Monday, 21 April 2008

Bus Conversations #2

I’ve always been quite a private person. You won’t find much intimate details about my every day life on this blog – partially at least because I’m aware that not even I find it particularly interesting, so it always surprises me how vocal other people can be about the intimate details of their lives when in a public place…and, no matter how hard you try not to, you always end up listening in.

Back before Christmas 2007 I was sitting upstairs on the bus on my way home when I found myself drawn into listening to someone else’s conversation.

You know how it is, two people talking loudly about inane subjects as if they’re the centre of the known universe and, as such, ultimately fascinating for everyone else to hear as well. The experience is somewhat akin to the now obligatory “Hello? I’m on the bus” conversation held on mobile phones, only you get to hear both sides. (NB – it’s amazing to think that in living memory we lived in times where it was possible to get home without calling friends/relatives to tell them we were doing so. Historians in years to come may not believe it, but it was once so)

So there’s this young woman, a University student by the look and sound of her – IE not worn down by years in dull job after dull job and still under the impression that drinking 15 pints of Ridley’s Extra Strong at the weekend is an acceptable pass-time with no health implications. University Woman is talking to her mostly silent friend – mostly silent because she can’t get a word in edgeways. She was the kind of woman who says things like “So I turns to her and said…and she turns to me and says…’ till you don’t know who’s facing which way in the conversation:

‘Oh I remember we lived in this house for a while – one of those old Victorian houses with five floors and we’d all been drinking like all weekend. Gosh (nb – clearly she didn’t actually say Gosh, but I don’t want to offend), we were well and truly bladdered (nb: drunk), I came home and bleurged all over everything – down the toilet, on the doors, in the sink and bathroom. I even bleurged on the carpet’

Why people live under the mistaken belief that a bus load of people want to hear about their intimate vomit experiences I will never know, but her friend – who by now was looking more than a little embarrassed, just nodded quietly and waited for the aliens to come and suck her brains out as a preferable alternative to the conversation

‘So,’ University Woman continued, ‘anyway, I’d been drinking this alcho-pop that was bright purple, and the bleurg was bright purple – it just wouldn’t come off the carpet, no matter what we tried.’ There was a significant pause to highlight the dramatic tension and all-out hilarity of having permanent vomit stains on the carpet before University Woman continued, ‘Of course, they demolished the house in the end.’

Little old me, sitting behind her and not known for thinking before opening my mouth to make a silly comment had to fight every urge in my body in order to stop myself tapping her on the shoulder and saying, ‘Really? That was a bit extreme. Surely a new carpet would have been cheaper?’

Friday, 18 April 2008

No Speako Julio Iglesias (or whilst we're waiting)

The first time anyone seriously tried to teach me a foreign language was when I was about 8-9 years old. Modern teaching methods suggest far earlier – from the age of 4 if people are to pick up a second or third language. Anyway, we had French lessons for about 1 year, which mostly comprised of singing “sur le pon, d’avignon” and deciding what sex a table was (something that still confuses me to this day)

Transferring to senior school we then learned German for three years from a now infamous book called Sprecht Mal Deutch (Speak Good German)

Infamous because it was mostly involved with the adventures of two German children called Hans and Lieselotte and was full of phrases that could only be described as pointless.

For instance (and please forgive my spelling):
Das ist eine Katzethat is a cat (well, I guess that you never know when you might be walking down the streets of Munchen Gladbach and need to point out to someone what a cat is)
Ist de Katze gruBe? is the Cat green? (highly unlikely one would have thought)
Nein, de Katze ist nicht gruBeno the Cat isn’t green (well, that’s established then)
Ist de Katze tot?is the cat dead?

Clearly, someone on the German/English tourist board thought that one day it would prove vital to inter-continental relations to be able to discuss dead cats in the language of ones choice.

Hanz & Lieselotte, meanwhile, would have a range of adventures, often involving shopping, travelling or annoying old Uncle Heimlich, all themed to teach kids something of the language in "real" situations.

Now the thing is that, until quite recently, I thought that Sprecht Mal Deutch was an oddity in a world of otherwise sane phrase books. Then my friend went to Italy.

Before going to Italy he bought a phrase book and started reading me some of the choicest phrases – which included the Italian for how to say “No, I don’t want to buy any class A drugs” and “Can you show me the way to the nearest detox clinic?”

Clearly things had moved on from the warm and fluffy days of Hans and Lieselotte.

So I checked an old Spanish phrasebook to see if these hyper-useful phrases were included in every language and found: cuidado, con la medusaslook out, there are jellyfish

Useless as the above phrase may be when shopping for Prada in the streets of Milan it is still 1000 miles more effective as communication as compared to the typical English approach of “If you speak loud and slow enough, you will be understood”

The truth is that, in our pride and we-had-an-empire-once-attitude, we expect everyone else to go and learn our language and thus save us the bother. Having said this the old adage that if you don’t use it you lose it is completely true – I did a refresher course in German about 6 years ago, but today would be hard pushed to do more than ask when the next train is (and not understand the answer). Still, by learning another persons language we learn their culture and shrink the gaps between us and them – and surely that can never be a bad thing?

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Save The Cheerleeder, Save The World

Whilst I’m in the mood for fun and games here’s another Drabble competition – only this time to give myself a fighting chance my 100 words won’t start until after the rules. Normal service on DFTP will resume after this:

1) As before entries should try to be exactly 100 words – but don’t worry if not
2) Topic is – If I could have a super-power, I’d have…
3) You must give yourself a superhero name
4) You can’t be an existing superhero, though you can use one of their powers (IE you can’t be Superman/girl, but you can have X-Ray vision)
5) Silly suggestions welcome – so if you chose to be The Amazing Flatulence Boy so be it
6) You must have one weakness and an arch-enemy (Presumably Amazing Flatulence Boy would have Baked-Beans Woman, or Air-Freshener Man as an enemy)
7) Would you wear a costume, if so what and how would you hide your real identity?
8) You can have up to 3 crime-fighting gadgets to help you (this is optional)
9) Ideally you should say if you would fight crime – or to what use you would put your power
10) As previously numbers written as “27” count as one word, hyphenation is two
11) I’ll allow a couple of days for responses and may put another post up inbetween
12) As before, lets have lots of ideas and suggestions - more than one entry per person allowed and a special mention to anyone who makes me laugh outloud

Here’s my entry below:

I’d be Linguisto – able to understand and use any language I hear, see or read. I would travel the world translating, negotiating and teaching. I wouldn’t fight crime, but I would volunteer for charities and the Police. My enemy would be Captain Confusion and my weakness is that when I eat cheese I can only speak Belgian. I would wear spandex with the flags of the world and disguise myself with a fake hearing aid.

My gadget would be a computer that can find anyone, alive or dead, and return them to their family – if they wish to be returned.


I’d be Captain Fish, with my trusty sidekick Plankton Boy, fighting marine-based crime with specially sharpened throwing trout. My enemy would be Stair Lift Man, who would make his getaways extremely sedately. I would wear a gill-themed costume and my weakness would be fresh water, soy sauce and Penguins.

Together with Plankton Boy, who is really a girl who was found and raised by friendly Mackerel, we would rid the world of whaling and seal fur traders, in between providing scientific data on endangered sea creatures to ecologists around the world.

My catch-phrase would be “Behold The Trout Of Doom!”

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

A thanks to all

Thank you and much love to everyone who played over the weekend. For those of you who don't know a "Drabble" is a piece of fiction or prose that is precisely 100 words - it can be on any topic. Not everyone who joined in made the exact 100, but it would be unfair on the quality of the entrants to point that out here. Instead, a thank you to each:

Prada Pixie - perhaps you should use your time machine to pop back to Mr Cadbury and help him set up his business? The kind of Pixies i refer to are the ones that, when told "speaking to yourself is the first sign of madness" i tend to reply, "Ah yes, but it's rude to ignore the little pixies!" - but it's good to know that there are other pixies out there!

Liz - i don't know what to say, other than thank you for sharing. Every parent's heart should burst with love for their child and those who don't don't deserve oxygen.

Honour - the truth is in the eye of the beholder. If you travelled back to see your parents would you recognise them? They might disappoint you - we are all human after all.

A. Stageman - a beautiful idea, i love old bookshops and the thought of wandering through one and speaking to someone like Hemmingway! Wow! Again though, Hemmingway was a difficult man - would you really want to meet him and be disillusioned that he wasn't perfect?

Jenny - you sound justly proud of your mother's achievements. I don't know what else to say to you.

In fact - i feel so bad about the top level of response that i have expanded on my previous one sentence list of "seeing talking heads live" - below. Responses on the subject of music would be appreciated:

I always listened to music, but never had a say in it until I started working. The music I chose in those early years helped shape me into who I am. It was Talking Heads above all that taught me the beauty of the ordinary, with songs about buildings, food and jobs. There are thousands of languages on earth, but we join through music – losing ourselves and our inhibitions in the moment. Stop Making Sense changed rock concerts for ever and its music is part of me. Next stop would be to visit my great grandfather, but that’s another story.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Drabble – a challenge for the weekend: The Rules:

1) 100 words, no more – no less. Numbers written “27” are one, punctuation/bullet-points don’t count. Hyphenation is 2 words
2) Topic “1st place I’d go in a Time Machine”
3) No clich├ęs/changing time – no standing on a grassy knoll in Dallas, 1963 and yelling “Duck!”
4) Deviation allowed, but not deviants!
5) You can use Word to count for you
6) As many people as possible

My entry includes these rules, giving me less time – so straight to the point:

I’d go see Talking Heads on Stop Making Sense tour. Why? Looks like a damn fine concert from the DVD!

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Revenge Of The Scientists

One of the main jokes I make about the seemingly random nature of life is that I sometimes feel that it’s all the work of some scientist somewhere, watching me through an extremely long telescope and throwing all kinds of weird situations at me in an attempt to see how long it will take me to go mad with an axe.

In the past I always thought that the boring and pointless nature of some of the jobs I had done was something akin to sending the mouse down the maze to find that someone had moved the cheese (someone always moves the cheese – even in my fridge it won’t stay still)

However, my main gripe with the scientists these days is Public Transport. As previously stated it takes me 35 minutes to cycle to work and anywhere from an hour to two hours on the bus. Add to this the fact that they constantly put on single-deckers at rush hour and pay teenagers to swear profusely whilst playing loud rap-songs on their mobile phones about gunning people down (with no headphones) and the bus can soon seem to be on the road to hell.

By swearing profusely I mean swearing as punctuation. Here is a cleaned up version: “Flip me, I went out down the flipping pub with that flipping winker Rod the other day, flip me, he’s a flipping todd-pot’ – only with a few more flips.

Just when my tolerance of this route had reached an all time low they changed the route – adding 10 mins to my journey and meaning I had to leave home earlier to catch my connection. I wonder what kind of notes the scientists made about that one (or maybe it was the cats that secretly rule the world??)

Anyway – the other day I was on the bus and it was in heavy traffic. There was a woman sitting at the front of the bus, talking to an extremely deaf man. She clearly had some kind of learning difficulty, because she was constantly repeating the same thing again and again:

“Well, I’ve got to get home, do you understand? Because I was in town and they called me and said they would pick me up, only I’m not there, do you understand me? So I don’t want them to have a wasted journey, do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?’ Very occasionally the deaf man would interject some comment and the woman would repeat the whole process again.

After about fifteen minutes of this my mind was divided into two clear halves – the half that felt a bit sorry for her and felt guilty for finding her annoying and the half that wanted to walk over and scream in her face to shut the flip up.

It so happened that the lady sitting next to me on this day was a kindly little-old lady who put me in mind of Miss Marple from the Agatha Christie novels – blue-rinsed hair, prim and proper, about 90 years old – the kind of woman who takes in stray animals and nurses them back to health.

Just as we came over a big hill and saw another endless row of traffic in front of us this kindly old dear leaned over to me and whispered, ‘If she doesn’t shut up soon I’ll go over there and bloody well make her understand me!’

It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing out loud.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Give My Regards To Kevin

About 5 years ago I was wondering through my local low-price everything-under-the-sun shop when I came to the Art section. They had lots of pens, pencils, paper and, most importantly, a book called “How To Draw Anything”

Now I’m a lifelong scribbler. Give me a pen or pencil and it’s only a matter of time before I start doodling lines, funny faces, whatever – though I had never become very good at art for a couple of reasons.

The main one was that, back in the pre-history of the planet when the monkeys were banging sticks together and grunting at strange obelisks in awe and I was at school (OK, so it wasn’t that long ago – though sometimes it feels it), I was basically told by my Art Teacher that I was useless at art and should never draw again.

For the purposes of this story we shall call this teacher Trevor – though his real name was Kevin.

Trevor was the old style of teacher who was only interested in his best students, the ones whose results would make him look good – anyone else didn’t really get a look in.

For nearly four years I learned next-to-nothing in his class until, for a glorious period of 1 term, I was transferred to another teacher who we shall call David – though his real name was Andrew

David was more of a 60’s hippy child, who called everyone “people”, insisted we all sat in a circle so no one would be deemed leader and cared more about encouraging people to express themselves than actual end-result talent. As a result of which my art improved a hundred fold.

Anyway, Trevor and David aside – there was this book in the shop and it was only about £2 (don’t ask me what that is in dollars or euros, but it’s cheap in any currency) and I thought – why not?

So I bought this little book “How To Draw Anything” – though on reflection it should have been called “How To Draw Anything, Especially Sheep” and worked my way through it.

Now I’m not going to claim that five years on I’m suddenly some Van Gough, or Pablo Picasso – in fact I’d do well to be Van Gough’s Van Driver, but the thing is that I discovered something along the way, via occasional art classes with mad Penguin-obsessed Dutch women, elderly teachers who were deaf in one ear so you had to stand on the correct side of them and students who produced miracles of art just by dabs of colour in the right places.

Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

One day, in the not too distant future, I think it would be a good idea to arrange a showing of amateur art at a local museum. I’m not going to look for world-shattering precision, or avant-guard artwork – I’m going to look for people who have a passion for creativity regardless of the end result

And I’m going to call the show Give My Regards To Kevin.

My novel may never get finished or published, my paintings may never hang in the Louvre, but sometimes the pleasure of creating something is its own reward

Friday, 4 April 2008


Let’s face it – many people get confused by Irony. A lot of people don’t really know what it is – some have been heard to say that they think it’s like Gold-y and Bronze-y, only made of Iron. For me Irony is something I do on a Sunday morning to my work-shirts (groan)

Alanis Morissette famously showed that she had no understanding of the word in her song “Ironic” (itself quite ironic, i suppose):

It's like rain on your wedding day – no, that’s just bad luck
It's a free ride when you've already paid – no that’s just stupid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take – again, with the stupid

A lot of people get confused between Irony – “the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant; or between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens” and sarcasm – “stating the opposite of an intended meaning especially in order to sneeringly, slyly, jest or mock a person, situation or thing.”

For example King Charles 1st England probably regretted his moment of sarcasm when, responding to Oliver Cromwell’s question about wanting to spend the rest of the life in the Tower of London, he replied, “No actually, I’d rather have my head chopped off”

Take my example – a few years ago I moved into my current home. On the very first day I saw the place there was a big black cat in the garden and ever since that day he has been sneaking into the house, demanding to be fed with his friend the little white cat – both mysteriously popping up (as previously mentioned) and getting in the way when I was convinced they had been thrown out.

However, the other day my neighbour (whose cats they are), came round and asked me if, as he was away from home so much these days, would I mind taking in the cats and considering them mine. Being very fond of both cats, and secretly having let the black one sleep over more than once, I said “yes, no problem”

That was three days ago and I haven’t seen either cat since, despite frequent nightly calls for them to come in and be fed.

Now that’s ironic.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Inner Voice

Here’s an interesting fact for you.

As you are reading this piece of text you are automatically sounding out the words in your head. You are making sense of the language by transferring the written to sound. Most of you won’t have to use your lips to do so!

This is something that linguists and researchers call “The inner voice” – we use it all the time: when we are thinking, when we are watching telly, reading, writing to a friend – even when we sleep.

Ok – so here’s the twist:

A profoundly Deaf person has no inner voice.

I’m not talking about your granny, who went deaf in her 60s, or even someone who has a reasonable degree of hearing – we’re talking about (mainly) Sign-Language using, profoundly Deaf (note the capital D) for whom a hearing aid is just a worthless piece of plastic.

This goes someway to explaining why Deaf culture is often at odds with the hearing world.

Try to imagine trying to learn to read without that basic ability to translate the words in your head.

Try to imagine what it must be like to exist silently in a world dominated by sound

Then, when you’ve thought about it for a while, go out and learn Sign Language and Deaf Awareness – it’s the least you can do.