Archive for the ‘Me’ Category

Cad or bounder?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

H, a girl I’ve been going out with for three months, tells me I’m a cad. It’s a running joke. Or it is for her and her friends. I contest it, particularly the implication that I treat women badly, but they insist that it doesn’t mean that. A cad, they say, is merely a rake with a suspiciously self-confident manner with women.

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When I was on my gap year in Indiah…

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nauseating, isn’t it? Anecdotes about India are almost as boring as anecdotes about scuba diving (“There were all these… fish”) or anecdotes about surfing (“The wave was like, woah, and I was like, dude”).

India gappers have become an archetype: floppy-haired students with collarless shirts who “found themselves” by going to a Third World country, eating Europeanised food that the locals would never touch, and travelling along a route so well-worn by budget travellers that you can almost see the rut from space. 

It is tempting, then, to dismiss the gap year to India as a contrived, boil-in-the-bag experience that non-gappers can emulate by going to Ealing and chugging a packet of laxatives.

Lots of people do dismiss it in this way, but they all have one thing in common. They didn’t go. They are armchair critics attempting to mollify their envy by pretending it isn’t enviable.

I did go, and I can tell you this: it was wonderful. I don’t mean “wonderful” as a euphemism for good. It filled me with wonder, and still does, more than a decade on.  The critics are wrong for about a thousand reasons, but here are the top five:

1. There is nothing sanitised about India. Tourism, rife as it is, has had little impact even on those towns tramped by a million Lonely Planet pilgrims. This is a world where laundry is beaten on rocks, men will shout through your train window at 4am to try to sell you tea, and mothers cling the outside of buses after passing their babies through the windows to be cared for by strangers.

2. Poverty is inescapable. Its scale and intensity means that even the most blithe tourist will have to adapt his or her world view to cope with the shock. It makes Western poverty, with its social security safety nets and health provision, seem like a Swiss finishing school.

3. Westerners are outsiders. They will be stared at and hustled, not through animosity but because of an assumption that they have money to burn. Not only is it exhausting, but for white middle-class gappers it is probably the first time they will have been on the sharp end of racist prejudices.

4. Kindness to strangers is endemic and profoundly touching.

5. It isn’t home. Gap years coincide with teenagers learning to deal with the world without their parents, and being in a country far from home only enhances that experience.

None of this is meant to suggest that India is the ultimate gap destination. Any country resistant to western influences will have the same impact. My point is that India is no theme park or pre-packaged experience. People who spend six months there on a gap year do have insights that people who spend that time at home do not.

But yes, the anti-gappers have a point. Those who have been must learn to shut up about it. I shall not mention it again.

Notes from Abu Dhabi (made a little while ago)

Friday, January 2, 2009

The palms lining the roads in downtown Abu Dhabi have dates growing on them in giant bunches. “In a few weeks they will be ripe,” says Zahoor, the driver who is taking us into the desert to drive crazily up and down the dunes. Anyone can pick them, like blackberries in the English countryside. There seems to be more attention devoted to central reservations in this country than the British devote to their public flowerbeds. From 8am until at least 5pm there are overalled gardeners tending to the palms, lawns and rockeries by the roadside.

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Head in hands hold ’em

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I have a confession to make. No, I haven’t watched Cliffhanger again. It’s this: I quite like televised poker. I like watching familiar characters testing their nerves against one another, playing the odds and having to cope with high-stakes success and failure. But none of these is a winning argument. You could say the same about watching Formula One racing, a spectator sport so rich in techie knowledge and so sparse in incident that you may as well be watching Stephen Hawking reading The Silmarillion.

I like the deathless commentary and, in particular, Jesse May, a host so out of place in a jacket and tie that he might conceivably have gotten his break in television in an advertisement for PG Tips.

I know that I’m in bad company with TV poker because the advert breaks are so ghastly. There are endless pleas to send text messages to “girls in your area”, for example, but the most nauseating advert is one for pkr, an online poker video game. The voiceover, which accompanies footage of electronic poker players posturing like gang members in West Side Story, is so densely packed with jargon that anyone who said it in real life would be sent home to watch a Formula One qualifying session. “I’ve come in over the top of pot-sized raises with middle pair, bluffed under the gun with four runners behind me, folded pocket kings on a hunch,” the polygonal man says. “I’ve survived bad beats, sick draws and cold decks, and I’ve lived through fields of thousands to make the final table. Here I come.”

I despair. These guys are giving geeks a bad name.

Blank canvassing

Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Tenuous 08 Nominations

I’d be highly surprised if the four people who read this blog regularly have enough voting power to deliver me victory, but here we go all the same. I have been nominated (on a rather long shortlist) for the Tenuous Connection awards – the contest for the most tenuous connection to a celebrity. My entry, as detailed at the bottom of this earlier post, is a mightily underwhelming brush with Suzi Quattro, whose purchase of more than £10,000 worth of wine in the Wapping branch of Oddbins immediately before my £100-odd spree made the staff regard me as somewhat inconsequential. Tenuous, I think you’ll agree. Anyhow, if you would like to vote for me, then click on the big brown icon up there and write “I vote for le poulet noir” or similar in the comments box at the bottom of that page. Go on. I’m nicer than David Davis.

Brushes with celebrity

Monday, June 23, 2008

I went to bed last night laughing at the memory of my childhood encounter with Sue Lawley.

I saw her in a branch of Waitrose in south-west London when I was ten or so. I was in a bad mood for a reason I don’t recall and, as I passed by, I muttered audibly: “Hmph. Another Sue Lawley impersonator.”

I remember her smiling, which struck me as rather gracious given the scorn I had just poured upon her. It did not occur to me at the time (or indeed for another two decades) that she was amused by the sheer absurdity of my comment. It’s quite far-fetched to imagine that there is one Sue Lawley impersonator out there, let alone sufficent numbers to justify irritation with seeing yet another one.

(It is worth noting, however, that the market for look-alikes is staggeringly broad. I have whiled away many happy hours perusing the small ads at the back of The Stage newspaper, a terrific resource for impersonators of anyone from Posh Spice to Karl Marx.)

I was reminded of the incident by Tenuous ’08 – a blogger’s inspired competition to find people’s most tenuous connection to a celebrity. Last year’s winner was an absolute corker: “My cousin’s great grandmother was in the car crash with Sammy Davis Jr when he lost his left eye.” My Lawley story clearly wasn’t going to cut it, so I entered instead the time I was in Oddbins in Wapping, east London, to buy several crates of cava for a housewarming party. The bill was at least £100, and I remarked to the staff that it wasn’t a bad sale for them. “Not really,” the assistant said. “We just had Suzie Quattro in here. She bought so much that we had to run her card through twice.”

Rules for life. Number one in an occasional series

Monday, August 13, 2007

Never engage your Tunisian barber in a conversation about capital punishment.

Is this the way to Amarillo?

Saturday, January 6, 2007

There are two types of people on city streets: people who get approached for drugs and people who get asked for directions.

I’m the second. Very much the second. I get asked directions, on average, twice a week, and not just in London. Within half an hour of arriving in New York City a few weeks ago, a woman asked me if I could tell her the way to Pennsylvania Station. I had never been to New York before, but by chance I had recently arrived at the station myself, so I was able to tell her.

I have never been asked for drugs, which is just as well, since I’m not a dealer – but it is interesting how people judge you by how purposeful you look. If there is a lesson in this, it is that aspiring drug dealers should look aimless and would-be tour guides must practise looking focused. Hey, this career advisor stuff is easy.

Ask the chicken: how do I buy real clay poker chips in Britain?

Friday, January 5, 2007

It’s more elusive than Paris Hilton’s integrity or Justin Bieber’s parting, but it is possible to get hold of a real clay poker chip in Britain. (more…)

Lime cordial

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I had a semantic argument with a drunk in a New Orleans bar last week. “Do you know what I mean when I say the ‘white elephant in the room’?” he asked.

Sort of, I said. I know what you mean by “elephant in the room” and “white elephant”, but not necessarily the “white elephant in the room”. Is that a glaringly obvious topic of conversation that no one mentions that also happens to be an expensive and obsolete trinket?

He turns to the barmaid, exasperated. “Do you know what this guy is?” he asks. “He’s a goddamned limey.”

To me, jeeringly: “You don’t mind me calling you a limey, do you?”

It made me reflect. Is limey supposed to be derogatory? As nicknames go, a reference to a centuries-old naval policy of prescribing fruit to ward off vitamin deficiency isn’t gravely insulting.