Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.


To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”

Only Apparently Silly

“You’re having a house-warming party,” said Augustus Sly.

We were sitting as usual in his scrofulous flat rather than my new home: the one to be celebrated in the get-together to which he referred.

“We are.”

“To which all sorts are welcome: friends, work colleagues, family, neighbours.”

“Yes,” I said. “All sorts and conditions of men. Regardless of age, gender, race or sexual orientation. Lawyers. Even estate agents. Though no bankers.”

“But not me.”

“I draw the line at students,” I said.

“I am your amanuensis,” said Augustus Sly.

“You’re still a student. Look at you and your drugget.”

Augustus Sly stared at this soft furnishing.

“Is Amy invited?”

“You said she was a metaphor.”

“Ha,” he said.

Augustus Sly stared at his feet.

“Is she a metaphor?” he said.

“She is as real as you or me,” I said. “But when it comes to parties I draw the line at students and metaphors.”

“You’re just like Richard Dawkins, “said Augustus Sly. “He has no time for metaphors, if the reports in the newspapers are to be relied on. Curious, that. The full and sufficient response to much of what he has to say to us is ‘But, Dawkins, you silly, can’t you see that it’s a metaphor?’.”

“When it comes to parties I draw the line at students, metaphors and Richard Dawkins. He hasn’t been asked. Curiously,” I said, “he is a Follower of the blog. But he has an assistant, a graduate student like you, who prints it out and then removes all the metaphors before showing it to him in case they upset him.”

“For someone who hates metaphors,” said Augustus Sly, “he has a remarkably robust belief in his own personal myth. If the reports in the newspapers are to be relied on.”

“I don’t think that he hates metaphors, I think he is haunted by them. I expect his deathbed conversion to decent Anglicanism – in many, many years’ time, I hope.”

“Enough,” said Augustus Sly, “of Richard Dawkins. Your blog: a lot of activity recently, but all in the Restricted Access section.”

“Not all…”

“All except your bloody racist dog, whose charm, I have to say, does not emerge on the page.”

“Not racist,” I said.

“Whatever,” said Augustus Sly, waving a pudgy and not entirely ink-free hand.

“I worry about Jesus and the Rabbit,” I said, referring to the theme recently developed so vigorously – as those of you with the necessary permissions will know – on the Restricted Access section of the blog. “I worry about giving offence.”

“To Christians or to members of the lagomorphic community?”

“Either. Both.”

“No problem at all. Offending is good for Christians,” said Augustus Sly. “Matthew 5/11. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. And rabbits can’t read.”

“That’s a relief,” I said.

“It is filthy, mind,” said Augustus Sly.

“Ah, well, filth is a free-for-all these days. Unlike offending.”

Augustus Sly made his thoughtful face. When he does that he looks just like Clive Myrie, off the television, finger to forehead as often as not. “So often,” he said, “offending comes from an inability to understand the other fellow’s underlying point of view. It is lack of imagination, or just laziness.”

“Tell me your thoughts, Augustus Sly,” I said, “on this occasion, even though you are my amanuensis and not the other way around.”

“Did you see,” he said, “the story about the Cadbury products in Malaysia?”

“It passed me by,” I said.

“Cadbury’s make sweet food products to sell in Malaysia. (I think it was Cadbury’s: it may be another confectioner.) Anyway, there is a substantial Moslem population in Malaysia, so Cadbury’s (if it is them) have their products certified as Halal-compliant. But someone tested one of their things and it turned out to have traces of pig DNA in it.”

“A serious matter. Slipped though, that did. Some worker had a sausage roll for their dinner and failed to wash their hands, I imagine.”

“So you might think, and so Cadbury’s probably thought. They withdrew all the products, apologised grovelingly and instituted an investigation. But a group of concerned Malaysians was not satisfied by this response. It did not go far enough, they said. They pointed out that if a Moslem man (I didn’t gather that they were so concerned about the women) eats a sweet product with traces of pig DNA in it that will sap his manliness and even have the result that when on his eventual death he approaches the Judgment Seat, he will have “a pig face”, which will be a black mark in the Paradise department.

“From there it was a short step to accusing Cadbury’s of doing it on purpose,” said Augustus Sly.

For every man leaving crumbs in the bed there is a woman accusing him of doing it on purpose,” I said.

“For you and me,” said Augustus Sly, “the response, as with Dawkins, would be obvious. They didn’t do it on purpose because they don’t believe that stuff. The idea that a group of middle managers at Cadbury’s at one of those strategy meetings decided to introduce pig DNA into one of their little cakes so as to give customers pig faces post mortem and deny them eternal bliss is just silly. They didn’t think for a second that that would be the result. It’s just silly for the Cadbury’s middle managers but at the same time it’s entirely obvious to the group of concerned Malaysians.”

“Cultural assumptions,” I said.

“Crumbs? In the bed?” said Augustus Sly.

“It’s from an Ivor Cutler record,” I said.

“Of course it is. My father once had intercourse with a bear in Canada.”

We both laughed comfortably.

“See what I mean,” said Augustus Sly.

“Pure genius,” I said.

We laughed some more.

“Now can I come to your party?”

An Evil Haunting

I took Bella to West Ham Park. It is extraordinarily good at this time of year: buds on the trees; furtive women in the formal gardens taking cuttings (one of them hid her haul in her jilbab when she saw us coming); nutters with huskies on leads. Bella ignores the other dogs; investigates vernal smells and runners at their sweaty windings-down; takes an intelligent if uninformed interest in such cricket as may be taking place. First thing in the morning is best. The nutter ratio is higher at a time when good sane people are either in bed or Tube-bound to their work place, and even the sane occupants of the park stride around purposefully in their various directions like yachts setting out, for who knows what purpose.

Ijaz was standing at one of the gates to the formal gardens. He was dressed not in the crisp white clothing that he puts on for prayers, nor his green-for-Islam M&S slipover, but something amorphous involving track suit bottoms. He had contorted his body into a shape that was as unlikely as it was undignified. I greeted him as neighbour to neighbour.

‘Is that tai chi, Ijaz, that you’re doing?’ I said.

Ijaz spat.

‘Not stupid Chinese thing,’ he said. ‘It is activity traditional to my home.’

‘Gujurat State,’ I said.

Ijaz inclined his head.

‘Like yoga, is it?’

He spat again. We smiled at each other in a friendly way. I was about to be on my way, when Ijaz said, ‘Your blog much better this month. No smut. No black women receiving oral pleasure. The Street likes when there is no smut. Augustus Sly. Much better. Augustus Sly is your amanuensis, your Boswell, as we put it in Gujurat State.’

‘I never said that she received oral pleasure. Nor did the local drug dealer say so, although he might have wanted you to think it. It was all in the eye of the beholder.’

Ijaz came closer.

‘I have found very good internet website,’ he said. ‘Many, many black women, with big bottoms, giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure. This is between us as men, you understand. I can give you URL, if you have a pencil.’

I said sniffily that if my capacity for imagining black women giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure ever needed supplementing audio-visually I would rely on the excellent service provided by Messrs Google, thank you. Immediately I regretted being sniffy. If Ijaz finds certain matters suitable for discussion between us men but not for a public site available to his wives, daughters and staff, that is a cultural matter and not for me to criticise. I should, as Dame Jenni™ Murray so often urges me – often on postcards sent second class from Salford where I believe she now works – ‘check my privilege’.

If I want to write about such questionable matters I could after all put it onto the restricted-access part of the site, which Ijaz could then disable on his house computer.

Curiously, Augustus Sly was going on about the restricted-access part of the blog at our last meeting.

‘Not everyone can find it,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand that,’ I said. ‘There’s something, as I say, that you click on, and then terms and conditions apply so you have to click through them too. You managed it, after all, since you asked me about Jesus and the Rabbit, which isn’t on the public part of the site. Maybe some networks just can’t. You have a tablet. Maybe that’s it.’

I was flattering him with my reference to his tablet. As an academic, Augustus Sly is immensely proud of it. Although slim it holds not only a transcript that he has taken of the whole of this blog, including the restricted access part, all the way back to the French roadside whores – still for some inexplicable reason my most searched post – but also his notes for and initial fumblings towards his thesis on it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they want the restricted access stuff, they get a tablet.’

We were silent for a moment. Into the silence came a tiny sound. It seemed to come from the skirting board.

‘Have you got mice?’ I said.

Augustus Sly gave a short laugh.

‘Listen. It’s a voice.’

It was indeed a voice: small, high and querulous.

‘It was in the toilet,’ said the voice.

‘Goodness!’ I said. ‘That sounds like a South African accent. Am I right? And what’s a ‘toilet’?’

‘It does, doesn’t it? I think that ‘toilet’ is an old Afrikaans word for ‘lavatory’.’

‘I thought that there was someone coming out of the toilet’,’ said the little voice.

‘Can you see it? Or him?’ I said.

‘No, frustratingly. Only reaction shots.’

‘Does it do anything else? Does it say anything else?’

‘Sometimes it weeps.’

And indeed at that point a gurgling sound commenced in the skirting board.

‘It’s a good strong sound, that gurgling, for such a little chap,’ I said, ‘if it is a little chap.’

‘I think it’s a haunting,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Many years ago there was a man in South Africa who shot his girlfriend several times with a gun in the lavatory. He said that it was a mistake.’

‘One that any of us might make.’

‘I think it might be something to do with that. I don’t really mind, except when I’m trying to concentrate on my thesis. And I got a bit off the rent as a result. One isn’t in a position to carp at a bit of the supernatural in one’s student accommodation. Different in your day of course.

‘Boomer,’ he added under his breath.

‘I thought there were people in the toilet,’ said the little voice.

‘It sounds evil to me,’ I said, ‘incredibly evil.’

‘I don’t know about evil,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘but I’m not sure that it has the ring of truth.’

Restricted Access

Augustus Sly had some further questions for me, so we repaired to his rather dingy flat. Bella, our new dog, was with me and was lying on his drugget, rehearsing through the medium of REM sleep various encounters, remembered or imaginary, with sheep. Since her childhood, according to Battersea Home for Dogs, had been spent in London SW3, it’s probable that they were imagined.

(Imagine it. Brought up in a Crescent in Chelsea: the better half looked at the form when the Battersea person’s attention was distracted. Raised with certain expectations, with aspirations to wealth, or at least sophistication, and then turned unceremoniously over to adoption; taken to the far east. It’s better than a novel.)

‘I would like,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘to talk about the ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ sequence.

‘Is that really appropriate for your thesis?’ I said. ‘‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ is not available to casual visitors to the site. It is restricted access.’

Augustus Sly had evidently forgotten this. It did him, showing him to be a persistent follower of the blog, credit.

‘Yes, you have to sign on for it, when you become a Follower. There’s a special thing that you have to click. Terms and conditions apply.’

‘I had forgotten.’

‘People with ordinary unrestricted access don’t for example know Amy’s real name.’

‘I’d forgotten,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘The thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, seizing my advantage, ‘as it seems to me, is that Jesus is very small and the Rabbit is very big.’

‘Ah,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘I on the other hand thought that the point was that ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ was channeling and at the same time subtly subverting the Schopenhauer world view…’

‘Shopping?’ I said. ‘How?’

‘Very funny,’ said Augustus Sly mirthlessly, and put down his pencil.

‘I suppose I should ask,’ he said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘The other thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, ‘is that it’s rather smutty.’

‘I suppose I should ask,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘Not really obscene. A bit smutty, sometimes.’

‘In my dingy flat. As opposed to the chez vous celebrated in song and blog.’

‘Not its raison d’etre – but sometimes. ‘Dingy’,’ I added. ‘No, no.’

‘A student,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘That’s me. Student loans and so on.’

‘Druggets,’ I said.

‘Got it,’ Augustus Sly said.

Bella stirred in her sleep.

‘When I think of Schopenhauer,’ I said, ‘of whom to my shame I know little, I always think of those novels designated ‘S&F’, and I wonder if there was also a German philosopher called ‘Fuckenhauer’.’

Augustus Sly sighed.

‘But your question,’ I said, deserves an answer.’

The main building work on the chez nous celebrated in song and blog was complete by Christmas and we moved in. Since then however there has been a succession of little jobs that needed to be done, carpentry mainly, and our house has been shared, as it seems, by Ukrainian workmen. Every morning they hammer on the front door and I struggle down to let them in, since if I have a shower they will undoubtedly arrive just as I step into it. We call them Ukrainian but that is by no means certain. One of them may be Polish, although the real Polish builders say otherwise, and another claims allegiance to one of the Baltic states, but the songs that they sing are as far as I can tell Ukrainian, and that is good a test as any. Bella likes them, wherever they come from. It is irritating to have to take the long way round on one’s way to the sink, to avoid the bottom of a man who is crouched and addressing himself and his paint brush to the skirting board, but since he is addressing himself to my skirting board and at my request that is unfair.

‘And that,’ I said to Augustus Sly, ‘is why we’ve come to see you instead of the other way round. Bella may get bits of drugget on her lovely coat in your dingy flat but that is better than gloss paint, and I frankly have had the whole thing up to here. I’m fed up with the sight of them. And so is the better half.’

‘Can Bella talk?’ said Augustus Sly, picking up his pencil again. ‘In your blog?’

I didn’t tell Augustus Sly a further problem with the Ukrainians, since it is none of his business. We had noticed that one of them looked and smelled (a particular attraction for Bella) like an alcoholic. Occasionally, too, he would fail to turn up to work at all on account of some vague and mysterious illness. This meant that I had to spend the entire day in my dressing gown, a further irritant. Then we noticed that, like a former senior partner at one of my law firms, he became less coordinated after lunch. I assumed that he was supplying himself with wholesome eastern-European beer from the local Turkish supermarket, but it turned out, when I went one evening to gloat over my small but exciting collection of single malt whiskies, that he wasn’t.

What would have been wrong, I thought bitterly, with the Bells and the Morrisons Gin, the holiday grappa and the dodgy vermouth in its sticky bottle: all sitting there next to the almost empty bottle of Ledaig and all intact?

The better half became determined to help him. She is like that. It is, she said, after all an addiction: what the NHS is for.

‘Ah,’ he said, in Ukrainian, Polish or possibly Latvian, and with a sigh, ‘if only it were so simple.’

He explained that the HHS was restricted access: free at the point of delivery but only for those with gas bills.

And so it turned out.

‘Of course she doesn’t,’ I said. ‘She’s a dog.’