Frothing in the Blog Space

The very real hurt of the transgender community will not go away. His Holiness can be trusted, I am sure, to take a long and measured view on the matter but not the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who rang me spluttering with laughter. Some oligarch – they did say but I have forgotten his name – was in Cannes to attend the launch of a film that he had paid for, and fell in love with a beautiful woman. It was immediately apparent to his entourage, though not to the oligarch, that she was a hooker but what did not appear until a critical moment involving the oligarch himself alone was that she was also a member of the transgender community. The oligarch had taken the position that love was love, but she had explained that he didn’t understand, she had photographs; he had paid her some money (a lot in the context of her published rates but not in terms of his budget for the trip) and the relationship had come to an abrupt end.

I was thinking, having got the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached off the phone, about how questions of gender, especially when seen from the perspective of the straight community, turn irresistibly into questions of sex. I recalled reading a piece somewhere by a member of the male gay community. He said that he welcomed the trend by which gay men were now almost universally respected as such and treated as regular members of the human community. This had gathered pace over the last fifteen years or so in a way that would never have been predicted during, say, the Thatcher years. But he missed being able to be a screaming queen, to be an outsider, and he missed being encouraged to at best seduce and at least outrage straight men.

When I told Popes Я Us about fooling around with Brazilian transsexuals I was of course lying; I was teasing them and attempting to provoke some outrage in return. I succeeded better that I hoped. I have not met many members of the transgender community. Those that I have met have all been quiet and courteous, except one who was terrifying. They were not screaming mimis, or whatever Julie Birchill’s phrase was. But the question of negotiating some sexual accommodation between straight man and transsexual, however remote the possibility, was unmistakeably there. Furthermore, I never got the impression that their greatest ambition was to be accepted as, say, a chartered accountant and an open member of the transgender community; they were happy to compartmentalise their lives.

Unlike the great Buffy Ste-Marie:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

She wrote that in the unregenerate 1980s. Now of course we would say:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be a member of the Native American Community
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

I suspect that there is much in the wonderfully on-the-one-hand–but-then-again-on-the-other hand apologia published yesterday by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor (what exactly does a readers’ editor do?). He wrote:

Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.

There, I suspect, we have it. Many members of the transgender community are getting on with their lives, quietly proud to have provoked Julie Birchill into wit and hysteria, and nearly all the noise is being made by ‘concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby’, or as we might say ‘busybodies’. Certainly that is what is suggested by most of the frothing in the blog space.

Taking of the frothing in the blog space, what a wonderful word ‘transphobia’ is. Spell Check, it becomes apparent as I type, hasn’t met it before. Literally it must mean ‘fear of across’. Presumably it acknowledges that useful neologism ‘homophobia’. This does not mean, as those of us with a dusting of the Classics might have assumed, ‘fear of the same’, but ‘hatred (it’s more than ’fear’) of members of the gay community’. So ‘transphobia’ indicates ‘hatred of members of the transgender community’. Of course we need such a word, if we are to really stick it to Julie Birchill, and I am sure that when dawn breaks in Seattle on Monday some junior employee of the Microsoft company will be beetling across the yard to the computer room to update Spell Check; but I can’t help feeling that it is a shame. For years I have used the word to indicate a pathology common in the crossword community: ‘fear of across’, and now I shall have to find an alternative if I am to avoid yet again giving offence. I should have trade-marked it. Popes Я Us would have done. But hindsight is a wonderful gift…

I was musing along these lines (as the even greater Anthony Powell occasionally writes, when attempting to crowbar a bit of straight-to-camera into his story) when the phone rang again. It was an overseas call, so it must I thought be either my investment manager in Geneva or someone trying to sell me insurance for my non-existent Bosch washing machine. It was of course neither.

Dominus vobiscum, said a now familiar voice.

Talk of the Devil.


Know you’re busy. Just a quick one.


His Holiness has a question.


What’s so good about jokes? You say that the desirability of Julie Birchill’s jokes trumps any right not to be offended. He asks in all humility, he says, being not only a good Christian but a German.

Has His H read the science fiction novels of E. Doc Smith? I said. I thought not. Let him do so. With E. Doc Smith, travel through hyperspace, which is impossible in terms of conventional physics, enables plot developments that could not otherwise happen. You can cross impossible distances in an instant. You can cut to the crucifixion. It’s the same with thinking and discussing, in addition of course to making us laugh. Jokes take us through hyperspace. Of course it brings risks. You may travel through hyperspace and come out in the middle of a supernova, in which case you’re dead. Or, in our case, you’re the subject of a wigging from the Observer newspaper’s Readers’ Editor.

I see. I will provide that to His Holiness translated into Italian.

Yes, or into German. The German Community is often unjustly vilified for not having a sense of humour. German will do too. And give him a copy of Triplanetary. You’ll have it in the Vatican Library. He’ll like it anyway, and he may even find material for a homily.

Thank you. And he has a comment.

Go ahead.

Tennyson. Only three memorable quotes, you say. What, he asks, and again he says that he does so in great humility, given your infinitely greater knowledge of English literature, especially in the secular space, but what, he says, about: Come into the Garden, Maud.

Memorable or what, he says.


Four, then.


Settling for Silver

The house phone rang.

La Rochefoucauld, said a voice, which rose during the last syllable to a little whinny.

What? I said. Is that you, Thumper? I can’t understand a word you say. Besides, she’s out.

La Rochefoucauld, he said, testily this time, for it was indeed Thumper. I know she is. The second most quoted. His Maxims.

Good try, I said, but no.

Whitney Houston then?

Only one attempt allowed at a time, I said.


I was touched that he was trying to help, but it really isn’t a guessing game. The answer is available to anyone who can remember and type the word ‘Google’.

Mr Putin, I reflected a minute later, undoubtedly knows about Google but probably can’t use it, having banned it.

Because the house phone rang again.

Putin here, said the voice. (This was in Russian.) Listen.

No, you listen!

I started (or as we sometimes say ‘embarked on’) an account of the man’s many failings.

I noticed, mid-tirade, that Mr Putin was giggling. This was uncharacteristic. The man has never before given any sign that he might have the least sense of humour – particularly as regards his many failings.

It was not Mr Putin at all, of course, it was the dawn chorus of the unattached having a laugh.

Fooled again!

I flushed red all over.

What a trite, self-satisfied little man La Rochefoucauld was, I thought minutes later – by what process of association I can only imagine. I was recovering my equanimity. I can’t believe that Thumper rates him. Probably he was just showing off.

And then, quicker than a finger up a choirboy’s cassock, here was Popes Я Us.

How on earth did you get this telephone number?

Popes Я Us cackled unpleasantly. It was clear that their dander was up.

Don’t trifle with Our Mother the Church, little man, they said.

They read me what sounded like a prepared statement. They allowed (or as we sometimes say ‘brooked’) no interruption. It was dreary stuff. In what they obviously thought was their killer point they drew my attention to the fact that BORGIA was a trade mark registered throughout the European Union in the name of none other than Popes Я Us.

Cut to the crucifixion, I said.

But that was it; they’d shot their bolt.

I had nothing to say, so silence ensued.

After a moment, they said:

Have you nothing to say?

I reconsidered.

Yes, actually, I said. Who do you think is the second most quoted person in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations?

Holy Mary Mother of God! ejaculated my interlocutor.


I hung up.

I had forgotten to say, God bless.

I don’t know what the great mystery is. The answer did surprise me, but there it is in black and white.

It is not Winston Churchill, Keats ‘n Shelley, Bob Dylan or even any of the personages in or behind the Bible.

The runner-up’s medal goes to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

How times change! If you had asked me before I would have said that Tennyson, although a top man in his day, elevated to the peerage for his poetical activities and a personal favourite of Queen Victoria, managed only three quotable things.

One, of course, is:

Ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum
The curse is come upon me said
The Lady of Shallot

(I quote from memory.)


Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

And that is memorable not because it is a good line but because his lordship had been too vain to wear his specs when he visited his local railway station and thought that trains (a recent invention) ran not on rails but in grooves.

Two quotes, two cheap laughs.

(In the interests of fairness and balance I should acknowledge Doug Cocks – Australian, ecologist and thinker – who regarded it as such a good line that he took it for the title of his book The Ringing Grooves of Change: Mid-future possibilities for the global system.

Doug Cocks and mid-future possibilities for the global system!

Making three cheap laughs.)

The third quotable thing of Tennyson’s is the whole of The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet. This reduces me to tears every time I hear or read it, partly because when I was a child my dear father used to sing The Revenge in Charles Stanford’s musical setting. The work is stuffed with good strong lines, but not A List quotes, I wouldn’t have thought; not the stuff to beat Alexander Pope into Bronze with.

This is my view. Who cares what anyone said a hundred and fifty years ago? We live in what Popes Я Us like to call the Twenty-First Century. And I’d be inclined to attribute Tennyson’s Silver to the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the Victorian age rather than any intrinsic superiority in the quotability space to, say, John Lennon. But since we have – since we have been blessed with – Oxford (that sweet city with her dreaming spires), the Oxford University Press and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, it ill becomes us to consider that we might know better than they do.

Or what’s a heaven for?

Son of Clarifications

The last post (as I understand it is called in military circles) proved to be controversial and I need to make one or two clarifications.

I received an email from the dawn chorus of the unattached. I wondered briefly why they didn’t leave a Comment, as my friend The Porridge Man, for example, would undoubtedly have done, but the reason is clear. They would have squabbled over choosing the password.

(I assume that you need to make up a password to leave a Comment. I don’t of course. It is one of the privileges of authorship. It comes with my registration with WordPress. I can even leave Comments on the blogs of other WordPress bloggers without providing a password. So I don’t know. But Marina, a good friend who has featured in these pages, has told me that she is unable to leave a Comment, not because she can’t think of one – she is after all a published writer of real books and a woman of acknowledged wit, compassion and depth of thought – but because it is too complicated.)

Anyway, this is what the dawn chorus of the unattached wrote, frothing figuratively at the mouth:

Of course your dear friend P is right. David Cameron is a werewolf. Bonjela said so in her blog. And what’s more, what’s more, Ed Miliband is a Jew.

I hesitate, sighing as always over the primitive Russian approach to Diversity. Live and let live is my motto. I also believe that there is good in all of us, irrespective of colour or creed. If David Cameron turns into a wolf at certain times of the month, good on him. Let him cherish those feral moments and channel them to stick it to the Frenchies and the Krauts.

And of course to the Russians themselves, now that their wilting population is to be massively augmented by Gerard Depardieu, as well (it is rumoured) as by Brigitte Bardot and other foreigners. These people apparently prefer publicly to embrace a regime that is prepared to condemn its own sick children to a lifetime of grotesque and squalid institutionalisation in order to make a cheap political point, rather than to do what any self-respecting Englishman would do and engage a competent tax accountant.

Greed as always calls to greed across national and racial boundaries.

Talking of which, the email from the dawn chorus of the unattached is followed almost at once by a message (I believe that they are technically called ‘bulls’) from Vatican City. This is from an organisation, no doubt a Papal quango of some sort, asserting independence from His Holiness but infested with placemen, always up for a bit of skulduggery if it will achieve a day or two’s relief from the great bonfire hereafter.

The organisation is called Popes Я Us, founded AD [no nonsense about the ‘Common Era’ from these lads] 50, Motto: Is the Pope a Catholic?

The message is written in almost competent English.

Popes Я Us regret my remarks about Pope Alexander, which they characterise as ‘cavalier’ and later in the email, when they get their second wind, as ‘second-degree sinful’. They point out that Pope Alexander was not so much an individual as ‘a brand’. There were Popes Alexander before and after the unfortunate VI and his demise, eaten away from the inside by a massive quantity of arsenic. They inform me that in what they call the Twenty-First Century we now know that it wasn’t arsenic anyway but a bad case of flu, and that this has been established ‘beyond peradventure’ by ‘Catholic scientists’.

(‘Beyond peradventure’! Do they get reruns of Rumpole on Vatican cable TV by any chance? And what in heaven’s name is a ‘Catholic scientist’?)

They draw my attention to the tomb of Alexander VII, which was designed by Bernini, is to be found in the Vatican and is generally regarded as rather good if you like that sort of thing.

I am happy to concede, and I have told them so, that the Borgia Pope was not the only Alexander, but I make two points to Popes Я Us. I do so with the modesty appropriate to a person who will undoubtedly burn throughout eternity for the mortal sin of having inspected the modern Roman church with its nasty buildings, lumpish music and leering priests, and decided against.

First, if I had differentiated Roderic Borgia from the other Alexanders it would have made my Pope Alexander/Alexander Pope joke completely unmanageable. And God hates more than anything a fumbled joke.

Secondly, if you are as big a bastard as he was you deserve to overshadow your namesakes. Alexanders I to V could not help their adopted Papal names but what on earth possessed VII? He decided voluntarily to take the name of a sexually incontinent mobster and mass-murderer who had died horribly after ingesting the only remaining phial of arsenic that was left after he had used the rest to poison his own enemies.

It’s as if the worthy Ed Miliband, on eventually achieving power, announced that he was changing his name to ‘Putin’.

Finally, thank God, someone who approves. The Hon Sec of a fan club for Alexander Pope writes to say how nice it is to see him acknowledged. He, the Hon Sec, lists the poet’s many virtues, all of which I endorse. He then points out that Pope is the third most quoted person in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Not many people know that – though it’s not surprising when you read what he said. But – third. Shakespeare first, obviously, and then who? Dickens? Homer? Groucho Marx? Goethe? Mr Putin? You’d never guess.

Being Sententious at the End of the Year

Sententious, moi?

It was the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, making a ponderous joke.

Why is everyone so sententious these days at the end of the year? Is it the truly awful things happening just off camera or is it the immanence of the Christmas angels?

These invisible canisters, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, of which you write. Yes! I can feel them swinging. When I dance. But – I’m told – they’re dangerous. They’re used for spying.

The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had come round with a Christmas gift. This was kind of them. It was a small black tin of sprats – shproty – in olive oil.

The subtleties of Russian cuisine are often lost on Westerners. Much of it simply tastes bland to us. Pelmeny, for example, Siberian dumplings served in sour cream liberally doused with warm water, taste to us like nothing so much as inadequately processed wallpaper adhesive, with lumps, but Russians will kill for them (as indeed for most things) and there are enterprises that will rush pelmeny to you day or night in an emergency.

Even Russian salad, which has the reassuring emotional qualities for Russians that chicken soup has for Jews and the Full English has for me, tastes to us a little on the boring side.

But shproty are an unmitigated delight: served with a big slice of St John bread to mop up the oil and a shot or two of vodka, a clear and tasty spirit that also hails from Russia.

Normally when the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached come round the better half treats them to a proper feed. I will wander down to the kitchen at odd hours of the late morning or early afternoon to find them holding forth with their hankies secured beneath their chins and the table spread with bread and butter, varieties of cooked meat and cakes. But she wasn’t in and I didn’t. I put the shproty somewhere safe, made a pot of Amy’s gunpowder and cracked into segments a bar of black chocolate with slivers of sea salt in it.

No, I said, you can’t feel the canisters swinging. They’re not real. I made them up. They express a very real psychological and spiritual truth with, if I may say so without false modesty, an affecting emotional force, but they are a metaphor.

The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached looked at me cunningly.

You didn’t make up no nothing, they said. It was your friend. You said. My friend told me.

I sighed.

My little secrets, all coming out. I made up my friend too. He was a literary device used to put forward an un-anecdotal concept anecdotally. I got the idea from Plato. His imaginary friend was called Socrates.

The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached made the noise conventionally indicated by ‘harrumph’.

If canisters are used for spying, you would say that.

They changed the subject.

That Amy, she has become sententious too.

I know. When I was in Great Secret Miss she told me an improving poem. Did she tell you?

About wind?

That’s the one:

A cold wind
Cools my congee
Ah! The first wind
Of winter

That’s it, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. It’s a haiku.

No it isn’t, I said. It has the wrong number of syllables for a haiku and haikus come from Japan, whereas Amy and congee – delicious rice porridge – come from China.

Of course, the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had to be right. They made a calculation on their fingers.

No, it’s the right number in Japanese even if not in the English translation. And Amy obviously learnt something else when she was in Japan. She was not just going around noting geishas’ hairy pudenda beneath their kimonos.

They did not say ‘pudenda’. There is a convenient Russian word and I’m afraid they used that.

For a moment they chomped on the chocolate. When their mouth was clear it was apparent that they had been using the moment to think further about sententiousness.

You English, they said, may think that we’re sententious people, but the Americans are far worse.

I don’t think you’re particularly sententious, I said, I suspect it’s the zeitgeist. And yes. The Americans are much worse.

Don’t you hate it when they call you ‘People’? People, we’ve gotta be kind to this planet of ours.

Yes. ‘You guys’ is bad enough, but ‘People’ is far worse.

We sighed together, confident in our own superiority.

Got to go, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. Something worrying about Santa’s elves. May be dangerous. Got to check it out.

Thank you again for the shproty, I said. They’re always a treat. Do you want to take the remains of the bar of black chocolate with slivers of sea salt in it?

Yes please.

There’s a second one. Would you like that too?

Yes please.

I wrapped them up nicely.

The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached struggled out of the kitchen chair, their clothing not made for rapid athletic movement: tight jeans with camel toe; high heels. I noticed as I had not on their arrival that the camel toe was subtly accented in Swarovski crystals.

Nice Christmas get-up, I said.

The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached turned on me a look of such conspiratorial lubricity that I retreated as if flung across the kitchen.

Mind the loose flagstone, I said, as I always did as they went down the path, with your high heels.

Oops, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached.

You OK?

Of course.

They dusted themselves off and picked up the chocolate.

It was a good thing that I had wrapped it.

Apotheosis Now

I am still rather vague, I said to Amy, about the second half of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

Like all good parties. If you remember it, you not there.

Yes, they said that about the Sixties, but look at all the volumes of reminiscences hitting the bookshops in time for Christmas. And most good parties provide incidents to remember, if not a narrative. I don’t remember much at all. There was the better half leaving with the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. She told me that they had already drunk the kefir and that they soon peeled off, most of them, some of them taking refuge in late-night bars and others finding benches to sleep on. I remember Parrot’s awful snores: not much more. Did you stay awake?

Oh yes. For a time.

So what else happened?

Tell me first about Thumper.

Ah, Thumper…

We had had a few days of Mariah Carey cover versions: different songs but you know how with Mariah Carey they all sound the same. They were always phoned through early in the morning. The better half was usually still dozing. Never a word introduced them; and no word afterwards: only the snap of Lycra replaced and the quiet breaking of the connection. Then there were a couple of days when there was no call, as if something major was in the offing. I guessed as much, and I told the better half to be prepared to record the next communication when it came.

It was just as well. He performed I Will Always Love You as recorded by Whitney Houston, but with a reckless coloratura that even she would have envied. It must have torn him apart: his anal sphincter if not his whole sensitive being.

I Will Always Love You that song with Harrison Ford as robot? said Amy.

Not Harrison Ford, not robot. He bodyguard, he Kevin Costner. Different film altogether. Harrison Ford robot in Blade Runner. No singing I Will Always Love You in Blade Runner.

In moments of stress I tended to take on her vocal mannerisms.


She reflected.

With sax solo?

The lot.

He brave man. He arse bleeding tatters.

And since then nothing, I said. It must have been the climax. But what a song to end on. Eat your heart out Mariah Carey!

Why Mariah Carey eat own heart?

Not really. It’s just a saying.

Not really…

Like ‘Dui niu tan qin’.

Dui niu tan qin’ in Mandarin?



But maybe it is not the end. Kurd Maverick was round the following evening and I played the better half’s recording to him. He said that he was gob-smacked. Actually, since he has lived in Germany for so long, his adjective was not ‘gob-smacked’ but something teutonically anal: not to be reproduced here but probably appropriate in the circumstances. Anyway, he made his own copy and said that he intended to sample it.

It’s astonishing, he said. That’ll be that. He won’t top it. You’ll hear no more from him.

Chance would be a fine thing, I said.

Of course, said Kurd Maverick, he may have pre-recorded it, stitched it together. But even so. That aching dying fall at the end! How does he do it! What genius! What muscle control!

He ask Dolly Parton permission? said Amy, sticking to the point and now prepared to acknowledge that she was familiar with the song. She write I Will Always Love You, not Whitney Houston.

He’s in touch with Universal Music, the publishers. They will administer the rights.

I wasn’t prepared to put up with Amy’s showing off.


(‘Dui niu tan qin’, by the way, literally means ‘to play music to a cow’, which is an expression that Chinese people sometimes use as we might say ‘to cast pearls before swine’. It was probably not an apt comparison but my command of colloquial Mandarin is sketchy at best.)

Anyway, enough of Thumper and his farts; tell me about the second half of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

You seen The Porridge Man since then?

I hadn’t.

I think he gone for good too.

That’s sad. I like The Porridge Man.

Sad and not sad. I like The Porridge Man too. I tell you what happen.

Everyone took the kefir, but The Porridge Man didn’t. He held back. Amy too held back for half an hour, and then took hers. Everyone else dropped off to sleep, and soon to dream.

You dream! You legs twitch like you bloody sick dog on Dornoch bloody Firth!

Dreamily, when everyone else had gone to sleep and Amy was succumbing fast, he helped himself from the bowl. He helped himself liberally. The kefir ran down his ample chin. Contented gurgles came from within him. His face, formerly bland and wheaty, became softer. His voice became creamier. His limbs became indistinct.

I said, You imagined it. You were half asleep and half dreaming.

Possibly I imagine. But when I wake up – and I wake up first – he absolutely gone. Instead, two things. One, many bowls warm creamy porridge, but not sickly rich creamy porridge but sweet and sour creamy porridge, made with kefir. Delicious. Two, address of supply and pro forma order form.

He gave his life…

Maybe, maybe not. The Porridge Man never quite like us.

It’s a great idea: start the day the way you mean to end it.

Pft, said Amy. Anyway, Great Secret Miss now sell The Porridge Man kefir porridge.

And those were the two apotheoses.

Affection, Logic, Grammar and Music

He farts! said Amy.

It’s the only conclusion I can come to.

Into the telephone!

Her voice fell in disbelief. English people’s voices tend to rise in disbelief but Amy’s falls.

Ah, she said.

She said ‘Ah’ with that particular intonation that can mean either ‘I know more about this than you can even guess’ or ‘I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about’. It is rarely possible to tell which.

We were discussing Thumper, the better half’s telephonic admirer. The other morning I slept late. It had been a punishing night with the dog. Interventions had been necessary at 1am, 3am and again at 6.30, two of them involving the garden hose and one taking place in a brisk squall of rain. Then at 7am he woke me again, and when I had irritably put on my dressing gown, sou’ wester and slippers and was encouraging him into the long journey downstairs he looked pityingly at me and returned to his bed. Furious and for the first time in the night I fell into a deep sleep, from which I was woken an hour or so later by the familiar sound of the better half on the telephone. It was her regular morning call.

Thumper, I can’t understand a word you’re saying.

This was as expected. It was always thus. But then she added:

All I can hear is your wind.

At least that is what I think that I heard. But I was half asleep, as I have explained.

She ended the call.


Of course.

He farts?

It irritates the better half when I interrogate her on that subject.

Tea, she said.

The tea comes from TFC, the Turkish food shop in Dalston. It is excellent black tea (they do a very good green type too) it is extremely good value and it is guaranteed to start anyone’s day in a cheerful frame of mind.

I returned with a steaming mug and to the subject.

(That last sentence, by the way, is an example of the figure of speech known as syllepsis, which in turn is a sub-category of zeugma. I can still vividly remember the day I first learnt about zeugma. Our teacher decided against troubling our young minds with the sub-categories, which I now know also include prozeugma, hypozeugma, diazeugma and hypozeuxis, and treated the entire category of zeugma as essentially one and the same; we were after all only ten years old. It was a golden summer afternoon at the very end of the 1950s. The sun streamed through the not entirely clean windows; modern window-cleaning fluids had still to be invented. From outside came the sounds of cricket. Some of my fellows longed to be out there too, but not me; I loved grammar lessons more.

And no, since we are discussing grammar, it should not correctly be ‘I’ rather than ‘me’ in the last sentence. ‘me’ is disjunctive not accusative, like ‘moi‘ in French.

The example offered by the teacher was:

He came by ship and by chance.

It has, you will agree, a classical feel to it.)

He farts into the telephone? I said to the better half.

What do you mean, he farts?

You said all you could hear was his wind.

Don’t be silly, she said.

I think he’s very shy, she added.

This didn’t get me much further.

Amy said: Was Thumper at the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party?

I don’t think so. I don’t think that he and the better half have ever met. And at the party she was with the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, talking Russian, which I don’t imagine he does. He may have slipped in, of course, unobserved.

If you don’t know, it doesn’t help. If you know people and see them with kefir, you know them better.

That’s why the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached disappeared before the kefir took hold. They didn’t want to be known better.


(See above.)

But that is another story.

She tried a different tack.

What do you think Thumper farts? If he farts.

You mean like God Save the Queen?

I was being facetious – as I thought.

Better half she say he is shy. Maybe he muscle control better than he control words. Maybe he make lovely music. With telephone, unpleasant odour-free. Too shy to express feelings in words. But with farting all possible.

Not God Save the Queen then.

Maybe All the Things You Are. With drum solo.

We shall never know.

Tsk, said Amy, who is never defeatist.

Express feelings more wholesome way, she said. Than thumping.


At end of thumping, she continued, there is snap of Lycra replaced. So you say.

Yes. I heard that.

And at end this time?

I replayed the tape in my mind.

I do believe there was.

So! Thumper must be farting songs. People can’t fart All the Things You Are, with drum solo, through Lycra. Lycra distort lengths of sound waves. Physics. Also through Lycra not loud enough for better half to hear. If you hear snap of Lycra replaced, must be farting songs. Logic.

I was not fully convinced, but I reminded myself that the Chinese invented logic millennia before we did in the West, at a time when we were still going on about our feelings, for Heaven’s sake. I imagined Thumper peeling whatever Lycra garment it was down over his buttocks, dialing the number and then applying the phone to his bottom, so as to perform a popular song expressive of his desires. I imagined the solitary rehearsal required, not to mention the beans consumed a given time before (that in itself involving getting up at an unheard-of hour of the morning) so as to prime himself to deliver the goods when the time came. It might or might not be wholesome: it was certainly thorough.

Later I cunningly caught the better half off guard.

All the Things You Are, is it? With a drum solo?



As so often the better half forgot that she had been mysterious earlier.

More Mariah Carey, she said.

I regard that as conclusive.

The Great Secret Miss Slumber Party

I miss the Court of Appeal judge, said Amy.

It was a quiet moment at the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. At least it seemed like a quiet moment at the time, but it got quieter later. A slumber party follows an entirely different arc from a normal party, which starts quietly, gets noisy and finally gets quiet again just before people go home. A slumber party has long stretches when absolutely nothing appears to happen, and those are often the best bits.

Anyway, this was a blip on the early part of the arc of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. In general it was still getting noisier but in particular there was a lull, Amy’s attention was not for the time being required elsewhere and there was time for a chat.

So do I, I said, but it was different for me. Our professional relationship as lawyers was inescapable. I had to treat him with a certain deference.

Even at my place?

(The judge had died before it had become known as Great Secret Miss.)

Less than anywhere else at your place, but still a bit. If I met him at a garden party I’d probably call him Sir.

If at garden party he not hanging on my tit, spilling kefir on Garrick tie.


The death and unintended relocation by private plane of the body of the Court of Appeal judge, clad like a modest Muslim woman in a jibjab, to Novosibirsk seemed to have passed off as unobtrusively as could be hoped. There were notices in the broadsheet newspapers which were vague as to the circumstances of his death, a memorial service in the Temple church but no mention of a funeral. The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had come up with increasingly paranoid and outrageous theories about what had ‘really happened’, but no one took much notice of them at the best of times. Of course I told nothing. Our dear friend P had a theory linking it all personally and malignantly to Mr Putin, but then most of her theories did.

He always want have sex with me, said Amy. I say no: you married people from Hampshire, I married people from Kettering: no sex.

The judge had been devoted to her and had followed her from Mr Lee’s opium den, which, despite all the benefits of kefir, must have been a wrench for him as it certainly had been for Mr Lee and his stakeholders. It may also have been the occasion of opium withdrawal symptoms on the judge’s part and, in consequence, questionable legal reasoning on the Bench.

I recalled as regards the question of sex, the judge and Amy a rare confidence that he had imparted to me once, as we sat on the divan together drinking green tea.

“Little Chinese girl. Got a hand into her knickers. Great success. She shouted, ‘Oh! Excuse me! I come!’”

Maybe he meant one of Amy’s girls rather than Amy herself. Maybe it was a story from his remoter past. Maybe he simply made it up.

I reflected not for the first time on the difficulties consequent on the absence among the Chinese and Russians, and to a large extent the English upper classes, of definite and indefinite articles. If he had said ‘the little Chinese girl’ or ‘a little Chinese girl’ the story would have been clearer even if still untrue. And now we would never know, as I certainly would never ask Amy directly.

Anyway, at that point she was called away. The moment had arrived for the unveiling of the new kefir: that made with The Culture.

I knew that there had been trial runs and that Amy was very excited about them, but this was the first time that the new kefir was to be made available to anyone outside a small circle of intimates, which excluded me.

People gathered round.

A number of familiar faces were there.

The better half was explaining in Russian some of the subtleties to the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who were responding with expressions of cynical disbelief.

The son had returned to the South China Sea, daughter one could not have brought my grandchildren and daughter three was in the North, but daughter two was there, Parrot on her shoulder. Parrot was enjoying a succes d’estime. His sampled speech on Kurd Maverick’s latest release Pieces of Eight had attracted the attentions of the music press and his articulations generally, unusual for an otter, particularly when overlying what the son strenuously maintained was semantic bedrock, had attracted the attentions of the scientific press. His photo graced the cover of the latest editions of both Q Magazine and Nature: a first, I believe – certainly for an otter.

Daughter two had become Parrot’s representative with the press and was making the most of it. Kurd Maverick, irritated as a composer that Parrot had stolen his musical thunder – the cries of ‘Pieces of Eight!’ were after all intended as no more than a witty embellishment to the master’s electronic concepts – and infuriated as a lover of dairy products that even Nature referred to the beast as ‘Parrot’ and not as ‘Rick Otter’, was sulking and had returned to Montenegro where he was properly appreciated.

No Kurd, I said to daughter two, stirring it. He would have loved to be at the conclusion of the story of The Culture, in which he played such a part.

Daughter two responded obscenely.

An American graduate had been dispatched, either at the behest or merely with the approval (stories differed) of Professor Chomsky to find out whether Parrot’s little brain was hard-wired with the great man’s Universal Grammar. This person hovered with a tape recorder a step behind daughter two, on whose shoulder Parrot sat looking as pleased with himself as might have been expected.

I caught the eye of Aubergine Small. He had abandoned his habitual disguise as an Edwardian washerwoman and was dressed as a rear admiral. Possibly, on reflection, that was his uniform on The Jolly Thought. He grinned and held up a sign:


A new friend was The Porridge Man, who had been introduced to me recently by my friend Céleste. His interest in dairy products was, he frankly admitted, not disinterested. As The Porridge Man, he said, my passion is relationships. Porridge and dairy products. Dairy products and porridge. But I believe, he said, that we’re in for something special today.

Amy uncovered a brimming china bowl and clapped her hands.

I don’t tell you, she said, about Apa’tman, great Golden Age Montenegrin warlord. I don’t tell you about Kurd Maverick, his great voyage and his great rescue by the ketch Scintilla. There are rumours about these. Rumours are best that way. I don’t tell you about this kefir, except one thing. It’s the best. It’s better than Mr Lee opium (and Pft, incidentally, to Mr Lee’s stakeholders). It’s better than chasing best of all possible dragons or sipping tastiest gin and tonic.

It’s even better than green tea.

It’s kefir at Great Secret Miss.

Have some!