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Английская душа May 10, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…or my English soul. I’m a bit worried it’s disappearing. I don’t know whether my soul’s gone Russian, or perhaps even German, or just generally euro, but I had such a stunning bout of anglo-dissonance the other day that I was, in the words of that great philosopher, K. Minogue, shocked to the very foundations.

My most nomadic friend, who is now living in country number 50 (or thereabouts) (and is on passport number two) (I mean country number two. Not just that he’s had his passport replaced) (that wouldn’t be worth reporting) has ended up in Berlin. He has a new (binational too, actually) boyfriend. I trooped off to see them which involved an exciting trip to West Berlin. (Honestly, why does anybody live there? Like Willesden but without the charm.) Like some religious statue, I mysteriously burst into blood the second I was introduced to the new boyfriend. I don’t always do this, it should be pointed out. Nor did I have a flock of pilgrims queuing up to rub my toe. It was just a stunningly bad bit of physiological timing. A zit or scratch or some other unsatisfactory deformity chose that very second to erupt into blood. Mind you, boys and girls, I can almost recommend it as an ice-breaker. The new boyfriend was rushing around looking for appropriate wadding to mop me up and we were instantly thrown together in bloody friendship. He’ll probably be the best man at my wedding now. Or something.

Anyway, the three of us sat queenily and ate and drank. (Them booze. Me water.) I plotted the nomadic one’s peregrinations since I’d last seen him in Russia five years ago. He was in France then. Has been in Denmark, Canada and England since. For good measure, he and my future best man have been being intentionally nomadic for god knows how many months and appear to have been to every corner of Asia in the process. We talked locations. We talked rich and poor. (The nomadic one is originally from an exotic Third World place.) They told me some India horror stories, and some nice ones. They talked about their escape to Thailand when India got too much. I said Torremolinos is awfully nice, not to be outdone. And we decided to go out.

I suppose one advantage of living in Willesden is that, if you’re of a homosexual persuasion, Berlin’s gay fulcrum is within trolling distance. I, as the most heavily decorated Berliner of the three, so to speak, was immediately pushed into a position of authority. “Let’s go to this bar.” They didn’t know it. It’s a good neutral spot. You’re not guaranteed a venereal disease the second you cross the threshold nor asked to open your wallet to spend time with a 17-year-old. We trolled up to the door. Pas un chat. The one member of staff engaged us in conversation, such was his boredom. Even he recommended we go away and come back later. My air of authority had been undermined – they knew they were dealing with a fake expert – and recommended a bar they’d come across themselves. “Darlings, haven’t you noticed there’s no-one there between the age of 17 and 70 and that the drinks cost 8 times more than everywhere else?” But they were not to be swayed, and we sat there gleefully ignoring the occasional shuffle uswards of the benighted youngsters. Having pawned our clothes and bling to pay for the drinks – fuck, ginger ale’s expensive. Do you think it’s because the rent-boys get free drinks? – we went back to the respectable bar, had another there, and then went to one final respectable bar for a night-cap.

It was late by now. And the boys were drunk. And I wasn’t. Which was fine. There was a trio of English-speaking queens braying next to us. “Do I not want to get chatting to them,” I thought to myself, grahamtayloresquely. At which precise moment one of the braying queens turned round and said, loudly, “I know you,” (not to me, to the nomadic one’s binational boyfriend) and we were instantly sucked into the braying coven’s orbit. Drinking had clearly featured heavily in their evening too. There was nothing one could really designate as conversation to be had. Just one loud bray after another, followed by ear-splitting laughter, perhaps a re-enactment of some event, usually sexual, one of the three pretending to be embarrassed (before adding some details of his own) and then half a second’s respite as the next round of vodka & Red Bull was ordered. The nomadic one, whose first language isn’t English, and I made the excuse of catching-up to be as centrifugal of this suction as possible but we were eventually sucked back in.

The three braying queens – two Englishmen and an Irish gent – eventually wanted to know who this interloper in their midst was. Was I a trolley-dolly? No. Was I single? No. Did I hate Germany? No. What the fuck was I doing here? Not a bad question, actually. A mixture of fate, love and the cold war, I answered, wondering if I might conveniently burst into blood again. How long had I been here? “Oh, you’ll never get away now. Once you’ve been here longer than two years, you’re here for ever,” brayer number 1, who would actually have been perfectly nice company if he hadn’t drunk a cauldron of vodka (or if I had, I suppose), brayed with uncorroborated wisdom. “What you see is what you get with me,” he added, provincially. And then there was more braying, including hollering at the bar-staff in English (Germans looked on in horror), some more (occasionally vaguely amusing) salacious story-telling and some more bitching about Germans before I thought it was time for me to extricate myself homewards.

My two pals left with me. I now saw that they had had alcohol on their side. They were staggering merrily and both declared, even though one of the two is from the English-speaking world, that they hadn’t understood a word the brayers were braying about and just laughed when it seemed appropriate. I said my goodbyes, skipped onto the night-bus, was swiftly bollocked by the driver for flicking my coins into the slots myself rather than letting him do it, and got thinking.

The brayers were rip-roaringly drunk, admittedly. And perhaps they wanted to queenily outoutrage each other. And, anyway, only two of them were English, but it somehow made me feel that England is an ever more distant country. Which isn’t what I would like to be the case (always), at all. If brayer number 1 is wrong and I don’t stay in Berlin for ever, would I really struggle to call England home again? Probably only initially, and then I’d forget to notice things I’d previously been remembering to. But I think, wherever one lives – but I suppose abroad types think about this more – one tends to have a point plotted on a mental map that’s called home. At least I think one needs one. But could England really ever cease to be mine for me? There is no single place in England that could currently be called home. My mother no longer lives in the house where I grew up. With the passing of time, inevitably I have fewer and fewer friends in England. And once I’ve done my pilgrimage to Waterloo Bridge every time I get back to London, I always end up feeling like a refugee at a loose end, never knowing where to go and what to do. A certain spot in West Sussex is always one trusty refuge. Yet it all feels more and more distant. England and English and the Englanders are changing while my view of them is not. The chief-brayer even remarked that I had a strong English accent, whatever the fuck that means. So I worry – though it’s not the worst of dilemmas, admittedly, but still – that the roots attaching me to the old country are becoming ever more withered. That I think more like a German, if you’ll allow me the generalisation, than I do a Brit, even if I’ll always do so in English. None of which might matter, but I’ve got a feeling it does.

My plans to resettle to Leamington Spa might just have gone onto the back-burner for good.



1. Bowleserised - May 10, 2006

Ach genau, genau. One minute one finds this place bizarre, the next it makes perfect sense. I think the solution might be cybergypsyism (as proposed by a writer chum who did me the honour of saying “writers like us”). Keep on moving, and carrying your own, personalised nationality around with you. I fancy Paris. For starters. And I still haven’t done Russia yet either.

2. BiB - May 10, 2006

Gosh, doing Russia. Can I or can’t I recommend? I think I can. But do a mega-intense language course beforehand as you’ll get nowehere without Russky up your sleeve. And it has to be Moscow or St. Petersburg. Moscow is, for me, more beautiful and exciting, but it’s a bit savagely wild and horribly expensive. St. Petersburg is less exciting, but likes to think of itself as sophisticated and elegant. It has its moments.

3. daggi - May 10, 2006

Ach, the Germans have one word for that post: Heimat. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Moscow as beautiful before. And I read one sentence a few times before I read it correctly – I was wondering why

he and my future best man have been being intentionally nomadic for god knows how many months and appear to have been to every corner of Asda in the process

which would get you further than every corner of any bloody German supermarket, where Danish biscuits are classed under the “very exotic but not quite as exotic as some Russian condensed milk which is actually from Hamburg but the packaging is in Russian” category.

4. leon - May 11, 2006

The UK’s desperate quest for novelty has resulted in it being very difficult to move for jars of preserved lemons, speciality anchovies, and other nearly-useless ‘exotic’ tat in our supermarkets lately.

5. Bowleserised - May 12, 2006

Or mushroom ketchup. Don’t forget mushroom ketchup.

6. BiB - May 12, 2006

Preserved lemons? What the fuck are they for? Preserved for what? Posterity? The Russian, having cottoned on to the English-people-eating-shit thang – I don’t subscribe, for what it’s worth – often asks if I want to plop some green ketchup in the basket as we roll past it in Spar.

Daggi, don’t even mention Russian sgushёnka (condensed milk). I know a German friendship that came a cropper because of it. German A put a tin of it on to boil or something and then went out and forgot about it. German B came home to find it had exploded and the ceiling was coated with unremovable toffee. Ужас (horror).

Daggi (again), Moscow is staggeringly, stunningly beautiful. Really. The churches within the Kremlin are perversely stunning. St. Basil’s is a visual treat. And then there’s a nice mix of monumental Soviet-era stuff and earlier, humbler, lovelier stuff. The suburbs are hell, of course. Oh, and I forgot the metro. Ridiculously ornate.

Daggi (again again), why the non-blog?

7. leon - May 12, 2006

Well, a quick websearch reveals that the Julia Wilton bit is still there at least – it’s just the front page is a bit buggered, so you can’t get at the archives easily. Perhaps everything will reappear when a particularly wide picture drops off the front page, or something.

Preserved lemons are an occasional ingredient in tagines and that kind of thing, but not terribly useful on the whole.

8. leon - May 12, 2006

Oh, and [bowleserised] I do remember mushroom ketchup being stocked by our local supermarket in “response to customer demand”, bizarrely.

I’ve never tried it myself.

[bib] Have you ever been to Novgorod?

9. BiB - May 12, 2006

Leon, yes, and it is absolutely wonderfully romantic and mythic and beautiful. Incredibly so. Russian historians like to point out that if only Novgorod had maintained the ascendancy and Muscovy hadn’t usurped their power, Russia would be such a different place today – all democratic and lovely. Seriously beautiful frescoes in seriously beautiful ancient churches. And even the modern bit of the town isn’t too loathsome, if I remember rightly.

10. daggi - May 12, 2006

WHy the non-blog? Too much like work, and possibly due to bipolar (you mentioned it), ach, ich liebe es, Hypochondriac zu sein, which is another word I can’t spell…

Have just seen ex-Maoist ex-Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin go to get his hair cut on the Greifswalder Straße. He should look after his bike a bit better, a simple D-lock would be no challenge for my ex-neighbour.

11. BiB - May 13, 2006

I adore a good bout of hypochondria. I am always trying to convince myself that I’ve got some fatal disease, only for doctors to tell me I’m as right as rain. Very disappointing.

Well, the good thing about the blog is that you can revive it at any time, if you feel the urge. Although it shouldn’t feel like work, of course. I find blogging fairly forgiving. I’ve sometimes ignored mine for months at a time only to find the mug sitting there waiting for me without a complaint upon my return…

12. Bowleserised - May 13, 2006

After my blogspot fiasco I sort of wondered if we should have a giant communal blog, but then decided against it. The concept didn’t quite develop enough. I used to buy mushroom ketchup but never used it properly – ie on steak or a good beef stew – and always ended up bunging tonnes into something inappropriate like a tomato pasta sauce. Not good.

13. leon - May 16, 2006

I’d certainly contribute to a “giant communal blog”, especially as my ‘blog’ isn’t really a blog, as such.

Hardly ever cook steak but when I do I usually make a bit of roquefort sauce, which I guess supplies a similar sort-of-tangy-thing to mushroom ketchup. Very nice with some potatoes sauteed from raw and a bitter salad and a bottle of Cahors. Christ, I’m going back to France ASAP.

14. BiB - May 16, 2006

Mmm. Red wine.

Communal blog? I’m a hopeless team-player. Although now I’ve seen an episode of The Office, I can mantra, “There’s no I in team,” at myself, I suppose. (Actually, the last letter of the Russian alphabet is я, which, conveniently, also means “I”. If you’re being selfish, Russians will remind you that, “I is the last letter of the Russian alphabet.”)

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