Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A young man’s car

We courted in Canada, Linda and I, for much of 1965 and ’66. I worked in Toronto, she in Barrie. She had a VW Beetle, I a “Yank tank” – a rusty Oldsmobile that could wind up to 92 mph on the highway, the passing road visible through a ragged hole in the floor beside my feet.

Our marriage early in ’67 began a fabulous 8 ½ years of fun. We packed everything we owned into a drive-away car , delivered it to its snowbird-owner in Orlando, and knocked on doors in Nassau until we got jobs. Then we spent 90% of our savings on a brand-new Triumph Spitfire, which we drove around with the rag-top down – weather permitting. [Me and Miss Ohio, Archives April 2013]

In Perth (Australia, 1971) we bought a second-hand Spitfire, also with a rag-top. Like “Vee Dubs”, Spitfires were a young man’s car. In Vila (New Hebrides, 1972-5) we had a company car – a Toyota: an exec’s car. Far too sedate for us, but it was free; what can you do?

The next year, we (I...) determined to chase down the dream of retiring to the caves of Crete [Zorba the Greek, Archives January 2012] in a brand-new VW Kombi that I got converted into a camper-van in Reading while waiting for Ross. The chase was a disaster from the day we set out, pretty much – unexpectedly traumatic for us new parents. Where two had been company, three was a crowd.

The mess came to a head with what could have been a fatal accident when I ran a red light in Malaga. In those days, in that place, the traffic lights shone in excessively dull shades – each colour scarcely distinguishable from the others, in the late afternoon. A giant truck (running the pale green light) screeched heroically to a halt five inches from my door.

I drove across the junction (on green!) and sat in stunned silence for endless minutes before limping on to the first camping ground we came to. Progress was suspended for the winter. We rented a flat and actually enjoyed ourselves, but it took a barrel of 10-mil Valium tablets to remove the numbness from my fingers and to recover just enough confidence to resume the journey towards the Promised Land.

I never did recover it all. We moved in safe, short stages: a few nights in Monaco with Linda’s sister, a month in Vasto on the Adriatic (where the brother-in-law owned a flat), then three pleasant months in a camp-ground in Corfu. We were only 200 miles from Athens, as the crow flies, and Athens was only 200 miles from Crete by ferry. But psychologically Crete was as far away as the moon, and it was never mentioned again. That dull red light in Malaga had signalled the end of the road for our life of travel. There were a few flickers of defiance, in years to come, but there was no fire any more.

Linda and Ross flew to Australia for three months. My Mum came over, and we camped all the way to London through Yugoslavia and northern Italy and Switzerland. She loved every moment and never forgot one of them. It was a son’s delight to watch her revel in the experience.

Reunited as a family in Bath, where my English grandfather had been born and raised, Linda and I agonised over our future for a whole year. Then, by default, we threw in the towel and retreated to Cayman for the rest of our lives.

That’s the end of the story. We drive sedate Toyota sedans now – old ones, but in good shape. Sometimes I see an old Beetle around town, made in Mexico or Brazil or wherever; but I’m not tempted. They’re a young man’s car, and I haven’t been young since Malaga. Sometimes – sometimes – what can you do?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Phoning Princess Margaret

We had chatted to this English couple cordially for a couple of hours, and gotten on like a house on fire. We were surprised, then, at the response to our invitation to dinner the next Saturday. “Sorry,” the wife said, “but Richard will be sick that day.” Wow! How does one handle such an abrupt brush-off?

“Ahh,” she said. “I’d better explain that.” And she did, and we let it go, and sure enough Richard was sick that weekend. (We checked.) His malaria, contracted in Kenya some years before, was of the recurring kind, which laid him out for three days around the same date every year. They had it marked on their kitchen calendar. It never happened in England, because the climate was different there – but here in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, the tropical humidity was just like home, for the virus.

The New Hebs was an embryo “offshore” tax haven – and still is, pretty much, as the independent state of Vanuatu. A new Australian client flew in one day, checked into his hotel, and woke up with a high fever in the morning. The local British doctor was bamboozled. “It looks for all the world like malaria,” he said. “But the fever doesn’t come overnight. And you say you’ve never been up in this area before.” “That’s right,” the visitor said. “I’ve lived in Sydney all my life... except during the War, of course.”

Of course. Thirty years had passed since he had been a soldier in New Guinea, and the malaria-parasite had lain doggo ever since – coming to life as soon as conditions were suitable.

I was lucky with “my” malaria, when it came. It was the common-or-garden variety that required only a few days of heavy sweating at home in bed – and no repeats. Its worst effect was the weakening of my immune system that enabled Hepatitis ‘A’ to catch hold immediately afterwards. That kept me under for another week or so, but it didn’t recur either.

Neither illness warranted a trip to hospital, that’s the point of the story. Because the islands were a joint British-French protectorate***, our town had a British hospital and a French one. The latter was staffed by French Army doctors, who rarely met a leg they didn’t feel obliged to amputate. The British one had a better reputation, and very few people died in it. *** For a bit of background, read Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific, in the Archives of November 2012]

The Paton Memorial Hospital (“PMH”) was a short boat ride across from where the populace lived, followed by a long and steep stairway up a rocky hill. A ferryman was on call 24/7, at least in theory. One had to phone him at his home, and wait at the dock while he got dressed (if he was in bed), rode his bike down and got the boat seaworthy. After that, he helped the patient's companions manhandle the patient on board and off at the other end, and help him or her up the exhausting stairs – to the hospital if still breathing, or to the mortuary if not. The hospital had an excellent survival ratio, but the stairs didn’t.

By coincidence, Linda and I were familiar with the initials “PMH” from our three years in Nassau, Bahamas. There, they stood for the Princess Margaret Hospital, named for the Queen’s sister. The time interval for us had been only fifteen months, so Linda’s mistake was forgivable.

She had to phone and reserve a bed for after her appendix operation, which she had delayed until after the Queen’s visit. Royalty was on people’s minds. Somehow the call was answered not by the switchboard but by someone at the nurses’ station, who assumed it was an internal call.

So the greeting was casual: just, “Hello?” Linda, thrown a bit by the informality, asked “Is that Princess Margaret?” “Uhhh...” Linda, uncertainly: “Is that Princess Margaret?” Silence. Had the line gone dead? That was common enough. Linda, again, giving it one last shot, “Is this the number for Princess Margaret?” Finally, politely, puzzled and apologetic, a small voice ventured, “She’s not at this number. This is Nurse Bong at the Hospital.”

I must say Linda was treated very respectfully, when the time came. It’s always nice to have friends in high places, isn’t it?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

... you, and the horse you rode in on!

It has never made sense to me that the curse-word fuck was somehow related to the word for sexual intercourse. In fact it’s not related: the two words are homonyms. They look the same, sound the same and are spelt the same. But their origins are different – as different as the bill of a duck and the bill of rights. The curse-word may not be welcome at Grandma’s dinner-table, but it’s not obscene.

Back during the Vietnam War, a protestor in California was prosecuted for obscenity, for carrying a sign saying “Fuck the draft!” His lawyer argued (successfully) that advocating sexual intercourse with a law was such a meaningless comment that it couldn’t possibly be obscene. Correctamundo. BUT, he was lucky the judge didn’t know about homonyms. If he (the judge) had known, and had read the sign as “Curse the draft!” the protestor might have gone to jail for blasphemy. Who knows?

“May almighty God damn the draft to everlasting hellfire!” “Here’s my middle finger to the draft!” Those make sense. So do “Fuck it!” and Fuck you!” and “Fuck him!” and “Fuck off” and “Fuck me!” (“Somebody must be cursing me!”) Even “What the fuck?” We can take it to mean “God, I beg you: please tell me what’s going on!” It’s all very religious.

Most English curses call on the god of the moment. Today we say “Jesus Christ!” the way our ancestors said “Damn!” (from Domine, an earlier lord of heaven) and “Bugger!” (from Bog, a contemporary name of God, and still the name of God in some Slavic languages). “Shit/shite!” as a curse is probably the Arab or Indian evil divinity “Shaitan”, as is French zut!

There is a sameness about modern English curses that is frankly boring. Old reports tell of men who could curse for minutes without repeating themselves; but they must have been extremely mild curses. Cleaning out the camp-toilet box a few weeks ago, my son accidentally sloshed some of the liquid onto himself. He tried valiantly not to swear in front of his mother and me, but failed. “Oh shit! [longish pause] Fucketty fuck fuck fuck!!” he cried in exasperation. That’s about as original as modern swearing gets, these days.

The curse-word is probably related to our word fingerfig, in some early Germanic dialects. One of my grandmothers used to say “I don’t care a fig for that!” In many religions – perhaps most – fingers are used by priests to convey approval. “Bless you, my child!” The sign of the Cross; hands clasped in prayer or greeting; a hand raised in salute or greeting; both hands raised in the gesture of peace. Did I say “hands”? I meant fingers. Even shaking hands with someone in greeting or farewell, or to seal a deal.

Fingers crossed, two index fingers crossed to ward off the devil, knock on wood – they all reinforce silent prayers. One of my favourites – which I use myself – is the silent curse with index finger, pinky and thumb jabbed forward. Oooh, very powerful! The same gesture when pointed downwards at one’s side or behind one’s back is a prayer. It wards off the Evil Eye or any other devilish danger. I learnt that in Italy, if I remember. I wonder if they still use it.

Reportedly, it is a confrontation in an old Western movie that is reckoned to be the inspiration for what must be one of the most satisfying curses in circulation. “I’ll fight you, and the horse you rode in on!” Some character said.

Substituting “Fuck you” for the first bit while retaining the rest of the quote adds genuine quality to the curse, I believe. The poor old horse is so wonderfully irrelevant that the overall effect is just plain funny. Spoken solemnly and in genuine anger, though, it is a surprisingly effective curse. Perhaps the menace lies in daring the object of the curse to smile. After all, it really is still funny.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The man with the shopping bags

A Google search for “the man with the shopping bags” throws up the famous photo of the young Chinese fellow stopped in front of a column of tanks in Peking in 1989 on their way to Tiananmen Square. It’s a very moving photo and story. Bravery is always moving, isn’t it?

We should spare some praise for the tank-commander and his crew. They could have just squashed him like a cockroach, as the Israeli bulldozer did to Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003. An Egyptian man tried the same thing with a Police armoured car in 2011, and was shot dead on the spot.

When the US government was faced with its lone protestor, it chose the Israeli-Egyptian option. Bradley Manning was an Army soldier who blew the whistle on the “collateral murder” incident in 2007 in Baghdad, when an Army helicopter shot up a group of civilians including children. He was the only soldier in the entire Army with the courage to report the murders. For his courage, he was immediately jailed for twelve months in a bare isolation cell, in conditions amounting to torture (by international standards, if not US ones).

Manning’s defiance of the juggernaut of the US Army and its brutish prison guards is equal to the bravery of those other three examples. A comparison of the public-relations effects of all the incidents leaves the Chinese one looking good. How can that be? Whatever happened to Madison Avenue’s expertise in public relations?

My blog-post on Julian Assange in September 2012 marvelled at the British Government’s refusal to allow Assange free passage to Ecuador. I contrasted it with China’s generosity in a similar dilemma. Just recently, the world has been reminded of Britain’s cruelty. The contemptuous treatment by the London Police of Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian boyfriend was stunning.

Ah well, as someone wrote about the interrogation of the boyfriend – he was lucky: the last Brazilian the UK Police had in their clutches ended up with eight bullets in his head.

Greenwald is an investigative journalist employed by an English newspaper. The paper's computers (some of them) were gratuitously destroyed by the Police in the newspaper’s offices - in broad daylight, in the Editor's presence. I kid you not. It really happened.

What on earth is wrong with these people? Don’t they care what the world thinks of them? If their nation goes National Socialist like Germany did in the 1930s, they won’t be held accountable. Is that what they think, or hope? The killing of Dr Kelly, the war crimes in Iraq and Libya – are they all to be shrugged off without credible explanation? Will all future dissidents and their associates be in line for similar treatment, at the whim of a Big Brother official called O’Brien?

A picture is worth a thousand words; an iconic picture is worth a book. The man with the shopping bags... Rachel Corrie in her yellow plastic overcoat in front of the bulldozer... the Iraqi hotel clerk’s dead face, beaten to a pulp by British soldiers ... each incident is worth a book.

The POW in the orange jump-suit shackled to a trolley, being wheeled by six huge stormtroopers to the torture-chambers of Guantanamo... the hooded prisoner standing on a stool wired for electrocution in Abu Ghraib... each of those photos illustrates America’s contempt for the Geneva Conventions more than a whole shelf of books could.

Again – why do they do it? Is it to frighten us into accepting the idea that we might be next? Could that conceivably be true? Have our rulers genuinely abandoned the moral values the rest of us still cleave to? Interesting times.Gosh!