The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Keep your lips together

‘Death throngs’ and ‘tragedies that end in death.’  The book club reviewers have been exciting themselves again.  Excelling themselves, I mean.  Literature is in safe hands.

To be fair, we all make schoolboy errors.  What about Auden’s ‘poets exploding like bombs’?  And Heaney’s pen, ‘snug as a gun’?  The imagination can be dangerous. 

In the Swat Valley, there are more guns than pens.  Commuters carry a rifle to work, like a briefcase.  I was sightseeing near the Chinese border, when tourists could still do that sort of thing.  A bus took me up to a lake in the mountains.  I forget the name, but it’s a beauty spot.  When I arrived, a well-heeled family was standing by the water.  There were two teenage girls.  Their bright clothes flashed against the grey stone like glass in sunlight. 

I chatted with Dad about hotels.  Mum was holding a rifle, a big, wooden thing that was normally under a bed in Rawalpindi or Lahore.  They weren’t at home now.  They needed to protect the girls.  But the gun looked strange in a woman’s hands.  I suppose the girls were her department.  She would have packed a hairbrush, handkerchiefs, a jar of skin cream, whatever girls need on a drive in the mountains, and a gun.  She didn’t look like a shooter, though.  She held the rifle by the barrel, resting the butt on her shoulder.  If they’d been expecting a fight, Dad might have carried it, or, more likely, they wouldn’t have gone at all. 

Managing teenagers can be fun.  Think of all those schoolgirl errors.  Think of all mine.  I saw one of my pupils on the bus to school.  In London, not Pakistan.  I sat down next to her – let’s call her Tina – and looked across at where she was sitting.

“I normally put my bag there,” I said, and propped it on her lap.  She had a scarf around her neck.  She always did, even on a warm day.  I asked her why.  She said it stopped her head rolling off.  I said if I saw her head on the ground, I’d take it home and put it on my mantelpiece.  Tina thought for a moment, then replied: “That’s a pretty weird thing to say.”

She must have seen it in her mind, her head on my mantelpiece, like a trophy.

“It’s pretty weird to say your head’ll fall off.”

In class, when girls talk too much, I do a mime. I zip my lips up with a thumb and forefinger, turn an imaginary key, and toss it away with a flick of the hand.  Some Year 8s did it back to me once, like a West End musical.  When the moment came to fling away the key, a row of hands flew up together, as if they had rehearsed.

Last lesson.  As the girls are leaving, one of them stops in front of me, lips pressed tight.  Her friend asks me if I have the key.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Bussing, the old 123

The 123 is not as simple as it sounds.  It’s slow, even for a bus.  Occasionally, it doesn’t come at all.  It has a timetable of its own.  For years its paintwork stayed yellow when other fleets went red.  Now it looks like them.  It couldn’t hide its blushes any longer. 

From Wood Green to Ilford, and back again, through Walthamstow and Tottenham, it lumbers along over twenty hours a day.  In other words, almost all the time, through the heart of riot land, loot 'n burn.  I try not to catch the 123, but sometimes there isn't any choice.  Grab what you can.    

The heart is a complex thing.  On a fresh afternoon, when it’s not too crowded, and the wheels are turning, the 123 is like a normal bus, and you enjoy the ride.  But jogging along the usual road, it can still take you where you’re not expecting. 

A boy and two girls got on and stood at the front, near the driver.  They were about thirteen, and looked south Asian.  South of Naples, anyway – they spoke Italian like a mother-tongue.  They were in school uniform.  Don’t ask which one, but the jumpers were green. 

The boy’s stop was coming up.  He went, "Ciao," wrapped his arms around the slimmer girl – she was very pretty – and kissed her on the lips.  Grab what you like.  One long, adhesive kiss.  The rest of us watched, old boys, old girls, a man with a tie, and the other child.  Passengers.  Ciao a tutti.  It was like a cinema on wheels, the famous smooch that Clark gave Vivien in 1939, summer of love, although the kids were more spontaneous, used their tongues, and didn’t stop to chat half-way through.  Buss.  It’s another word for kiss.  It really is.  Look it up, along with the jumper.  

There were two old ladies in the front row, watching.  You can’t blame them.  They were sitting in those seats when the children got on.  It was too late for them to move.  If they did, they would have to get off the bus.  They couldn’t just shift to another seat.  No one wants to look embarrassed. They couldn’t even turn their heads away.  The passengers behind them would have seen.  Stay calm, sit it out.  Anyhow, it was hard not to watch the children kiss.

But it did go on a long time.  We began to worry when it would end.  The other girl, the not so slim and pretty one, the one not being kissed, was still standing with her friends at the front of the bus. She turned her head anxiously and stared down the aisle.  Yes, young lady, we’re still here.  I thought she was going to run.  But you can’t get off a moving bus, and you can’t just sneak away from friends.  You tap them on the arm, at least, to say goodbye.

She turned towards the front again, away from us, to hide her face, then put a hand up near her cheek and fluttered the fingers like a beating wing.  The girl who was being kissed tried to push the boy away.  She’d had enough, or he’d gone too far.  But she didn’t have the strength, and he wouldn’t stop.  He was looting kisses now.  She pushed again, violently, and he let her go.  She straightened her jumper, and said, in Italian, he was too thin.

Then she saw her friend’s face.  “Che c’รจ?”

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Big, Fat Royal Wedding

We need some Royal news, something big to catch up with the monarchies abroad which are procreating and abdicating at reckless speed. 

How about another wedding?  You remember the last one.  The UK was a better place.  Weeks before the ceremony, the TV showed happy children lining the streets of London, waving little Union Jacks as if the wedding was already here.  Where did those pictures come from?  The children weren’t waiting for Wills and Kate.  Not that far ahead.  I hope not, anyway.  They were waving their little flags at something else.  Whatever it was, some file pictures had been cleverly employed.  It looked like a Royal Wedding.  Perhaps it was.  There has been more than one.  The BBC was misleading us again, but for once it didn’t matter.

Adults were also happy just looking at the range of children, black, white and brown.  Liberals enjoyed the ethnic mix; conservatives, the buzz of Empire.  On the real day, in the Abbey, the camera kept returning to a group of choir boys, a black one, a yellow one and a white one with glasses.  Are you wondering what will happen when their voices break?  You didn't see the men in the stall behind them, white cheeks wedged in like a row of perfect dentures. 

The roads along the route were cleaned up, too, but the wedding wasn’t good for everyone.  Anarchists were arrested and banned from central London.  They had once made jokes about Diana’s death, so it probably served them right.  But what about the squatters, living inoffensively in grand, old buildings, vast and vacant as cathedrals?  They were evicted in a single heap – emptiness is next to godliness – while the libertarians who normally defend them were distracted by the pomp.

Less enchanting than Diana’s, the wedding just reminded us of her.  In the papers, people said the bridesmaid was prettier than the bride.  They weren’t arrested.  We followed the procession on the BBC.  The commentary was so sombre it felt like burying royalty, not marrying it.  People complained.  They weren’t thrown out of London.  They watched the “Big, Fat Gypsy Wedding” on Channel 4 instead.  Channel 4 is very helpful.  It does the same at Xmas.  We get the Alternative Queen’s Message, one year a transvestite from Tooting.  

Friday, 6 June 2014

Another Giant FA Cup

May is a month that shows the importance of winning – exams, football finals and the like. The FA Cup is a favourite of mine, mainly because of its name.  I prefer it with two syllables – FA Cup – although it should be three.

When teachers here mention sport, they talk about the teamwork side of it, not the trophies.  I guess they know that most people are losers, and that children might become dissatisfied, then anti-social, if winning was more important to them than taking part.  Perhaps some teachers really believe what they say.  Perhaps they’re just losers. 

In a primary school assembly last month, the children watched a cartoon entitled Teamwork. They enjoyed it, as children tend to do.  I’m not sure they got the message, though.  I’m not sure I did. 

A dozen little birds were sitting on a wire, feather to feather, looking quite pleased with themselves, as little birds tend to do.  They were all identical.  A much bigger bird flew down and pushed his way into the middle.  He was a different colour and very clumsy.  The wire sagged because of his weight.  The little birds got sick of it.  They started pecking at the big bird’s claws, one by one. This seemed to hurt as he took each claw off the wire as it was pecked.  In the meantime, the wire kept sagging lower and lower.  The big bird now hung upside-down.  He almost touched the ground. Just one big claw was clinging to the wire.  The little birds could see that they were nearly done, so they pecked even harder.  Then two of them raised their beaks and looked at each other.  It was too late. The big bird eased himself onto the ground and removed the final claw, releasing the wire like a giant bowstring.  The little birds shot up into the air so fast that their feathers came off.  A moment later, they plopped back to earth through a cloud of floating feathers.  The big bird sat and watched.  When the little birds realised they were naked, they ran off to hide.

The teacher who was taking the assembly asked the children to comment on what they had seen.  They all said the right thing.  Someone pointed out that it was dangerous to sit on a wire.  The teacher agreed.  An older child said that the little birds were punished for discriminating against the big one because he looked different.  The teacher agreed again.  No one said that the little birds’ teamwork backfired, that revenge feels good, or that bullies win.