Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On not being famous

It must be fun to be a politician: a great wage and all the cash you can fiddle – junkets to faraway places with five-star hotels, regular bribes from lobbyists, all the standard goodies. Embarrassing, though, sometimes. Lying is a necessary part of the package of politics but it doesn’t come easily to me, even in trivial matters.

What book are you reading at the moment, they ask at interviews. Or, whose music do you like best of The Who and The Whom? What’s your favourite opera or ballet or Shakespearian sonnet? A well-prepared politician always carries the latest published report of some heavyweight institute in his briefcase – and a hardback copy of the latest fiction best-seller as well, to show his human side.

 I’m a philistine, with little respect for the classical arts, or the classical pop-artists. My favourite musical genre changes every six months; my favourite authors have been dead for decades. Only recently have I discovered the joys of Bluegrass music, on YouTube. Over and over I can watch Brittany Haas stamping the beat with her boots while playing the violin to some rousing number. I’ve never seen anybody do that before. Yehudi Menuhin never did it, I don’t think.

I’ve made a special effort to read some of the classic literature, just to check the quality – The Trial, Crime & Punishment, Don Quixote (all in translation, of course!), Boswell’s Life of Johnson... Mark Twain is the most skilful writer, in my book, but no more so than P G Wodehouse. I’m a sucker for epigrams. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Ogden Nash wrote that, in 1931 – and what a masterpiece it is of brevity, wit, and sexual and social commentary.

Would my attendance at two operas and two ballets impress an interviewer? Linda and I watched Tosca in the Vienna Opera House in 1965, and the Nutcracker Suite by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow a few weeks later. But those were simply “must see” items on our travelling agenda, like The Hermitage in Leningrad, and Persepolis in Iran, and Ataturk’s yellowed underpants in the dedicated Museum in Ankara.

My second opera and ballet attendances were even less laudable than the first ones. Ross got me free tickets in 2011 for performances at the Oslo Opera House where he worked: Tannhauser and Don Quixote. A backstage technician, he was actually on stage for a few minutes in Tannhauser, paid five hundred kroner a time to ensure none of the actors fell down the hole when the hydraulic platform went down to pick up the lead singer in a puff of magical mist. (He was in costume, but was so well disguised that I missed him.)

I’d be careful to omit mention of the freebies in any formal interview fame might require, but I might come clean about what books I’m currently reading. There are usually four or five on the go at any given moment. I dip into the non-fictions every day, pretty much. On my chairside table today are Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a 1982 book that gave Dan Brown the plot for The Da Vinci Code, and The Unauthorised Version, a 1991 hardback about the composition of the Bible that Ross gave me a few Christmases ago. Both of those were bought at jumble sales, for ten or twenty-five cents each.

Our Oriental Heritage, a 1935 history book by Will Durant, lies open on our dining table (at Page 623, today), bookmarked by an old Library card. (It was a Library throw-away, twenty years ago.) I’ve read all three of those before, and the Dick Francis mystery too, but they’re all worth reading again because of the quality of the writing. Would a professional interviewer be impressed? Not with their recent provenance, perhaps.

Should I confess to keeping an Oxford Concise Dictionary and a King James Bible beside my chair, for handy reference, and an Etymological Dictionary? Would that be too pompous? Hmm. I’ll decide that when the time comes.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Eight o’clock White Man’s Time (T-15, Haiti)

At my boarding school in Brisbane, our French mistress (no, not really...) taught us posh French. She spent whole lessons drilling us on exactly how to enunciate eu and au and eau. As Henry Higgins opined in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they say, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Not in Provence, though. There, most of the natives speak French the way the English speak French – sounding out every consonant the way God intended, and playing fast and loose with every vowel. Proper French is spoken more in Haiti than in Provence – by the ruling caste there, at least. Most Haitians speak Creole, which is a French patois – in the way that French is a Latin patois. I spent a week there in 1966, aged 27 – island-hopping by myself, on vacation from my job in Toronto.

On the plane from Puerto Rico I found myself sitting next to a boring young Canadian fellow – boring, at least, until he announced that he was visiting his brother at a Mennonite mission station up in the mountains. Then he became exciting. By the time we landed, we were fast friends and he was asking his brother if I could tag along as an extra guest for a few days.

Mennonites are a small Protestant denomination of no great renown, but they carried enough weight locally for the brother to extend my visa, change my onward flight and find me a hotel room for the night – all before the offices closed that afternoon. So instead of mooching around the desperately shabby capital city for two days on my own, I got a tour of the pot-holed mountain road through the heart of the country to a few miles away from Henri-Christophe’s Citadelle, and five days watching the missionaries at work.

The history of Haiti is depressing. Born in the vicious cruelty of a series of slave-rebellions, nurtured in the equally vicious cruelty of home-grown tyrants, and pauperised by US and European politicians (French and British) in order to discourage any future slave revolts anywhere in the world – the new nation’s government revenue was embargoed for the next hundred years and more, to pay compensation for the property lost (i.e. the slaves themselves) in the successful revolution.

(The slaves’ defeat of Napoleon’s army of occupation prompted his surrender of French “Louisiana” to the new United States of America. The removal of the French presence there left the native-American tribes open to conquest and settlement by European immigrants – and, as they say, the rest is history.)

On the Sunday I bought a ticket on the bus from Cap Haitien back to the capital, leaving next morning. I asked the bus dispatcher (in pidgin French) what time the bus would depart. “Huit heures.” Ah, but did that mean eight o’clock Caribbean time, or some local approximation? The missionaries would have to drive me down from the mountains, and I wanted to get the time right. “Oui, huit heures juste.” Okayy, but when you say juste, do you mean really, really exactly, or...? He sighed heavily. “Huit...heures...blanc!” I took that to mean “white man’s time”, and shut up. And it did leave at eight, on the dot.

Nobody on the bus spoke French, or was any colour but jet-black; no upper class representatives present! I volunteered to sit on the top of the bus with eight or nine other passengers, to help keep the luggage from coming loose, and to hand bags down and catch bags thrown up. My companions told me by gestures why we were stopping and how long for.

It was a ten-hour journey down the coast road via Gonaives, but the time passed easily; it was a lovely trip. The driver went out of his way to drop me at my shabby hotel. I was the most exotic passenger he had ever had, I expect: probably the only white person ever to have travelled the whole distance on the roof of his bus.

They all gave me a farewell salute, and I them. “A’voi, blanc!” “A’voi!” Respect.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

English, as she is spoke

We were both speaking English during our three-hour flight from Cayman to Houston, this Barbadian fellow and I, but I recognised only about one word in five. There is more than one Bajan accent, and his was too strong for me to handle. I was exhausted by the time we landed, and kept as far away from him as I decently could, while waiting for the luggage.

Instead, I introduced myself to another team-mate, this time from Yorkshire. Huh. One word in five again, if I was lucky. This was in 1980. I’d spent most of the last two decades in and out of seventy countries, listening to foreigners speaking English in seventy accents. Only once before (see below) had I ever been as stumped. In the bus on the way into town, I kept my distance from both of my tormentors.

We were all members of a scratch team of local cricketers, invited by a (the?) Houston club to a fun tournament over the long weekend. Later, all the teams met up in a bar, and settled down to some serious chat, in proper English. Midway through the evening I noticed the Bajan and the Yorkie babbling away in a corner on their own, getting on like a house on fire – no communications problems in sight. How could that be? By some fluke, the two broad accents happened to complement each other. I could scarcely believe my eyes.

Everyone knows that different dialects can be a problem in any language. But accents can throw conversations off the rails just as readily as dialects or slang. Speakers of dialect usually know to switch to the relevant standard dialect when talking with outsiders. That’s only common sense. But they don’t always think to change their accents.

In England for the first time in 1963, pretty much straight from home, I hitched a ride with a young Cornishman, and... Well, you can see where this is going. Mercifully, his English girlfriend was on hand to translate every single word spoken by both of us – one sentence at a time.

So I learnt to drop all slang words, and all the expressions peculiar to Queensland. Only then could I be understood. Later, on “The Continent” (mainland Europe), the natives had difficulties with my diphthongs – so my owld (rhymed with howled) had to become old with a rounded o. Dyee became day pronounced dei – still a diphthong, but with clear vowels.

I’ve never lost my Australian accent altogether, but it has softened to the point where I can pass for English, unless I’ve had too much drink or not enough sleep. Even most English think I’m English. Which is silly, because they aren’t able to place my accent – and if you can’t place someone’s accent, they’re probably foreign. There’s that clever line spoken by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, about Eliza’s exposure as a fraud: “Her English is too good”, he said, “which clearly indicates that she is foreign”.

It’s not just in English that accents are hard to fathom. When my son did TV commercials in Mexico for international products, the videos were used in other Latino nations; but the voices had to be dubbed in those countries’ accents. Only in one country (Bolivia, I think) was the accent close enough to the Mexican one to be acceptable.

After a few years in Norway, learning from a Norwegian girl-friend and Norwegian children, he could pass for Swedish, but he’s progressed beyond that now. Native Norwegians can’t place his accent, though, which by the Henry Higgins rule ought to label him as foreign. Instead, they suppose he’s from somewhere up north, because all northern accents are regarded as barbaric.(The world over, really! Smile...)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A cupful of cold water

We all have our favourite expressions. Some we use all the time, others we let slip into disuse. Some are for public consumption, others for private – and some just for our own selves.

I can’t eat a grapefruit without thinking of my friend Bob’s flatmate and his midnight feasts [Parrots of the Caribbean, posted in June], but the story wouldn’t be funny to anybody else. You had to be there.

“Up and down like a yo-yo” doesn’t need explaining. Even people who have never played with a yo-yo know more or less what it is. At my boarding school in Brisbane we used to say “up and down like father’s pants”, which was – and is – both evocative and funny, if used sparingly. I still find it an effective way of describing erratic line-charts of company sales or profits.

Some slang doesn’t travel well. In the Queensland of my youth, “a boofter kid” was a heavily built male baby or infant – innocent enough, but too easily confused with the p-word, today. There was no exact female equivalent that I recall – only the satirical observation, “she’ll be [or she must be] a great help to her mother”. I wonder if that has survived.

My boss in Toowoomba once dismissed a Balance Sheet of mine as “like a Chinese packapoo ticket”, which offended me greatly. Yes, some of the figures were out of alignment, and they shouldn’t have been. But the insult was way too severe – "OTT", we’d say today.

A rugby coach (boarding school again) once yelled – in front of the whole team – that I was as useless as a cupful of cold water. Mercifully, he spared me the full three-litre original version, but it was embarrassing enough. (The original is too coarse to be explained in this blog – the kiddies, you know...)

Linda and I say “two tuppennies” to mean “spare no expense”. It’s a handy expression, but we don’t use it outside the family; it’s not practical to use an expression that needs explaining. That one dates from my life in the Earl’s Court flat in the winter of 1963-64, and it began with David’s need to cash his wages-cheque at Barclays Bank.

No ATMs in those days, so the choice was between waiting until Monday, taking the tube into town to “his” branch of the bank, or cashing it at the nearest branch to where we lived. Chris and I stood back while he showed his ID to the girl behind the counter. “No problem, sir; all we need is threepence for the revenue stamp.” David grudgingly passed over a threepenny bit.

“Oh dear. I’m terribly sorry," she said. "I don’t seem to have any threepenny stamps. Or any one-penny stamps. Only twopenny stamps. Sorry!” She paused expectantly. To our astonishment, the situation actually sent David into a cataleptic shock, which my dictionary defines as a trance or seizure with loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body.

The girl waited; Chris and I waited; David couldn’t move, being in a trance or seizure with loss of sensation, etc. Testing my recollection against my little table-clock just now, I believe he remained stock-still for a good sixty seconds, which is a long time to mull over even such a critical decision.

Then, with all the resignation of a gambler committing his last penny to the roll of the dice, David slowly took out what for all we knew was his last penny, pushed it across the counter to rest beside his threepenny bit, and said carefully, “I’ll have two tuppennies, please”. Then he turned to find Chris and me on our knees behind a pillar whimpering with suppressed laughter, and asked, “What?”

I haven’t seen Chris for nearly fifty years: I’m sure he remembers the incident, if he’s still alive. David remembers it, though he pretends not to. His wife half-believes it because she knows I wouldn’t lie, but she can’t quite picture the scene. She should do. After all, she smiles when we tell her about The Man Who Loved Grapefruit, which wasn’t nearly as ridiculous.