I got talking to fellow-Unthanker Sharon Zink at her Book Diner - a part of her excellent writing and coaching site. She asked me some searching questions... some of which I answered sensibly, occasionally.
I missed the news that Benjamin Creme had died in October. Described variously as a painter, a writer, a journalist, he was more well known in esoteric circles as a 100% A-1 eccentric. In the 80s he tried to drum up interest in the second coming of the man he called 'the' Christ, or the World teacher, at the time a young Asian man known as Maitreya.
I went to one of his Maitreya lectures at London's Conway Hall in the late 90s. He assured us that Jesus was there with us, in person, in the audience. That audience was mostly men, who looked like anything from trainspotters to butterfly collectors to members of right-wing organisations. Many of them clutched carrier bags, for some reason I never worked out. I didn't know what to make of my evening, or of Benjamin Creme's claim, decided it was kind of harmless.
Funny enough, Benjamin Creme passed me a couple of years back on a visit to the National Liberal Club's restaurant, and he looked hale and hearty enough. I didn't realise he was quite as old as he was, so maybe belief keeps you in hope, which keeps you healthy... or maybe it was yoghurt and yoga.
Maitreya the would-be Christ is well worth a Google, especially the stories of his 'miraculous' appearance near Nairobi in 1988. He'll be a middle-aged man now, if he's still among us.
I'm making an appearance today on Chris Fielden's excellent blog on all things writing. I give my take on story-aimed competitions, and share what I think is a methodical approach to a haphazard enterprise, and am also passing on some (hopefully) useful advice detected from the judges of the V S Pritchett Short Story Award - their honorable discretion had to be negotiated! - and sharing some rather shocking statistics on the long-and-shortlisting process. I discuss how I set about preparing my V S Pritchett runner-up story, Traffic, and supply an extract from it and a link to it, on the Unthank Books site.
I was out walking in the City of London today and passed a place that used to be a lunchtime cafe back in the mid-70s when I used to work near there. It's now friggin Starbucks, or something. ANYway, one lunchtime back in the day, I went there with a colleague, and at the counter I pointed to some kind of meat, and asked the guy behind the counter, "What's that?"
He said, "It's veal."
Almost without a pause, I said, "Okay. I'll have a cheese and pickle sandwich, please."
My colleague roared laughing, nudged me, said, "Classic!" and the guy behind the counter was all annoyed.
So one thought I was trying to amuse him - a bit of the Two Ronnies, maybe - and the other thought I was trying to offend him, but in fact it was only me mentally processing that I didn't want veal, and thought I'd stick with cheese, but without revealing it to my audience. I remember feeling a bit embarrassed, and, once I'd seen that I'd annoyed him, apologising to the man behind the counter. I'd not yet worked in catering...but somehow knew not to offend anybody in a place I went to regularly!
I was in west London once in the 80s and a guy approached me on the street and just started speaking to me in some language I couldn't understand. It was utterly puzzling. He made no attempt to see if I spoke his language, nor any to try a few words of broken English, just kept up this spiel. It may have been Portuguese. I just had to tell him I wasn't about to learn a whole new language just to learn what he was saying, even if it was fascinating.
Years ago I used to go into a Caffe Nero near Oxford Circus, where I worked. The baristas were all young, and either Italian or Polish. They did the usual fantastic job, and all with competence and good humour. One of them, an Italian girl, would always ask customers who didn't present a loyalty card to be stamped, "Do you have-a theese-a one?" and would point to the new cards.
I thought if it was quiet there one day I'd correct her discreetly, tell her what she was trying to say was, "Do you have one of these?" But she was always very kind to me, and to all the other harassed people in and out for their caffeine fix, and maybe saying that might have hurt her feelings.
And anyway, that's just never been my habit. London is full of people speaking the most appalling English - I include Londoners in that - and for my whole life I've always worked out what people have been trying to say, noted it, and answered accordingly.
Thirdly, it's kind of rude to correct people if you understand them. I had a rather annoying Polish friend for a while when I lived over in Warsaw, and he would say, "Please correct my English for me," and firstly I thought, 'Well, I'm not a free English lesson,' and secondly, if I'd done that he'd have barely been able to speak for more than a minute or two, as his English was fairly crap - it didn't matter: I could understand it, so there was no problem.
But I think the main reason I didn't correct the Caffe Nero barista was that I just enjoyed the way she said it: it was beautiful, and there is no reason why we should all speak any language in exactly the same way.
Just went to have a a haircut, well, two haircuts, with my wife. I mean, we had one each. I now have my hair cut by the nephew of the old Turkish man who used to cut my hair when I was in my teens.
I wonder if there will be an outbreak of #BowieHaircuts as tributes to David Bowie's passing.
"I'll have a traditional Ziggy, please."
"A late Alladin for me, please, sort of 1974-ish."
"A Young American, with the option of a thin white duke."
Back in the early 1970s a few friends went for rather poor versions of the Ziggy Stardust cut, but without the flamboyant red colour they just looked a bit like regular mullets. (I'm not sure the mullet was even a thing then. I think David Bowie is partly responsible for it.) I had something very like the 'thin white duke' style for a few months in the late 80s, when the blond dye I was using reacted badly with remnants of whatever had been on my hair before. After being a bit appalled, it became a happy accident!
Alexei doesn't like his wife Elena wandering around half-naked in the flat after her shower. There's a man out there, looking, and he won't hear her when she points out that they live so high up in the sky that a man would have to go to extraordinary lengths just to look. My short story Just Looking is out now in the wonderful Mystery Weekly.
Christ. It took me a year, once again, to forget 'Shakey' singing Merry Christmas Everyone, and 'Macca' warbling Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime. I walk into a cafe in Lewisham, and it's Christmas there, FFS, and so those songs came at me again, and I'm stuck with them again. I honestly don't mind Christmas, but - really - it's barely December.
It's probably fair to say that Carrie's and Ivan's relationship will not be strengthened by the challenges they face on a slacker roadtrip along the coast of a hot country full of rather bad-tempered people. It very nearly ends in disaster when some off-duty soldiers throw themselves into the mix. And friends Ellie's and Jacob's vegetarianism may also suffer just a little. Pavlov's Dogs will be out in the December edition of Writing Raw magazine.
My story Traffic, was runner-up in the 2015 V S Pritchett Short Story Award. Traffic is set in contemporary Kiev, in Ukraine, the capital city of a country beset by separatism, factionalism, schism and any other ism you can think of that will definitely NOT contribute to the quality of life. In this scenario, is it right to bring up a baby? A young mother dreams of unburdening herself and leaving, and hits on a radical solution to help her on her way.
I am so proud to have come second in this competition, and to be among those keeping up the short story standard set by the eminent V S Pritchett.
Traffic is now available to read on the Unthank Books site. Click HERE.
This is not a Thanksgiving story, but all this talking turkey at this time of year has reminded me of it. My late aunt, Angela Mare, spent many years living in Canada. One Christmas it struck her that she and her husband always bought frozen turkey at the last minute, and she got it into her head to get a fresh one. She drove out to some farm outside town and bought a bird. The snow was coming down a bit. On the way home she thought she'd visit a friend, as she lived out that way, and called in and spent a few hours there. When she came out the snow was much worse, and it was too dangerous to drive, so she stayed at her friend's place for the night. It was okay to drive the next day, so she drove home. When she took the bag with the turkey in it out of the boot of the car, it weighed a ton: the turkey had frozen.
I was just writing the word 'random' in a FaceBook post, and, as ever, feel it's a word I overuse. 'Random' now seems to have several, uh, random meanings. That's the nature of the English language, of course, or any living language; words change over the course of your lifetime, and remind you, sometimes, of how old you are, when you remember the meanings to them that you grew up with.
Anyway, this prompted me to remember one of the colossal wastes of taxpayers' money, uh, I mean, court cases, I saw last year, while on jury duty. One of the participants had made a statement to the police in which the word had been overused, for sure - random people here, random friends there, random people, or friends, having random drinks at some random bar on the evening in question. Okay, so we knew what was meant, but as we were both listening to his recorded statement - why, I have no idea, as it was rambling rather than random - and reading the police's typescript, I saw that the typist had originally typed 'Iranian' for each instance of 'random' - it had been corrected in handwriting. I listened to the droning testimony with a new interest, and, yes, I could hear why the typist had written 'Iranian' instead - it was just in the slurry way it was being pronounced. This little instance of chaos led to a moment of humour that almost made the whole thing worthwhile for me!
'Digital Narcissism'; there were people taking selfies at the site of the Sydney Lindt Coffee House siege, in turn photographed. You can imagine it: "On the rocks again LOL #Titanic." "OMG cancel my European trip again #1stSept1939" "Whoa Low flying planes WTF #WTCNYC911"
I had a quick look, but can't find a word for people who enjoy disasters - presumably not if they're in the middle of one. Who takes selfies at disasters? Funny enough, I know a man who quite probably would have: I used to work with somebody - a guy in his 40s or early 50s - whose entire annual leave was spent going to see sieges and disasters. He went to Munich when the Olympic Hostage Crisis was happening, and also to the so-called South Molluccan Siege in Amsterdam. It was weird and crass back then, and it's crass and weird now.
My story The Place of the Dead d was published in May 2014 in the collection Exiles, An Outsider Anthology. Edited by Paul D Brazill, it's published by Blackwitch Press. It features a host of talent, among which I'm very happy to be numbered. Please buy a copy: all profits go to the Marfan Foundation, which funds research and channels aid to sufferers from Marfan Syndrome. Paul asked all contributors to say a little about our stories, and the following first appeared on his home page.
The Djma el Fnaa is Marakech’s central square. By a linguistic quirk, its name can be translated as either ‘the Mosque of Nowhere / Nothing’ or ‘the Place / Assembly of the Dead’. It was too good a title not to use for a story, and several people have indeed beaten me to it in the 25 years since I thought of it, and done that. It’s a market place by day, but at night turns into a circus of a place, full of performers, storytellers, hustlers, vendors, snake bullies – they don’t charm them at all – musicians, dancers, pickpockets, some plying their trade only because of the tourists, and some just because they always have. As noted in my story, our guide book described it as ‘the most exciting place in all of Africa’, a ridiculous claim that I make a character address briefly, and somewhat flippantly.
My first wife and I spent five weeks in Morocco in July and August 1989. I’d been there about two weeks before I got to Marakech. I was used to the hustlers by then, which didn’t make them any less wearying. They didn’t want all your cash, just some. They weren’t bad people, just hungry, jobless – just bored, maybe. They weren’t begging; you couldn’t cut to the chase by paying them to go away. None of this stopped it being tedious, though, especially when you knew that you would extricate yourself from it only for it to start up again a few minutes later, a different bloke, same spiel.
A friend of mine had travelled in Morocco the previous year. He’d lost his rag with a hustler in some small town, told him to fuck off. After that, the man and his pals followed him around for the rest of his stay, saying, “You don’t say ‘fuck off’ in this town,” and making slit-your-throat gestures at him. They camped in his hotel lobby, occupied tables in every restaurant he went to. They said, “See you later, alligator,” each time he managed to get away, or when they had to go home for their tea. They were probably just having a laugh, labouring a point, or really had nothing else to do. When my friend gave up on that town, this entourage escorted him to the bus station. It was their last chance to slit his throat. Though he’d got used to it as a charade of sorts by then, a performance, he was glad to get on the bus. An old man boarded, shuffled and wheezed up the aisle and sat down, turned to my friend and grinned and said, “See you later, alligator,” not knowing it was a goodbye and not a greeting; it was just some stray English, offered in friendship. It only freaked my friend out a little, I think.
So I knew not to tell the hustlers to fuck off, even though I wanted to sometimes. I said I was not interested in making a financial contribution to their ventures, at that moment – maybe I’d bore them into going away. But Moroccans are polite and patient, mostly. (One man was the exception, aggressively accused my wife of acting like ‘a Jew’. “There’s a very good reason for that,” she informed him, somewhat dangerously, but her actual Jewishness was beside the point he was trying to make. He was a carpet seller, though, a breed apart.)
It sounds like I had a bad time in Morocco, but in fact I enjoyed most of my time there – you can’t spend five weeks anywhere and have every single moment be a joy. I’m reminded of a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing: a couple in a fractious relationship are in the Djma el Fnaa, and the woman chides the man for his petty obsession over some aspect of their life together. “Look at where we are,” she reminds him. I’ll probably never go back to Morocco, so I’m glad I didn’t let anybody, even an anti-Jewish carpet seller, spoil it for me. Why am I talking about all this, then?
The answer is that a story isn’t made up of the nice things in life. I’m also not a travel writer, and any guide book can describe the brilliance of Morocco better than I can – just as a postcard seller can supply a better photo of its monuments than I’ll ever take. I’ve tried to reflect Marakech’s atmosphere in The Place of the Dead, but it’s not a story about Moroccans. Think of the crowded streets I show in my tale; most of the people in them were unaware of us, and if they were aware, they were leaving us alone. As per the brief of this anthology, the story is about foreigners, outsiders, and how they might behave out of their comfort zones.
The couple in my story is not based on me and my first wife, nor on any of the many people we met. A few of the incidents described happened, such as the frustrating, lengthy journey at the opening of the story, the conversations with hustlers, the sunglasses that attracted a pint-sized opportunist, the constant assumption that we’d want an English newspaper, and watching that exciting ending to the 1989 Tour de France, a race that is often done and dusted in its last few days, and like watching paint dry. They are all only background, though. None of them make a story. The heart of the story is the people in it, and how they conduct themselves when faced with certain choices, and how their lives will be affected by those choices, and by their actions and reactions.
I think art, whether 'so-called art' or not, only ever gets in the news if it sparks debate, usually on the lines of it's good / it's crap, or it's art / it's not art, so it's good that it's made people think about the First World War. But hang on, is the message: *War is Bad*? If daily news reports full of maimed and killed adults and children, and cities and countries in ruins, millions of people made into refugees, forever, don't put over that message, what chance do *art poppies* have, no matter how many of them there are?
It took the people of Yorkshire to show the Tour de France how it was done this year. The race never quite recovered its momentum after leaving them behind to get back to France. The early dramas came partly from stupidity, with Manxman Mark Cavendish out of the race on the first day when he head-barged another rider, hit the ground and couldn’t get up unaided; past winner Alberto Contador decided to pull an energy bar out of his pocket while doing 80KPH downhill – I mean, what could go wrong there, except of course the crash that sent him to hospital? Defending champ Chris Froome crashed out early too, thankfully through no fault of his own, and his absence could have stopped it being a bit of a snooze… except that Italian grand tour contender Vincenzo Nibali took over that job. The 2014 Tour was notable for the resurgence of the French; French riders battled it out to win second and third places, the first Frenchmen to reach the top three since 1984. It would be fantastic to see them reclaim their event.
Naturally, I don’t only watch cycling to see winners wearing various coloured jumpers and holding up bunches of flowers and kissing girls. Every sport features beautiful ways to win… well, not judo, possibly… but there are also beautiful ways to lose, and such moments often leave more of an imprint behind them than even the most spectacular win. Some of these moments can look stage-managed and cheesy, such as leading doper Bjarne Riis ‘honouring’ the previous winner Miguel Indurain when the 1996 race wiggled over to Spain to go through the latter’s home town, in the full expectation that he would be leader; there was also a young Lance Armstrong’s ‘tribute’ to team mate Fabio Casartelli as the Texan pointed to the sky when he won a stage a few days after Casartelli’s death during the 1995 Tour (a feat of formaggio repeated 6 years later by an older Armstrong). There was the moment when deadly same-team rivals Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault crossed the line with their hands not round each other’s throats but clasped, in the 1986 Tour.
My favourite by far of these moments of loss featured Australian Cadel Evans in the 2010 Tour. It’s safe to say that Cadel had been trying for a few years to win a grand tour; he was a clear contender, with placings at 8th, 4th and 2nd, but by the end of the noughties was getting the reputation of being a nearly-man. The general consensus is that he was often edged out of the top place by dopers. Maybe this contributed to his reputation as a bit of a grumpy bastard in the face of questions from the press and fans about his performances. I kind of don’t blame him; he was never able to give any accurate answers that wouldn’t have landed him in hot water with the entire sport.
In the 2010 Tour de France, Cadel was World Champion, but finally got to give the rainbow stripes of the WC jersey a rest to wear the yellow jersey – given to the race leader – on stage 9. If you’re familiar with how bike racing works, you’ll know that the jersey, and the race, isn’t won till the last day. Until then the wearer of the jersey has to use his team to defend him against attacks by other contenders and their teams; they will seek any weakness – a fall, an injury, even to a team member, a loss of tempo or concentration, a sudden change from good weather to bad, a crash in the main group that may hold up anybody behind it – and exploit it. It’s a fraught business. Halfway up the last climb of a five-climb day, the fearsome Col de la Madeleine, two teams, Saxo Bank and Astana, put pressure on Cadel’s BMC team, and one by one his team mates dropped away, and then so did he, knowing he was going to lose the jersey that day, and what was more, be so behind that he’d never be able to regain the time he’d lost.
Cadel also had a bit of a secret: he’d fractured his elbow two days before. He didn’t mention it, even to his own team, just didn’t want it to become common knowledge. I’m not sure how wise this is, but there are numerous instances of riders carrying on with broken bones, at least for a while. Wise or not, it puts certain pro footballers into perspective as they get a tap on the ankle and roll around in agony.
Cadel had one team mate left. 26 year-old Italian Mauro Santambrogio rode in front of Cadel, sheltered him from the wind as much as he could. At that time he was an established domestique, or team helper, having ridden for several teams. In the footage of stage 9, Santambrogio has a fixed, determined expression, composed – and not the teeth-gritting ‘race face’ of riders going all out. He looks serene, almost angelic.
They knew Cadel had lost, but they rode anyway. At the end of the stage, Cadel put his head on Santambrogio’s shoulder and sobbed. Santambrogio put an arm around his team leader’s shoulder. It’s a sad picture, but a great one all the same. Cadel didn’t ride his customised yellow bike again, and had to revert to his rainbow jersey of World Champion – which is, after all, not so bad – and, broken elbow and all, he stayed in the Tour, and finished a respectable 26th.
Cadel finally won his Tour de France in 2011, and what a great, and well-deserved, win that was. He’s had a few moments since then – even wore the leader’s pink jersey in the 2014 Giro d’Italia for a few days, but really, he stopped being hungry enough to win a grand tour after 2011. He is a fine sportsman and a great man in his personal life, I think, with his support of Tibet, and his comparison of its people to that of Native Australians, plus his donations to charities. I think cycling will be a poorer sport without him when he retires.
Santambrogio’s story hasn’t ended quite so well. He wasn’t with BMC by the time Cadel won his Tour, had moved on to the near-enough all-Italian Vini Fantini team. He was making waves in the 2013 Giro d’Italia. He even won a mountaintop stage, flouroescent yellow in his team kit against the equally glaring backdrop of white snow. After the race, which saw the ejection of his team leader Danilo di Luca for doping, Santambrogio failed a test for the performance booster EPO – not the first test he’d failed in his career – and since then he hasn’t got back on a bike as a pro, and, I fear, he never will, and fear too that, even if he does, he’ll never have a finer hour than he did on the day he tried to help Cadel limit his losses in the 2010 Tour de France.
Easter Monday in Lublin, 1993, with memories and Mars Bars, and a border journey with morning drinkers and visions of spacemen
I first went to live in Poland in 1993. I got a teaching job in a private language school in the Silesian* town of Gliwice, in the south west of Poland. I’d been at a loose end in London for a few months, having come back from living in Istanbul in August the previous year. I’d been intending to do an MA in Linguistics in Birmingham, but for various reasons the funding had fallen through. My first wife was doing post-grad teacher training in London, and we were living with her parents. Work didn’t look like it was going to happen for me in London, though in fact I didn’t try that hard: working as an EFL teacher in a private language school is okay if you’re abroad somewhere, but doing it in London just seemed ridiculous.
I got an interview with a bloke who ran a language school in Ljubljana, and was accepted for a job, but there was something about the set-up I didn’t like. From the guy's somewhat evasive answers to questions I asked about the working conditions, hours and pay, he seemed like one of those workaholic types who expected the same from his staff, on little pay, and, in addition, other things he said suggested that he was recruiting for his social life. I may have been wrong about that. I kind of regret not going to Ljubljana: it was a happening place, it seemed, after the ten-day war it fought to become independent from Yugoslavia, and times were surely exciting there.** I saw another ad in the Education supplement of the Guardian newspaper for a school in Gliwice. I answered it, had an interview in an empty room in the then empty-all-over Canary Wharf, and decided I’d take the job, and set off for Poland two days later. That was one cool thing about EFL teaching: see an ad on Tuesday, have an interview on Thursday, fly somewhere else on Saturday and, after a day or two to settle in, you’re living a different life by the following Monday.
It started snowing in Gliwice the week I got there in early January. It didn’t stop till April. When people here in London say, “I love the snow,” I don’t reply, as it would be a sort of snotty-sounding, “You weren’t in Gliwice that winter.”
The school was a bit crap, run, as is often the case in EFL, by idiots, but the students were okay, and I mostly managed to put on a good front and get on with it for them. I’m pretty good at getting on with work and pretending I love it, then switching off and forgetting it for the more important things in life. After a bit of messing about from the idiots, I was finally given a small flat overlooking what turned out, when the snow finally melted, a graveyard. It’s great to have quiet neighbours.
All of us teachers at the school griped about Gliwice at times. We changed the opening lines of Crowded House’s tune Whispers and Moans*** to Dull, dull grey, the colours of Gliwice… and sang it with some gusto. But in fact that was mean of us. Gliwice is a magical little town, with a mysterious vibe. There is an old rynek, or market place, at its centre, its buildings not exactly graceful, but intriguing all the same. There is a gothic-looking post office, there are sturdy fortress-like churches in black and brown brick, a lively railway station full of the usual shady characters, and babushkas**** in the ticket offices who were awkward with us if we got the grammar case wrong when buying tickets, especially if we were in a hurry. There were cafés and bars that looked as if they’d been designed by architects who really hated people having any leisure time, but were all the same friendly, and cheap. There were shops selling only red plastic kitchen equipment. There were tall communist-era housing blocks with Wendy houses painted on them, and you made sure to walk equidistant between them, as balconies and other bits were said to fall off them regularly. (A few people assured us that this story was a wind-up, and yet there were worryingly matching chunks of masonry on the ground by some of the blocks.) There were shrines in glass cases that led to the small industrial areas that ring the town, water towers that looked like Byzantine domes, and the brown brick of classic pre-war German Silesian housing, known as familoki or familie lokat, and the forlorn-looking ground of the Piast football club – the season takes a break for the snow – whose fans were certainly, er, dedicated. There is the Kłodnice, a black, polluted river, a market full of Eastern Bloc goods and characters, soot-faced miners with horses and carts selling excess coal, Gypsy women and babies routinely dumped on the town from a lorry on regular days of the week to get out there and make a living, grannies in formal clothes but with moonboots, and middle-aged housewives who insisted on wearing stiletto heels, even in the snow. There is also the tallest wooden structure in the world, the tower at the radio station. This is where the Nazis attempted to start the Second World War in August, 1939: for Gliwice was once Gleiwitz, and was once in Germany, and the Nazis came up with a ridiculous fight-starting ruse, the concoction of a ludicrous story about the Polish army attacking the radio station. It didn’t work, though that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who unfortunately didn’t let such a thing set them back for long.
I missed my wife – of course I did. She came over to spend a couple of weeks with me at Easter. She was on holiday from her course, but had plenty of work to get on with for it when I was at work. Along with the rest of the country, we finally had the long Easter weekend off together.
Poland is, of course, a Catholic country, and Easter is much more important there than it is in secular countries. Lots of businesses close, as people either go to see relatives, or have them staying. What many of them do is visit churches with small baskets of eggs, to have them blessed by priests. It looks slightly comic, seeing all kinds of people, but mainly old women or younger women with children, walk through the streets towards the churches with their eggs. Some carried tiny, plain basket, others larger, flasher, beribboned ones, maybe with an elaborately-patterned szmata,***** or cloth, lining it. Some people have their baskets packed with stuff, and we joked that they were bringing their entirely weekly shop to be blessed. This scene was part of the backdrop of Easter in Poland, and we saw a lot of it, partly because that weekend we set off on a journey that took us to a few smallish, quiet towns whose churches were the main focus.
“Bless my eggs!” we said, did it as Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, made it into an expression from a Carry On film that had never been made – Carry On Easter, Carry On Poland, Carry On Catholics.
We’d got the train across the country to Lublin in the south east, and were staying in its Dom Asystencki, or student hostel, which, it being the Easter hols, was absolutely empty. It was kind of dull and kind of cold, kind of dimly lit, and kind of grim, but we didn’t care. We weren’t there to lie around in the hotel. With Lublin as a base, we ventured to some of the smaller towns in the area. I achieved a tiny and ridiculous ambition to send postcards to my relatives in Dublin that said, somewhere on them, ‘from Lublin to Dublin’, and wondered, as ever, if the two cities had been twinned, resolving to find out. (I looked it up today, 21 years later: they’re not.)
On Easter Sunday we had a three-hour coach journey along the eastern border to a town called Siemiatycze. Some of my wife’s family had come from there. Most of them had been murdered in the Treblinka death camp during the Second World War, but there were a few traces of them: her great great uncle had built the synagogue there, and the street his doomed descendants had lived in, ulica Szkolna, or School Street, was still there, though we weren’t sure whether their houses were still standing. There were also apparently the remnants of a small Jewish graveyard.
The journey was grindingly slow. Coach journeys could be up to 45 minutes slower than the advertised journey time, depending on whether the driver was a smoker or not; if he was, then there were plenty of stops for indulging in the noxious weed. This was one of those, with people shuffling out into a misty day to inhale either fresh air or tobacco. Most of the people on the bus were visiting relatives for Easter, and had luggage full of pungent salamis, cheese and children – it wasn’t quite steerage class peasants with chickens from a Kusturica film, but seemed surreally close to it at times. Many of the men on the journey were pissed as farts – this was at nine in the morning – starting off the celebrations early, and their breath was alarmingly toxic from a few feet away. And yet, this is not a moan. It was eastern Poland, and full of the old habits of a country that was, for a few years after 1989, divided to all intents and purposes, the east not getting the much talked-about economic trickle-over effect of the new capitalism: we’d chosen to go there, after all. Once we were moving again, the motion began to hypnotise me a little, and maybe I just imagined seeing the towers built on the eastern border, and a giant statue of a soldier, or was it an astronaut, left over from communist times. I didn’t imagine the fumes, the excited high-pitched conversation and pisshead laughter, or the tinny music on the driver’s radio, the people getting on and off at various spots along the way, the goodbyes, promises to be friends for life with other drinking strangers, waves full of affection that was genuine, if only for those drunken holiday moments that had all the possibilities of freedom and celebration in them.
Siemiatycze was a compact little town under a layer of fine mist. The crows made noises in the bare trees above us, their cawing rhythmic and insistent. I always imagine crows having Cockney accents and actually saying something including an insult that starts with c and ends in t – as if they were berating us for coming all that way to a town in which very few places except the churches were open. The people headed in and out of them with their baskets and their eggs, and that part of it was all as it had been in Warsaw, Lublin, Częstochowa. We watched them for a while, and made a search for a bar or café – we were hungry by then, having got up at sevenish – but none were open. We had to go back to the decrepit bus station, even more forlorn looking than these places usually are, to grab a coffee and a sandwich, and then resume our quest in the increasingly deserted streets of the town. We found the onetime shul, or synagogue, a building that was solid and functional, rather than elegant, painted yellow and, these days, serving time as a community centre; as with most towns in Poland, there was no Jewish community left to use it as a synagogue. Ulica Szkolna was similarly unremarkable, but we weren’t disappointed, as we hadn’t come to see great architecture or anything of great beauty or intrinsic interest. It was my ex’s commune and connection with a part of her past, that was all, and it was important to us, and to nobody else. We didn’t find the graveyard. Siemiatycze, though small, was bigger than we’d thought, and there was one bus back to Lublin that day – we really had to be on it.
We were back at the bus station early, then. Another drecky kawa turecka – the Polish version of Turkish coffee, which was, er, a work in progress – from the station café, and between us a rock-hard roll with sweaty cheese, the only one left.
My ex went to the loo, and took ages. A man and his two small sons came into the waiting room, and settled down on the bench near me, and near the tiny heater. We caught each other’s eyes, and he gave me a rather down-sounding greeting, let out a big sigh, held his hand palm up as if to say look at this place – what? Huh? Though in fact I was glad of it; it had turned very nippy outside.
He didn’t speak much English, and my Polish was pretty basic. He pointed to my wedding ring, worn on the third finger of my left hand, and then pointed to his own, as if in commiseration. I thought he was being a long-suffering comic henpecked husband from Carry On Poland, and was prepared to be uncritical but non-committal. In fact, it was genuine commiseration. He said to me, “Your wife is dead?” I frowned, and said, “She seemed quite chipper a few minutes ago.” Despite the jokey tone, I was a bit puzzled, and quite relieved when I saw her come back into the interior from the loo, swinging its key to hand it back to the babushka in charge of it. I introduced my wife when she got back, and the man nodded and grinned. He too was relieved, and anxious to explain to me that in eastern Poland the wedding ring was worn on the right hand, unless you’d been widowed, in which case you put it, like his, on the left hand. It was my turn to make commiserations, though it pained me and pissed me off that I couldn’t understand how his wife had died – that none of the words he used in explanation were familiar to me, none of the gestures – only that it had been the year before, and that he was taking the children to stay with his sister for the remainder of the Easter break.
The coach back to Lublin was near-enough empty. We chatted and gestured to the man and his two well-behaved boys, about nothing much, until he got off at some roadside in the middle of nowhere. The driver wasn’t a smoker, and the journey passed quickly enough. I forget exactly where we went that Easter Sunday night in Lublin. We were knackered, and past hunger. We went for a drink at a place that chucked us out as it was closing early, and then may have had an early night.
Easter Monday morning we woke early. We were starving by then. We went out in search of breakfast. Not one single place was open. We covered a lot of Lublin in our search. We got it: most places were shut because it was Easter Monday, okay, so we just had to find the places that were open. We’d appreciate our breakfast even more, then. We found nowhere. Even the lowliest burger shack was shut, the tiniest kiosk. We spotted people a long long way up a road making a small queue at a kiosk, and yelled with joy, but then it turned out to be a flower stall. Flower stalls were the only things open. You couldn't eat flowers, I was fairly sure, though I was hungry enough to do so by then. All the cafés, all the bars, all the restaurants, all the hotels, shut for the day. What about the cinema? We’d been there on the Saturday night to see, I think, Of Mice and Men. At least we could buy a bag of crisps or something – but no, shut. We finally went back to the grim room we’d decided we weren’t going to spend much time in, and read our books, listened to music from my Walkman through its little speakers, dozed, looked out the window. My ex found a Mars Bar in her bag. She’d bought it the week before, for a train journey, but had forgotten about it. That was what we ate, used a little penknife to slice it. It filled a gap. It wasn’t a three-course meal, nor even a hard sandwich with sweaty cheese – I’d have killed for another of them – nor an Easter egg, but it did its best. We had an early night, got up the next day to begin our trip back to Gliwice, but not before we went out and had the biggest breakfast we’d ever had.
*Silesia is the English name for this region, incorporating 'industrial Poland', but also the Czech border town of Ostrava. The Polish name is Śląsk, pronounced /shlonsk/
**I didn’t get to Ljubljana until 2009.
***The band's 1991 album. One of us had bought a cassette of it in the station, which had a fine selection of dodgy goods.
****Babushka is not a Polish word - the Polish word for little ole lady, or granny, is babcia, pronounced /bahb-cha/ I'm using babushka as it's more familiar to most readers.
*****The British and/or Yiddish spelling of this is schmatter or schmutter. My ex-wife and her family would use the word to mean anything from a wedding dress to a head scarf to a tablecloth to a tea towel to a dishcloth. In Polish it means only a dishcloth or rag of some kind, and is also the slang for bitch and slut. The North London Jewish use of it was in the manner of a put-down, which could be friendly or catty, depending on how proud people, usually women, were of their tea towels or tablecloths.
Thanks to "the two Joannas", Głuszczyszyn and Podhajska, for gently pointing out my various misuses of their fine language.
VERY EXCITED to be on London's arts radio station Resonance 104.4 FM tomorrow night at 10.30 in a show incorporating my novel of friendship, Poland, snow, trains and vodka, Laikonik Express. In collaboration with Johny Brown and The Band Of Holy Joy, we’ll be exploring some of the music associated with the book, or prompted by it, implied, inferred, or just made up on the spot. I’ll be reading some short extracts, and we’ll make a soundscape or two out of it all. Tune in to Resonance 104.4 at 10.30 PM Friday for Johny Brown’s much-loved Such a Nice Radio Show.
Elvis: rex futuris rex quondam, the once and future king of rock n roll, as discussed with a Parisien teddy boy
Paris has been on my mind recently, after my February visit. My first trip there was in the summer of 1980. I think of myself as very much post-punk by then, but looking back I still had the spiky hair, charity shop jacket, skinny trousers, and possibly plastic sandals, brothel creepers or winklepickers that still passed for punk four years on. None of that stopped me getting into conversation with a French teddy boy on the steps of Montmartre below the Sacre Couer church. I was slightly nervous. Punks and teds had long before made a truce in Britain, but, you know, this was a foreign country, and maybe trends and enmities lasted longer there – or maybe the decree that teds should hate punks had only just been translated into French and was now effective… If that was so, he didn’t seem to mind my being ‘the enemy’. I wasn’t that nervous, but, you know, I was on holiday, and was, sort of, grown up by then, so didn’t want to be going getting into a fight, for Chrissake.
“Elvis est Le King,” he told me.
I didn’t think so. I wasn’t one of those punks who’d cheered at Elvis’s 1977 passing, but he was somebody my mum liked, so I thought he was a bit naff, really – mums’ and dads’ music. Fresh in my mind, I suppose, was bloated Vegas Elvis, and not the cool young dude who’d broken all that ground in the 50s and made some fine records I now love. I thought I’d better not test this guy’s goodwill and say I thought it had to be a very long time since Elvis had made a decent record. Instead I latched onto a linguistic certainty. “C’est a dire,” I said, “Elvis est le roi.”
“Non non, le King,” he said.
“Yeah but… that’s… like, I mean… Ici, il est le roi, non? Le roi de rock n roll.”
“Il est le King,” the guy insisted. “Elvis est le King.” He seemed genuinely puzzled as to why I couldn’t take this on board, and soon got up to go, giving me a what-kind-of-twat-are-you-actually look but offering a handshake all the same.
At that time, French was the only foreign language I knew, learned, somewhat painfully, at school and unused and ignored for five or six years. What’s more, I’d never lived abroad anywhere, and didn’t have the experience or knowledge to realise that languages are living things, that they don’t always follow the rules in coursebooks. Just as we call a dead end a cul-de-sac in English, a heel shaped like a sharp knife a stiletto, a one-storey house a bungalow, the pleasure in other people’s bad luck schadenfreude, the French also incorporate a load of foreign words quite naturally into their everyday language, despite the disapproval of the Academie Française.
So at least I learned something from my meeting with the cheerful French ted. Firstly, he was right, and Elvis was at least the first king* of rock n roll. He also gave me a signpost to this kind of linguistic sharing, and to the rather disappointing knowledge that I could be pedantic, and wrong, in at least two languages. I could have made it worse: I remembered one of our French teachers telling us that in France teddy boys were known as yé-yé boys** (from the English yeah), so at least I didn’t insist on calling him a oui-oui garçon – he might really have hit me then.
*I couldn’t find a photo of Elvis wearing a crown – that would have been a bit crass, and I’m glad he was sensible – I mean, it must have been tempting. The search for Elvis Presley + crown did lead me to a photo of his dental mould. Hmm. Er, no: Google it yourself.
**Not exactly true, in fact. They were more like 1960s pop kids. Proper teddy boys would have beaten them up. And would have been very narked if I’d mistaken one for a yé-yé boy. Bloody teachers.
London-based musician with Clash covers band Clashback, among others. Writer of novels, short stories and pastiche Balkan tunes. Laikonik Express is out with Unthank Books; my stories are all over the place... in a good way!