Archive | April, 2013

Strangers on a train (3). A trip to London.

29 Apr

I boarded a District Line tube at Wimbledon and settled in my half-empty carriage to my book, The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey. Seated, head down, phone off, I drifted through the pages of soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan. The boredom, humour and utter terror of a life I wouldn’t know. Someone was shouting into an android three seats away, desperate to connect before we went subterranean. Wanker. Otherwise all seemed OK.

Parson’s Green. Young black bloke gets on, announced by the tinny, high-pitched whistle of an iPod, blaring decibel-destruction into his own ears and irritation around the carriage. He sits opposite.  Nothing said. Stiff upper lips all round. Putney Bridge. A Marianne Faithful lookalike (40+ years ago anyway) gets on and finds a spare seat next to the noise. She has a copy of Paris Match protruding from a shoulder bag. Ten seconds pass. She realises her journey will be compromised. She gets up, hastily, haughtily even and marches to the far end of the carriage. Definitely French.

Fulham Broadway. Thick-set white, middle aged bloke in overalls appears. Bespattered. A builder? Rug of greying hair protrudes from his wide-open shirt. Bald. Big boots. He sits next to our DJ. The train moves off, the pulse and pitch of the music overrides all thought. I look up and see the new arrival showing active signs of discontent. Loud theatrical sigh. My interest piqued, I rest my book on my lap and wait.

Not for long. My builder-friend half-turns to our irritant and gently, carefully pulls an earpiece out. I was surprised at the lack of aggression and further, amazed, when he spoke. With no hint of menace, but with undeniable, firm imperative he breathed, “Turn that fucking think down will you mate?” I  held my own breath here. No one else seemed to notice the drama before us – but of course they all had seen and heard. We all play the weird game of locked-in-syndrome unless bold enough to voice discomfort, opinion. I had admired Marianne earlier but this polite, unrefusable request transcended any previous Gestalt of such situations. And  more, the young man responds!

” I’m so sorry; of course.” The accent, public school – or at least that place where Tony Blair sent his kids. The expected uncouth shrug or ‘innit’ voice no part of this young man’s behavioural vocabulary. And yet he knew what he was doing with the full-volume blasting of strangers, just as he knew how to apologise and kill the volume. Self-preservation? Or just manners.

I make it to Sloane Square without more excitement. I have to kill time. I am meeting my daughter. She will be late but I factor this in and allow myself to enjoy the freedom of time. The King’s Road. It’s plush round here. Knightsbridge a stone’s throw, designer shops to right and left, estate agents boasting eye-watering prices for modest flats. There’s a confused hubbub of languages about. It seems most conversations are being conducted in French or Spanish or, actually, American. Fewer Eastern Europeans round here? I head past the Saatchi gallery and turn right at Calvin Klein – I have spied a bookshop at the end of Culford Gardens and I need a browse in the quiet of a sensible store.

Most sole-trader bookshops struggle, don’t they? But here in Kensington and Chelsea this little place is bustling. Bookish people are asking if biographies reviewed in last week’s Sunday Times have come in yet. Smart uniformed prep. school children are quietly browsing in kiddies’ corner. A mother says, “Hurry up and choose, we’ve got to go home via M and S otherwise we’ve nothing for supps.” English, to my surprise.

I hear a conversation outside. A Spanish mother having one of those chats with a son which sounds like ferocious argument but is, in fact, a loving exchange. They come in. I turn and look.. and take her in. Silly clicky high-heels, skinny jeans, tight top, shock of dark hair, aviator sunglasses and…annoyingly attractive. Their conversation continues. Now the boy, also uniformed,  takes the lead and his mother gestures for him to go to the front desk. A perfect and polite English voice comes from the boy’s previously Hispanic gob, “Excuse me have you got the last Alex Rider book, please?”

I smile and head off for Starbucks, needing a bit of barrack room banter from my book to restore order in my head.

Sitting in the alcove at the front of the coffee shop, I have my window on the world. The traffic moves surprisingly freely outside and seemingly hundreds of buses pass, laden with workers going home or heading to meet buddies for beers. It is 6 o’clock. Hordes of pedestrians click by, so many ‘working’ their mobiles as if lives depended on connections made while walking from A to B. Ted Baker bags bounce around the arms of women; men in suits deep in business conversation amble by heading towards Colbert’s the posh new French place on the square or perhaps Pimlico for a gastro pub. There’s no shortage of choice here. Older school pupils rucksacked with cricket and tennis gear,  bantering away, head for home – and if they live round here they’ll be laying their heads in plush bedrooms tonight.

My attention is caught by an American woman ordering coffee – her accent is more Bronx than Boston but it is the expression Hot Latte that catches my ear. “I wanna get three hot lattes,” she demands. The attractive, pony-tailed young waitress (at last an eastern european accent!) smiles.

“All our lattes are hot!”

“Not from the last Starbucks I was in, they weren’t.” Caustic but not unpleasant. I released a smile, which the Yankie lady saw and reciprocated. I resolved to ask for ‘hot’ lattes in the future.

I looked outside again. Almost time to go but I had been enjoying the piped lazy jazz, Frank Sinatra… American Songbooky music that I would rarely buy but seemed perfect for a late afternoon in Starbucks. I glanced across the road. A flower-seller trading beneath a large umbrella, boasting the patronage of KnightFrank.co.uk, Estate Agents – stamped on the fringe of the canvas. An elderly man I had seen earlier, surely then with his wife, now solo, was making his way across the road. He stooped over various bucketed bunches below the canopy. A few seconds and a suitable selection was made. There was a smiley exchange between vendor and vendee and the older man shuffled away towards Sloane Square. He was almost out of Starbucks spying range when he stopped and waited at the pavement’s edge. A minute passed, two, three perhaps. Buses went by a-plenty, taxis too. A rater stooped lady, relying quite heavily on her stick, shambled into view and stopped just a yard from my perch in the Starbucks alcove. She looked up and across the road, scanning the bustle of life, searching. It didn’t take long for my flower-buyer to spot her. He raised the bouquet. She lifted her stick in response. It took a little while but he found a safe gap between buses and made his way to where she was waiting. The flowers were handed over with smiles and love. A fond kiss. A few words and, after a satisfactory rearrangement of bags and blooms, the pair moved off, rather elegantly,  together.

In Starbucks the music had changed to a more urgent beat. Drum and bass. A signal for me to move too.

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Suarez: soccer’s priceless commodity.

22 Apr

The red devil has done it again! Not content with his Lecter tactics in the Low Countries, unsatisfied by gorging himself on racial abuse of Patrice Evra, he has now slaked his thirst for media headlines by sucking the blood of a bloke called Ivanovic – presumably because he’s Transylvanian.

Whatever the case Football is in raptures today as Boston victims and London’s marathon get media-sidelined to allow the Anfield Uruguayan his place in the sun. The untimely death of the pioneering Hillsborough mother, Anne Williams is sadly eclipsed by a criminal act which breathes a sick sort of life into a sad game. Be in no doubt that Sepp Blatter, along with the massive media circus which follows the global game, knows that unseemly controversy is good for soccer.

The examples abound. Goal-line technology, a lame piece of expensive tokenism to getting crucial decisions right, is an innovation almost introduced over Blatter’s dead body. Why? Because getting things wrong is more exciting than getting them right. The ’66 World Cup wouldn’t have been the same. Hurst will tell you, even Frank Lampard knows a bit on that score.Scandals of massive backhanders by ill-equipped nations to stage global tournaments are grist to a sensational money-making mill. Players being naughty on and off the field boosts column inches and fuels our salacious desire for the great game to be more than pretty passing – we want a sort of athletic Eastenders with endless nastiness to gossip about.

Take one of the greatest footballers of this or any other generation, Ryan Giggs. Didn’t we love his wick-dipping escapades? Hitherto he’d been a really boring brilliant player. Cast your minds back to the Hand of God. Didn’t we revel in Maradonna’s cheating? Rudi Voller’s spittle? Zidane’s head-butt? How about Kung-Fu Cantona, the thug-genius Vinnie Jones, Sunderland’s Paolo de Canio’s assault on a wimpish ref.? By the way, Sunderland’s world cred. has shot up with their new goose-stepping manager. Precedent is everywhere. John Terry knows it. Carlos Tevez on his 150 hours of community service knows it. No need to go on because whoever reads this will think of a dozen more before the ink dries.

Two things. First there is a cover up. Most soccer is bloody boring so needs to be elevated by controversy. Second, the really brilliant players and teams through history needed no such sensationalism because their play was exciting, captivating, engrossing…for the full 90minutes. We have Barcelona, closely followed by Real Madrid and Bayern Munich at the moment. Not enough. We have Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo as the two world geniuses. Not enough. And they don’t spit, bite, foul, cheat or, as far as I know, shag the woman next door. How dull.

Free advertising for State Boarding Schools.

17 Apr

This is something I wrote for a magazine recently and it’s an unabashed plug for these schools which seem to have been delivering excellent education (free) for a long time.

State boarding article

Books on the Go.

15 Apr

I have taken to reading four books at once. Pretty pretentious, you might say. Hear me out.

Till recently I had never read Harry Potter. Shame! (Indignation) Shaaame (Sympathy). Well The Philosopher’s Stone sits snugly in my downstairs loo awaiting my next motion – or at least when I decide to use that particular venue. Inevitably, I suppose, I will link the young wizard with my basic functions but most books get lost in a different ether. At least HP is contextualised. After 50 pages I am still reserving judgement.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (bedside), riding high with nearly 250,000 sold, is an odd tale of a very odd couple – particularly the young wife whose mysterious disappearance is explained in the manner reminiscent of early Ian MacEwan: completely unbelievable…but plausible. It’s a Tom Sharpe maquerading as a Stephen King (quite a stretch) but this is bedside stuff. I admit to skipping Question Time to curl up with it. I didn’t skip anything but my Kindle pages for Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles (three down and still two to go…I won’t make it zzzzz___) To be fair I was reading this for the sake of literary breadth; like reading the Mail and the Sun and the Guardian all in the same week. Archer doesn’t speak to any little bit of me, really but I am reminded of the speed reading course I did in 1971 and I can flash through 50 pages in as many seconds.

Aware now that I am sounding patronising – a development from pretentious – the quid pro quo for Jeff is Julian. Barnesie, as I like to call him, is my ‘go to’ man in a tricky situation. He makes me feel clean again; he dusts me down, engages me, surprises me, moves me. His latest, Levels of Life culminates in an extraordinarily touching examination of his grief for Pat Kavanagh, his wife. It’s a literary non-fiction, a documentary novella. The stories are imbued with a sort of giant metaphysicality which moves the reader intellectually as well as emotionally, to a place where he enables our view of human experience- love – via acute angles and towering perspectives. He begins: ‘You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.’ So Part One (The Sin of Height) is the tale of early balloon flights coupled with the development of aerial photography. Then follows the improbable pairing of the stiff-upper-lip British adventurer, Fred Burnaby with the vampish actress Sarah Berhardt (On the Level). Finally we are alone with Barnes and his grief (The loss of Height). ‘When we soar we also crash; there are few soft landings,’ he says – and of his wife, ‘..the heart of my life; the life of my heart.’ It’s both poignant and invigorating – with a characteristic detachment as if he is viewing his beravement from a balloon drifting over the Channel.

At 116 pages Levels of Life is a handy volume for all public transport. Who wouldn’t  want to pull JB out on the tube?  I  certainly wouldn’t take Jeff. on the Picadilly Line. One has to be so careful in London. You can see that four books could easily become a minimum to have on the go. Crime/thriller novels are excellent palate-cleansers for higher and lower brow reading. And the effort of picking yourself up after that final page is softened by what’s in the toilet or your overcoat pocket. A friend’s wife used to carry three novels with her at all times and read, one page from each in rotation. She even chose novels of similar lengths. She argued, apparently, that the enjoyment of reaching the climax three times in quick succession…let’s not go there.

I shall be in London tomorrow and will report on my experience of Susan Hill (The Pure in Heart). I haven’t read much of SH but I’m a bit disappointed that she appears to have her tame regular ‘DCI’ Simon Serrailler. I am thus expecting to follow the well-trodden road of Banks, Rankin, PDJ, Val McDermid and the rest who latch on to a character and shake them till they’re dead. Mind you I quite enjoy the vibrations.

What Thatcher has done for me…

15 Apr

That the Iron Lady media frenzy has been unseemly is all too evident. What can we rescue from the tornado of hot, swirling vortex that has been whipped up before the wake of the worn out 87 year old, who happened to be our first female PM? Clarity, that’s what! Was she controversial? Yes. Did she win three elections? Yes. Should the tax payer pay millions for her funeral? No.

Let me move on (unlike the BBC and every other media organisation and vested interest) to other news. Is that bloke who runs North Korea a basket case? Yes. Did we like the Morse prequel, ‘Endeavour’? Yes. Is Sally Bercow a self-obsessed embarrassment for her speaker-hubby (himself a shade pompous)? Yes. Was the sexy song about a one-night-stand sung by the talented little 11 year-old on Britain’s Got Talent, inappropriate? Yes. Was Tony Blair to blame for the MMR scandal? No, but he didn’t help. Has Madonna done anything for Malawi? No. Has Nicholas Hytner done a great job for the National Theatre? Yes. Should Sir Robert Edwards’ (Nobel Prize IVF) death have had more column inches than Peaches Geldof? Yes. So it goes…but let’s not get into the bombing of Dresden.

On to sport. Where are rules not really to be followed? The Masters at Augusta, if the penalty concerns the world’s most famous player. Where should rules be slavishly adhered to? Augusta, if a 14year old Chinaman can be found and made an example of and lectured and penalised. Where could you see the very best exhibition of sportsmanship in the very heat of high-level competition? Augusta, when Angel Cabrera man-hugged Adam Scott after the Aussie had thrillingly snatched victory at the second play-off hole. Friendship through sport. Humility in winning, grace in losing. A lot of what went on at home this weekend fell so far short of the savoury. But when it happens we feel enriched; we are reminded that competition can be noble.

Grammar; to be precise Gwynne’s Grammar. The Sunday Times saw fit to sneak an article by Nevile Martin Gwynne on his new Ebury Press publication. For thinking and reasoning we need words. Just as words and their definitions are the science of vocabulary, grammar is simply arranging words in the best order to make the best and clearest sense for any purpose. Without words we cannot think, let alone communicate…learning grammar does not just happen.

If we all read NMG’s worthy tome we might use words more accurately, sparingly and wisely. The use and misuse of words and platforms this week has forced a valuable brevity upon me. In a funny way, the Lady turned it round.

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