Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Now Who's The Dummy? Eh? Eh?

I wont get caught out this year when the festive quizzes start to flow. Oh no. Not me. Here are a few things I have learnt since last year to ensure I don't get caught out again. If any of them come up in the course of conversation or asked as devilishly hard pub quiz questions - I will be there with the answer.

In Sweden, a common Christmas decoration is the Julbukk, a small figurine of a goat. Of what material is it usually made?

The answer I shall give without missing a beat is 'straw.' As if I always knew. Next.

What is the Irish custom of "feeding the wren" or "hunting the wren" on December 26?

I'll sit with furrowed brow as if in deep cogitation before offering: "A wren is carried from door to door by children as they collect money for charity, a St Stephen's day ritual". And then, if pushed, offer a little backgrounding explaining that the caged wren is taken along as a form of symbolic penance as it was a wren that blew the cover of St Stephen who was in hiding from his pursuers on this very date. It was thanks to the wren's snitchy, chattering, head nodding and eye ball swiveling towards the bush where Stevie was cowering that did for him, and he was dragged off and stoned. The wren, I shall opine, does well to keep itself hidden on St Stephen's day as he's likely to get a few whacks of his own before he's caged. He's the Irish's feathery bad-boy at this time of year.

All that background will ensure it'll seem I've always known. I haven't. There's more.

In Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker", who is the nutcracker's main enemy?

I know nothing of ballet. It'll show on my face. I'll put my finger tips together in open prayer mode and drum them whilst gazing upwards as if searching the heavens for inspiration. And then I'll say: "I know, I know, it's ... The King of the Mice, a seven-headed fiend who leads his troops against the nutcracker's toy soldiers but his luck runs out when the heroine, Clara, gives him what for with a shoe. Gives him a good shooing." Go on.

At lavish Christmas feasts in the Middle Ages, swans and peacocks were sometimes served "endored". What does that mean?

Endored? Swans and peacocks? Difficult to imagine. I shall lean forward with pursed lips before uttering a few breathless hang-on-hang-ons, I know this ones. And then seem to recall reading once, that these swans and peacocks, forerunners of the turkey, had their flesh painted with saffron and butter and wrapped back up in their own skin and feathers after roasting. They were ... endored before being presented. How smug will I be? Bring it on, I'm on roll.

All through the Christmas season in old England, "lambswool" could be found in the houses of the well-to-do. What was it?

Lambswool. Hmm. Don't tell me I would say. Lambswool, eh? And then: "Lambswool..was the drink that filled the wassail or toasting bowl. Hot ale, with a few extras. To be proper 'Lambswool, I would say, putting my most know-it-all voice on, it has to have roast apples floating in it as well as sugar, eggs and spices. And toast. No not a toast, bread, toasted; floating soggily on top with the apples. So soggy in fact it looks like lambswool. Mmmm." Lambswool. Yeurk! "Am I right?" I would ask. And I would be. No wonder they gave it to the down and outs when they came to the door. 'Ere, have some of this and bugger off. In fact take it with you.

And finally, because I'm feeling a bit sick now: In Victorian times, most Londoners would have been familiar with the "goose club". What was it?

This could be the clincher, the one that wins the day. And because I'm so well read, so up in the social history of old London town I'll be able to answer: Goose clubs were popular with working-class Londoner's sick of year long diets dominated by cockles and whelks, who paid a few pence a week towards the cost of a Christmas goose. And I'd even be able - thanks to being so well prepared - to provide a little literary background from The Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Holmes: "Your beer should be excellent if it is as good as your geese."

Barman: "My geese!" The man seemed surprised.

Holmes: "Yes. I was speaking only half an hour ago to Mr. Henry Baker, who was a member of your goose club."

Barman: "Ah! yes, I see. But you see, sir, them's not our geese."

Holmes: "Indeed! Whose, then?"

Barman: "Well, I got the two dozen from a salesman in Covent Garden."

None of these will come up of course.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Looks like the dying embers of 2005 are glowing around some familiar faces from decades gone by. First there's Take That, unrivalled boy band in the nineties with their tatty clothes, lean sweaty torsos and rag doll like acrobatic energy, and, on reflection, some surprisingly good songs (why was I so dismissive?) Now it seems we have the Nolans.

Performing on TV the other night they seem to have looked at the Take That model for three slim ones and a fatty to extremes and have churned themselves out as three carrying a bit and one who could play clothes swopsies with Dawn French and still have to lie on her back with a coat hanger to get her jeans on.

"Why did you get so fat?" Jonathan Ross asked of Gary Barlow on his show the other night. This was always going to be asked - Ross had teased Barlow several times while he was on the screen shot of the hospitality room, at one point comparing his stomach unflatteringly with pregnant Claudia Winkleman.

"Just ate all the wrong foods." Admitted Gary.

"What pies, cakes?" Asked Jonathan. Like it makes a difference.

"Anything with custard." Confessed Gazza, who I thought looked lean and ready for his and his mate's relaunch.

Whereas, Coleen Nolan, twirling around gamely as sister Bernie belted out, perhaps a little too breathlessly: "I'm In The Mood For Dancing," but couldn't because the singing was knackering her out, was showing all the grace of one of those cartoon lady hippos as she tried to prove that she, too, was in the mood to dance.

I do like it when these blasts from the past come back. I thought the Nolans were at their chirpy best up there on the stage - can't remember the programme - and I thought they looked refreshingly real, especially when compared with the manufactured stunners who are now plastered all over our screens and who have been marketed more on their looks than on their talent.

Take That were manufactured, but were, in parts at least, extremely talented. Almost by accident. An accidental talent.

And then to cap it all, the re-emergence of the Brentwood Nugget. Christ, I was trying to remember when I first saw Steve Davis playing snooker and spanking all comers. Throughout the early to mid eighties he was the young thruster crushing the spirits of the grizzly old pros. Suddenly, amid these chain smoking ex miners and milkmen, fat pool hustlers and aging billiard players, came this pale faced ginger robot-boy who took snooker to a new level.

True there was bit of resistance from Terry 'the hair' Griffiths, who had burst on the scene at the back end of the seventies and looked set to dominate, but this was going to be no Coe and Ovett deal. Griffiths was the eternal runner-up, every final for him was bridesmaid revisited, Davis won just about everything.

Then Davis, too, succumbed to a new order and slumped into the shadows with all the other ghosts of once great players. Until now. As 2005 hits the last bend, he's back. The hair, once glittering as if burnished gold like Cleopatra's poop, now thin and dead looking, the skin, white and lined, the eyes crinkling into crow's feet tickling his ears and disappearing into sag hoods crafted from a million sleepness nights of snooker worries. And he playing almost like his old self.

Good to see this lot back. Especially the ones I grew up with.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Towels And Fouls

Today I made a rare - despite making regular payments each month - visit to the Cannons Health Club. I Grabbed the opportunity to go during the day, and a working week day at that. I needed to remind myself that going to the gym was still a bearable experience. It felt important that I broke myself in by going at a more civilised time - my usual time, at the end of my working day has become a bit of a trial in the changing rooms lately, due to just about everybody else converging in the gym changing rooms at the same time. And that had been putting me off.

If you chose to go straight after work, as I do because I can't generally go at any other time - that's fine, as long as you realise that most people want to go then too. Those who finish work at Four o'clock have finished their workouts by the time I arrive, and are flip flopping about in various arrangements of towels and tackle in, half out, and just plain out, whilst emerging from the hissy mists of the showers, wide-eyed and flushed, like the discharging passengers from the space ship in Close Encounters. And with seemingly precision timing, those who finish work at Five o'clock, like me, arrive amid this tentative mix-up of clothes and flesh.

As the Five o'clockers arrive, simultaneously ripping off coats, necking bottles of pre-hydration water and chucking enough bags around to satisfy a small battalion of midget mountaineers, the selection process of lockers begins. Only lockers with the key showing will do. And the key showing lockers are always, always, next to the locked lockers, which at this time are being sought out by our damp, head waggling, nose-blowing precursors. And, the locker system at this time normally works like this: locked, unlocked, locked, unlocked. And then the row below, helpfully: unlocked,locked, unlocked . . you get the picture.

There then follows a series of comic capers as clothed and naked men jockey for the square foot of floor accorded a block of about eight lockers. And if you're not careful, If I'm not careful, there's a risk of getting closer to some of the more critical areas of the male anatomy than would be advisable. Especially when the modesty shield towels start to droop from their protective charges and are then vigorously deployed in a kind of mock 1960s twist and shout dance with arms legs and god knows what else flying around. In some cases you could loose an eye I kid you not.

I could do without it. That's why I haven't been to the gym for months. I can't get there until after work - and there's always this scene of Turkish bath theatre to endure, this unwanted flesh-festival. I kind of mind too much bump and grind with my fellow kind. It's a bind. And I'm not so inclined.

So I went this morning. Because I could. And had the place to myself. Result.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I was scanning the bookshelves of a Hungarian bookshop in pursuit of a Berlitz guide to Budapest whilst uttering words to the effect that Hungary isn't a cheap country when to my side, a Hungarian dowager in fur coated ease answered in impeccable but strongly accented English: " You arre rrright, it is naught cheap!"

How do they do it? How do they always know - wherever I am in the world - what I'm saying when I've never a clue what they're gabbling on about? That is until they break off from eighty thousand words a minute, slow things down to: One. Word. Sentences. And take to recruiting facial expressions and hand movements (enough to impress Marcel Marceau) as props, as if addressing a simpleton. But she was right, to say I was right, rrright, even though she shouldn't have interjected to either show off her acute hearing, her language gifts or to seize the moment to validate a concern she and the people of her country feel.

But I suppose if you're going to talk to yourself, or loudly to someone else in the presence of others, you're going to invite comment from elsewhere. So many of us can't help joining in. In fact, I soon was, only a day or two later.

Arriving at Bristol International Airport and waiting in the rainy cold, cold, gloom for the out of airport minibus to rattle its way towards its advance paying customers all of whom, no doubt, recalling that it seemed like a good idea at the time, to go for a cheap piece of mud and scree next to a greasy joe caff five miles away, with a bunch of rusty chains, a few battered cones, a mangy German Shepherd and an awkward parking scheme to serve as security.

Bristol International Airport. Always sounds a little grand to me until I remember some of the airports I've been to, like Zante, which reminded me of a large gardener's hut with a health and safety inspector's panic attack of rickety stairs you had to ascend if you wanted to spend your last few drachmas on crappy wine and gaudy gimcracks before leaving. But waiting for a clapped out mini bus in the English squall doesn't endear either

Which of course was made worse as we were forced to watch, dolefully, in the manner of transfixed cattle, the other passengers with the vague physical familiarity you register on an aircraft as you tick off the faces of the people you might soon die alongside; pop-peeping the locks on their wink-welcoming cars and rev-rev-purring their way through the barriers homeward bound.

Once the ropiest minibus we'd seen that evening turned up, it's driven by a lad with a mobile phone clamped so hard to his head I thought he was cleaning his ears out with it. Somehow, and this must take some doing, he was able to park up, get out, roll the door open grab our bags off us and load them up like a huckster's booty and guide us to the side door. Without his conversation missing a beat.

We're in the van. Huddled. It's cold. The heater's rattling and chucking out tepid air. It's about as much use as a catflap on the door of an elephant house. And this lad's love life is about to become the leitmotiv of the trip back to the ... car park:

"So I says to 'er I says: You are my bird still I take it?"

"And she says: yeah, I'm still your bird, but I wanna goo out on me own or wiv me mates sumtimes not just wiv you all the toime."

"So I says, I don't understand. If you're moiy bird you're supposed to priort prioriti, put me first - if I want to do soming wiv you, you should tell your mates to fuck off til another noight. You know!"

We exchange glances - did he really say that. We are customers after all. Ah well.

"And she don't like that see, gets all shitty an' that."

"You know, coming on all: You doont oown me you know. I do 'av a loif of me own as well!"

"So I says: I 'spect my birds to do as I tell'em not go dropping me at a mooments nootice for their tarrtee friends. An she says - get this, she says, maybe we should finish then".

"Eh! finish! just cos I don't like takin second fucking place... so I says to her rooight then I'll ... 'ang on a minute, I've gotta sort out me passengers".

"All right at the back, we're 'ere".

"And?" we say in unison.


"Did you finish with her or not, we have to know?"

"Oh! I um wouldn't loike to umm ... did you 'av a noice trip?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Blog Whines

This is turning into a grind. A pleasurable grind, but a grind nonetheless. At this rate I'll be making a hundred years on this planet before getting to a hundred posts. This will be number 93. Christ, I've seen people hit 200 in half the time I've been running this. Mind you, should I make a hundred, rest assured there will be none of that "wish me a happy blog day" shit. Or whatever it's called.

But then again, give the surface a hefty scratch and the truth will always out. Apart from half a dozen or so quality readers, my blog has turned into the equivalent of Blackadder's Dunny-on-the-World Rotten borough, with its population of "three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late forties." So efforts to try to whip up that kind of enthusiasm would result in eggy-faced foolishness.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Opera Stuff

Anyone who has dabbled with the idea of going to the opera, but has been put off by UK prices, ought to put Budapest near the top of their 'to travel to' dream list.

Not being much of an opera buff, but always keen to try new things, I dropped into the Hungarian State Opera House to try and do one of those guided tours of the building. The thinking was that maybe I could feed my enthusiasm for some other time, but that for the time being a little architectural hit would be enough.

But following one of those awkward - Christ I wish I could speak the language - exchanges with the ticket office clerk, I found out that a couple of Madam (Madame, Madama - I never know) Butterfly tickets were going begging following a cancellation, minutes ago.

I been here before I thought, the ticket dregs - even cancellations - are normally for those seats conveniently placed just behind the ornate pillar where you normally leave the theatre with an in depth knowledge of column design, an aching neck, and an unhealthy hatred of just about everybody else there who had a better view. Which would have been everybody.

But no. Two tickets for seats right in the front of a well positioned box seat. For the miserly sum of £28 quid each. All that remained was a French Connection style burn back to the hotel utilising multiple modes of transport, and throwing on half decent clobber worthy of the event. Then an error strewn trip back of comical proportions involving late trams, wrong side metro trains and nearly getting ourselves run over twice somehow bringing us, decadently, tippy toeing past the already ensconced side sitters in the box feeling the almost palpable hush as the orchestra struck up it's curtain opening intro.

A few whispered scuses later, the top plush seats so glaringly left empty were occupied. By us.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Surely It Ain't All Tibor Zakash?

We were sitting at a dirty wooden table in the middle of Budapest's drizzly Christmas market eating a richly peppered oniony goulash, when a lank-haired, poorly bearded Hungarian hobo, tired of queuing for a free glass of mulled wine, started a fight with an older man in a fake leather jacket.

All right it was a little bit handbags at fifty paces with most of the violence expressed in what must be one of the harsher languages in the world - but it was a little unsettling, this unscheduled, clumsy street theatre; this, un-coordinated slappy tug-fest of missed punches and sideline braying. I could have done without it.

We had after all only a matter of hours ago passed through the gates at Ferihegy Airport with our untidy hand cargo of bags and coats, been bundled into a taxi bus as if we were rounded up refugees, before being dropped unceremoniously at the Congress Flamenco for touristy processing. And already being hungry in Hungary, we had unconsciously unpacked are clothes with the twitchy speed of silent film stars before carrying the dehydrated heads and gassy empty bellys that Easyjet seems to give us, into the first city-centre-bound tram we found: a worn out, jerk-rolling wreck with an ushanka wearing, ear-mufflled, pinch-skinned driver and his freight of sallow-faced stare-cats.

And then on arrival, having dashed to the alfresco stall of the market that threw out the most alluring food smells for some early, authentic, Magyar fare, received the unexpected grandstand view of this impromptu display of eastern European fisticuffs, next to my table. Rather spoilt my goulash-appetite, this, pandering to my ghoulish-appetite.

I found myself wondering: "Had they waited for me to arrive before starting this angry little vignette? This spiteful, little sideshow? Had it been rehearsed, practised: timed to precision to co-incide with the randomness that placed me there, then?" Would it had happened if I hadn't been there? If I'd been thousands of miles away? How strange. How bizarre. What an odd start.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Flying Tonight!

Despite reading Alain De Botton's Art Of Travel during the summer with all those worthy ideas about travelling around your own country, town, village, bedroom with reopened minds as your passport and an interest in the mundane your new currency, I'm off to Budapest tomorrow.

These little city breaks are a new thing to me, but during these otherwise unrelieved winter days and nights I'm steadily working my way around some the world's cultural hotspots to serve as an alternative to having only Christmas to look forward to. I do one or two a year, but it certainly works for me. Bravo Stelios you make my life a happier one, or: Σας ευχαριστούμε Stelios που κάνετε τη ζωή μου ευτυχέστερη! As they say in Greece.

So I'll be wondering across the Chain Bridge under the watchful gaze of the tongueless lions and tripping down (or up) the Danube over the next couple of days, hopefully without the strains of that Austrian, Johann Strauss the Younger vibratoing through my head. It'll be all Liszt for me this week-end. Though, I'm sure Brahms will join us for a bottle or two of Tokay tomorrow night.

Cheers! Egszsgedre!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Snow It Isn't.

I shudder whenever I hear the term freezing rain. I've lived through a few winters in this country but have only ever experienced it once. This might be because of the areas I've lived in, but I hear that weather forecasts of stating 'freezing rain to come' are quite rare.

Having heard FR suggested a couple of times by trepidacious weather forecasters last week, I felt it prudent to consult the One Man Crappola meteorological Department to obtain an overview of this terrifying phenomenon to better understand what it's all about. After all, if they keep talking about it, it will happen.

Apparently, freezing rain develops as falling snow encounters a layer of warm air deep enough for the snow to completely melt and become rain. As the rain continues to fall, it passes through a thin layer of cold air just above the surface and cools to a temperature below freezing. However, the drops themselves do not freeze, they 'supercool' into supercooled drops. When these supercooled drops strike the frozen ground (power lines, or tree branches), they instantly freeze, forming a thin film of ice.

Supercooled drops. I like the sound of them. How easily they could be the affectionate nick-name of an all-stars, dream team of basketball players, or an advertisers cream-dream idea light bulb moment of a freshy sounding name for a new mint. Or street slang argot for a fashionable drug to add to the druggie's, Innuit inspired hip-lexicon for icy, snowy, cracky, drug euphemisms.

Could it be I like freezing rain after all? The idea that they're supercool drops with more than a hint of menace? That they fall with innocuous speed like little splashy rain droplets instead of adopting the doom laden messenger of the blow-float flutter of its fat white cousin, the flake? And that they turn the paths and roads into new level slip territory capable of breaking arms and legs and sealing your car into a tungsten hard ice plastic mould that takes days to prise off?

No. I don't like freezing rain.

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