom without at least a couple of dishes of "kishmish" - mixed nuts, raisins and sultanas - to welcome guests to his table.

I'd had a heavy evening swapping Tajik jokes with Big Rustam ("Have you seen the second wife of Blind Sobir, the Blind Sage of Soghd? No? Well, neither has he!"), and noticed a tart tang of tobacco and mutton on the morning air. Mrs Rustam was due to drop round that afternoon to count the dozens of lumpy quilts that made up her daughter's dowry, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

I set off for the Turkish supermarket on Atatürk Street. Apart from Barf washing powder and Pif Paf cockroach killer, this teetering outpost of the market economy stocked delicate rosewater potpourri for the homesick Anatolian Hausfrau. I grabbed a bag and planted it in a bowl on the living-room table, before setting off on the monthly bribe run.

That evening Big Rustam dropped by as usual. Now when it comes to sang froid, Uzbeks can rival any Victorian fusilier facing impalement by impi. A local colleague once dismissed the Kazakh nation with a cursory "you can tell what they're thinking", so it takes some tuning to tease out what's made a Toshkentchi tetchy. But I noticed the omens - he paused for a second before returning my greeting, and the vodka bottle in his hand was Russian.

We sat down and weighed out the usual exchanges before Big Rustam asked "That bowl in your living room, what were you kind enough to put in it?"

"Potpourri," I replied. "It is a Frankish frippery that may lend a room the perfumes of Paradise, if He wills it."

"By the Merciful One, it is truly fragrant," Big Rustam noted, "But how would you go about eating it, by the grace of the All-Bountiful?"

"In truth, only a beaver with the morning breath of a Khujandi catamite would relish such a dish," I continued, seeking to return last night's mirth with a jibe at our Tajik neighbours, their fey ways and fondness for trees. "For it is made of wood shavings soaked in bath oils".

Big Rustam nodded, and the conversation turned to how his latest client had managed to garrotte himself with his own scrotum in the back of a police van, among other refinements of the Uzbek penal system. He would still drop round from time to time, but the visits became briefer and rarer, and the call to carouse at the back table never came.

I accepted this with near-native nobility, but often wondered what unwritten law had I broken. Had I touched a flatbread with my knife? Had I passed something with my left hand? Had I forgotten to pour the tea back into the pot twice before serving? I could not say.

Then one day I came home early to find Mrs Rustam, suitably chaperoned by her third son, sorting a sack of sheets in the spare room. I helped her haul a haversack of silks from atop the cupboard.

She whispered a word of thanks, and her lips were red with rosewood.