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Precautions March 23, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Working and not playing seems, logically enough, to reap financial rewards. Skintness seems to be at its lowest level in weeks which means I’m allowing myself to do all sorts of daringly entertaining things, like paying bills on time, indulging in a spot of fantasy-flight surfing and, goddammit, even occasionally leaving the house. Mind you, hijinks have a cost all of their own. Snowy the god of snow is in an especially playful mood these days and is sporadically sending us the odd sprinkle. Which means the streets are full of puddles. The Russian and I had popped out for a quick spot of hijinkery and just to prove that I was in exceptionally high spirits at having left the house – I think we’d gone to the supermarket – I decided to jump in a puddle. To make a splash. What could mean fun more than splashing in a puddle? Except I must have got my angle of entry wrong because rather than it splashing outwards, as I had expected it to, the icy water splashed with perfect verticality clean up my legs, which meant effectively wearing a pair of ice-trousers, which was one of the least pleasant experiences I’ve had, and I’ve had a few (though I can’t really think of any, actually, apart from toothache).

Anyway, what with the hijinks, the lack of worry that an unpaid bill would have brought, a drop more leisure time than normal and life bordering fleetingly on the pleasant, the Russian’s mind is working double-shifts with voluntary unpaid overtime to think up loathsome tasks to cancel out the niceness. Occasionally I am winded by the frequency of his requests which seems to have nothing in common with actual need. How can he be asking me again to sweep the murky area where my feet hang out under the very desk I am sitting at now when I must have done it not more than some months ago and everyone knows that dust accrues only annually? I actually saw my beloved whoop for joy when our pet hoover died just as I was taking it out for a walk around our flat. (I think the way I could step on that pedal and make it suck its tail in at speed is man’s greatest technological advance.) Without a hoover, after all, the only solution is to sweep. Down on knees with dustpan and brush. That’s much more horrid labour than mere hoovering. And ergo, or, rather, Russian ergo, a very good thing.

Clap, clap, clap, the Russian will clap as he walks into a room that I am lounging in quietly. It is nothing to do with applause and everything to do with conveying to me that all this sitting around, relaxing, is very worthy of discouragement. “Ve oll laik to seet and do naasink. Not vörk, not eat,” he might say. “So the 23-hour days every day for the last month don’t count, then?” “Yes, but zat feeneesh tventy minutes ago.” And he’ll whizz off, clapping his hands until he has to stop to pick up a cloth to polish something with. “Put voshink avay.” Clap, clap, clap. “Put papyers avay.” Clap, clap, clap. “Sveep.” Clap, clap, clap. I lock the living-room door and explain that it’s all part of a very complicated keyhole-cleaning process.

So I was put on bathroom bin duty. The bathroom bin is, of course, only an interim bin. When something is hurled into the bathroom bin, that is just the start of its post-use career. All the inside bits of loo-roll that we don’t use to make toys with we throw in there and then, when the bin is overflowing or when I have been nagged enough to do it, it will graduate from there to the paper bin in the kitchen. From there, it will eventually go to the house’s paper bin in the yard. Then, once every two weeks, as the notes stuck up all around the hall this week explain with considerable alarm, the boys in blue – not the police – will come and pick it up and take it onto the climax of its recycling life.

I moped from the bathroom to the kitchen. Began the glamorous task of sorting rubbish. Inner bit of loo roll. Paper bin. Empty shampoo bottle. Plastics. Ooh, another inner bit of loo roll. Plastics. Oh, fuck, no, paper. (Fished it out. Corrected my error.) A cotton-bud. Ooh, where do they go? Probably the non-descript bin. And on and on. I worked myself through the pile. And came across a condom.

Now I’m always encouraging the Russian to have affairs. “Have an affair, darling,” I’ll say, when there’s a moment’s silence between the claps. “I’m 74. Much too old to tend to your needs. And you’re only 19 or something. Have an affair, darling.” “I not vont khev affair.” “Oh, darling, honestly, don’t be so conservative.” But coming across a condom shattered my delusions of modernity. I grimaced, held the offending item at distance as if it was a smelly sock and went to find the Russian. I prepared my best Gwyneth Paltrow English accent, pulled back the shower curtain (for he was showering, to excellent dramatic effect) and asked, “Darling, are you having an affair?”

“Vot you doing? Vot? Vot zat? Srow it avay.”

“Darling, are you having an affair? Why else is there a condom in our bin? And I know it’s not from us because couples don’t have sex in March, obviously. Are you bringing men home HERE?”

“How could I khev affair? You never leave khouse. It’s from them,” he said, motioning towards the living room from the shower.

“Them? What them? There isn’t any them.”

“Them. Our gyests from last veek.”

Our guests from last week whom I’d clean forgotten. The realisation that I was holding my friend’s condom in my hand made me grimace more fiercely, the Russian grimace with me and both of us holler yuk-like noises for the next three hours. I dropped it back in the bathroom bin and tried to put the incident out of my mind.

Just as well, really. Wouldn’t have known which bin to recycle it in anyway. Bio or packaging?

Posh March 17, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

I can never decide when I stumble across posh England, be that in the flesh (which is rare, being abroad), or on the radio, or when it comes up in something I’m reading, whether I want to go and burn down Buckingham Palace or have a nice slice of Bakewell Tart. I mean, when you are faced with images of Charles and Camilla wandering awkwardly round a Bob Marley museum, should you draw up plans to anthrax Windsor or put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea? There are other options in between, of course, and I suppose I’ve unconsciously been following a third way, neither establishing my very own Republican Party or ever putting on a Union Jack paper hat. I think my sister once thought she was the radicalest person out, maybe even thought, if she didn’t have a family life to get on with, that she could go about bringing down the posh establishment somehow or other until she accidentally ended up getting invited to Buckingham Palace – I think she won the invitation in a Christmas cracker, or it fell out of a packet of Weetabix – and she was bowled over by how lovely it was and, blow me, but didn’t one of those minor princesses even come and engage her maternalistically in some patronising conversation or other. “Tell me, citizen, did you get here by helicopter?”

And it is quite a nice house, Buckingham Palace, and I suppose I don’t majorly agree with destroying things, apart from my internal organs, and I can’t remember if Buckingham Palace – oh god. When the police came to our school when we were 13 to tell us not to do crime, the gent giving the presentation called Buckingham Palace Buck House to be cool. We all snorted with 13-year-old derision. Then John F_ got in terrible trouble for doing an oinking noise – is one of the ones that belongs to us all or whether The Queen actually took a mortgage out and bought it good and honest. And if it is ours, then it’d be wrong to burn down something that’s being upkept with taxpayers’ money. (I’m not sure if that chap who used to sing in The Housemartins had thought of this thorny little problem when he suggested – admittedly, he would, the old softy that he is, have allowed for the building to be evacuated first – that The House of Lords be blown up.)

And it’s an awfully good location. I reckon if The Queen ever decided to move out, some 12-year-old estate agent in a suit would be able to find new tenants for the place in a jiffy. Not too far from public transport. Good parking. Plenty of storage space. The nearest shop’s probably on Trafalgar Square but then so’s the Tube, so not too bad. But the biggest selling point is the garden. Now it turns out my sister didn’t go to Buck House by helicopter, and neither have I ever done so, but she was in the garden. And I have, on my favourite flight ever, flown right over the bastard when, coming in to land in Heathrow one time, the pilot saw it was a gorgeous clear day, that he had a few minutes to spare and took us for a lovely, winding meander along the Thames. London looked predictably awesome. And everything obeyed the rules and was just where you’d expect it to be. The Millennium thingy still there. Tower Bridge standing cathedrally by. All the landmarks out in force. And then there was Buckingham Palace. And, good lord, but what a huge fuck-off garden they have for the centre of London. Get your A-Zs out, Londoners, or pop to Google Earth, unless it’s one of the places that’s been fuzzed out for strategic purposes. Enormous, I tell you.

Anyway, what a lot of people don’t know is that putting The Queen in a big house was all a social experiment before we had reality TV to do this sort of thing for us on a nightly basis. No, there were no free-access freak shows back in the 18th century or whenever it was. But, honest guv, it’s what happened. The authorities were worried about the increase in anti-social behaviour and wondered what they could do to poshen up the riff-raff. You know, seeing if chucking money at the problem really was the answer. Yes, yes, education, training schemes, all that too. But, aesthetically, seeing if taking someone away from their grim surroundings – The Queen was living in a one-bedroom flat on Thamesmead with her Greek husband who had his own minicab business – and giving them a few elocution lessons could transform the lower orders. And, look! It worked a treat. Only it was decided that it would cost too much to put everyone in palaces and then all documentation pertaining to the social experiment was lost in the Great Fire of London and everyone just thought, “Oh, god, they ain’t doin’ any ‘arm, let ’em stay.” Which is how the monarchy was reintroduced.

Anyway, why we’re (the republican we) here is that there’s a similar social experiment happening right here in Ruislip. I have sometimes mentioned, in the course of my public onanism, the 100%-long-term-unemployment house across the street. And, until now, the 100%-long-term-unemployment house had obeyed aesthetic rules and been decidedly run down and grey-looking so that people knew to point and jeer at the house when they walked past. Occasionally we have tourists from Bavaria on a poor-Germany tour and I helpfully stand outside the house with a big arrow so that they know which one to pour scorn on. But the house is being emposhened. “I bet I’m paying for that,” I said to the Russian, but he was out so I quickly e-mailed it to him instead, lest an occasion to moan be lost, and then I dashed to find my tax declaration to wave at the 100%-long-term-unemployment-house unemployed and holler that I hope they were happy, except we do our tax declarations on-line now so I had to go and wave a computer at them, which they must have thought odd.

Still, the house looks gorgeous. I expect it’ll be Hochdeutsch and monocles in no time.

False etymology March 15, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

The trouble with growing up in an intellectual desert is that people were always telling you you were brilliant because you knew the capital of Botswana when really you weren’t. And then, at some point, when you have vaguely begun to learn to think, you realise what a total dilettante you are, and that intelligence isn’t measured in Gaborones. Being taught to think would have been where it’s at.

Anyway, isn’t dilettantism fab? I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who know their onions. But it can give you some lovely epiphanies, being this dim. You know, like discovering the world is round (aged 27), that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (aged 31), that civilisation doesn’t end at Brighton (aged 37).

Awful the lies adults tell you. “It’s a very good school, BiB,” they said. “You’re very lucky to be going there, BiB,” they said. And of course at the time the word of adult, especially if a stranger, was the word of god and I thought I was going to be the cleverest person in the world.

What a load of bollocks that turned out to be. A vaguely competent exam-machine. I submitted to institutionalisation well enough. Lumbered my way through. Got to the end. Was informed that my grade C ‘O’ Level in RE meant I was in the top 0.01% of the country for brain-power and if I didn’t appreciate it I could just jolly well go and join the school down the road which allowed in two unspeakable specimens: girls AND non-Catholics. Who knew which was worse!

Did leave there, actually. Struggled through ‘A’ Levels. Struggled through degree. Felt proud for a moment at having letters after my name and then had the crushing realisation that I was still as thick as two short planks when some smart-arse asked me, “Aah, yes, but what’s Botswana’s chief export?” Crushing.

Anyway. What were we on about? Oh yes, so education. Got the papers, the certificates, but still pig-thick. But there was, even in my stultifyingly horizon-straitening education one glimmer of enjoyment, one ray of vague unmediocrity, one morsel of enthusiasm. For languages. Nothing else. Maths could be satisfactorily concrete and finite. Instantaneous gratification. But then it got difficult. Geography was pants (and I already knew where Botswana was). Science a mystery. History fun enough when you got a time or place that tickled your fancy. But language was my thing.

My school was posh, or so it thought, so we did posh languages. All that Latin and Greek. Modern languages, bar French, which was genteel enough to pass muster, were left to girls and non-Catholics. Latin and Greek for us. If it wasn’t Flavia in the atrium, it was the slaves releasing the horses, or the table both praising and blaming, or the priestess making a sacrifice on the altar.

And it’s a language-love that’s stuck, and an enthusiasm that’s stuck and, even though it was there before school had coaxed it out of me, I suppose I have school to thank for developing my knowledge. But then they had to go and spoil it by saying, “BiB, knowing that Greek verb, you are ACTUALLY the cleverest person in England. No, you are actually the cleverest person in the whole world.” Imagine! Because of horses and priestesses. And I believed them, fool that I was. Until I got out of the Catholic ghetto and met some grown-ups and understood what a dimmy I really was.

Anyway, that’s fine. Dimness is all right. Translation suits the dim.

So I had a little dimness, dilettante epiphany. Perhaps based on false etymology. Almost sure to be. By having this dilettantish education, and very wishy-washy knowledge on any subject I have knowledge on at all, I don’t know my arse from my elbow. So I was translating away and the word “orthogonal” came up. Of course my dilettantish and untoned brain didn’t even make the connection. I didn’t dig my Greek ‘O’ Level out of some cerebral cranny and divide the word down into its component bits. No, just went to some online dic and was told, so that I could have a belated oh-yeah moment, that it meant right-angled. Of course! Ortho-words. Tonnes of those. Orthodox. Orthopaedic. Orthographic. And, der, -gon. Hexagon. Octagon. No end of -gon.

Then, accuse me of being morose if you will, I was overcome with an insatiable urge to give false etymology to a word based on this new knowledge. It might even be right, but I bet it isn’t, and I’ve so told myself that the word means what I want it to mean that I can’t bear for it to mean what I don’t want it to mean. So, going on a- equalling non-, as in arrhythmia or amoral, please someone tell me that agony’s original meaning is not having any angles. Wouldn’t that be lovelily gloomy? That extreme suffering was brought about by non-angularity. That the pain you experience as you shuffle off this mortal coil could have been avoided if only you hadn’t had such a straightforward life. “You know your problem,” we could shout at miserable people, “not enough angles in your life. Not enough pointy bits. All too smooth. Too straightforward.”

Problems, people, are good for you.

Gutluftberg March 12, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

A friend of mine who disobeys all rules of propriety invited me to his boyfriend-who-doesn’t-live-in-Berlin’s birthday party at someone-else-who-does’s house. In one of those queer bits of the city where what passes for ancient is a car-wash with balloons up to celebrate its third birthday nestling under one of the early upward whooshes of a motorway. You’d think humans would have given the location up as a bad job but, oddly enough, people have gone and forced themselves to settle there just to show how versatile we are as a species and that no level of adversity is insurmountable. Especially not here in Berlin. We’ve been there done that on the adversity stakes. Nothing can shock us. Give us a bit of town under an early upward whoosh of a motorway called Wilmersburg or Charlottendorf and we’ll build a bloody house there and just bloody well go and live in it AND have an orange tan year round for good measure.

Still, you don’t expect people from Argentina to have to come and make the point for the Berliners too.

The friend who disobeys all rules of propriety has been around. A proper wanderer. Started out in life as a Mexican. Has lived in the States and Canada. Has lived everywhere in Europe. Has been to Asia to find himself. Got lost and ended up back here, having turned into a European along the way and it is only right that his peripateticness should see us be city-neighbours for the second time in our lives.

He now lives in one of those Tempelbergs or Schönehofs so I am statistically less likely to see him than I am to meet the Wild Ape-Man of Ushuaia but, once in a while, we will bury the hatchet, admit, goddammit, that this is one city whether we like it or not and agree to meet.

The Mexican’s gone majorly native as a European. I’ve been to Mexico with him. His relatives commented on how crap his Spanish had got. He speaks English with an Englishy/Irishy accent. He is now technically French. But I’m happy to say that he’s been on our shores for long enough to have even developed a certain northern European solemnity. He’s French at a dinner party. English if drunk. Scandinavianly black if the mood requires it.

Which is why it was such a bloody shock to be reminded that he is in fact Mexican.

So the party was being held by an Argentinian in some bloody Zehlenrade. I bade the Russian farewell and set out with a compass, a knapsack, some good solid walking shoes, a length of rope and 300 Greek drachmas which was all the foreign currency we could find at short notice. I managed to catch a lift part of the way from a Tyrolean shepherd in a charabanc who had come to Berlin to make his fortune. We shared a meal of bread and cheese and parted at Spahlem S-Bahnhof whence I strew breadcrumbs lest I get lost. I found the car-wash and the early upward whoosh of the motorway and knew I was nearing my destination. The snow was falling thick and heavy by now. I remembered an old wives’ tale from our village and walked in the footprints other intrepid travellers had made before me. I reached my destination exhausted. I crawled into the party-house on my knees.

Only to be greeted by various Spanish-speaking revellers. And, darlings, I’d forgotten just how happy Spanish-speaking people are. My friend veered psychotically between unbridled joy whenever he had dealings with an Argentinian, Chilean or Spaniard and then breathed out deeply and downed tempo when he had to come and talk to one of us miserable old northern Europeans.

But, darlings, what’s the secret? The Argentinians, Chileans and Spaniards maintained a fun-factor that when totted up equalled more fun in their combined couple of hours than I have had in my whole 37 years. And it was good fun. Nice fun. Fun fun. Good-to-watch fun. Exhausting fun. As the evening drew on, the Argentinians, Chileans and Spaniards bellowed with hearty laughter in one unconsciously demarcated laughorium corner of the room – the Euro-Mexican would ping back and forth like a pinball – and we northern types gently huddled quietly, conspiratorially, uneasily in our frownorium corner.

It can’t be Catholicism, because Austrians are Catholics. It can’t just be the sun. Somalia has sun. And, anyway, they were in Berlin, and the sun hasn’t shone here since 1534, and their solar memory can’t be that vivid.

I soon had to bid my Argentinian hostess farewell. The journey back was to be long and arduous. And the jollity was exhausting. I turned up my collar. Pulled my hat down over my ears. Accepted bread and cheese for the journey.

The blizzard had stopped by the time I got out onto the street. And the street was so lifeless that silences were competing with each other for perfection. Not a car took advantage of the early upward whoosh of the motorway. The greyness settled everywhere like a thick layer of dust.

And then a buzz from above. A multi-coloured plane swooped overhead. The Spaniards, Argentinians and Chileans waved and cheered. The Euro-Mexican donned a mask to show equal extremes of emotion. And then a trap-door on the underside of the fuselage opened and the Spanish-speakers hurled rainbows which hit the pavement, the trees, the houses, colouring everything they touched, and bounced all the way back into the sky.

The Ordnungsamt says it’ll cost a fortune to wash off.

Words and pictures March 3, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

But without the pictures. There should be pictures, as illustration is a good thing, and has caught on like mad. If clever types aren’t illustrating their points with cogent examples, then other types, who might easily be just as clever, are illustrating their words with pictures. You know, like, I want to tell you about a house. And, oh, look, here’s a picture of the house. Such a good prop to help foil any potential slip twixt brain and lip. So I’ll have to try and paint a picture for you in words, when some pictures would have done just as well. Would have done much better, in fact. But I can’t really take pictures, because of not really being able to do anything, and when I do own pieces of technology – I do have a camera, oddly, bought during a rash flush of seeming solvent – I like to hide them from myself to unremind myself that they exist. It often doesn’t matter too much, because what I’d do with a camera is no better than what I don’t do by not using it but it’s problematic with a mobile phone, say, which I normally like to have switched off in case I die and the Russian will be able to rifle through it.

So, darlings, some light Sunday-afternoon*, hint-of-spring, rainbow-weather, roaring-hangover, dreading-the-working-week (yes, planning to start some work on a Monday morning like normal folk), not-showered-and-dressed blogging. Some things-wot-I-have-seen blogging. Some really-my-life-doesn’t-deserve-to-have-a-website blogging. Some I-can’t-think-of-anything-else blogging.

Darlings, I’ve told you before that Ruislip is Ruislip. But there are the seeds, which probably won’t thrive, of gentrification. You know, the Lidl stocking lobster. The real gay hairdresser. And the odd café or two springing into existence if you don’t mind. We don’t give them our custom because it is now pavlovianly embedded in us to get as far away as possible from where we live whenever we leave the house. Fun can not be associated with Ruislip. We did have one friend who lived close by but we instantly had to lose touch when we simultaneously understood, as our eyes met over a suburban table, with stabbing, unforgiving clarity, what we had both surrendered to. And I haven’t practised walking blindfolded from Ruislip to the border of the next area enough times yet to have learnt where all the obstacles to an injury-free start to a night out are so I do still, on my way to somewhere else, receive visual evidence that I live where I live. Sometimes, if we’ve had two booze-free days in a row, say, I might even notice what I see.

Darlings, and all of sudden there was a Kaffee Togo in Ruislip. Africa! In Ruislip! Who had thought through the branding? We don’t want the outside world in Ruislip. We want the wall back, for fuck’s sake. Wedding, our nearest West-Berlin bit, seems a million miles away. No, if we’re going to go international in Ruislip, we need to start easy. Soften the culture shock. A Café Austria, say. A Café Luxembourg at a push. Ruislipians could cope with that. But odd that their sign said Kaffee. Coffee. And not Café. Until I finally clicked that they were selling coffee ‘to go’. Tossers. To go! In Ruislip! You’ll be relieved to hear I firebombed the premises to avoid any such linguistic misunderstandings in future.

That got me so livid I started noticing the written word non-stop. A clothes shop I’ve bought at multiple times, because every time I bought something they gave me a voucher for a reduction on my next purchase and I bought inexorably and inexorably on until I had to turn to crime to feed my habit before I realised that not buying things is even cheaper than buying things with 10% off, had showcased on its window, presumably written in the fresh sperm of its employees, “Sale continues inside store.” Continues? And in English? Admittedly, not in Ruislip, but still. I had to take my begloved hands out of my pockets so that I could make indignant tosser signs at the offending window and then started taking a run up towards the shop for increased momentum, to make sure they’d understand I thought this was awful toss, and in my enthusiasm accidentally shattered the glass their non-poetry was written on. Still, linguistic crime no. 2 solved.

A café was offering an ‘Anabolisches Frühstück’ – an anabolic breakfast – which I thought was overly caving into drugs in sport, even for the former East Germany. What sort of message is that to be sending to the kids? And this an Olympic year! I ducked in to see if these flagrant purveyors of non-sportsmanship were wearing dark-blue vests with DDR sewn on in a pleasingly square font. Some Turkish men sold standard Turkish fare. “Queer,” I thought. “I wonder if they’re lacing the kebabs with designer steroids.” Till it turned out I was being dyslexic again. Their Frühstück was in fact Anatolisch – Anatolian, euphemistic for Turkish.

Darlings, all too disorienting. I staggered home and resolved never to read again.

*got delayed. Goldfish attention span.