Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Song at the ear's turning

It was the Feast of St Trisant, the patron of Welsh rustlers, and I was celebrating down The Tethered Goat with a few honoured guests of our guild. Ron the Barman happened to be marking the 60th anniversary of his desertion from the Essex Irregulars - "Told me to stop shooting Dutchmen, so I legged it and carried on. Got a medal from someone - not sure who" - and was topping our pints of Champion's Freckled Johnson with belts of blue curaçao "for the Royal baby". Spirits and hemlines rode high as talk turned to New Year resolutions.

These midwinter pieties, much like careers and amorous rebuffs, simply don't occur to Welshmen, who preach the perennial pattern of "live slow, drink long, and leave someone else's corpse", but this year I suddenly yearned to make my mark - and not just in a jaundiced snow drift on the way home.

The public house is my natural environment, home as it is to dusty sedation, nostalgic odours and bedraggled women, and so here I must make my stand. I looked from companion to companion, and fast realised I would never outdrink the K-Man, outsmoke Dazza, beat The Dog in the "neighbours said he kept himself to himself" stakes or hint at the hedgerow allure of Rock-Chick No.3.

Again struck by my essential shallowness, I glanced up at the bar, past Shitty Dave, Maniac Postman and the undercover lager drinkers, and snagged on the Last Year in Marienbad loop that is Nottingham John's motorways-and-marketstalls monologue.

"...I telt him once if I telt him a million times not to come off at Tamworth that early, 'cause that's where the coppers patrol in unmarked Subarus..." he ground on at some blameless soak who'd never travelled further than the bookies on anything faster than his polished bunions.

And then it dawned on me. This is where I could excel. From my epic apprenticeship as a man in a pub, I could emerge as that master-craftstman of unfounded counsel - the Man In The Pub.

Too long has my lady wife had to burrow beagle-like deep into the set of my latest schemes, only to flush out the Bibulous Badger of Saloon Bar Bollocks, heralded as ever by the caveat "well, bloke down the pub said..."

How proud she'll be, I thought, no longer to have to disabuse, or sometimes simply abuse, me on such matters as whether stamps are legal tender, the Pope controls the European butter mountain, and owls cannot  physically be gay. Now it will be me sending husbands home with a fleaful of fibs in the ear.

It's not even 2014 yet, and I'm already preparing material for my debut next to the giant whisky bottle full of buttons and pesetas this Friday. Here's an amuse-bouche for you Epicurians of the expendable:

  • "If you knock off a policeman's wife while he's on duty, he can't arrest you..."
  • "The Queen lets you off if you eat a swan's wing, but only as long as you did it one-armed. You get a Royal Pardon. That's how they caught that Abu Hamza..."
  • "The mob and Castro killed Marilyn Monroe because they thought JFK was round her place - that and they was worried she'd make another film. Kennedy topped himself in grief, got the CIA to stage it to look like an assassination. Ginger Spice is their daughter, and all..."
  • "Earth's flat, mate - Moon as well. And I can prove it..."
  • "Japanese women, right..."

All of this wisdom can be yours for a pint of Abdication Special and some nuts - proper ones, mind, not them dry-roasted ones. Scientists showed they're made of sweepings, held together with piss and cocaine. On the other hand...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Oeil de Faucon

We've met Wislen before, walking a telephonic tightrope between a Toronto Hausfrau and her husband, whose erotic adventures with a Hoover Powerdrive vacuum cleaner had left him in the care of the municipal ambulance service.

I asked him how he'd honed such diplomatic skills. "I'm a meaty, bearded bear of man with bowed arms and a short fuse," he explained from under an absurd hat, "And being a Goldwater Republican gives me plenty of scope for practicing patience in this fag-hag country of yours."

"How come?" I asked.

"Because I come from Dallas, and have to sit through under-considered recollections of where people think they were when President Kennedy was shot every goddam week."

"You didn't like him, then?"

"I come from Dallas," he repeated evenly.

I soon had occasion to witness Wislen's subtle social savoir-faire in action on the bracken-buckled battlefield that is Wales - the bar of The Torrent Walk Hotel in my hometown Dolgellau, to be precise.

Our frontiersman friend had taken the stone-wheeled funicular up from England to visit me one college summer holiday. He enjoyed the journey through the Berwyn Mountains - "reminds me of my winter wolf-herding round the Borgo Pass" - and was full of bonhomie as we settled down at an overturned table in the Torrent's dugout bar.

Three rounds into the barrel of St Trisant's Landsker Special, and Wislen felt expansive enough to wander up to the bar rather than rely on my native disdain for vowels.

As Chwarthbell the barmaid heaved the hoppy slops into a pair of slate jugs, Wislen lit up the cosy gloom with his American smile. "Know what I like about Wales, Boyo?" he bellowed thoughtfully. "Back home I'm not such a tall guy, but - shoot! - I'm a head higher than every peon in this bar!"

The guttural chatter of goat-gelding ground down like badly-filed teeth. All was still, save for the rasp of breath over bevelled tongues and the growling gale without.

Wislen's Texan élan bore him blithely over these breakers of Silurian resentment, although I knew that, even as he arranged his denim rump back on the lacquered tree stump, a phalanx of firebranded fanatics was circling his parents' Panhandle ranch, kindling aloft and coccyges aquiver.

Wislen quaffed on undaunted. I was about to broach a brace of cultural recommendations, before the hunchbacks by the hearth could finish hawking into the ritual coal-scuttle, when the weighted boulder rolled back and my cousin Wilma shouldered her way in.

Like so many Welshwomen Wilma craved human company, and so bore down on Wislen, shandy in hand.

It was the work of moments for her to ascertain that our guest was single, solvent and not from around here, simply by surveying his even number of digits.

"Where you from then?" she whistled through her front row of teeth, primping her ebony bangs with a divining stick.

"These United States of America, ma'am," he declared.

"Oooh," she cooed, "whereabouts?"

"Texas." He was as buttoned down as a Brooks Brothers shirt by now.

"Big and bright!" yodelled Wilma, setting off an atavistic chorus of 'Hen Ferchetan' from the council puddle-heating crew dripping proudly in the corner. "And from where in Texas? The Salammbô?"

"I was coming to that." Wislen shrivelled like a jellyfish in the shadow of a seaside shovel.

"I'm from Dallas."

"Aaaah, I remember where I was when your President Kennedy died!"

Now it was Wilma, but it could have been any and every barfly or border guard from Dún Laoghaire to Luhansk.

"Do tell," whispered Wislen, prodding me towards the heaving kegs.

"Well, I'll never forget that night. Boyo was just a baby, and I was minding him while his parents were out on the town. I was hosing him down after a game of 'cormorant' in the witches' pool when the news came over the wireless - I had to turn up the Bunsen burner to get the valves working right..."

There followed a pleasant few hours of explaining that New Mexico is a place in its own right, not simply a more recent version of Mexico, before we waded out into the evening ichor and headed home to our respective huts.

Wislen lit a Cohiba and generously scattered some Chesterfields to the pre-teen tokers at his heels.

"I'm a rye-based, red-eyed lifeform, Boyo," he ruminated. "And I'm not set on living forever. But I like to hope that one day people will remember my hometown for its extensive marshalling yards and enigmatic underpasses, not just because some Cajun nut done shot one of our many presidents there."

I suppose I could have said that for most of us Dallas already meant amoral oilmen dangling off Sue Ellen's shoulder-pads, rather than the messy dispatch of JFK to the great pool party in the sky.

But I was too busy trying to understand how Wilma could have doused me on 22 November 1963 when, according to the squid-ink inscription in the Boyo family Bible, I first swam ashore from our Bardsey Island spawning ground some 13 months later.

At least I have the right number of fingers to figure it out.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Thinking of You

February is upon us, like a puppy fished from a frostbound pond, so it is time for me to mark the traditional Welsh New Year.
The world of broadcasting pants with gratitude, much like that aforementioned puppy, at the news that Terry Hall is taking over as director-general of the BBC on 2 April. So that's one PR humiliation missed with barely 24 hours to spare.

As always, I have some programme suggestions for him to kick off his tenure with rather more aplomb than was managed by his flourfaced predecessor.

The BBC constantly scans modern Britain in all its racial, social, regional and agely diversity for people who think exactly alike, then lets them loose on Question Time to peddle their grievances to three interchangeable politicians and a "comic".

But our national broadcaster is neglecting an important roost of the insulted and injured - the passive-aggressive community. It is the Corporation's duty to prise these pallid pedants out of the Sunday newspaper letters columns and into the spluttering fluorescence of fame.

I propose the following nests for their twitching resentments:

1. "Losers' Dinners". (The title is an homage to the late Michael Winner's ill-mannered sampling of a thousand sous-chefs' seed.) Normal people sit down to a country supper, only to find themselves assailed by the mosquito whine of self-obsession.

In tonight's episode: Battle of Britain ace Ernest "Belcher" Hogg takes his wife of 60 years out for a feast of pork shoulder, washed down with Alsatian hock.

The surrounding tables are occupied by wan Muslim converts, who tut with every forbidden mouthful at why Squadron Leader Hogg had "picked on the Germans instead of doing something about Palestine".

2. "No No No!" This is a very British take on America's marvellous "Mystery Science Theater 3000", a programme in which robots from the future jeer at low-grade Sci-Fi films - which means all Sci-Fi film.

In my version, eau-de-chat letter-writers with signed photographs of locomotives on their parlour walls sit through BBC period dramas, separated from the television by a Bovril-retardant screen, and squeal the programme name into the dog-whistle register every time someone on "The Hour" refers to the Sunday Telegraph ("No No No! It wasn't launched until 1961!!!!")

The season finale will have cardiganned army dreamers bolted into dentists' chairs as they project their dentures at a specially-commissioned Fox documentary - "Barnes Wallis: An American Hero".

3. "RSI: Miami". South Florida cops and forensics bods struggle to solve crimes using state-of-the-art technology, good-old-fashioned policing and an array of keyboards, wrist-wraps, lumbar-hugging chairs and height-adjustable desks that appear to have been designed by and for HP Lovecraft's inter-dimensional bestiary.

Episode One: There's a crazed killer on the loose, but Lt Caine can't lift his arms above his head - even thought Detective Duquesne needs help with adjusting her support corsetry.

4. "...Before the Americans Ruin It".  Now it's true the BBC already packs pairs of faux-teen haircuts off to Cuba and other telegenic tyrannies to prove, through the medium of wobbly cameras, that shiny clothes and infectious music outweigh anything Amnesty International might have to say.

But my orthopaedic reboot replaces vloggers in crop-tops with a phalanx of flavour-fleeing suburban vegans, and drops funky Vietnam for North Korea and worse.

Tonight, members of Camden Gluten-Intolerance Support are beaten up by café staff within minutes of arrival at Asmara International Airport, Eritrea, and again at the Hotel Roma, the central market, and later at a meeting with the Eritrean Catering Union (great opportunities for a CCTV/smartphone footage mash-up).

And then, in a rousing finale, they are given a good hoofing by their hosts at the Eritrean Vegetarian Society, before being escorted to the vibrant, colourful frontline with Ethiopia.

Press the red button on your TV control now to alert the border guards.

Friday, December 28, 2012

In Winos Veritas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The live skulls of cloddish Ukrainian collaborators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Scott of Arabia

My forthcoming novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Integrae servandae

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

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

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

Police, Camera, Traction!

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

Moominsummer Murders

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

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

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

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

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