Monday, September 22, 2008

Actes et Paroles

Hardly anyone in Britain learns a foreign language these days apart from us glorious Welsh, and all we learn is English.

There are dialectically objective reasons for this:

  • All the foreign types your average Englishman meets either speak English or are eager to learn - Club 18-30/Saga/timeshare reps, Brazilian pre-opp transsexuals, Spanish policemen, Greek scam artists, Romanian au pairs/aspirant second wives, Polish barmaids, amusing gîte owners, Amsterdam dominatrices: they all speak commercial English.

  • The main foreign language on offer in British schools is French, which is almost unpronounceable and spoken by unsavoury sorts - recalcitrant gîte owners, Belgian paedophiles, the Tontons Macoutes, advanced film-makers and the French.

  • The only other languages on offer are either even harder (German and Russian), spoken by sinister thugs (German and Russian again) or just primary-school French with a dash of back vowels (Spanish and Italian).

  • British people who already speak a foreign language are pretty suspect - teachers, bankers, North Londoners with children called Inigo and Suki at the hotel table next to you, theatrical types, terrorists and the late Edward Heath.
And that school trip to Normandy, on which contact with fag-dangling t-shirted French teens left your female classmates with a distingué disdain for sherbet, Star Trek and tank-tops, is still too painful to mention.

Rash Papist Tony Blair tried to change this by introducing yet more French, this time at tot level, but could find no teachers willing to sit in a roomful of infants going "ronrone".

English liberals, with their connoisseur's eye for the next big tyranny, seek out schools ("private, but what are we expected to do?") or at least nannies that offer Chinese. Conservatives shore fragments against our ruins.

They trouble themselves for naught. I'm a border-hopping polyglot who's bathed in the penicillin of cross-cultural congress on several continents, at least one of which I discovered by myself. As such I can cite testimony to the effect that a gentleman traveller needs no more than three phrases to get by in any given language.

My neighbour in Tashkent was a retired KGB officer who had moved into property development - mainly that of political prisoners, from what I could see. Over arack and Bulgarian cigarettes one evening I asked him how to go about learning his native Uzbek - a tricky tongue that 18th century Turkish nomads developed to help speed purloined Persians through their eunuch training courses.

"Throw away your text books, son," he drawled. "This is all you need - indeed, all you can get away with - in the knife-happy defile that is Uzbek society. When you meet someone, say 'assalamu aleikum' before they do. They'll like that. When they ask you how you are - 'yaxshimisiz?' - say 'juda yaxshi, rahmat' - very well, thank you'. They may ask how your family is - 'uydaghilar tinchmi?' - they are also 'juda yaxshi' whether they exist or not as far as we are concerned. 'Man Angliadan' - 'I am from England' - will clear up any other conversation. Attempts at asking Uzbeks anything else could get you thrown from a minaret in a sack full of cats. Cheers!"

He was right. I spent three years as the lion of the pilau-circuit due to my wondrous ability to say my spectral wife and kids were from England and doing ok, thanks.

At the time I recalled that my fellow-student in Soviet Moscow, "Tubby" Roberts, had got through an entire year of perestroika mania with the following Cockney-accented phrases:

  • Privet - hello.
  • Yeshcho raz - same again.
  • Izvini, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra - Sorry, I'm very busy. Drop round day after tomorrow.
No social chemistry with Russians is so complicated that it cannot be handled with these simple formulae. A meeting with President Yeltsin would have gone swimmingly with the first two phrases. A meeting with President Putin could have been avoided with the third, for at least a while.

Since this epiphany I have collected language manuals published in the British Empire prior to 1947, and found that they are all based on this principle.

A valuable resource is the back catalogue of Mssrs Routledge & Kegan Paul. Its current language series is a dreary sheaf of shopping inquiries and verb tables, but once it gloried in such works as "Colloquial Arabic" by De Lacy O'Leary, in which donkey-wrangling plays a major part.

Other classics in the series include Elwell-Sutton's guide to buying a beer in Esfahan and addressing the Crown Prince of Persia, and a book on Hungarian by Ugric loon Arthur H Whitney that dealt largely with cheating army officers at the card table. Excellent.

The pride of my collection is "The Modern Pushtu Instructor" (1938), which taught Army of India officers how to supervise the Pathans as they went about their business of molesting unbelievers and kidnapping the wives of Peshawari barbers. It illustrated the regular conjugation with the verb "to beat". I find introductions to Afghans are always eased by my sole phrase - "Hindu halakano wahalay day" ("The boys beat the Hindu").

Experience suggests that some parts of the world need only one or two words, repeated firmly, to make a Briton feel at home. "Yalla, yalla!" will do in the Near East, "Bas, bacche" produces striking results for Inner Asia, and "jiggy jiggy" gets you a hotel room from Bangkok to Mindanao.

The key is to seek out likeminded people. Dads make themselves understood wherever they go, and Guardian-readers can source a salad in the most carnivorous of climes.

Among souls with a deep spiritual bond, words are simply superfluous. As I recently related to MC Ward, a friend was once hired to interpret for a group of Kyrgyz policemen. The Home Office had invited them to Britain to learn the ways of civilised law-enforcement, and decided that the force best equippped to do the job was the West Midlands Police.

My friend had little to do, as the coppers found their common interest in kicking witnesses downstairs then shoving their heads into toilet bowls broke through the language barrier - that and so much more.

And now, if you'll excuse me, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Body Politic

Everyone's leading the life of the mind these days. Our little shelf of the bloggery is laden with fancy types listing their favourite operas, concert works, fillums and gay singing festivals.

This is something, up with which I shall not put. As The Daily Mash has so rightly pointed out, the Inter Net was not designed for august musings but rather for downloading wrap music, one-handed perusals of Salma Hayek's modelling portfolio, and speculating about the plans of International Jewry to take over the Liberal Democrats.

I have therefore decided to devote today's blog post to lady politicians whom I would like to shtup.

1. Sarah Palin (see above)

Oh yes. A cracker in every sense of the word. She may be a Creationist, but I could persuade her of the merits of the Big Bang. One day Alaska!

Ukraine's occasional prime minister is a Carpathian confection of breasts and buttocks held together by rapunzel hair and a total lack of political sense. Mucky as a Belorussian swamp, Pani Yuliya is the one blonde I'd happily get in the (Cos)sack.

Orange, Hot and Dutch, Queen B still does it for me. Her ready access to helicopters full of cash, primo drugs and canals of XXX porn more than compensates for her advanced years. And her ability to speak Dutch suggests that her tongue is still as nimble as a Filipina go-go dancer.

On the subject of the Philippines, was any president ever more appropriately named? Tagalog is also the best language in the world for talking dirty. It's a mixture of whorehouse Spanish, suggestive grunts and lewd gestures. She's a Catholic, and so might have a nun's habit to dress up in or even her own Spanish-Inquisition-themed dungeon. Excellent.

5. The Right Hon Theresa May MP

I have had the pleasure of being trodden on by Ms May. I was taking a nap on the floor of a recording studio one night shift when La Theresa turned up for an unscheduled interview and stepped on my head. She was very sorry. I insisted that, from my perspective, she had nothing to apologise about at all.

6. Angela Merkel

Dump, frumpy and grumpy perhaps, but the Bundeskanzlerin could easily pass for Theresa May if you've been relaxing at the Munich Beer Festival for a few days and feel lonely.

7. Tzipi Livni

Her name means White Bird, if my Hebrew serves me well, and she definitely sets my dovecote astir. With her sullen glare, post-coital hairdo and imminent ability to deploy the Israeli Defence Force wherever she like, this is one Tzipora I would certainly like-a more-a.

I don't want to dig up the Divine Ulrike or anything like that, but merely seek to correct any perceived right-wing bias on my part. It's not Socialism's fault that it attracts badly-dressed shrills, as George Orwell once pointed out.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Finom ez a krumpli?

"Is your potato tasty?" That is the first sentence I learned in Hungarian, courtesy of Andy Wislen. He had spent time in Budapest learning the Magyar skills of breakfast drinking, preposition misplacement and border confusion.

I put it to good use in the Soviet Union, when the snack bar of Hostel No.3 In The Name of Pavlik Morozov at Voronezh State University In The Name of The Man Who Invented Beetroot was invaded one morning by 13 lascivious, chain-swearing Hungarian girls. Three of these deposited themselves and a selection of stale peppers at the table next to myself and my room-mate, "The Rev" David James.

We knew enough of their cut-and-shunt language to grasp that they were sizing up our respective merits as bed-fellows, and frankly neither of us was too pleased with the verdicts - accompanied as they were by wilting gestures and the Danube equivalent of retard noises.

We wrought our vengeance by casually leaning over on depature and muttering our two choice phrases - The Rev's being "Calvinista vagyok" (answers on a postcard of Esztergom Cathedral nave, please).

We ten Brits were the only West European men at the university, apart from a Portuguese Communist and a dipso French teacher called Adolphe. Chosing to be a Bolshevik was considered a sign of sick humour or soaring stupidity by beneficiaries of the Warsaw Pact, and M. le professeur's name won him no friends out there, so the Hungarian gals soon decided that we were the best they were going to get - whether we liked or not.

We did.

This equipped me with a skeletal grammar and x-rated vocabulary of the Hunnish tongue, plus a great respect for the stamina and sheer depravity of that moustache-wrangling nation.

My next encounter with a Hungarian came while working for a consultancy company in Oxford. János was our Budapest rep, and had the charm one associates with the man about Pest - with his German jacket, elegantly receding hair and chess-player's brow. As the say, he could enter a revolving door behind you and emerge ahead of you.

He also had a terrifying wife called Ildikó - a peroxide collision between Courtney Love and Sarah Palin in an overcrowded wonderbra, with an appetite for riding boots and carmine lipstick. I rather liked her.

János came over to a conference in Oxford one year. I introduced him to my young lady, who also happened to work with us. While I was bullshitting expertly about Bulgarian bonds to some Tarquin de Coke type from Daterape Merchant Bank, I noticed János take missy aside for a chat.

I later asked her what it was about, in the most casual manner possible.

"Quite funny, actually," she simpered. "János and his wife are going to dinner with Burlington Arcade III this evening, but Ildikó has left her tights in their hotel and won't have time to fetch them.

"She asked János to pick some up for her from the shops, as she's in meetings all morning. Being a typical man, he doesn't know the difference between tights and stockings and didn't want to get it wrong, so he asked me to explain.

"He still didn't get it, so in the end I just showed him my stockings. I think that did the trick."

What is a Hungarian? A Hungarian is a man who can get a young woman he has just met to show him her garters in a crowded office, a few feet from where her partner is sitting.

What I never had the heart to tell her was that János's wife hadn't come on the trip.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Gyppo Byard snatched an Oxford degree from the butter-stained fingers of a punt-bound Classicist, and has since supplemented his career as a heather merchant with some musical freelancing. He smacks a dismantled, unlicensed Austin A30 with badger bones and passes it off as a gamelan to the credulous secondary schools of Berkshire.

In order to confirm his status as Twyford's top troubadour, Gyppo has listed his 12 favourite operas and challenged the rest of the world to do the same.

My view of opera is similar to that of Kaiser-i-Hind George V, who told Sir Thomas Beecham that he liked La Traviata best as it was the shortest he could think of. His Imperial Majesty also thought "people as write books otter be shot", an understandable sentiment given that his reign spanned the careers of Galsworthy and Virginia Woolf.

So, if you can't sing it in a couple of acts, preferably in a wig and/or Polari, then you need to go back to composer school or whatever.

Having said that, I have more than a passing fondness for chunks of the most meandering atonal nonsense ever to stagger around a stage in predictably daring costumes.

I have some common ground with Gyppo apart from the clods of earth he frees from my lawn in an attempt to establish a Rrom Rrepublic by land reclamation. I too like Philip Glass's Akhnaten.

It fits the bill of being at least partly sung in a foreign language - in this case the Victorian gentleman scholar's impression of what Middle Egyptian might have sounded like. It is also quite short if you play it without repeating the arpeggios and ostinati - about 20 minutes in total.

Here's my favourite bit, performed by clay rodents:

I'm partial to the slabs of Wagner that involve little or no singing. The overtures, preludes and ballet sequences to his operas are genuinely musical, and help you forget the Lara Croft stuff about dragons and bosomy ladies. The prelude to Tristan and Isolde, the Venusberg music from Tannhäuser and the Ride of the Valkyries bring back happy memories:

  • Tristan is based a Welsh story of ambling around damp castles in search of someone with a candle and some shoes;

  • Venusberg is a mercifully short novel by Welsh toff Anthony Powell, written before he wasted his life on a Dance to the Music of Time; and

  • The Valkyries recall a night of drunken misbehaviour with a secretary from Turku in a Russell Square hotel. She shared her duty-free with me - an act of stunning sacrifice for a Finn.

Here's some Tristan:

Alban Berg's Wozzeck is short and has an excellent aria "Eia Popeia", which I sing to lull our daughter Arianrhod to sleep as she roosts gently above the hearth. It also has a series of long sustained notes that impressed Benjamin Britten, which is odd given his fondness for tunes.

Berg attended a performance of Wozzeck in Leningrad in the pre-Stalin days when Soviet music included factory whistles and choirs of alarmed county gals in workers' smocks. He spent most of his time there in fear of assassination - possibly by the armed wing of the musicians' union whose members had to play it.

Here's the lullaby sung by Merav Barnea:

Berg went one better with Lulu. Let's face it, I was going to like anything named after my favourite russet Scottish songbird. It's long but unfinished, so I cherish the thought that Alban would have cut it down to about an hour if he hadn't died of toothache on Christmas Day in an act of excessive pathos.

Lulu has everything an opera ought to have - lesbians, stockings and top hats - including Jack the Ripper. Here's Saucy Jack, cleaning the streets:

"Peter Pears

Need put on no airs

He's had them written

By Benjamin Britten.

So fuck off, Tippet!"

That's what our claque of opera thugs used to chant at premieres of Sir Michael Tippet's latest sack of clomping, brass-laden whimsy, and we weren't wrong. Britten unravelled a skein of tenor roles just for our Pete, but I find them reedy. It's only now that they are getting adequately butched up by other singers.

The English tweedy sense of the absurd is uneasy with opera, and Britten was the first to write stage works that weren't Celtic or hilarious - intentionally or otherwise. The Turn of the Screw is an eerie chamber work, with a libretto by exquisite, Welsh Myfanwy Piper that draws out themes from the story with malign delicacy. It also has a mercifully small tenor role.

Here's Miles's queasy aria "Malo" from a fine film version (with Dutch subtitles for the Flemings among you):

Sweet dreams.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Where Was You?

A fruitful meme via Normblog and Harry's Place, asking where we all were as history lifted the duvet and slobbered on our toes:

Princess Diana’s death - 31st August 1997

Having a bath in my flat in Tashkent, waiting for the car to take me to the airport for the flight home for my brother's wedding. It was coming up to eight o'clock in the morning, local time. Some royal correspondent was reminiscing fondly about the Princess on the BBC World Service, and I thought "What's the silly mare done now?" Then came the headlines. Our driver Nusrat had already heard the news, and assured me that MI5 had done it.

At the wedding reception six days later the DJ played Candle in the Wind. The family of my English sister-in-law sat in respectful silence. Our Welsh family continued chatting, drinking and smoking. It wasn't Di's big day, was it? A week later I was back in Tashkent, walking down a street at dusk with a British colleague. She mentioned that Mother Teresa had died the same day, and recounted the "Sandals in the Bin" gag. Our laughter was cut short as a nun of Mother Teresa's order crossed our path.

Margaret Thatcher’s Resignation - 22nd November 1990

I was working for a consultancy company in Oxford, attending our morning editorial meeting. The Reuters wire went beserk, and a don at the table said "she's gone". Everyone was quietly delighted. We got on with our work, but no one came back from the pub after lunch and the management didn't expect us to.

Attack on the Twin Towers - 11 September 2001

I was the desk editor in the newsroom of a respected broadcaster, and happened to have CNN on the screen above me. I saw the first plane hit as the channel switched coverage to the Twin Towers, and called my colleagues over. I thought it was a nut in a private plane, or an awful accident. As everyone went to sit down again I saw the second plane disappear behind the first tower. At this I blithely told my deputy I was taking my lunch break.

Down the bar at least one colleague was insisting it must be US rightwingers, while I thought it was Bin Laden. And I heard the first sick joke about the attacks, though I can't remember it. A professional highpoint that I'm unlikely ever to equal.

England’s World Cup Semi-Final against Germany - 4 July 1990

I can't remember clearly, which was pretty much my state for the whole of the World Cup. I watched almost all the games in other people's houses in Brighton and North London for some reason. For this one I think I was round at the flat of prog-rock pimpernel Ward Cooper in Golders Green. I felt very sorry for Pearce.

President Kennedy’s Assassination - 22 November 1963

This is an odd one. My friend Wislen was visiting my hometown of Dolgellau, and we bumped into my cousin Iola in a pub. When Wislen told her he was from Dallas, he got the usual "Oooh, I remember where I was when that poor President Kennedy was shot". She was listening to the radio while giving the infant No Good Boyo a bath in the kitchen sink during one of my parents periodic cavorts among the speakeasies of Llwyngwril. This surprised me, as my mam says I was born in December 1964. Hmmm.