|Posted by John S Taylor on July 8, 2015 at 4:55 AM|
'You know, Bill, I LIKE Americans!'
My friend, William Estes Lyons, regarded me with a faintly ironic smile as we sat down to our pints in the public bar of the Spinner and Bergamot. 'Well, John,' he responded dryly,' you like Americans who read books, play Mozart sonatas and hold season tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. You really don't have a much of a clue about the others.'
A genuine Southern aristocrat, Bill had been born early in the last century at Holly Springs, Mississippi, in a crumbling antebellum mansion very like the Tara of Gone with the Wind. His great uncle, an officer in the Confederate army, had been wounded at Gettysburg, and until his beautiful mother Virginia Bradford had become a star of the silent movies and married money, the family, as with so many others impoverished by the War of Northern Aggression, had been dirt poor. Billy, energetic and multi-talented, had bought cheap desert land in Hollywood, designed and built high-end houses and sold them at a handsome profit. He was artistic, too: his ceramics were eagerly taken up by the boutiques and when he needed a break he enrolled in UCLA and took a degree in music. Bill continued to be based in California, but on his frequent visits to the United Kingdom he would visit Val and me in the North after calling in on his mother in Notting Hill. Virginia lived to be 94. Her lifelong friend and companion was a feisty black lady of similar vintage and they fought like cat and cat. According to Bill's Tennessee cousin Bobby, this was a fairly typical exchange:
'Miss Virginia, y'all oughtta treat me with more respect!'
'Respect yuh? We used to OWN four hundred of yuh.'
We visited Bobby at his home in Memphis during our meandering 5,000 mile drive from New England to El Salvador in Central America. The year was 1991. George Bush senior was in the White House and his vice president Dan Quayle was notorious for his frequent linguistic faux pas, such as assuring an elementary school class that 'potato' was spelt P-O-T-A-T-O-E. The media had given Quayle a rough ride, but Bobby was inclined to allow him the benefit of the doubt.
'I did not believe that the Vice President of the United States of America could be as much of an asshole as he was being depicted, so when I read in the paper that Senator Quayle was due to make a speech in Memphis I decided to go along and see for myself.'
'He's an asshole,' said Bobby sadly.
I remembered this conversation a couple of months later when I met Pete at a US Embassy garden party in San Salvador. Pete worked for USAID, which was doing reconstruction work in that war-lacerated little country. A former American football player, his high, spluttering voice was completely incongruent with his towering refrigerator physique. If you can imagine parrot-face comedian Freddy Davies with a strong Bronx accent you'll have a rough idea of how he sounded. Pete didn't hesitate to flutter in where seraphim might have feared to fly: 'You know, John,' he spluttered, 'I think your Queen really is a pill. Don't you agree?'
It took me a moment to recover from this summary dismissal of my Head of State by a man I'd met only sixty seconds earlier, but I replied 'Well no, Pete, I believe Her Maj does a demanding job with dignity and devotion. And when I think of the some of the clowns you Yanks have managed to elect to your Congress I'm more than satisfied with her performance.'
'Oh! Now you're just being offensive.'
Pete's scathing assessment of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations and Queen of 16 of its 53 member states, was untypical of the majority of his compatriots, many of whom are actively enthusiastic about our monarchy, though on my earliest visits to the United States it took me a while to cotton on to the manner in which this feeling was sometimes expressed.
'How IS Elizabeth?' a blue-rinsed matron quizzed me before a Commencement luncheon at our twin school in Massachusetts.
'Elizabeth? Oh, you mean the Queen. She's fine. At least, I think she is. We're not on really intimate terms, you understand.'
'So you haven't actually met her?'
'Not to chat to, though we did once share a cathedral.'
'Oh, I must say, I find that rather disappointing, especially as you come from London.'
'I don't, as it happens, and even if I did, London's a big place.'
'Really? But England's such a little country.'
'True, but there are well over eight million people in the capital. Slightly more than in New York, as a matter of fact.'
Americans were once notoriously insular but this has changed considerably over my lifetime. No doubt it's due in part to two world wars, but exponentially improving communications have also played an enormous role. Since 1890, four generations of my own family, including one of my sons, have emigrated to the United States. Initially the divided clan did its best to keep in touch, first by letter and later, in better-off days, by exchanging widely-spaced transatlantic visits. Then cheap flights and Ancestry.com changed everything. Not long ago I stood in a Michigan living room with Leanne, my first cousin three-times removed, and gazed at a photo of my fourteen-year-old future mother proudly holding a swimming trophy won in Wigan in 1933. My son Richard plays bass in a rock band in Minneapolis with his fourth generation cousin Paul, while their little blonde daughters, as uncannily alike as popcorns, tackle the swings and climbing frame in a nearby park.
Unfortunately my own parents forgot to provide me with a sister, so I had to make do with Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, who were readily available because at least four out of every five films shown in our local flea-pit seemed to have come from USA. It was something of a one-way traffic and I somehow doubt that George Formby and Stanley Holloway were as celebrated in Poughkeepsie as John Wayne and Roger Rogers were in Wigan. But in the past twenty years or more a revolution has occurred. Americans enthuse about British films and it's not just Downton and Harry Potter. A couple of years ago Val and I discovered a huge, rambling and utterly chaotic antique shop in the little Minnesota town of Jordan. Having partially explored this warren I sidled up to the desk and said hesitantly to the owner 'Have you ever by any chance seen a British TV show called The Last of the Summer Wine?' She grinned broadly. 'Yes, this place IS exactly like Aunty Wainwright's, isn't it?'
We are no longer divided by a common language but the idea that we Brits all live within a hoot and a holler of Horse Guards Parade is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of some Americans. That early conversation with Bill Lyons took place more than forty years ago and since then I have been a frequent visitor to the USA. I pitch up at the Budget or Alamo desk at Newark or Logan or JFK. The friendly clerk summons up a printout of my booking, and I have lost count of the number of times my address appears as 'London, England'. It isn't a big deal, of course, but, on one occasion only, I decided to make a stand.
'I don't live in London. I live in Newcastle upon Tyne. That's three hundred miles from London.'
'So it's in the same general area, right?'
'Wrong. I know three hundred miles is just a step to Macdonald's for you Americans, but in our small island it's an epic journey.'
'No problem. Just dictate your full address to me and I'll type it into the contract.'
It was only some days latter that I looked at the printout and saw that it read:
John Sharrock Taylor
17 Sandringham Close
Newcastle upon Tyne
'I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.' —Dan Quayle
|Posted by John S Taylor on June 25, 2015 at 10:55 PM|
BUREAUBOLOCRACY Or the art of administrative confusion.
Val and I have lived ‘overseas’ for almost a quarter of a century. Fourteen years ago, reflecting on the fact that we had no settled base, we bought the old house we call el Cortijo del Rector in the hills of Andalucía. During our pottering about on four continents we had seen a host of expat acquaintances come and go, and we notice that the same pattern carries on repeating itself here in Spain. At first, the sun shines every day and everything in the sub-tropical garden is lovely. Then, gradually, little black clouds begin to appear. Usually it’s nothing as crude as ‘these dam' foreigners will insist on speaking their own language’ though the expat’s own struggles with his host country's idiom can certainly be a factor. No, it’s often the little things that begin to grate. And grate. And escalate. Watching a cookery programme on TV the other night we found ourselves muttering how Spanish butchers are clueless about producing a decent piece of fillet steak, and warning bells began to jangle faintly.
But most of all it’s that ‘foreign’ bureaucracy that becomes the tipping point. Many years ago we lived on Ibiza and, as far as the Spanish government is concerned, we are still there. We first became aware of this fact when we received a note from our bank telling us the traffic authorities had slapped an embargo on our account for almost seven hundred euros. When I enquired, I was told that this was the result of an unpaid speeding fine, and it turned out that two years back I had been clocked by radar on the motorway. Initially, of course, the fine had been nothing like seven hundred bucks, but I had repeatedly ignored demands for payment, and now the thing had escalated to the point where I might have needed a second mortgage to clear the accumulated debt, if I'd had a mortgage in the first place, which, thankfully, I haven't. 'So yah, boo, sucks, said Trafico, 'and serves you right.'
In vain I protested that that the first thing I'd known about the matter was when some jobsworth had dipped his greedy paw into my bank account. 'A likely story,' said Trafico. We've sent you half a dozen certified letters at your address in Ibiza.'
'But I haven't lived in Ibiza since 2001. Obviously your speed camera read my number plate, which told you that the car is registered at my current home address in Malaga, which is how you managed to raid my account. Why didn't you think of sending your demands to where I actually live?'
'Sorry mate. Rule Number one of the Jobsworths' Vade Mecum: We are not paid to think.'
This part of the story has a happier ending than the one you may be expecting. When we went to pay the fine, the post office refused to accept our money because there was a discrepancy between their records and the paperwork we had finally received from the bandits at Trafico. With visions of endlessly escalating multas, we went to see our friendly abogado, who rapidly persuaded Trafico of the error of its ways. By this time there were so many mix-ups in the documentation that the jobsworths were even more confused than we were and they actually quashed the original fine as well as the various increments. The lawyer's modest fee even included officially changing our Residencias from Baleares to Andalucia (though, of course, our new medical cards still went to Ibiza twelve months later).
When you hear stories like this one, you might be tempted to think that, unlike Spain, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a land free from functionaries, so we find it helps to reflect on some of our experiences with British bureaucracy. Twenty years back, after a lot of frustrated fossicking along blind alleys, I finally discovered that our sons were eligible for 'home' university fee status. The key concept was not the twenty-four years of taxes we had paid in the UK but the fact that we were employed abroad on temporary rather than permanent contracts. Was I generously vouchsafed this important piece of information by HMG? Was I heckerslike. The jobsworths at the DfE played dumb and suggested that I apply for charitable assistance in ‘my own country' which, according to them, was poverty-stricken little Malawi.
Several years ago Will, our younger son, had weeks of hassle before the jobsworths finally deigned to assign him a National Insurance number (without which you can't legally work, sign up with a GP or die). Grilled extensively for details of the last UK doctor he had been registered with, he had difficulty remembering, having been all of nine years old at the time. The fact that he has a British birth certificate, a British passport and was born in the UK of British parents didn't seem to cut any ice. One of the major frustrations was that he knew several illegal immigrants who seemed to have no trouble working the system and jumping the queue.
When I think of some of the nonsense my family in the UK have had to endure from indifferent GPs and rude receptionists, I note a sharp contrast with our experience here in Spain. We old uns are high-maintenance. A couple of years ago I had my hernia 'done', and Val’s cataract operation left her exclaiming rapturously about the colours of Nature and nearness of the wind vanes on a distant hill. Our Spanish National Health hospital is big, spotless, state-of-the-art, but far from impersonal. The surgeons and the cleaners call each other by their first names. The pressures are considerable, but everybody seems to have time for a laugh. The waiting time for both 'ops' was less than three months from the first chat with Maricarmen our friendly local doc who was the image of Goya’s Duchess of Alba.
This morning, prompted by an email from our Spanish accountant, who understands the UK fiscal system a lot better than most Brits, I opened my tax file. As I searched for the relevant document, I came across a copy of a letter I once wrote as part of a long Groundhog Day correspondence with the International Contributions Agency in Newcastle upon Tyne. In reading it, bear in mind that these particular jobsworths always end their missives with 'I trust that I have been of assistance.'
Dear Mr Fyfe,
Thank you for your letter of 6th February which I read, first with incomprehension and then with mounting incredulity. Please will you refresh your memory by revisiting our correspondence over the past seven years.
First, you informed me that I was eligible to pay national insurance contributions. I replied asking you to set this up. It was not set up. I wrote to you again asking why. In reply you requested my detailed employment record, which I supplied by return. You then informed me that I WASN'T eligible because of my 'periods of unemployment'. I pointed out that apart from vacations between contracts I had never been unemployed. You then decided that I WAS eligible to pay contributions, so naturally I assumed that you would set this up. It was not set up. So I wrote to you again asking why. You have now written asking me to let you know 'as soon as possible' whether or not I wish to pay contributions.
YES, MR FYFE, I DO WISH TO PAY CONTRIBUTIONS. THIS IS WHAT I TOLD YOU SEVEN YEARS AGO AND WHAT I'VE BEEN TELLING YOU AT TEDIOUS INTERVALS EVER SINCE. PLEASE SORT IT OUT BEFORE ONE OR OTHER OF US DIES OF OLD AGE.
Finally if you had read either of my last two letters you might have noticed that I specifically asked you not to send me yet another leaflet. However, this time you have excelled yourself. Why in the name of my final shreds of sanity have you sent me a leaflet about Social Security in the United States of America? I admit that I once went to Disneyland, but does that really have any bearing on my British pension rights? As you are allegedly employed by DSS International Services you really ought to know that Latin America, where I live, is not part of the USA. Ask your secretary. I know she understands geography because your letter eventually arrived.
No, Mr Fyfe, you have not yet been of assistance, but I do live in hope.
Bureaubolocracy exists in every country, so let's not delude ourselves that 'east, west, home's best'. Val and I have encountered jobsworths in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Some of the worst were in India, but remember who set up that system. This is Indian author Ruskin Bond on his own country's bureaucracy.
Soak the rich and harry the poor,
That's our motto and our law;
We are the rulers of this land,
We are the babus, a merry band,
Under the table or through the back door,
We'll empty your pockets and ask for more!
We are the babus, this is our law:
Soak the rich and harry the poor!
|Posted by John S Taylor on June 13, 2015 at 4:45 AM|
Some say that in an ideal world the car mechanics would be German, the cooks French, the builders English and the lovers Spanish. By the same token, a recipe for chaos might consist of German lovers, French mechanics, English cooks and Spanish builders. As the wide-boy in the opera puts it: 'It aint necessarily so.' Through our fourteen year love affair with el Cortijo del Rector, our old Andalucian farmhouse, Val and I have shelled out in excess of sixty thousand euros to half a dozen so-called builders, and the only one who really merited the name was the last one. And he was Spanish.
'Rector' means headmaster in Latin America, where we worked for seven years after leaving England in 1991, but for us the name of our home has a deeper significance because it recalls the ancient house in the Cambridgeshire fens where our long-awaited first child Richard was born thirty-five years ago. Rector’s Cottage had low oak beams, an inglenook, a secret passage, a staircase as steep as a cliff, a resident ecclesiastical ghost and nowhere the ghost of a right angle. When we asked our surveyor how old he thought it was he said 'Most of what you can see dates from about 1500. What you can't see is a lot older than that. Did you know you'd got a secret passage in your cellar? It runs under the road to the manor house which used to be owned by the man who shot King William Rufus with his crossbow in the year 1100.'
In December 2001, while we were on holiday from our jobs in south east Asia, we bought a small finca in the north of Málaga Province. The 80 olive and almond trees were wildly overgrown and the rambling old stone house sadly neglected. Half the roof consisted of rusting corrugated iron, the wiring was by Heath-Robinson's Iberian cousin and both the internal and external rendering was falling away in chunks. The estate agent (a plausible British crook; I'll call him Andy) found us a builder (a plausible Spanish crook; I'll call him Diego). During the initial renovation process, while we were still in Asia, we corresponded by email with the builder (a risky strategy and one we emphatically do not recommend). When we finally arrived to inspect the pricey project it looked fine (note the emphasis) except for the mountains of rubble dumped in the huerta right in front of the house.
'Diego,' I told him, 'before I pay you, you'll need to move that lot.'
'I wouldn't advise it. The house is on a steep pendiente and all that material keeps it from sliding down into the arroyo.'
'Don't be silly. Get it shifted.'
'OK, on your cabeza be it, but I'll have to charge you an extra two hundred euros.'
'En tus sueños,compañero.'
The escombros in front of the house duly disappeared but that wasn't the end of the story. The next time we arrived home from furrin parts the rain was coming down in stair-rods and a cascade gushed out when we opened the front door. Not only was the new roof leaking over our bed but the drain which was meant to carry off water from the hillside behind the house was completely blocked with the rubble Diego's cohorts were supposed to have carried away. So my first job was to stand in the downpour plying a shovel while Val used a besom to usher the last of the muddy flood out of the front door. Meanwhile Diego was parading around the village in his brand new metallic green BMW, financed by palming off worm-eaten roof beams on gullible guiris.
As Diego's passle of buffoons never managed to rise to the challenge of keeping the rain off our heads, we turned to Nigel. From his deep, warm Lancashire tones we knew instantly that here was a man we could trust with our very lives, and the impression was confirmed when he turned out to be from Val's home village a couple of miles west of Wigan. We were still working on the other side of the world, so at the end of the Christmas vacation we confidently left Nigel with our 'to do' list which included installing a bespoke shower cubicle in the downstairs bathroom, for which we paid him in advance. By the time we returned in the summer Nigel had decamped back to God's Own County and there was no sign of the new cubicle. I repeatedly emailed him demanding a refund but Nigel produced a series of increasingly inventive fictions, clearly intending to hang onto my cash until I gave up hope. Fortunately, he was not only a crook but also a dumb crook. Some years previously I had used the services of a famously formidable firm of London litigators whom I'll call Messrs Sue, Grabbitt and Runne. In sending my final demand to Nigel, I copied it to an entirely fictitious Mr. Hardman Grabbitt at the firm's chambers and the money appeared in my bank account the following day. This triumph stands as a monument to the only time in my life I have ever got the better of a so-called builder.
Shaun came to us highly recommended, especially by himself.
'I'm the greatest, Sir,' said he.
I will come and rescue thee.'
...or words to that general effect.
'Spanish builders,' Shaun told us, 'are clueless about roofs'. So we agreed that he would sort out the persistent leak and also re-roof the stable, which we intended to use as a store room if somebody could manage to stop it flooding whenever it rained. However, his first task was to install our new wood burning stove, which worked perfectly until the soot built up and it dawned on us that Shaun had not included any cleaning access This meant that I had to sit on the roof, dangling a grandfather clock weight attached to a clothesline, down the chimney to break up the debris blocking the flue.
Shaun charged double the Spanish rate, though he reassured us that this was only a fraction of what a professional with his outstanding talents could have been earning in the UK. And he would save us a lot of cash by delegating all the donkey work to his Spanish sidekicks Juanjo and Juancho, whom we rapidly christened the Two Stooges. As I'm sure you know, there is no point in applying cement over paint because it soon falls off. Juanjo and Juancho probably knew this too, but they didn't care because it wasn't their cement, it wasn't their money and they knew they wouldn't be around when it fell off. Though they seldom arrived on time, they always knocked off promptly at five o' clock, which never prevented them from mixing a fresh batch of render at half past four. So the huerta began to bloom with surrealistic toadstools of dumped concrete. Shaun and the Stooges concluded their ministrations in the summer, and when the second winter's rains arrived, by which time our British expert had long since departed to make big bucks on his native shores, we still needed snorkels in the stable and brollies over the bed.
Javi had built a veranda for British friends in the pueblo. We inspected the work and were impressed. Javi came to el Cortijo del Rector and cast a jaundiced eye over Diego's and Shaun's depredations: 'The pitch of the roof is quite low and those old traditional pantiles are semi porous. I recommend stripping the lot and replacing them with glazed tiles.'
'At last,' we said to each other, 'here is a man who knows what he's talking about.'
A handsome chap in his early thirties, we found additional reassurance in the fact that Javi was also leader of a radical group campaigning in the forthcoming elections for an end to incompetence and bureaucratic muddle. The roof was duly stripped and re-tiled. The third wet season arrived and, wonder of wonders, the rain in Spain no longer fell on our bed. Instead it fell in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the wardrobe and onto a couple of hundred of our most treasured hardbacks. So we went to see Javi at his new, and presumably waterproof, home in the pueblo.
'It only needs a dab of silicone,' he told us.
'Well, you'd better get dabbing,' we replied.
'I'm a bit tied up with the elections at the moment, but I'll come as soon as I can.'
In the event, the elections ended in stalemate, but instead of Javi and his chief rival following Dave and Nick's civilized example and forming a coalition, they ended up slugging it out, bare knuckle, in the main street of the pueblo. Shortly after that Javi went bankrupt and that was the end of his career both in public life and in construction.
Before being swallowed up by politics and financial disaster, Javi had assured us that he was the man to solve one of our other chronic bugbears. Our staircase, the only means of access to the upper storey, descended right in the middle of the main living room, effectively cutting it in two.
'It's simple,' said Javi, 'we'll install a caracol.'
The expensive spiral staircase, hardwood and steel, duly arrive in kit form. Javi's team erected it and it looked splendid. The only problem was that nobody taller than a hunchbacked gnome could have walked up it without banging his head on the low beams.
'No problem,' said Javi, 'we'll turn it into a straight staircase.'
'That's what we had in the first place.'
'Ah, but we'll make the new staircase less intrusive by demolishing the upstairs landing.'
'So on my way to the bathroom at 3.00 am I sleepwalk into space? To misquote Neil Armstrong: 'One small step for a man; two broken legs if he doesn't land on his head.'
Finally, after more than ten years of Andaluz hokey-cokey (three steps forward, two steps back) I did what I ought to have done in the first place and went down the hill to speak with my compañero José el Vecino.
'Talk to Mono,' said Jose.
'He's really Juan Antonio, but almost everybody around here has an apodo, a nickname.'
'So this Juan Antonio looks like a monkey?'
'Not particularly. At least, he looks no more like a monkey than our old mate Gamba looked like a prawn, but he's not a cowboy and he knows his stuff'.
So we talked to Mono and, following the detailed plans drawn up by our architect, he built us a full width, full height extension with a wide, elegant staircase and floor-to-ceiling shelving on the landing to accommodate a sizeable section of our library. Mono prides himself on keeping abreast of technical developments in the building trade and his work was regularly inspected by a representative of his professional association.
Unlike any of our previous builders, Mono actually seemed to take a personal interest in our quirky old cortijo, and when he and his colleague broke through the gable he was quite excited to discover a large 'secret' alcove which had been plastered over and now provides a shelved space for my brass cannon, my 18th Century Indian daggers and a host of other antiques from our life on four continents.
Juan Antonio is a powerful individual with arms like Popeye, and the day before the new staircase was installed I watched him nonchalantly swing himself from the lower level to the upstairs landing. 'I begin to understand the nickname,' I told him.
|Posted by John S Taylor on December 1, 2014 at 2:25 AM|
I'm sorry I'm not Jewish. Not as far as I know, anyway, and I've looked very carefully in the hope that I might be. This morning when the post arrived I finally discovered that I'm not. Not by blood. Not by marriage. Not even by association, if I may put it that way without confusing the issue.
My Uncle Benny was actually my mother's sort-of-cousin but every grownup was an uncle or an aunty in those days. He wore a beret, rather an exotic touch in 1950s Wigan, had a distinctly aquiline profile and like my mother Beatrice was olive complexioned (An Indian friend seeing her photograph for the first time humorously hailed Beatrice as a fellow Punjabi). Benny's father Great Uncle Bill was married to my stately Aunt Ida who kept the Corset Shop, another couple of exotic touches because all my friends' aunties were housewives with run-of-the-mill names such as Agnes, Gladys or Edie. And even as a child I was aware that Aunt Ida spoke with a decidedly foreign accent. Weighing all this evidence, my father Bill, not for the first or last time putting two and two together and arriving confidently at five, assumed a Jewish connection and indulged in typically black humour on the theme that it had been necessary for him to fight the Second World War in order to prevent Hitler from converting my mother and her family into soap.
When I started to build our family tree a dozen years ago I was keen to investigate the possibility of our Jewishness which, I thought, would add colour to our story. My parents and most of their generation were dead so no horse's mouth research was possible. Like most beginners I was even vague about which were my maternal and paternal lines of descent but with the help of internet genealogical sites it was reasonably easy to disentangle half a dozen or so generations.
It turned out that Aunt Ida was the elder sister of my grandmother Beatrice Adelaide Norcliffe who had died while giving birth to my mother in 1919. My great grandfather, Beatrice Adelaide's father, was called Albert and researching the Norcliffes I found generations of...Methodists. No Jews.
Next, I discovered that Aunt Ida, whose real name was Eliza Ann, was NOT in fact my grandmother's sister. She had been born illegitimately to a girl called Polly Kirton, great granddad Albert's housekeeper with whom he had lived 'over the brush' after he has conveniently parked my great grandma Caroline in a Yorkshire lunatic asylum following the birth of my grandmother in 1899. This, incidentally, provides a convincing reason for the Norcliffe family's unexpected migration from Keighley to Wigan, where Albert could continue being a pillar of the business and Chapel communities. When Caroline died in 1919, after twenty years of incarceration, Albert and Polly could finally slip off quietly to a Manchester register office and tie the knot.
'Never mind,' I thought. 'If I'm not Jewish by blood, perhaps I'm Jewish by association.' So I looked carefully at Polly's line and, bingo! Not only did her dad rejoice in the patriarchal name of Abraham but her uncle, incidentally a Union veteran of the American Civil War, carried the priestly name of Levi! So I looked even more closely and found...Baptists.
It seemed that everywhere I looked for Jews I found nonconformists (Uncle Benny's father, Great Uncle Bill, turned out to be yet another Methody) and finally there was only one door at which I hadn't knocked. Had Methodist Benny married a Jewish girl?
I looked at the Lancashire Births, Marriages and Deaths website and sure enough, a Benjamin Bennett had married a Jenny Galkoff at the Southport Synagogue in 1942. This had to be it! I immediately sent off nine quid and my application to the General Register Office for a copy of the Marriage Certificate. It arrived this morning. Jewish Benjamin's father wasn't my Great Uncle Bill. He was a furniture dealer from Liverpool called Meyer. The last door has closed. I'm not Jewish. Not by blood. Not by marriage. Not even by association.
Even with all its richness of heritage, being Jewish would have been a mixed blessing. I wouldn't want to be associated with some of the things the State of Israel learned from the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, nor with the spurious offence of 'holocaust denial'. If a man is stupid enough to deny the Holocaust, let him be shunned as a fool, not dignified with the martyrdom of being locked up as a criminal. Thomas More rightly criticised the Henrician establishment for pursuing men not for their deeds but for the thoughts of their hearts, though ironically he'd done exactly the same thing himself when he persecuted Protestants.
The oddest thing about my quest for my non-existent Jewish identity was the response of the genealogical internet community. Normally when I send an email query to even a distant family connection the reply is rapid and even voluble. Ask a question about my... their... possible Jewishness and they clam up (and clams are definitely not kosher). They don't deny it or say they don't know. They simply don't reply. My white friend Nina has had similar experiences when researching her black Bermudian ancestry.
Digging for my Jewish roots hasn't been a completely wasted experience. After a dozen years of painstaking research I've finally identified the source of Aunt Ida's exotic foreign accent: Yorkshire.
|Posted by John S Taylor on November 29, 2014 at 4:10 AM|
This cool November morning I walked the dogs by the longer of our two favourite routes: northwards up our steep-sided valley (in Lancashire we'd call it a clough), past the house of Jose el Vecino, then westwards down the rough track to the bridge in the Dreadful Hollow. Once across the arroyo we turn south and head down the stony pendientes of the olive groves to the Algaidas road, then left and left again up the camino and back to Cortijo del Rector.
The dogs, as always, like to potter, but we do not linger in the Hollow, which is a place of sinister beauty and tragic memory. Here the birches and poplars crowd gloomily over the deep black cleft of the arroyo, hiding the sky. In spring the dark branches are hung with pale-gleaming necklaces of dog-roses but on this early autumn morning only an unexpected clump of bright yellow crocuses glitters among the fallen leaves by the bridge.
Most people who think they know me, and that would include almost all of the thousands of pupils I taught in thirty-eight years at the chalk-face, would tell you that I'm an extrovert, but it isn't true. A teacher doesn't actually need to be extrovert, though most of us make a fairly convincing job of pretending. Neither am I naturally cheerful, though, again, a lot of the children I taught seemed to think so, largely because I often told jokes (very old and very bad ones, according to my sons). And I'm not particularly gregarious, though I'm probably more so than some folk (such as my wife) who claim to be sociable but would always prefer to stay at home with the telly or a good book. Finally, I'm not really a narcissist, because, believe me or not, all this self-revelation is quite unaccustomed and fully relevant to my story.
With a few honourable exceptions I have often found the clergy to be rather disappointing human beings, and during donkeys' years of singing in church and cathedral choirs I became more-or-less pontification-proof. But a sermon that sticks in my memory was preached at St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by the Precentor, Canon Peter Strange. It began something like this:
'I wish I were one of those fortunate folk for whom the glass is always half-full. I wish I could bounce out of bed every morning exclaiming 'Hello Sun! Hello World! Here I am!' But I can't. I'm a tetchy sort of chap, so I have to try harder.'
I saw on the internet a couple of months ago that Peter has just retired after thirty-something years of faithful service to the Cathedral and the City, but I have no doubt that he's still tetchy and still trying hard. I heard that sermon almost a quarter of a century ago but I've remembered it ever since, because it could have been describing me. There was a time when I would have opted for a slow stroll over fifty feet of red hot coke rather than walk alone into a roomful of strange faces. Granted, over the years one gets better at these things, but the underlying anxieties are still there. You probably won't believe me when I tell you that for me even saying 'Good morning' to a stranger falls into the 'try harder' category. But Juan-Antonio is no stranger. He lives three hundred steeply-sloping metres below Cortijo del Rector and I see him almost every morning. Even so, I hardly know him at all, because he's that rarity of rarities, a shy Spaniard, and though I invariably greet him he just as invariably mutters a terse 'Buenos dias' and hurries by, face averted. Until this morning, that is.
The dogs and I had reached the bottom of the long, steep, stony slope above the Algaidas road. At the lower end of the huerta there is a three metre sheer drop to the road and one has to descend via a sort of rough cleft, part pathway, part erosion run-off, which is half-choked with loose stones and vegetation. Boris, a long-legged galgo-mastin cross, with paws the size of saucers, has no problem negotiating the descent, but Biggles, who is approximately a Jack Russell, absolutely refuses to walk down it because, with all the tall grasses, he cannot see where he is going. So I tuck his sturdy ten kilos under my right arm until we are safely at road level.
The dogs have their preferred places for comfort stops. Biggles is a natural conservative, but on today's route, Boris has already performed from his favourite vantage point, a spot on the highest part of the cliff overhanging the arroyo. With his careful positioning, the effect is rather like aerial bombardment and I'm irresistibly reminded of the name of a village I visited on a school trip aeons ago. It was perched vertiginously on the very edge of the Rhine Gorge and it was called Langscheidt. As I've already admitted, I like daft jokes, so this morning I find myself composing a silly song.
Boris poo'd in a major mood
But Biggles pee'd in minor key.
You probably know that musical scales are denoted by the letters A,B,C,D,E,F,G. You may also know that a basic chord consists of the first, third and fifth notes of the scale. To convert from major to minor you simply lower the third note of the scale by a semitone. And vice-versa. The Boris line of this morning's song was in F major, so the basic chord was F, A, C. For the Biggles line it became F, A flat, C. That flat makes a tremendous difference. Major keys usually sound happy and minor keys almost always sound sad.
The dogs, especially Biggles, were in no hurry to tackle the cleft down to the road, so we stood at the top of the drop while we practised their new song. We started with Boris pooing happily in F Major, then switched to Biggles peeing sadly in F minor, then back again to Boris's F Major for a triumphant finale. We were just in the process acknowledging the plaudits of a bejewelled and entirely imaginary audience at the Teatro Cervantes, when a voice spoke up cheerfully from the roadway below: 'Buenos dias!' It was Juan-Antonio and he was grinning from ear to ear. He doesn't understand English, so he hadn't picked up on the lyrics as such. Just the joyful noise of Boris's F Major triumph.
What a difference an 'A' makes!
|Posted by John S Taylor on November 28, 2014 at 7:30 AM|
The problem with Moses was that, being from Yorkshire, he didn't know his atlas from his A to Z. A land flowing with milk and honey was what the Lord had promised the Israelites when they escaped from slavery in Egypt, but Moses never even got to enter Canaan, and there are several conflicting theories about that. The Bible tells us it was because he grabbed all the credit for finding water in a dry place, when he should really have given thanks to God, but there's an old song that gives an alternative explanation:
Moses was a prophet
Of good West Riding stock.
He brought forth some water
By striking on a rock.
The Israelites all gathered round
And gave a mighty cheer
But weren't they disappointed
When they found it wasn't beer!
In fact both these theories are wrong. The real reason for Moses's exclusion from Canaan was geographical. It's only 265 miles from Cairo to Jerusalem. That's less than a day's drive in a Land Rover and even my Aunt Maud could have biked it in a fortnight, but either the old boy had discovered an oasis with an inexhaustible spring of Sam Smith's, or his TomTom was on the blink, because the Israelites wandered round the desert for all of forty years before finally reaching their new home.
Even setting aside his dysfunctional grasp of topography, Moses was never much of a popular success as a prophet. To begin with, there was all that 'Thou-Shalt-Not' and 'Keep-Taking-the-Tablets' stuff. Then there was the directive against golden calves (when any red-blooded Israelite male, stuck in the middle of a desert, would have died for a glimpse of a well-filled stocking). Finally, as a Jewish friend once explained to me, there was that disgraceful business of crossing the Red Sea.
'Disgraceful?' I asked, puzzled.
'Certainly. If Moses had only had the sense to turn left instead of showing off with the conjuring tricks, we'd have had the oil instead of leaving it for the Arabs.'
And when the Israelites did at last reach their destination, they found that the Promised Land was by no means all it had been cracked up to be. For a start it was not just occupied, but jam-packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only, with Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, Hamathites, Sodomites, Simmonites, Bauxites, Haematites, Trilobites, Ammonites, Stalagmites and Marmites. These established locals were naturally less than happy to welcome yet another motley gang of interlopers, and the Israelites' entrance marked the very beginning of what we now know as the Middle-Eastern Problem. Indeed, a ruckus immediately kicked off which has gone on for the past three-and-a-quarter millennia, making the Hundred Years War look like a playground scuffle. And, as if that wasn't enough, there was the really awful Palestinian plumbing to contend with. 'Moab was my wash-pot and over Edom did I cast out my shoe,' muttered King David bitterly, proving that even in the royal palace there wasn't such a thing as a viable shower or a bidet that didn't leak.
The truth of the matter is that every silver lining has a cloud and every garden its snake in the grass. And this (whisper it not in Gathurst, tell it not in the streets of Aspull) even applies to that most-nearly-perfect of all terrestrial paradises, God's Own Country, the County Palatine (a term derived of course from 'Palestine') of Lancaster.
It has long been understood that Biblical history began in Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers, but the major mistake of the anthropologists has been their wild assumption that the rivers in question were the Tigris and the Euphrates, whereas, after intensive research, I can now reveal that the garden where Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit was located, appropriately enough, in the hamlet of Appley Bridge, just outside the county borough of Wigan, well to the south of Morecambe Bay and slightly to the west of Mount Ararat (now known as Rivington Pike) a land laved by the limpid waters of the Ribble and the Mersey and guarded in the north from the Cumbrian barbarians by a stream which is known to this very day as the River Eden.
Now, I realise that there exist certain benighted folk, who, permanently mortified by the humiliating misfortune of having been born on the wrong side of the Pennines, may dispute my county's claim to be the cradle of civilization, but just murmur the ancient Hebrew mantra: 'tripe, cow-heels, cockles, black puddings, jam butties, parkin, Eccles cakes, rugby league, clogs and cricket' and the case is proved. A fig leaf for your Moses and your Aaron! It is written 'stay me with flagons; comfort me with apples', but was it not the Wigan patriarch Uncle Joseph who fed the people, not with manna, but with Mint Balls? Did not our Warriors rout Sentellins with only the jawbone of a tyke, and didn't the mighty Statham skittle all the Amalekites for nobbut a savoury duck?
The great Westhoughton poet John Donne wrote that his personal paradise was tainted by 'the serpent love that can convert manna into gall', and it is sad to record that even the County Palatine has a single, solitary drawback. Why did the prophet Arkwright decree that the twelve tribes of our ancestors should not, like Bradford's Philistines, array themselves in robes of wool? The answer is that Lancashire is very damp, and very damp is very good for cotton. But very damp is also very good, or rather very bad, for a much less pleasing fluid than Canaan's milk and honey, which is why Manchester's speech is flatter than its caps and Liverpudlians talk with an accent ten percent Irish and ninety percent catarrh. Why do we Lancastrians have the reputation of being phlegmatic? The term comes from 'phlegm', which was the cold and moist one of the Four Humours of Platonic philosophy. So annoy any one of us and you may get a snotty answer. It's why, in addition to Halle's Band, Coronation Street, the Verve, George Formby and Beecham's pills, Lancashire provided the world with Thermogene and Fisherman's Friends. And it's also why I sojourn here in sunny Spain and write my monthly article for the Andalucian rather than the Wigan 'Ob'.
|Posted by John S Taylor on September 30, 2014 at 6:05 AM|
THE TILLS OF DEATH GO TING-A-LING-A-LING
The bells of death go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
(First World War Song)
I used to like Mike Parkinson, until he became so doggedly persistent about burying me. It seems such a liberty when the man is all of seven years older than me. But whenever I switch on the telly that earnest, craggy Yorkshire face is there, regarding me with soulful sincerity, while that earnest, craggy Yorkshire voice reminds me that the grave is already gaping wide for fogies such as I. The other Thursday, Val and I went to the English market at Iznajar. Right at the entrance to the site there was a chap selling odds and ends from a stall, so we stopped to pass the time of day and buy a few books.
'That'll be just two euros, please, and I have a little gift for you.'
He smiled, with all the warmth of a crocodile on Colgate, and handed me my purchases, together with a square white envelope with a tastefully etched black border: 'No, don't open it until you're back at home.'
Light dawned. Here was yet another corpse-napper. I dropped the 'little gift' into my shopping bag, where it remained until I eventually tipped it, unopened, into the recycling bin.
Val and I wandered off, separately, into the main part of the market. Like Lonnie Donegan's old man, I hadn't gone but a few yards when a lady leapt out and grabbed me by the gorblimeys:
'Good morning! May I ask if you have a funeral plan?'
Now, call me old-fashioned (and, believe me, I'll take it as a great compliment if you do) but I grew up in working-class Lancashire in the 1950s. When somebody died, we stopped the clocks, drew the curtains and buttered the boiled-ham barm cakes for the send-off. We would have seen it as the zenith of impertinence and the nadir of bad manners and worse taste if some tout had tried to discuss the disposal of our mortal remains in the marketplace between the tripe and the black puddings. We didn't ignore mortality, rather the opposite in fact. My parents weren't much into churchy stuff but my formidable grandmother took care of my religious upbringing, and that included the constant message that in the midst of life we were in death and should live each day as if it were our last. I attended my first wake, Grandma's oldest sister, great Aunt Polly, at the age of three, and she lay quietly in her box on the kitchen table until it was time for the men in black toppers to cart her off to the holy bone yard.
'Well yes, as a matter of fact I do have a funeral plan. In the unlikely event that my tearful spouse can't manage to raise the cash for a casket, I comfort myself with the knowledge that we've brought up two strapping great lads, fed them, clothed them, financed them through school, university and graduate school and seen them safely into stable employment. The least they can do is bury me.'
'Ah, yes, but in Spain...'
'Usted va a informarme que los entierros en España deben tener lugar durante los dos días después de la muerte.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'You don't speak Spanish?
'Not very much.'
'I see. And you were just about to tell me how things are done in Spain.'
The Psalmist prayed 'Lord, let me know mine end and the number of my days', but we ordinary folk are seldom vouchsafed that information. (Would we really want it?) Val and I know fine well that either of us could pop off before breakfast, but like the Duracell bunny we may tick along for a bit longer yet. We have a couple of centenarians and a stack of nonagenarians in both our families, including my great uncle Richard who drank copiously, smoked like a chimney and lived, cantankerous and clear-minded, to the age of ninety-three, gleefully booby-trapping his Detroit home with shotguns and tripwires to shred the unwary burglar.
So while we know very well that it will happen we don't know when it will happen and more to the point we don't really know where it will happen. A mathematician friend of ours, recovering very slowly at sixty from a quadruple heart bypass, told us sadly that he expected to die in Spain. At seventy-five he's still working full-time as a statistician, cheerfully crunching numbers for his native state of Maine. As the insurance ad puts it 'El uno nunca sabe' and one of the things I definitely don't savvy is whether I shall pop my clogs in Andalusia or Aspull (my family's home village in Lancashire, for those readers sadly unaware of the geography of God's Own County). It could even happen in a grandpa-grandma flat chez one of the aforesaid offspring in Amsterdam or Minneapolis.
If I turn up my toes tomorrow, I'm fortunate in having a Spanish friend who happens to be an undertaker, and, if in Lancs, Messrs Middleton & Woods of Wigan have despatched several generations of us, swiftly and with style, and without ever ripping us off with fake satin linings. Mind you, what with the burgeoning nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran, and the fact that the loonies seem increasingly to be in charge of the Middle East, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Armageddon is just around the corner and, in the words of dear old Tom Lehrer, we'll all go together when we go. And what price your brass handles then?
We got back from the market and were in the process of unloading the shopping from our geriatric Ford when the telephone rang:
'Do you speak English?'
'It depends,' I replied warily.
'Excellent. I represent the Guiri-Gon Expat Disposal Service S.A. Have you and your partner given any thought to death?'
'We have indeed. Would Saturday at 10.00 am suit you? I don't think we could manage the tramites any earlier than that, and, assuming we survive of course, we have a lunch date at two, but I'm sure we could squeeze you in. Flowers or Good Cause? Classical, Rock or Pop? Dugout, Niche or Crem?'
'Excuse me, I think we're at cross purposes. I'm offering you our funeral services.'
'And I'm offering you ours.'
'But I'm not dead.'
'Neither am I, but clearly you find that fact irrelevant or we wouldn't be having this conversation. Of course you would have to depart more or less immediately to meet the proposed deadline, but we'd be happy to help with that. Do you have any preferences as to exit method?
'Are you crazy?'
'I don't think so. At least, I'm not the one who's just rung up to pester a complete stranger in the hope of making a buck out of his inevitable demise. Hello...hello...Oh dear, we seem to have lost the connection.'
So thanks, but no thanks, Mike (and all you other hearse-chasers out there). Viva Emu! and you know exactly what you can do with your Parker pen.
|Posted by John S Taylor on January 27, 2014 at 4:40 AM|
Cautionary reflections for the future Chaplain from a self-confessed member of God’s Awkward Squad.
Val and I are tenuous members of the Velez-Málaga congregation of the Anglican Chaplaincy of St George, tenuous, because at our advanced age we find the almost three-hour round trip rather exhausting. This is a pity because the Velez group is warm, welcoming and actively Christian. Of course there is another congregation which meets a mere twenty minutes away from Cortijo del Rector and for several years we were members of that. I built up a more-than-competent choir there, which had a generally positive effect on church attendance, though the anything-up-to thirty hours a month I spent on preparing the music did threaten the marital lute with the occasional rift.
By the time I became a headmaster in my late thirties I had learned an invaluable thing from a veteran in the profession. His name was Vivian Crellin and when he was asked what was the key quality in a leader he replied ‘an unthreatened acceptance of the talents of others.’ I never forgot it and, during twenty years of headmastering, the schools I led benefited enormously from creative colleagues who were encouraged to make their own individual contributions in the way they saw fit.
I wrote the following essay some considerable time ago and when I read it through I decided that it had better remain private. Now I’m not so sure. Our local congregation (i.e. not the Velez one) has just imploded with an enormous bang and it is clear to me that there are many of us who are still at the ABC stage when it comes to that unthreatened acceptance of the riches of others. Although the document has his name on it, our former Chaplain is by no means the only author of the disasters of the past several years. As Shakespeare put it in Romeo and Juliet, we are all guilty to some degree and all are punished.
John-Henry told the Captain:
‘When you go to town,
Bring me back a ten-pound hammer,
I'm gonna knock this mountain down.’
Did his parents name him after the John-Henry who started out as an Anglican evangelical and ended up as a cardinal? If they did, any expectations raised at his baptism were not fulfilled, because our John-Henry seemed to have passed his life in a constant state of outrage at all things Catholic. We often wondered how a man who had spent so much time in Italy could manage to remain so permanently aghast at the hosts of holy Virgins infesting the churches here in Spain. Whatever his ma and pa might have been thinking as the water was sprinkled on his infant brow, I’m sure our John-Henry didn’t identify himself with that soon-to-be-sainted arch-priest of awkwardness who penned The Dream of Gerontius.
But I am fairly certain that our John-Henry did sometimes see himself as that Arch-exemplar of Awkwardness, the Apostle Paul, the kind of grand delusion which, after all, is an occupational hazard of clergymen of every description from the parish pastor to the Bishop of Rome. Any of my readers familiar with the Saint’s letters to young churches will know that Paul was given to apostolic admonitions on a heroic scale, a lofty style ironically much beloved of low-church 19th Century parsons in the Brocklehurst mould. And John-Henry most definitely saw himself as a Victorian. Those carefully cultivated little tufts of hair on his cheeks said it all.
Back in eighteen-hundred-and-frozen-to-death, when outward deference was the order of the day, folk may have warmly embraced the occasional pastoral rollocking (though I for one rather doubt it) but in our more democratic age this kind of thing does not sit well with congregations. The problem with dressings-down is that they put backs up, an excellent example being John-Henry’s first and last Chaplain’s Report on the Cómpeta congregation, which read it, promptly left the Chaplaincy and was never seen again. It wasn’t simply collective touchiness that caused the exodus. Some of the more offensive stuff in the report was quite simply wrong, such as the statement that a certain blameless soul (in reality my fellow member of God’s Awkward Squad) had been alienated by that congregation’s selfish cliquishness. The Apostle Paul could administer a right royal rollocking while never for a moment leaving any congregation in doubt about his love for them.
My grandmother had a deep affection for our Vicar. He was a poor preacher, she said, but a good man. Or to put it in Chaucer’s words ‘Christ’s lore and his apostles twelve he taught, but first he followed it himself.’ With this in mind I took careful note of a sermon of John-Henry’s soon after he joined us. Members of the various congregations, he told us, had been sending each other hurtful emails. Even worse, they had been circulating these messages round the Chaplaincy. This was not Christian and it had to stop. I approved of this sermon, not least because I was comfortably aware that I wasn’t one of the guilty parties. But a few months later I was wryly amused to receive my own apostolic rocket (you’ve guessed it) copied to what had clearly become John-Henry’s favourite music hall act, Hall and Sundry. My grandmother also had a phrase for this kind of thing: ‘Don’t do as I do; do as I tell you.’
When I took up my first headship nearly thirty years ago, the chairman of governors sensibly warned me against shooting from the hip. ‘Don’t make your first enemy on your first day in the job’ would have been good advice for John-Henry, had he not managed to do it even before his official arrival in Málaga. One of the reasons, of course, was his refusal to live in the Chaplain’s flat overlooking the Plaza de Toros, and I have to admit that I had some sympathy with that. A grandstand view of ritual butchery wouldn’t be my idea of Beth-el, either. But neither would blurting out to a long-serving and much-appreciated church warden, at their very first meeting, my absolute conviction that I’d certainly find her utterly impossible to work with.
Part of the problem (and now I’m coming to the bit that might just conceivably be useful to a future Chaplain) was the oft-repeated refrain that St George Málaga is ‘a difficult chaplaincy’. We are, of course, a difficult chaplaincy, but so is every other parish outside of the New Jerusalem. The danger of the myth that we are especially difficult lies in the implication that a new parson needs to ‘go in hard’ to show us who’s boss. This is disastrous advice quite simply because it never works. No bishop has ever managed to ordain an irresistible force but every parish has its immovable objects. And what of the significant number of movable objects who, during the past couple of years, have silently shrugged their shoulders, voted with their feet, and carried off their spiritual gifts to some other church and their cash contributions to some other collecting plate? As we have seen, the great Apostle didn’t hesitate to get up noses when he felt they needed it, but he had outstanding pastoral qualities to complement his abrasiveness. Not least, Paul believed in team-building, recognising that any church community could benefit from the diverse abilities of its members. This is a world away from the top-down-my-way-or-the-highway-control-freakery we have witnessed over the past few of years. And I’m not just talking about the clergy. Whatever happened to the Chaplaincy’s Facebook page? Or the Dragon, the online magazine which gave us unofficial folk a voice?
And just who tells a new chaplain that we are a difficult lot? And, in particular, who tells him that some of us are more difficult than others and will need particularly tough handling from the start? I’ll leave you to work that one out for yourself. Suffice it to say that life is full of agendas and the one placed in front of you isn’t necessarily the one that most nearly reflects reality. ‘Won’t you walk into my parlour?’ says the Spider to the Fly, but in the human world it’s not always easy to tell which bug is which.
One of my favourite images in a favourite novel, Douglas Adams’s Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is that of Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, stalking its prey with its head in the sand, being under the impression that if it can’t see you, you can’t see it. Clever folk, such as chaplains and headmasters (I learned this the hard way) can fall into the same trap. When I decided to relinquish my role as choir basher to the Salinas congregation I wrote John-Henry a gracious letter of resignation which concluded with the words ‘Not least, I want to get my olive farm into better shape before advancing age precludes that possibility.’ John-Henry’s clever reply converted that statement into something like ‘I fear my incipient senile dementia will shortly make it impossible for me to maintain the necessary standard of church music so I’m buggering off before I become completely ga-ga.’ Of course I wasn’t expected to pick up on the subtle difference.
John-Henry came to us with the reputation of having put his previous parish on a firm financial footing, so last year, with much ballyhoo, the Council launched a stewardship campaign. The final result was that the Chaplaincy’s income actually went down. This was partly owing to the defections mentioned above, but only partly. For my sins (which are legion and some of them will be very apparent in this article) I have served on various PCCs and church councils. One of the essentials of a successful giving campaign is to clear the clutter before you launch it. If parishioners think they are being excluded, overlooked, patronised, gagged or taken for granted, the last thing they feel inclined to do is dig deeper into their pockets.
Reverend Sir or Madam, I fully realise that by writing this article I have thoroughly declared myself to you as a member of God’s Awkward Squad. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that if I hadn’t done so someone else would certainly have done it for me. One thing is sure:
John Henry was a steel drivin' man,
He died with a hammer in his han',
Oh, come along boys and line the track
For John Henry ain't never comin' back.
|Posted by John S Taylor on January 27, 2014 at 3:55 AM|
Val and I have lived and worked on four continents: Europe, of course, then Latin America, followed by Africa and Asia. We have over-nighted on trains and made a number of long-distance car journeys, most recently the 1600 miles from New York to Minneapolis, a gentle jaunt compared with our three-and-a-half-thousand miles from Connecticut via Mexico and Guatemala to El Salvador in 1991. Mostly, of course, we have gone by air, which is rather like bus travel, but more frustrating.
Don’t let anybody try to tell you that all airlines are alike. I have been a regular air traveller for the past quarter of a century and I know for a fact that they aren’t. My favourites include KLM (good with pets) and Emirates (good with everything). In the 1990s TACA was so famous for its hospitality trolleys that the only person guaranteed to be sober on the New Year’s Eve flight from Miami to San Salvador was the pilot. I hope. Airlines all have their distinctive characteristics. I attended an educational conference at Rugby School where Professor Ted Wragg illustrated it like this:
PILOT: Time check, please?
CONTROL TOWER: What airline are you?
PILOT: Why do you need to know that?
CONTROL TOWER: It’s like this: If you’re Lufthansa, it’s 1300 hours precisely. If you’re Air France, it’s lunch time. And if you’re the Thomas Cook charter flight to Málaga, it’s Thursday.
I once flew from Heathrow to Harare on Air Zimbabwe. There were only twenty-six of us on the flight but they weighed the hand luggage. I thought this was comic until I realised that they were keeping their fingers crossed in the hope that the amount of fuel they’d bought might be just enough to get us there.
One of the problems with air travel is that you can spend almost as much time waiting around as you do actually flying and some airports are not fun to wait in. At Chileka in Malawi the wheels of the baggage carts hadn’t been oiled in donkeys’ years and were locked solid. So you loaded your cases on a cart and a couple of brawny Africans earned their tips by carrying it, cart included, to your waiting taxi. The worst airport I have ever experienced was Addis Ababa. Nobody queued (who ever does queue apart from the British and North Americans?) but Addis took not queuing to an entirely unprecedented level. Check-in was permanent gridlock and nobody seemed to give a damn until twenty minutes before a flight was due to depart, at which point all hell broke loose, with suitcases, push chairs and babies being passed hand to hand over the heads of the people who were blocking the way. Despite this chaos on the ground the national airline became famous for its highly efficient approach to airborne security. The first (and last) Islamic terrorists to try waving loaded guns about on an Ethiopian Airlines flight were swiftly overpowered by its hitherto incognito ‘air marshals’ strapped down and their throats summarily cut.
Then there’s the language barrier. I arrived at Luton at six o’clock in the morning to find that they’d dug up the access road to the rental car returns point and there were no notices indicating an alternative route. I appealed to half a dozen airport staff in turn and was met with blank incomprehension. I speak English, Spanish and French and I can get by in pidgin German Italian and Portuguese but Luton Polish and Bedfordshire Serbo-Croat utterly defeated me. I left the car, expensively, in the short term car park and sprinted for my flight.
Malawi and Ethiopia at least had the excuse of national poverty but I know bad airports, Bangkok springs to mind, that have had billions spent on them to make them even worse. And is there any of us who hasn’t played Málaga roulette, where the rules, and the directions to Departures, change on a daily basis? Another permanent building site is Barajas in Madrid which consists of a series of scaffolding warehouses very loosely interconnected by disused greenhouses, the whole affair resembling nothing quite so much as a stage set for a Pinteresque evocation of Hell. Wandering bemused, through these dim infernal circles, the passenger suddenly finds himself assaulted by the scent-spraying priestesses of Chanel and Versace. Duty free? Who do you think you’re kidding, Señorita Hitler?
There are the honourable exceptions. Changi Airport in Singapore, built on the site of the notorious Japanese military prison, has repeatedly won design awards and Minneapolis-St Paul is very nearly its equal. Wide open spaces with foot-friendly flooring flow imperceptibly and logically into each other. Shaded bars and restaurants offer havens to the weary traveller. The music is discreet, well-chosen and, above all, musical. Arriving recently in Madrid after an eight hour night flight from Chicago I was struck by the revelation that Barajas uses the same muzak provider as Eroski. He specialises in grunting males and squalling females who are apparently undergoing dentistry without anaesthetic while a nurse hammers a jungle drum to drown out the screams.
The worst, and by far the funniest airline Val and I ever flew with was a small Andean turbo-prop outfit called Santa Air. The in-flight drinks service consisted of a sickly beverage called Inca Cola which tasted of liquid pear drops. Latin Americans are inclined to be excitable air travellers. Peruvians, for instance, will leap up and start rummaging in the overhead lockers the moment the aircraft hits the runway at 70 mph. This would upset some cabin crews but the Santa stewardesses, brawny lasses in skimpy miniskirts and laddered tights, simply sat tight and did their nails.
In general, I have nothing but respect for airline cabin crew. Even Iberia seems recently to have woken up to the fact that in this age of intensive competition a scowling ‘No, the bar is shut.’ is not the most market-conscious response to the dehydrated long haul traveller’s gasping request for a glass of water. The vast majority of flight attendants work extremely hard and manage to keep smiling, sometimes in circumstances which might wring an expletive from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dealing with people en masse is not always a lovely experience, which is perhaps why the Emperor Caligula sometimes wished that the entire human race had one neck.
Of course, not every trolley dolly is a charmer. About to land at Rochester, New York, to visit our son Richard who was doing the practical part of his BSc studies there, I asked the American Airlines stewardess if our younger son Will needed a separate landing card.
The reply, in a Brooklyn accent, like Ethel Merman gargling gravel, reverberated through the cabin: Why would he?’
‘Well, he’s legally an adult. He’s twenty-one.’
‘You’re going to DISOWN him because he’s twenty-one?
Bill Bryson, who is something of a stylistic idol of mine, reveals in Notes from a Big Country that he has sometimes had a trying time with ground staff:
‘‘I need to see some picture ID, said the check-in clerk, who had the charm and boundless motivation you would expect to find in someone whose primary employment perk was a nylon tie. Finally at the back of my wallet I found an old Iowa driver’s licence. ‘This is expired,’ he said. ‘Then I won’t ask to drive the plane,’ I promised.’’
In contrast I have almost invariably found check-in staff pleasant, helpful and only very occasionally stupid. The girl on the BA counter knew that I didn’t live in Singapore but she flashed me a charming smile and said ‘I’d like to give you the opportunity of taking tomorrow’s flight.’
‘No thank you,’ I replied pleasantly.
‘It really would be helpful, Sir, because there seems to be a problem with your onward booking from Kuala Lumpur.’
‘There can’t be.’
Because I haven’t come from Kuala Lumpur.’
‘You MUST have come from there.’
‘Why? Don’t you think I would have noticed?
Well, it says here ‘Taylor, booked from KL to London via Singapore.’
To cut a lengthening story short, I was successively grilled by three more BA officials in ascending order of rank who were all extremely sceptical of my repeated assertions that I had NEVER visited Kuala Lumpur. And I was successively issued with four different boarding cards, the last one hand-written by a young woman at the departure gate. No sooner had I boarded the aircraft and strapped myself in (Why is the previous passenger always less than half my girth?) than a lady loomed over me and said ‘Excuse me, but I think you’re in my seat.’
‘Let me guess,’ I replied. ‘You must be Ms Taylor en route from Kuala Lumpur.’
The free upgrade to Business Class was much appreciated.
|Posted by John S Taylor on September 11, 2013 at 1:35 AM|
I picked up a rather attractive blonde in the check-in queue at Buenos Aires Airport and took her home to Santiago de Chile to meet my wife. Like Evita, all Porteñas are blonde (whether they really are or not) so our conversation started in Spanish and bumped along quite easily for a few minutes until each of us realised that the other was a gringo and we lapsed laughingly into English. In response to the standard conversational ice-breaker my new friend told me she was a director of a charitable trust which made start-up loans to aspiring businesswomen in developing countries.
‘What a coincidence!’ I exclaimed ‘I have a friend in the USA who does exactly the same thing.’
‘What’s he called?’
‘She's called Suzy Cheston.’
‘It’s more of a coincidence than you think. Same organisation. In fact Suzy's my flat mate in Boston.’
Many years later we were exploring a puzzling part of the Torcal de Antequera when we met another family coming in the opposite direction. The mother asked for directions in rather careful Spanish and our bilingual son Will cheerfully obliged.
After the other group had gone on its way I said to Will ‘She was English.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘But you carried on speaking Spanish.’
‘Of course. Her Spanish was fine so it would have been rude to do otherwise.’
Will’s immersion into the culture began when he was in single figures and he has absorbed many of the attitudes along with the language. The Spanish and the Latin Americans are polite people on the whole and most of them are delighted to hear a foreigner speaking their language, though I suspect that on occasion they unconsciously paraphrase Dr Johnson: ‘It’s not done well but one is gratified to hear it done at all.’ And for those of us who can manage more than ‘Dos cervezas, por favor’ the praise is usually instant and warm hearted.
‘How splendid! You speak Spanish!’ exclaimed the lady photographer in the medical centre where I had gone to obtain a certificate of health and (more or less) sanity to support my application for a firearms licence.
‘Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in South and Central America and I’ve lived here for seven years.’
‘I know some of your compatriots who’ve lived here for twenty years and still don’t speak a word of the language.’
Given this level of appreciation the occasional exceptions are all the more surprising. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of nervousness.
‘Buenas tardes. ¿Dónde están los baños?’
The woman at the information desk in the Santiago art gallery gave me a look of absolute terror and replied ‘I-do-not-speak-Eengleesh.’
‘Estoy hablando español.’
‘¡Ah, sí, Qué alivio!’
Twelve years ago, the day after we decided to buy Cortijo del Rector, I went into the pueblo to open a bank account. Unlike Will’s, my Spanish isn’t native standard but even at that stage I had taught the language and literature up to A Level. But the man in Unicaja insisted on summoning a colleague who spoke pidgin English. So I opened an account at Cajamar.
That firearms licence? No, I’ve not declared war on the local rabbit and hare population. My Christmas present from Val is a Victorian brass cannon. I’ve always fancied owning one and it’ll be useful the next time the rowdy heavy metal fans at our neighbouring casa rural start to crank up the decibels.