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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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Tuesday, 2 March 2021

It could be your best friend

Ox (above), water buffalo (below). But
don't take my word. Use your dicker!
 

Skimming through someone’s words I noticed: An ox is not a water buffalo.

Ox (more particularly its plural: oxen) goes a long way back with me. I first sang "Once in Royal David's city" in primary school. The carol, popular in the UK, includes the line "… with the oxen standing by..."

This made me think. My English vocabulary, like most other people's, consists of words which

I HAVE NEVER VERIFIED IN A DICTIONARY

Take "frying pan"? There's no need, is there? A frying pan is self-evident. Quite different from "hermeneutics" which I have looked up at least half a dozen times and promptly forgotten.

There are other words I’ve looked up, less well-known than "frying pan" but not exactly obscure. A teacher asked students what “democracy” meant. Most could only come up with "regular elections". But would I have done any better? It turned out there was a lot I'd forgotten. Much worse, there was a lot I'd never known.

But where to start rectifying this? Unverified words form most of my vocabulary, thousands and thousands. Perhaps I should start with "frying pan".

For starters, I checked out ox and water buffalo. Yes there was stuff I hadn't known. But should I have known this stuff?  

Ox: a castrated bull used as a draught animal.

Ox: any domesticated bovine animal kept for milk or meat; a cow or bull.

Ox: used in names of wild animals related to or resembling a domesticated ox, eg, musk ox.

Water buffalo: At least 130 million water buffaloes exist, and more people depend on them than on any other domestic animal. They are especially suitable for tilling rice fields, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than that of dairy cattle. 

Only about 40,000 more to go.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Inaction as a means of walking

Wanna launch a blog? About walking, say? Long walks, uphill (but rarely downhill), drenched in rain, working up a rant, heretical discoveries (eg, driving to the start turns out to be the best bit), knocking off numerical targets, talking or remaining silent, trajectories with a purpose (eg, finding a loo), forgetting and remembering, boasting about fashionable kit.

Age may reduce the above options. Shorter walks mean more attention to detail. Shapes of trees, styles of fencing, comical sign-posts, funny hats, unidentified flowers, varieties of rubbish, clouds resembling domestic vegetables. 

Greater age may compel even shorter walks which rely on literary devices. To the post office adds drama; to the plumber causes gloom. Teenagers overtake you and you look the other way. Pierre Allains (Wrongly employed but why not?) are out of place en route to the library.

Leading to the shortest walk – the one without walking. The imaginary walk. A whole new world! Huge benefits: no need to leave the house, meals need not be portable, thirst isn’t a problem. Wearing PJs is entirely acceptable. 

Take this proposition: from dozing in bed to standing, legs apart, in front of the en suite porcelain. It takes time, I kid you not. A twinge (“down there”) sets the idea in motion. Ten minutes elapse between lying down and sitting up in bed. Slippers (Damnit! Downstairs!) give way to bedsocks ; oh the bending, the contortions, the heavy breathing. Time flows like tar in winter. Finally you’re standing, but is this a temporary or permanent state? Bright spot: falling down takes no time at all

But here’s the thing. There’s no actual need to disembark for the en suite. You may simply daydream it. Adjusting the temperature. Flights of angels may accompany you. The compass gathers dust.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

With a machete in the Groves of Academe

Same exam board, eight
years later. Note the minatory
bit in bold letters

Back in 1951, after I’d started work, I got my GCE O-levels: English Language (pass), English Literature (pass), Maths (pass), Art (pass), German Oral (pass). As to History, Geography, Divinity, etc, zilch. 

Pretty bad news. Granted I was already earning money but prospects for a secondary career – as a cyberspace intellectual – looked thin. Thank God cyberspace hadn’t been invented then.

The results were worse than they seem. Forget Eng. Lang/Lit, I never regarded them as legitimate subjects. I spoke the lingo and read books so what’s to know? I could have spelled “accommodation” if asked. I wrote a 600-word essay on journalism and finished it before half time. Re-wrote it more legibly.

In the Art exam I was asked to illustrate this: It has just gone dark. A bonfire has been lit in the grounds of a country house. Fireworks are going off.

Cunningly I devised a layout viewed from behind the country house. Thus 75% of the space was occupied by the house’s black silhouette. The action was squeezed into what was left. Motto: don’t work harder, work smarter. Bingo. An O-level.

In German Oral I merely gave the examiner my whole German vocabulary, albeit as a list, not joined up in sentences.

Which leaves Maths. Which I dreaded. One question occupied a full page in the four-page set of questions. It concerned a copper ball to which obscure things happened. Certain aids (The coefficient of expansion of X, the ratio of Y to Z, Avogadro’s Number, though I can’t be sure) were provided. Proof, surely, that the question was so hard that lame-brains like me would need help.

Where to start? Did I finish in time? No one else in my class even attempted it. Perhaps the Gods intervened.

My elevation to  intellectual arrived equally by chance.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Withered

Flower-shop, East Tremont, The Bronx. Rusting vases stacked outside; phone echoes in the near-empty display room.

Fabienne: Yeh….  No good news, Mr Fahid. I’ll be out by five as agreed….  You’ve done your best. ‘preciate that… Yeh, yeh. Floors swept… Least I could do… Hard sell, sure. She laughs. Hard place to sell flowers.

A small spirit stove heats water. She spoons Maxwell House into a cup. Cars roar past. Time shuffles. Doorbell tinkles.

F: Hey, Gramma Damrosch. Coffee? Black’s all I’ve got.

GD: I got milk.

F: Guess you know the bad times. Take my chair. I’ll use these crates.

GD: You cheerful. What’ll you do?

F: Leave this stinking city if I had the dough. Reminds me of my ex. Jersey, by the ocean would be good. But I’m dreaming. A diner’s more likely; the early shift.

GD: I’d buy flowers…

F: No, no. Your husband… Pick a bunch, my gift. You bought when you could.

GM: Roses, once. Pauses. Just once.

Late afternoon, getting dark. Doorbell.

F: Hey, you’re young to be buying flowers.

Grins. Black, too.

F: I didn’t say that. Hey, not much to see. Last day, I’m closing.

He: Shit.

F (Intrigued): Why should it matter?

He: Mom’s birthday but I was short. Got myself a deuce now, and an idea. Flowers. Forget cooking and cleaning. But you’re bust. No other flower shops on Tremont.

F: Five bucks. Make up your own bunch.

He: Better you do it. Telling me what I’ve got

He leaves, swaggering with this new thing, a bunch of flowers.

Potted fuchsias, dahlias shrivelling, mimosa clusters; into the garbage. For herself a lily – almost pristine. Recalling her efficiency and its unmade bed she hands the lily to a bemused cop outside the subway.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Ah, that special "smack"

No American I subsequently met ever asked why I - wedded a mere four years and with a daughter of two - up-sticked from London and started work in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t an abrupt decision. The planning and its execution took a full year and I had to persuade the US Embassy I didn’t intend to overthrow the Johnson administration.

If anyone pondered they probably imagined we’d been gently starving to death under a socialist tyranny. Our neighbours were vague about “overseas”

In fact my reasons were complex and once we’d turned on the heating in 3214 Annapolis Avenue I quickly forgot them. Which is not to say I wasn’t happily reminded.

The guy I finally worked for – a physicist who fancied launching a magazine – played right-field with the Jugoslavs softball team. Just a name, I assure you. Although I’d bought a glove and fielded grounders with the local kids, I had no higher pretensions. On Tuesday evenings I watched the Jugoslavs play. After which, beer and a KFC tub at the Jugoslav club.

I’d become an obsessive about baseball. Softball is baseball watered down. What surprised me was the sporting competence of these guys, some “getting on a bit”. Confidently taking high hits in the outfield, humming the fat ball into the plate.

There’s a special “smack” when a hard-hit ball ends in a fielder’s glove. I can hear it now and I’m transported to that scruffy field, sitting on a bench, wondering whether Ken, my boss, is going to hit safely. Nothing evokes the nature of the USA more precisely; the competitiveness; the good-natured shouting; the prospect of beer. It wasn’t a prior reason for disrupting my London life but it became one. Retrospectively.

Bat and ball in Elysian Fields.

Friday, 12 February 2021

On the Eastern Seaboard: part two

New readers. Read Part One first. Not that I’m guaranteeing anything, you understand. 

RR: Barman!

Barman (He’d been listening): Remind me.

RR: Martini straight up, Tanqueray, three ice cubes in the shaker, with a twist.

The barman nods towards Oxblood staring out at Central Park.

RR: Better ask him. He’s not with me

Barman: Sir! Buddy!

Oxblood turns slowly, as if suddenly finding himself in the Gents. 

Oxblood: Er… Brandy Alexander.

The barman looks at me and I look back at him. Both heavily silent.

Oxblood: I been thinking. Just can’t find the right words.

RR: Not good in your line of business.

Oxblood (Briefly terrified): Wha..a..!

RR: Media, surely. Slip-ons with no socks.

Oxblood: Shee-eet.

The Brandy Alexander is served. The barman and I watch on. Oxblood sips, realises we’re spectating, and gulps off the whole drink. The cream leaves him with a white moustache. He seems strengthened.

Oxblood: Got a sort of intimate question.

RR: Shoot.

Oxblood: You have any success…?

RR: Success?

Oxblood: Y’know. With women?

RR: Not in the UK, it’s why I left. American women have shown some slight interest. College types.

The strength drained out of his face. He stared down at his sockless feet.

Oxblood: You’re shitting me. Foreign shit.

RR: Why would I do that?

Oxblood: Acting superior. Being a Brit.

RR: Bet you earn three times as much.

As if I’d handed him a crutch.

Oxblood: Yeah! Sure! Four times at least! (Looks me up and down.) This shirt’s Armani, fr’instance.

RR: Something to talk about.

For the first time he realised what a bastard I was.

Oxblood: So what do you talk about?

RR: You guessed it. Hygiene. I slay ‘em.

A long pause while the sun went down.

Oxblood: Never done a martini. Should I try one?

Thursday, 11 February 2021

On the Eastern Seaboard, part one

 

There’s $100 in my wallet and I’m into my third (out of six) martinis at the near-empty Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar, NYC. A man, one-third my age, wearing oxblood slip-ons without socks, looks my way for fifteen seconds, sits next to me at the bar.

Oxblood: Brit, eh?

I nod.

Oxblood: I can always tell.

I say nothing. He waits. Says: Sheesh.

I say nothing.

Oxblood (Rising impatience): C’mon. Don’t you wanna know why?

RR: I can guess.

Oxblood (Waits): Well, guess then.

I shake my head.

Oxblood: Guy, you could be wrong.

RR: I dare say.

Oxblood: You wanna get up my nose? That’s it. Up my nose.

RR: It’s kind of on offer. Your nose, I mean. But no, I’d rather not.

Oxblood (Mumbling): Trying to be friendly.

RR: No, you’re not. This is Noo York City. You’re putting me down. Trying to. (Deep sigh) For what it’s worth, it’s the chinos.

Oxblood (Astonished): You knew!

RR: As I said, it’s The Big Apple. Predictable as winter after fall. The answer’s going to shock you, but… hey! The answer’s: every six months, sometimes longer.

Oxblood (Mouth, half-open, stays that way. The pure village idiot except this is the self-described City of Sophistication. Gulps in air, starts to stammer): I can’t… I just can’t… Look, let me get this straight. How can you…? No, first things. Is that a martini? Lemme…

RR: I buy my own drinks.

Oxblood (Struggling to smile): Kinda rude, eh? I thought you Brits were supposed to be polite.

RR: Best I pay my own way…

Oxblood: The Plaza’s not cheap.

RR: I know that. You buy me a drink, we talk, soon we argue. You get angry, call me a panhandler because you bought me the drink. New York’s so predictable.

(More follows)