Tag Archives: Santa

An Unusual Use for Vaseline

“’Really Quite a Bit’?” said Mr Singh, a representative of Newham Council.

“Yes.”

“Yulification-max?”

“Yes,” I said.

Mr Singh sighed.

“If I had a pound for every time I have to see to the consequences of some idiot who turns the yulification dial to ‘Really Quite a Bit’ without considering the consequences, I wouldn’t be considering strike action having regard to my pension rights,” said Mr Singh. “Which I am.”

“I’m sorry. It was the night terrors.”

I had thought it best not to identify Mr Putin as the subject of my night terrors and the possible occupant of my chimney, in case questions of diplomatic immunity arose.

Mr Singh sniffed.

“We’ve tried pulling,” I said. “Quite hard. And I’m afraid that he’s becoming a health and safety issue. He leaks.”

I thought that this was a cunning touch.

“Well, some years ago when I joined the service, I could have dispatched a task force. But the cuts, you see, the Tory cuts!”

He spat meaningfully into a sponsored cuspidor.

“Regretfully,” he said, “I have no longer a task force at my disposition. Have you tried the Fire Brigade?”

“No, I thought it best to consult yourself.”

I know that ‘yourself’ is ungrammatical, but by emphasising his personal role I was trying to flatter him.

“Actually, there’s probably not a lot that the Fire Brigade could do that you couldn’t do yourself with the liberal application of Vaseline.”

“Vaseline! But – can you supply me with such?”

“Fortunately,” said Mr Singh, “I still can. Please fill in this form.”

As we left he said, “Just be careful of the sack.”

I smiled grimly.

A barrel of Vaseline takes some shifting, and it was some hours later that I was rolling it up my street, with Bella at my heels, getting in the way. Aubergine Small had generously agreed to meet me there. It was immediately clear that he had addressed a problem that had been worrying me: how to get the Vaseline up the chimney and surrounding the little dictator. He produced shyly but proudly from about his person something resembling a giant bicycle pump.

Donning rubber gloves, I gave the protruding leg an initial tug. As expected there was a distant groan of ‘Horse Potty!’. Was there a hint of movement? Mr Putin was getting smaller with each succeeding day of no food and drink, after all, although his notoriously pumped-up torso was likely to be a problem given the domestic scale of my fireplace.

“We must be careful not to suffocate him with the Vaseline,” I said to Aubergine Small.

He gave me a look that was pregnant with meaning. It was as if he could speak. ‘Dictators come and dictators go. What matters most is that your chimney is clear and free for Santa this Christmas.’

He searched through his bag and produced a card:

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

“Yes?”

He tore off a scrap of paper.

RUSSIA IS ALREADY BECOMING A BIT BALKANISED, IF THIS MORNING’S FT IS ANYTHING TO GO BY

He went at it with a vengeance. Quantities of Vaseline disappeared under pressure up my chimney. Unfortunately some of it came back down mixed with Mr Putin’s leakages. Bella sniffed a couple of dollops in the grate, gave me a pained look and went to lie down in the spare bedroom.

ANOTHER TUG

“Mind the kelim.”

You can tell that my mood had changed to one of optimism. I really believed that we might get him out.

And eventually we did. The biggest problem was the second leg, which had got itself caught behind the one that was already protruding. After that the rest followed relatively easily, although Aubergine Small indicated that we should take special care with the head. The torso had not turned out to be the blockage that we had feared. Suddenly, my night terrors flooded back to me. I attracted Aubergine Small’s attention.

“Aubergine Small, I just can’t stand to see the parting: his horrible neat parting. It’s probably got ruffled in my chimney, but I can’t take the chance.”

He smiled affectionately and indicated that I should look the other way; he could manage the last bit. There was a sucking noise and then a thump. He invited me to turn round. Mr Putin, or at any rate someone who looked like him, was collapsed on my kelim with a pair of my underpants on his head hiding his tonsorial arrangements.

“Good work,” I said to Aubergine Small and then turned to the other man. I thought it best to get my retaliation in first.

“What exactly were you doing in my chimney?”

I spoke in German. I believe that he is at his best in that language because of spending his formative years in Dresden clerking for the KGB. However, he didn’t answer.

Aubergine Small put a sign in front of me, where the other man couldn’t see it.

ANY DEMANDS RE UKRAINE?

“No point,” I said. “If it’s really Putin, he’s a liar. He’d say anything. I’ll take a photo though, just in case of future trouble.”

And I have it. The man is smeared with Newham Council’s Vaseline and his own faeces and he has my underpants on his head.

He squelched towards the door, with, I have to admit, surprising dignity.

“Leave my underpants at the door,” I called. “Carpet bagger.”

“Do you think that that was really him?” I said to Aubergine Small when he had gone.

GOODNESS KNOWS. BUT YOUR CHIMNEY IS YOUR OWN AGAIN

“Did you see his parting?”

Aubergine Small indicated yes with a nod. But his face went white at the memory.

“You’re a braver man than I am,” I said.

Then the same thought struck us at the same time.

“The sack!”

If the parting was a horror, the contents of the sack were ‘Really Quite a Bit’ horror. Since this is a blog occasionally consulted by the impressionable I will describe them only on the restricted-access section.

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He’s Only Half Way There

“I think,” I said to Amy, “that I have got that Mr Putin half way up my chimney. Or as he would regard it, half way down.”

I couldn’t help regretting that there was no way to share my predicament instead with Augustus Sly, but he is in Vienna following up my neighbour Maria’s bottom. He would probably have had something sensible to offer whereas Amy was always more likely to shout.

“You got in your chimney how? I saw him at G20, on television.”

I started to tell her about my night terror and my fateful and clumsy use of the yulification ‘app’, which had had the effect of making a bad situation much worse.

“I know. I read this. But how you know it’s Putin?”

“I don’t, of course, and of course I saw him at the G20 too. That may have been a double. He wouldn’t have wanted to have a full and frank exchange of views with Angela Merkel himself – who would? – or with our own Mr Cameron, bless him, so he may have sent a stooge. Lenin would do that, expose someone else instead when there was any risk to his personal safety. It’s certainly someone Russian. I twisted the Cossack foot. From the depths of the chimney breast I heard a faint cry. They said, ‘Horse potty!’.”

“’Horse potty’?”

“It’s a mild but characteristic Russian ejaculation. Like ‘Goodness!’.”

“Did it sound like a little dictator, to judge by the vocal quality?”

“It was too faint to tell.”

“What say the better half? Her bedroom too.”

“She’s keen to put it to political advantage. She shouted up the chimney – and she has a penetrating voice. She said, ‘Withdraw your troops from Ukraine and we’ll let you out!’.”

“What he say?”

“He said ‘Chto?’.”

“’Chto?’?”

“What? It means ‘What?’. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear.”

“Cunning bastard.”

“Being a cunning bastard is one cornerstone of his successful career.”

Amy thought about this.

“I wouldn’t just say leave Ukraine. I’d say: free press, free elections, no more murders, no more lies and a substantial contribution to your extraction expenses taken from the budget for his enormous new dacha near Sochi.”

“It’s hard to ask for anything complicated if all he says is ‘Chto?’. The better half thought that if we did something unpleasant to a toe it might make him hear better.”

“Or,” said Amy with the subtlety for which the Chinese are famous, “you could tickle his sole.”

“I thought of that – but I don’t think I could bear to touch him. Also, I’m not sure that I want to descend to his level, even to help the people of Ukraine.”

There’s an issue,” said Amy. “Ends and means. We can debate this.”

“My friend Theo says,” I said, “that he is a strong leader holding his country together and that without him Russia would become dangerously balkanised.”

“Bollocks,” said Amy. “They said that about Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. Anyway, he is not holding anything together now. He’s in your chimney. Maybe we leave him there and see if Russia balkanised.”

“I wish it was that simple, Amy. Unfortunately he’s started to leak. He’s dribbling into the grate. It smells bad. The better half doesn’t like it. Even Bella turns her nose up, after some initial interest. We could go to the spare bedroom until either he empties or Russia balkanises itself, but that’s only a temporary solution.”

What would you have done? We decided to think it over.

Half an hour later Amy sent me a text:

PUTIN/SANTA HE GOT SACK AND PRESENTS IN CHIMNEY?

It was a pertinent question but one for which I had no answer. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t ask.

A few days went by. Russia didn’t get noticeably balkanised. Someone who looked like Putin continued to appear on state television and point out the hypocrisy of the West. They accuse Russia of political murder, he said, but what about the Northern Line? Who are you to point the finger? The leakage eventually fell away but the smell became appalling. The better half said, “You’ve got to do something.”

“What about independent Ukraine?” I said.

“Geopolitics is immensely complex,” she said, “and I want my bedroom back.”

I put a handkerchief round my hands and tugged at the leg. Nothing moved. There was another cry of ‘Horse Potty!’, but far weaker this time. Whoever was up there, Putin or not, ensacked or not, they were alive: but this was a condition whose continuation indefinitely could not be relied on.

I called round to see Aubergine Small. Strength and resourcefulness seemed to be called for. It crossed my mind to find out if The Jibjab Woman would help, but I didn’t know where she stood on a resurgent Russia and I didn’t want to offend her. Aubergine Small assessed the situation. He also twisted the leg, but could get no purchase. All he got was another weak cry of ‘Horse potty!’. Muttering to himself (or what would be muttering if he had the wherewithal; Aubergine Small is dumb and converses by the use of pre-printed cards), he took himself off and the next thing was that I heard him on the roof. He was prodding a bit of wire into the chimney from above. This time there was silence. He returned to the bedroom.

He produced a card:

SILENCE!

“What does that tell you?”

He demanded paper. This was a circumstance without a well-known phrase or saying.

IT IS THE DICTATOR WHO DIDN’T CRY ‘HORSE POTTY’ IN THE NIGHT.

Without his cards he can be quite prolix.

“You mean…”

YES. HE HAS A SACK AND IT’S ABOVE HIM. THIS IS MORE SERIOUS THAN I FEARED.

Aubergine Small threw himself at Mr Putin’s leg with a passion. For thirty minutes he tugged, but to no avail. Sweat on his brow, he faced me.

A. SMALL FAILS!

THERE’S ONLY ONE OPTION

“?”

He seized the pad.

NEWHAM COUNCIL!

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Really Got Those No Sleep Blues

Bella has her own bed in the corner of our room. She is not encouraged to come onto ours although she likes to very much. This is because when she is relaxed she tends to leak; she has what Dale, her vet, has identified as an unexpectedly short urethra (I hope that she won’t mind my sharing that with you): USU for short. She sleeps on her grey blanket and under her white blanket. The rule is that when she wakes up I get out of bed and cover her all over with her white blanket. By this stage it is usually a little damp: not because of her USU, because the lower one is dry; I try not to think about this.

She likes being covered. It reminds her of one of her favourite snatches of poetry:

They tuck you up your mum and dad
They may not want to but they do

My understanding of the rule is that I will continue to cover her up when she wakes but that she will be allowed onto our bed only when it is light outside. Her understanding is that after two coverings she is allowed onto our bed: a sort of ‘Three Strikes and You’re In’.

Last night the difference between the two interpretations was exposed. By three in the morning she had had five coverings and was whimpering loudly. This is her trump card: let me in or I wake the better half: then we’re both in trouble. I took her downstairs to anticipate her morning offices in the back garden, turning off the alarm, and then on again. I covered her a sixth time, making soothing remarks between my teeth. Ten minutes later she was at my side whimpering, so I let her onto the bed.

She immediately embraced REM sleep, assuming the character of her alter ego, Swims Like Seals, surfing the Atlantic breakers: below the waterline her legs furiously pumping. Below the waterline, of course, approximated to my ribs.

All the excitement: I couldn’t sleep. I lay listening to the sounds of the Plaistow night. To my astonishment I heard sleigh bells in the sky; distant cries of jollity. In a moment I realised what it was. I have an iPhone, and I have downloaded an ‘app’ which yulifies your mise-en-scène. I thought it might be fun for Christmas and I hadn’t realised that, like Westfield, it would be operating gamely and festively in early November. There are five settings for degrees of yulification:

1 Not a bit
2 A bit
3 A bit more
4 Quite a bit
5 Really quite a bit

Some idiot, no doubt me, had left it on 5. I turned it off. The sounds of Santa and his merry elves faded and were replaced by sullen and heavy rain.

Ever since I was a child, terrors have come to haunt me when I can’t sleep. Then it was Jack the Ripper and the notional pike in The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher. Now it is Jack the Ripper and Mr Putin. Unbidden, images of both floated before me.

Sometimes an internal trade is possible. You offer the horrible to evade the truly dreadful. I deliberately called to mind Mary Kelly’s eviscerated belly, in that appalling photograph taken in Miller’s Court of the final Ripper victim; but even as it revealed itself the little dictator’s smug and botoxed features superimposed themselves on her butchered loins.

I tried another tactic: reflecting on books that I’ve read. I thought of In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, by Dan Davies. This excellent account (originally intended to be titled Apocalypse Now Then) has many fascinating stories and insights, not least the unerring capacity of our police forces to get everything diametrically wrong, but in the last resort it seemed to me that Savile was not so unusual; he was a routine psychopath, and what was interesting was the determination of people to be taken in by him. I enumerated, like sheep, his psychopathic characteristics:

1 Lack of empathy for his victims, or indeed anyone else;
2 Lack of humour: boisterousness doesn’t count;
3 Steely determination to get what he wanted;
4 Brutal arrogance;
5 Charm. We may have been immune but others weren’t, even if, like Mrs Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales, they tended towards the swivel-eyed end of the human spectrum.

I was congratulating myself on successfully changing the subject when Mr Putin swam into my mind again – how he shaped up against Savile’s five criteria. I remembered the incident of the Kursk. A Russian submarine failed with a crew of sailors, thereupon faced with the prospect of a slow and agonising death. Various navies offered to rescue them, including ours, but until it was too late Mr Putin declined, on the grounds, presumably, that foreigners might discover some of his nasty secrets. The men died. Mr Putin was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the Kursk.

‘It sank,’ he said.

Of course there is no suggestion that he has been forcing his member into the virgin orifices of twelve-year-old Komsomol girls, but his pronouncements on the subject of human relations have been chilling, and he is a close friend of Mr Berlusconi.

So there it is: Putin – Savile without the charm.

This wasn’t getting me anywhere as regards sleep. Then an even greater horror nudged at the edge of my mind: Mr Putin’s parting; I was going to visualise his parting, that brutally neat and un-Savile-like division of his hair, sparse and thin to the left, sparse and thinning to the right.

That couldn’t be tolerated. There was only one thing to be done. I seized my iPhone and turned it to 5, yulification-max. Mr Putin’s parting faded from my mind’s eye. Sleigh bells crashed in a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. Dirt from the chimney fell into the fireplace. Someone was up there – coming down. A foot emerged.

A foot in Cossack boots…

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Disappointment in Wigmore Street

I went to the Wigmore Hall with my friend John to see Andras Schiff, the pianist, playing Bach’s English Suites. He is having a season playing much of Bach’s solo keyboard music there, from memory. John has been to a number of the concerts, but on this occasion his partner in this endeavour had been invited to the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta, and so there was a spare ticket.

I had arranged to meet John in a nearby pub. I arrived first and went in. To my horror it was full of Santa Claus. Some Santas were very drunk and were mocking an elf. There was what the packagers of DVDs call moderate violence and language. I was told later that the violence involves throwing sprouts at elves: boiled or fresh according to inclination. Other Santas sat in silence each side of a long table eating their pies. I bought a pint and waited for John outside. The street too was full of Santa. I hoped that there would be none in the Wigmore Hall.

No, it was the usual Wiggie crowd. Bruised by determined and tweeded elbows we made our way to our seats. In the row in front a man had just died but, they said, could not be moved until half time for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.

A nicely-dressed functionary came on stage. Maybe, I thought, he’s come to say that it will be the understudy. No, he told us jocularly not to cough for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.

When we had turned off our mobiles and cleared our throats the artiste himself glided onstage. Mr Schiff’s footwork rivals that of Hercule Poirot; ‘glided’ is the only possible word. Possibly, I mused, ‘Schiff’ (‘ship’ in German, and Mr Schiff hails, against his better judgment, from central Europe) is but a nom de guerre. The effect of gliding was enhanced by a strange jacket, black and buttoned to the collar, resembling nothing so much as that notoriously favoured by the late Mr Nehru, but, as I say, black.

Mr Schiff seated himself, examined his hands quizzically as if astonished, yet again, that such exquisitely sensitive objects could exist in nature, gazed soulfully into where the wings would be if there were wings and not just walls, and started on the English Suites by Bach – from the top, and as I say, from memory.

It was not long before I noticed something very wrong and entirely unexpected. In spite of remembering the notes, and the order in which they were to be played – itself a major undertaking when combined with the other keyboard works by Bach which Mr Schiff had prepared to perform at the Wigmore Hall – he apparently had only the haziest idea of how long each one was expected to last. His left hand trundled away in quite a conscientious way but his right seemed, like that of Dr. Frankenstein’s protégé, to belong to someone else entirely. Complicated bits were rushed, and when they were imminent Mr Schiff would pause for a moment before leaping in. In short, there was no rhythm at all; it was a performance (as Poirot would have put it) embarrassingly clumsy. The many notes constituting Bach’s English Suites unravelled and fell on the ground. Had it not been for the nicely-dressed functionary they might have coughed in embarrassment.

I would not have bothered you with all this if it had been simply a case of a disappointing concert. There have been enough of them, God knows. My problem was that I seemed to be in something of a minority. The audience clapped respectfully if not ecstatically, John was more than enthusiastic and Mr Schiff himself, if the little smile playing from time to time on his lips was anything to go by, thought that he had Bach’s English Suites nailed. I am a fair person and also I hope an analytical one. As great clumps of what in other hands might have been elegant Baroque ornamentation came and went I thought it through. These seemed to me to be the possibilities:

1 Mr Schiff was drunk. That seemed unlikely.

2 I had suffered a minor stroke, which had disrupted my own sense of timing.

3 Mr Schiff meant to play it like that.

Poirot-like I ferreted away and provisionally adopted possibility three. Now certain moral and aesthetic conclusions became possible. Mr Schiff could have played what Bach wrote but apparently thought that it was better to distend it in order to bring out his own ideas of its inner structure. Thelonious Monk after all did just that, to revelatory effect. With Monk, however, the rhythm remained reliable so you could feel the disintegration and reassembly of the tune. With Mr Schiff his oompah left hand was just not enough and it all fell apart.

With Bach, I reflected, you need momentum and humour. Here the momentum went out of the window with the rhythm. As to the humour, Mr Schiff clearly recognised that there were playful passages. He put on a Mr Bean expression for them. The trouble is that he did not actually make them playful.

At half time I explained all this to John. He was so angry with me that he went and hid in the lavatory. The nicely-dressed functionary removed the dead person from the row in front and they resold the seat for the second half at a reduced price. A new tweeded man arrived shortly afterwards, glaring around him and flexing his elbows.

The interval over, Mr Schiff glided back. Another extraordinary thing happened. It started to work. He played Bach’s music and it made sense. There were still some queasily approximate appoggiaturas but by and large it was all quite listenable, in a way that the first half hadn’t been at all. This raised a fourth possibility:

4 Mr Schiff had a nightmare first half but no one much noticed and after a cup of strong coffee it all came good.

Well, better.

Who knows? When we left Santa was still on the street. They had joined forces with the remainder of the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta. As a conga they weaved along Wigmore Street clutching each other’s waists (rough red tunics and little black numbers from Prada alike) and singing the Bottega Veneta house song:

Will you need a bag with that?
Will you need a bag with that?

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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.

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Standing up to Bullies

One thing I like about Amy, the better half said, is she’s so practical. The girls were giggling at the man’s small penis, you were intent on drawing some specious generalised conclusion and only Amy got the point, which was that the man was a bully.

Our friend Anthony Perry says that you should always stand up to bullies. Indeed he wrote as much in his book Love Me, Love Me, Love Me. It is a line that the better half often quotes, as indeed she did on this occasion.

And so Amy did, ruthlessly, I said. Stand up to bullies. As far as she was concerned the man’s penis was neither here nor there.

The better half was flustered. She had just got back from an evening out and it had ended badly. She spent the evening with two friends of hers. I think of them affectionately as Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal.

(Why Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal?

I explained the reference. 1 Corinthians 13:1:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Ah, she said. It’s not the same in Russian.)

Anyway, although they had spent the evening in a Wetherspoons pub next door to a Tube station on our line, Sounding Brass had insisted on driving her, not home but to some station where a train could be caught that would take her to another station at which an all-night bus (for it was now long past midnight) might be available.

Tinkling Cymbal, although the reverse of an assertive person, had secured that the meeting took place next door to where she lived, which was the other end of London from the others. She had walked home to bed.

I’m perpetually amazed at the arrogance of people with cars. As with bullies, we should stand up to them. So often a simple ‘No, thank you’ is all that is needed. Here we are, privileged to live in one of the great cities of the world, with the oldest and biggest metro system in the world, planned in the age of Napoleon, magnificently launched with steam trains a hundred and fifty years ago, not to mention our lovely red double-decker buses which are recognised in the most remote places where they have not yet heard that Elvis Presley is dead and don’t even know who Victoria Beckham is, and people like Sounding Brass insist in ferrying us around instead in their nasty Renault Meganes.

The better half was already on edge – who wouldn’t be – after hours spent in a Wetherspoons pub on the wrong side of London, but when she arrived at the station where the all-night bus might be found she was horrified to find herself in the middle of a Santathon. She rang me on her mobile.

Listen, she said. I’m in the middle of nowhere and there is a bloody Santathon.

I could hear that unlike the version that we had encountered last year, which was earlier in the evening and still relatively benign apart from isolated instances of bloodletting, this was unrestrained in its drunkenness and violence. I could hear sounds that, notwithstanding the uncertain acoustic qualities of the better half’s iPhone, could only be described as baying.

Buck up, I said. There’s a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet in the fridge, only just opened.

Heartened by that she made her escape and arrived home not long afterwards. She had read about Amy and the very small penis on the bus.

I notice incidentally that the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England now regards ‘sounding brass’ as a mistranslation and prefers the phrase ’noisy’ or ‘reverberating gong’. This is absurd. There is all the difference in the world between the sound that precedes Sunday lunch and that with which Joshua caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. As regards the better half’s friend I mean the latter. I reckon St Paul did too.

In a pathetic attempt at relevance the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England also incidentally proposes replacing ‘tinkling cymbal’ with ‘twitter’. But like the very small penis of Amy’s client that is neither here not there.

The better half’s way with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet is as ruthless in its way as Amy’s with a bully, but unlike Amy she eases up with the second round.

Talking of all your strange friends, she said, I thought that there was some crisis with your half-witted and dead Uncle Edgerton. I thought that you were summoned back to 1934 and he had disappeared. That’s gone very quiet.

I thought I told you, I said.

No.

Oh, he was exiled into the future and his nervous system was strung out and bricked into the fabric of a disused monastery in Hendon. It was guarded by necromantic spells and zombies. Aubergine Small got him out.

Well that’s all right then. What about Uncle Winthrop?

Lost his wits. That turned out to be when it happened. Between summoning me and Uncle E’s return. Stress-related. As so often.

Well that’s all right then.

Yes. Only thing was, some distortion in the space/time continuum. When he got back to 1934 it was about a fortnight later. Had to take it as annual leave from the insurance company. Sick as daughter two’s otter, he is.

Poor Uncle E.

The better half spoke without conviction.

And what have you done with Thumper?

Ah. Thumper.

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The Revenge of the Jibjab Woman

I have a treatment for a television series. It’s called The Revenge of the Jibjab Woman™.

Our heroine is a Moslem woman, of modest demeanour and covered in her attire. But when she meets an enemy of Islam she beats the shit out of him. For each episode there will be a new enemy of Islam. In the pilot that I am working on it will be Santa, to give it a Seasonal feel, but for the future I have in mind Colin Powell, Richard the Lionheart, the Danish Prime Minister, maybe Henry Kissinger. I’m hoping that the more sporting among the enemies of Islam, if still with us, will be prepared to play themselves.

The Jibjab Woman™, who as I say will be modestly attired, will Transform™ when she encounters the enemy of Islam. Her attire, whilst remaining modest, will suddenly become the Jibjab ™, a combination of the traditional hijab and the jilbab suitable for her brand of Islamic martial arts. The hijab preserves the modesty of the top half and the all-important face and hair; the jilbab that of the bottom half. When the modest Moslem woman is engaged in anything more energetic than shopping, such as beating the shit out of an enemy of Islam, it’s essential that there is no clenching of the muscles of the buttocks, for instance, visible through the cloth, or jutting thighs.

So the five star Islamic scholars whom I have engaged have developed the Jibjab™. The long skirting Transforms™ into trousers, which, though baggy and of sturdy and by no means translucent material, will be suitable for kicking. The flowing upper garments will become restrained by something like bicycle clips, or rather sleeve garters, but with tasteful and devotional decoration.

The Jibjab Woman™ has a mentor, a kindly old imam. There is some back story here, possibly to be explored later in a Christmas Special. Maybe he rescued her as a baby. Anyway, when she encounters an enemy of Islam, the kindly old imam says that it is OK to beat the shit out of him – in accordance with Sharia law. I haven’t worked out how he does this. Maybe he appears to her as if in a dream; maybe there’s just a voice-over with a bit of echo.

Obviously this will all have to be sensitively handled, and I have faith consultants who will ensure that it is not offensive in any way. I have also applied to His Royal Highness the Sultan Qaboos of Oman for seed funding, and his blessing, and I am confident of success.

This is a project which is win win all the way.

It’s a TV series, suitable for the crucial children’s market.

The commercial tie-ins are obvious. There are the usual figures, sticker albums etc, but there is also the clothing market – not just t-shirts, but the dress that Transforms™, the Jibjab™ itself. For kids whose parents can’t afford the full Jibjab™, the Islamic bicycle clips will hopefully be an acceptable substitute.

There will be no nonsense from the actress who plays the Jibjab Woman™. Like Robocop, although in this case for spiritual reasons, you never see her face, so if she cuts up rough she is replaceable.

But I also look at this at a deeper level. At a time of strife such as ours, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said so often, we desperately need meaningful dialogue between our faith communities. And the Jibjab Woman™ is all about inter-faith dialogue – at its most visceral level.

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Christmas in London

On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass. Throughout the day the house had been full of family: daughter one with her Alex and the granddaughter, the son (who had left The Jolly Thought riding at anchor near Rochester, just outside territorial waters, under the temporary command of a pirate ethicist), daughter two, and daughter three, with her Alex. Daughter three, her Alex and their Bentley are staying for a few days.

I bonded with the granddaughter. We went upstairs together to my study and she walked unerringly to a jar with change in.

“Money,” she said, taking a handful of it.

“My money,” I explained, and she put it back.

She is very advanced.

We ate Uzbekistani pilaff, which the better half cooked, and honey cake and then chocolate, which the son brought, and mince pies, made by daughters one and three but, this being Christmas, not the subject of invidious comparison, and we drank wine and then the family left and the better half went off with her friend R to drink more wine, with the result that when midnight arrived the last thing anyone felt like was church, and certainly not the dispiriting preliminary business of singing carols in a big draughty building with the organ playing at half speed and pausing altogether when the organist comes across a hard bit.

Before the mass started we met a nice priest called Father Milo. The better half insisted that Milo was not a real name, but he said that it was and that he was a real priest. He proved this by indicating his collar. To change the subject (and also because in a fit of enthusiasm I had said that I was the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in disguise) I told him that in the City there was a priest called Sue who was charged, appropriately, with the spiritual care of lawyers.

“All women in the Church of England are called Sue,” he said.

Later he preached, quite well, so he must have been a real priest.

The service as it progressed had different effects on the better half and me. She kept up a monologue about the stupidity of religion punctuated by requests to identify the place that we had got to in the service sheet. She hated the incense and coughed delicately behind her hand. Admittedly there was a lot of it; we have one of the most muscular thurifers in London. She enjoyed the sign of peace though and kissed a surprised Chinese couple and our vet. When it was time for carols, she contributed a sort of howl, atonal but full of verve. The dog, banned from church on the grounds of health and safety, would have approved.

I was overcome by nostalgia for Christmases long past, something to which the better half, who encountered the Anglican Christmas for the first time only ten years ago, is immune. I love the idea of heaven descending to earth, the old golden land with its angels, all in white standing around, divided from us by a mere membrane and visible through it. I love In the Bleak Midwinter, Christina Rossetti’s imagining of Palestine in rural England: snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. I love all the bits and pieces, the three priests in their sacerdotal best bobbing up and down in unison, the muscular thurifer, the clank of the old bit of silverware, donated, no doubt, a hundred years ago by a pious parishioner, as the chief priest drizzles the Bambino, as High Anglicans call the baby Jesus in his crib, with holy water.

What does that have to do with Dawkins and Hitchens and their plodding demolition of the idea that Genesis Chapter One might be a literal account of the creation of the world? Absolutely nothing, of course. Only a scientist, and an unimaginative one at that, would think that a belief on God had anything to do with logic, let alone scientific theory. Hitchens, a writer, should have known better. Someone once said, as if it were a criticism, that Evelyn Waugh was seduced into the Roman Catholic Church by its language. Why ever not? And if not the language of the liturgy, why not the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria (which would have left Waugh cold) or the creak of the Bambino-drizzling silverware, according to taste?

The better half’s resistance to the magic of it all, on the basis that it is not, after all, magic, is a better riposte than the new atheists’ arguments from logic. And there is also the much deeper question of whether it all actually helps…

On Christmas Day we opened our presents. Daughter one had given the better half gold, frankincense and myrrh. The frankincense, freed from the industrial scale imposed by the muscular thurifer, gently suffused the room and the gold (leaf on truffles) went down a treat. The myrrh, of course, awaits us all

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Santa & Alexander McQueen

We went to demonstrate against the rigging of the elections in Russia. The demonstration was, for some reason, outside the House of Lords, which of course is untainted by elections rigged or otherwise and none the worse for that, and we got there after the main action was over. The rigging of the elections in Russia is none of my business but it is the business of the better half, and I was there to give moral support. We established that if the White Revolution happened – chance would be a fine thing – it would in our name and then we wandered off into the West End.

Around the National Gallery and north into Soho were literally thousands of people dressed as Father Christmas. Many of them bore cans of lager and were singing tunelessly. Sometimes they would crowd together, taking up the whole of the street, banging on drums and urging on whatever was happening in the centre of the crowd. Occasional glimpses of fleshy pink could be seen through the red, consistent either with consensual though public sex with elves, or, more worryingly, a non-conforming Father Christmas being dismembered.

A young man confided that this was a ‘Santathon’ and that it was for charity.

He spoke quietly and his voice in any event was slurred. Maybe it was ‘Satanthon’.

We walked on into Chinatown and bought sticky rice in lotus leaves. Later, at home in front of the fire, it turned out to contain tasty and quite big bits of chicken.

Some days earlier we went to the Alexander McQueen sample sale. A friend was working there so we got in on the opening morning as VIPs. There are a number of good things about the Alexander McQueen sample sale. There is for instance great camaraderie in the men’s changing room.

It suits you, dear. No, no, it was made for you.

There are alarmingly sample-like samples, garments abandoned with only one sleeve or with buttons but no button-holes. One can imagine the despair with which they were put aside by their creator, never to be taken up again; finally sent (a pause only to attach the all-important Alexander McQueen label) to find their level in the outside world.

I found a pale blue suede cape. (I’m pretty sure that it was a cape and not a coat that had been abandoned before the point of putting sleeves in, though of course one cannot be certain.) It was unutterably beautiful, with its pale blue colour, its ample folds and the heaviness of the leather. I could imagine myself, after the style of the dandies of the 1950s, instructing people not to step on it.

It was also rather expensive. I consulted the better half about possible flexibility in the household budget. She suggested that it was a very good cape but entirely unsuited to the needs of an elderly solicitor, or words to that effect. She was right, of course. So there it stayed. We returned on the Saturday when everything was half price, but it had gone. With pale blue suede capes, as in our personal relations, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

As it turns out, being elderly is a condition that only increases but being a solicitor comes and goes. My being a solicitor depends on two things. One is having a practising certificate from the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the other is having a job. My practising certificate depends, as a result of an exciting new online process introduced by the SRA, on my having an activation code which they are to provide to me. Unfortunately they haven’t, they don’t answer the phone and when I emailed them I got an automated response to the effect that they aimed to answer emails like mine within three weeks. Meanwhile, for one reason and another, I will shortly have no job either.

This is quite exciting but also quite terrifying. I have had being a solicitor as a job for forty years and I have become quite institutionalised. I have no emails except the office emails; I use the office phone and the office document system; my posts to this blog are neatly recorded in the office document system. When it’s cold I rely on the fact that the office central heating works as the one at home may not. I get up at the same time every day and take the shirt from the top of the pile.

Five or so years ago, in anticipation, I gave up buying new suits and new black shoes. The moment has come where this decision is vindicated.

Big changes are ahead.

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