Journeys Taken on Mother’s Knee

As the crow flies it was a hundred and forty-four miles from our village in Staffordshire to Sydenham in London. Nothing these days. Jump into the car and zoom up the Motorway, with perhaps only a stop for a coffee or pee at the Rank Services to break the journey. Sitting in an air conditioned car with satellite navigation systems, radios, play stations and all the paraphernalia we take for granted to smooth our way. Three hours maximum, perhaps another half hour accounting for the rush hour.

But how different fifty-five years ago when I was a young ten-year-old. Twelve hours minimum along the A5 with more than the occasional stop to replenish father at various hostelries en route, not to mention the breakdowns. Journeys in old cars, long before MOT’s were heard of, in austere times when Motorways were a far away dream and potholed roads, ravaged by wartime use were not high on the list of repair priorities by Government departments.

Mother, father, various dogs and yours truly made this journey at least three times a year to visit grandparents. Christmas, Easter and school holidays were the agreed times, and now in hindsight all the journeys were horrific, or wonderful according to how you remember them. For a start, the cars were nearly always pre 1930 and none of them costs more than fifteen quid. None of them had heaters and most of them had hoods which were torn or held together with sticky tape or coat hanger wire. None of them was capable of more than forty-five mph and that was downhill, with a following wind. Brakes were a hit and miss affair, almost literally and head lights were as dim as a nun’s nightie. Street lights were the same… if there were any. White lines with cat’s eyes suddenly seemed to veer off into muddy ditches or fields and road signs pointed the way to intended destinations via bridle paths and farm tracks.

However we didn’t know any better, it was a way of life, it was normal and so were the drink and drive laws. Father wouldn’t contemplate such a monumental expedition to the Metropolis without a monumental amount of alcohol to steady the nerve. Anyway, he always drove better after a couple or six. And he was a Barrister!

So picture a typical scene. The day before Christmas Eve and Mum and I are all packed and ready for father to come back in the car he has been testing after a day spent underneath putting in new main engine bearings. It’s now early afternoon and father disappeared at eleven. We both know that he’s at the Bull, fortifying himself for the journey ahead, but more than that, being a crafty devil, the journey, his journey is planned according to pub opening and closing times, and there are lots of watering holes along the A5. We stare out of the window; we always stare out of this same window at these times, we’ve done it for years. Any thought about phoning the pub was as alien, in those days, as drinking and driving are today.

Eventually, we hear the car, it’s now about three in the afternoon, and father pulls up outside. He gets out, gives a front tyre a perfunctory kick and opens the bonnet. This is all show; we know that. He thinks we will think he’s been having more trouble with the engine and has spent the last two hours fixing it. We say nothing.

Eventually, we were ensconced in the car, me on mother’s lap, the dog under the dashboard. Three flasks of sweet tea and Marmite sandwiches catered for our hunger pangs and hot water bottles provided the heat, as did various blankets and at least four layers of clothing. The hood was kept down as father thought that the various draughts induced by the exceptional speed he could now induce out of the finely tuned engine would give us lumbago.

By five to six we had got as far as the outskirts of Coventry and father stopped for replenishment at a pub. He said he needed the Gents, which he probably did and he disappeared with alacrity together with our hot water bottles and flasks, into the warm, welcoming bar, leaving us to shiver by the light of a solitary street lamp. The customary Vimto and sweet sherry were brought out to us, together with the newly replenished hot water bottles and flasks.

By seven thirty we were on our way again, by nine we got as far as a nice little pub near Fenny Stratford we had to stop because the engine was overheating! The fact that it is minus five degrees outside, where we are and the engine water temperature gauge registered little more than slightly warm had nothing to do with it. The same pattern follows… sweet sherry for mum and a bottle of Vimto for me, plus the necessary filling up of hot water bottles and flasks. The dog poked his nose out of the door, shivered and declined the invitation to perform against the pub wall. By nine o’ clock father in all his wisdom and swaying gently managed to sprain his wrist whilst cranking the starting handle, a not uncommon occurrence and sometimes used as a ploy to go back into the pub for medicinal purposes. This time, however, he managed to kick the engine into some sort of life by jumping up and down on the handle. Mum and I made the right noises praising his heroic endeavours and huddled together.

We made about another thirty miles before father heard a distinct knocking in the engine and decided we had to stop to investigate. Luckily a pub car park was on hand and father decided he had better go inside to phone grandfather and tell him we may be a little late as the car had developed a distinct big end rattle. The phone call took a good thirty minutes which uncannily coincided with kicking out time. The sprained wrist somehow managed to coax the engine into action and we were off again. Try as we could mother and I, who were very tuned into engine sounds, could hear no discernable rattle, but there again we didn’t expect to.

By the time we reached the outskirts of London, the car had developed a nasty habit of jumping out of gear. Mother was elected to hold it in. Along the Victoria Embankment, we heard Big Ben strike twelve and the clutch started to slip. As we edged past the Oval at a sedate fifteen miles per hour the exhaust fell off and took the brake wires with it, rendering us unstoppable. This state of affairs was not uncommon and we took it in our stride; our stride being stopped when necessary by double declutching into first and allowing the engine to stop us…after a while.

In those days, there was not the traffic that there is today, the police seemed to want to help rather than hinder and when the lights went out as the battery gave a last gasp, we carried on regardless, unworried about prosecutions and all that stuff until at last we reached my grandparents. They, as always, stayed up in case we required a tow but rarely was this necessary, and especially not by grandfather who had an old Austin seven which was more un-roadworthy than our car, to say nothing of grandfather who was himself about as un-roadworthy as a headless chicken trying to cross the road.

Whilst father usually spent the next few days, when pub opening times allowed, repairing the car ready for the journey home, mother and I recuperated from severe frostbite The journey home was just as exhilarating but we usually went the Oxford route on the way home. At least it meant a different view of pub car park walls for mother and me.

Brain Swop Shop

Written 25 years ago, not nostalgia, just a muse.

‘Good morning doctor,’
‘Ah Mr Chapman, welcome to the Brain Swap shop, do sit down.’ The Doctor stabbed a few buttons on his console and stared intently at a screen.
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘haven’t we met before, I seem to recollect your…’
‘Could have. I’ve only been doing this job for a month, used to be an astronaut, got me name in the paper, quite famous I believe. Had to give it up though, travel sickness you know’
‘Ah, that accounts for it, must have seen you on the telly.’
‘Probably, although I can’t remember anything about it of course. Change of brain cells and so forth.’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘I’ve been told I was the President of an African Republic once and can’t remember any of my Swiss bank account numbers.’
‘Terrible isn’t it. I sometimes wonder why we want to change our brains at all.’
The Doctor scratched his head, ‘It’s the novelty I suppose.’
Time I thought to drag the doctor out of his rumination. I leant forward. ‘Not in my case it isn’t,’ I told him. ‘This is caused by my wife’s change of circumstances. It is not novelty.’
‘Oh well,’ said the doctor, then swivelled around to his computer and stared at the screen. ‘Let’s have a look at your application form.’
‘I must say, ‘I said, leaning back, ‘You’ve been jolly quick with the paper work.’
The Doctor smiled, ‘Oh we’re quite proficient in this department now the Government has dropped the restriction on only allowing five brains per lifetime.’
‘Has it?’ I said.
‘You should know. It says here you’re the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.’
‘Am I?’
He jabbed a finger on the screen. ‘Says here you are.’
‘I wondered why I was chairing these high-powered meetings. Mind you I’ve had a lot on my mind recently; what with Winifred’s condition and so forth…mind you come to think of it I did think they were a pretty rum lot, I wonder if…?’
‘Well the brain you’ve got now has a waiting list of six people, so you should be able to trade it in for something half decent.’ The Doctor jabbed at the keyboard, ‘but according to regulations I must ask you why you want to change?’
I looked at him. I rather hoped he’d not ask.’ It’s the wife,’ I said painfully, ‘she’s inherited her mother’s brain you see. The old bat left it to her in her will, and Winifred was close to her mother and feels obliged, as it were, to comply with her wishes.’
‘What is she now?’
‘A topless lap dancer.’
The doctor grimaced, ‘Hardly goes with your image,’
‘I should say not,’ I said, the fog suddenly clearing, ‘There I am chairing these dynamic meetings, discussing matters of state and what have you, when the wife comes in half naked, jumps onto the table and starts gyrating her navel and god knows what else into the faces of what I suppose is the Shadow Cabinet.’
‘How old is she?’
‘Good god, what happened to her mother?’
‘Fell off the stage at the Trocadero and drowned in a bath of Champagne.’
‘Very nasty,’ said the doctor.
‘They say she came up for air twice,’ I winced at the memory, ‘But I don’t believe ‘em… She only drank Gin.’
‘Is her brain alright?’
‘I think so they got it out before rigour mortise set in.’
The doctor sat back, ‘Well,’ he said punching some more keys, ‘I can’t see any problems, you pass all the criteria.’ He peered intently at the screen, ‘My word you’ve had some interesting brains in the past,’
‘Have I?’
‘One hundred and twenty odd brain years. Two Prime Ministers, The Archbishop of Canterbury, a champion pole vaulter and President of some obscure Republic in East Africa, for a start.’
‘Pity we can’t remember past lives,’ I said.
‘Good job in your case I should think, you’ve been shot fifteen times and run through with an assegai twice.’
‘Have I?’
‘Yes…but no good dwelling on the past, what do you fancy now?’
‘Well,’ I said sinking back into the chair and putting my hands behind my head, ‘I thought about something in the arts field might be interesting.’
The doctor pressed some more keys and we watched as a printer gurgled into action. He read the printout. ‘You may be in luck,’ he said, ‘We have a ballet dancer’s brain just come in, it might suit you, sort of fits in with your wife’s lifestyle, both working at the same sort of thing.’
‘Why did the ballet dancer want a change?’
‘It was forced on him actually,’ replied the doctor, ‘he only had one leg.’
‘How did he…?’
‘Oh we fitted him up with one of those artificial screw on ones of course, but every time he did an anti-clockwise pirouette he unscrewed himself. Very disconcerting for the audience.’
‘Let me think of that one,’ I said. ‘What else have you got?’
Well,’ said the doctor, ‘The trouble is most of the swaps in the arts field seem perfectly content at the moment and not many want to change with politicians. Hang on we’ve got a pop singer, he’s been on the books for quite a while.’
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘He’s stone deaf.’
‘Stone deaf?’ I gasped.
‘Yes, he had six number one hits before anyone noticed.’
‘What is he now?’
‘Nothing…he’s in limbo.’
‘Can you do that?’ I asked, mind whirring.
‘Oh yes,’ replied the doctor, shuffling some papers, ‘Just leave the department with a list of preferred options and we’ll pop you in a freezer until something comes up.
‘How long can you stay in limbo?’ I asked, somewhat taken aback.
‘Three years is the maximum. After that we take a random brain and fit you up with that; a bit like the lottery really.’
‘Oh, I bet that leads to all sorts of…’
‘Well we can’t have bodies and brains cluttering up the place.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘otherwise people would stay here forever, frozen up and become a real drag on the taxpayer.
‘Exactly ,’ said the doctor, warming to the subject. ‘It all started with the other organs of course. Livers, kidneys, spleens and so forth.’
‘I know, jolly handy when you can pop into a body bank and pick up a new part.’
‘You’re so right,’ said the doctor,’ I’ve drunk myself to death regularly and had three new livers fitted.’
‘I’m on my third set of lungs,’ I said, ‘Lovely when you can smoke sixty a day and not give a damn about the old wheezing and coughing.’
The doctor gave me a conspiratorial sort of wink, ‘Tell you the truth I only wanted this job so I could get myself fitted out with a new set of family jewels.’ He smirked. ‘Perks of the job don’t you know. I’ve got contacts in other departments; they’ve promised to give me the nod when something decent comes in.’
‘Say no more,’ I said ‘but if you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t look much like a doctor.’
‘Oh this,’ he pointed to his forehead which was impregnated with a large purple tattoo. ‘Yes I must get it removed. Can’t go around doctoring with ‘Manchester United rules OK’ plastered across my face for ever.’
‘Bad for the image.’ I agreed.
‘Suppose I must have been a football hooligan a few brains ago,’ he muttered.
‘It never fails to surprise me,’ I went on, ‘I mean when you think what strides have been made in the last few years. Now you can just wander into any of these swap shops and get a whole new persona. Why just a few years ago you had to go through life with what you started off with.’
‘It’s good isn’t’ he replied, ‘A quick snip here and there and the next minute you’re off the operating table sitting up in bed with a cup of tea and a biscuit and a whole new person inside your head.’
I nodded agreement, ‘But I’m glad that the powers that be stopped issuing synthetic brains,’ I added. ‘I mean who wants to go around with a computer stuck in your head.’
‘It wasn’t that. It was the weight of the batteries you had to lug around with you. It was all right when you could plug yourself into the mains at home or work but not much fun otherwise. I mean who wants to lug two bloody big lorry batteries around strapped to your back when you’re wandering around Tesco’s or jigging the night away at the local disco.’
‘To say nothing of the Olympics,’ I added, I mean bit of a disadvantage when you’re going for gold in the high jump.’
‘Exactly, mind you, tell you confidentially we’ve had a bit of trouble fixing bodies up with brains. People don’t always tell us the truth about any abnormalities they might have.’
‘I suppose you’ve got to be careful.’
‘I should say so. We’ve had some god almighty cock-ups.’
‘Like what?’
‘Well we had in Interior Designer who didn’t tell us he was colour blind; created havoc wherever he worked.’
‘What happened to him?’
The doctor sniggered, ‘Fixed him up as a champion snooker player, just to get our own back.’
‘I suppose, ‘I said, ‘You get a lot of people in here applying for brains without thinking of the consequences?’
The doctor rolled his eyes, ‘Do you know, my predecessor actually fixed up a BBC football commentator who had an uncontrollable stammer. By the end of full time he was still trying to describe the bloody kickoff.’
‘Gosh!’ I said.
‘Too right,’ said the doctor. He leant back in his chair and gave me an appraising sort of look. ‘I could get you a very good deal on a juggler. These ones even got a guaranteed eighteen months circus contract.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Cross-eyed, kept dropping his balls.’
‘How very careless.’
‘They kept him on at the circus for a while, though as a catcher in a trapeze act, until we fixed him up with something.’
‘I’m glad I wasn’t his partner,’ I replied, mind-boggling.’ But what I really want is something in the real arts.
’We’ve had a wine taster one that came in yesterday for a swap.’
‘Why did he want to change?’
‘He didn’t, it was forced on him. Kept getting the sack, an absolute alcoholic, chronic shakes, kept swallowing the wine, wouldn’t spit it out,’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I want something that will fit in with my wife’s routine.’
‘Well can’t you get her to change her mind?’ he asked.
‘No, she’s absolutely adamant. I think she quite enjoys it.’
‘Everybody to their own I suppose, but if you ask me I think she needs her head examining.’
‘I suppose there’s no use hanging around, for say, an opera singer?’
The doctor pushed another few buttons,’ we’ve got one here who’s looking for a swap; had him on the books for weeks now but I wouldn’t recommend him.’
‘Why not.’
‘Got a cleft palate.’
‘Oh right,’ I mumbled. ‘Anything in the classical Shakespearean mould?’
‘Only one, a dyslexic brain, it’s OK but can only play Falstaff, and that took the man whose got it five years to learn the part, so he has to wait for Henry the Fourth to come round, which isn’t very often. He’s been on our books for months.’
‘Doesn’t sound too bad,’ I said, ‘plenty of time off…that’ll do me.’
‘Are you sure, I mean if you can’t learn your lines you are gong to be a bit stuck with this Falstaff chap? ’
‘No, I’ve made my mind up,’ I said. ‘When can you fit me in?’
The doctor looked at the screen. ‘Next Tuesday be alright, ten in the morning?’
‘I tell you what though, the surgeon will need watching.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘why’s that?’
‘He used to be the wine taster I was telling you about.’

Hello, Hello 1991

‘Have you used the phone today?’ I asked my wife Laura, as I gently supped an early morning mango juice on our balcony overlooking Mombasa creek in Kenya.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘Why?’
‘Look over there,’ I said, ‘You see where our telephone line goes across the road and into that tree?’
She followed my pointing finger and we watched as a local chap started draping the lower branches with old plastic sheets and bits of corrugated iron. The tree was just outside our compound, and grew out of what once was the pavement; it was soon reminiscent of a Christmas tree decorated by a deranged Turner prize winner.
‘He’s moved into that tree,’ said Laura.
‘He’s moving a couple of goats in as well,’ I said, and we both watched as the real estate developer tethered his pets to the tree using our telephone line.
Telephone poles are a rarity in these parts as they make exceedingly good objects to run into when the brakes fail, allowing the vehicle to come to come to a stop, albeit a sudden one. The answer is to drape the line from tree to tree thus giving the telephone company workers the double advantage of being able to sell any new replacement poles to local charcoal burners and itinerant builders.
‘That’s it,’ said Laura, ‘That’s the end of our telephone again.’
By ‘again’ just about summed it up. It was a regular occurrence for one reason or another, ranging from floods, fire and monkeys. Getting back online again was always fun. If you didn’t look upon it as fun, you may as well book a straight jacket there and then. Dealing with any Governmental department here in Kenya was the same. Logic flies out of the window and so does any sense of common sense.
I arrived at the Kenya Telecom offices later that morning. An old colonial building that had served the Mombasa telephone subscribers for decades. It felt like walking back a few decades as well, as soon as you enter the reception area. This area is one to miss as it’s always crowded with customers, Africans, Arabs and Asians waving sheets of paper in various stages of agitation at the laid back clerks There were unofficial guides wanting to show anyone the attributes of the now wonderfully decrepit building for a few shillings, and a couple of security guards reading newspapers. Niftily avoiding the maelstrom surrounding the reception clerk’s desk, I mounted a staircase on the way to the Promised Land of mystifying East African beguilement.
And promises were all I was going to get, I knew that, it was a start though and in this land of illusions all I could expect. The shabby, corridors were full of files, sometimes up to the ceiling, probably I thought, holding the damn thing up in places. Glancing through opened doors into offices was much the same boxes and boxes of files stacked in every available place. Overhead, fans ground their way slowly around like arthritic mosquitoes, while their healthier cousins flew around biting anything that moved. Flimsy pieces of paper that had escaped from the filing system, perhaps twenty years ago, gently wafted around the building in humid air currents. Occasionally someone would catch one, read it idly and then send it on its interminable way to continue its gentle flight of fancy.
Eventually, I reached the office of Mr Umbungo who, I was informed, was the very chap to sort out my problems. The office was much like any other, no sign of technology, not even a phone for God’s sake, just stacks and stacks of files and a girl fast asleep under a table.
‘Ahem,’ I sort of coughed. She stirred, opened one eye, closed it and yawned. I moved a stack of newspapers off a chair and sat down. When she finally arose she seemed to go into a semi-trance while staring at an empty coca-cola bottle. This went on for some minutes and I was beginning to worry that she had somehow self-hypnotised herself and was going to suddenly pick up a stack of files and suffocate me with them. However all was well, she sat down and she smiled very sweetly in my direction and said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’
‘I’m very well thank you.’ I said.
‘And how is your family?’
‘They’re very well as well. How are you….’
This exchange of pleasantries regarding the wellbeing of families is a normal formality in Africa and if not brought, as diplomatically as possible to an end, can go on ad infinitum. It’s a precursor to the start of any business or meaningful discussion. The meaningful discussion, in this case, was whether I would like a drink? I suppressed the retort that a large Bloody Mary would indeed be welcome and told her that a coca-cola would be nice.
‘Frederick,’ she shouted, out of the door.
A young lad ambled in. ‘Go and fetch two cokes,’ she said, and turned to me, ‘Give him thirty shillings.’ I did as I was bid.
‘Mr Umbungo will be here very soon,’ she said.
I was used to this very soon nonsense ‘Very soon’ in Africa means anytime within the next six hours. I settled down to wait.
Mr Umbungo arrived at about half past eleven and we exchanged the usual pleasantries vis a vis the well-being of our respective families, Frederick was again summoned, and I bought him a coca cola.
‘You say there is a man building a dwelling on your land?’ he said, after I had, I thought, described the exact nature of the problem.
‘No I suppose the council owns the tree,’ I said.
‘But you are in the wrong department,’ he replied.
‘No,’ I said, ‘the telephone wire that connects my phone to your exchange has been used by this man to tether his goats. He has cut the wire from the tree that was being used as a telephone pole.’
‘We do not use trees,’ he said.
I would have gone to the window at this stage and pointed out any number of trees, bushes and old broken down lamp posts, come to that being used to convey wires to the exchange, if the window hadn’t been blocked by old files. Anyway, that wasn’t the way to deal with African logic, I knew what he wanted and he knew that I knew.
‘I will have to pay a visit and assess the situation,’ he added. ‘If what you say is true then this man will be in serious trouble. You can collect me in the morning’.
A time was set for three o’ clock the next morning, which meant in real time anytime after nine. Time starts at daybreak for Kenyans and finishes at sunrise which makes life complicated for those of us who don’t realise there is a completely different time scale out here. It doesn’t matter much though; time is a very flexible element in any case and has no meaning.
We were ready for Mr Umbungo the next morning. The outcome, we knew, rested on cost, cost to us that is. Kenya society runs on bribery and corruption, a facet that any outsider should do well to remember. It’s all done very nicely and generally without threats or menace, it’s just a way of life. We were old hands at the bribery game so anything of value that denoted wealth was hidden and I used Laura’s old Toyota Starlet to fetch him. He arrived at ten, which wasn’t too bad.
Mr Umbungo expected at least a Toyota Landcruiser for a start and his expectation of the amount of bribe dropped a few points. It dropped a further few when he realised I hadn’t got a driver and drove him to our home myself. We lived in an old colonial style of apartment, three stories up without a lift which must have depressed him even more. A mineral water on the balcony was the first port of call, served by Laura who had told the maid to make herself scarce. By the time he had looked around and found no swimming pool, no computer and not even a TV, never mind a satellite dish he was about as despondent as it’s possible to get. It was obvious that we had done it well as we watched his face drop as the bribery expectation duly dropped to a very low rung.
The three of us watched the goat herd enlarging his home to accommodate, no doubt, a wife or two and various offsprings. If past experience was any guide we would expect him to have added another two or three rooms by the end of the week and then rent them out.
‘This man must be removed and your line restored,’ said Mr Umbungo.
‘Yes,’ I said, waiting for the opening salvo in negotiations.
‘I have a very sick mother,’ said Mr Umbungo, which is quite a common opening ploy; it could have been sick wife, child or anything. We expected it but had to go through the paraphernalia because it was the African way. To offer an out and out bribe meant a loss of face for him, and anyway it was a form of wheeling and dealing which is well set in the African psyche.
‘Oh I am sorry,’ said Laura. She was far better at this sort of thing than I was.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and the school fees are due now.’
‘Well,’ said Laura, ‘Maybe a little donation towards…’
‘That would be most useful. It means I can devote all my time to your telephone line rather than having to spend all day taking my mother backwards and forwards to hospital.’
A one thousand shilling note was pocketed and with the promise that all his family’s prayers would be directed in our direction for the foreseeable future, Mr Umbungo got up to leave.
I drove him into Mombasa and on returning Laura gave me a knowing look, ‘Honour done on both sides I think,’ she said. As one thousand shillings would buy you a couple of big Macs and fries back home, I agreed. I remounted the satellite antenna, the computer terminal and waited for our driver to come back with the Landcruiser that he’d taken for servicing.
‘I expect the phone will be back on within a week,’ Laura said, uncovering the washing machine and dishwasher. ‘Where did you drop Mr Umbungo?’
‘Oh, outside the Indian Ocean Beach Club.’

Running the Gauntlet in Mogadishu.

Running the Gauntlet in Mogadishu.
A newspaper article I wrote in January 1993 for the Cape Times in South Africa.

A burst of small-arms fire. I turned Fleetwood Mac down a bit and waited for the answering shell to explode. It burst through Christine McVie’s Songbird. Cape Town’s Sea Point on a bad Saturday night had nothing on downtown Mogadishu in Somalia, East Africa.

The M.V. Esbjerg was a ship chartered by Red Cross and built nearly thirty years ago. Tied loosely against the dock wall she’s jumpy, just like the crew. We just wanted to get the hell out. Up to three times a month, we would bring relief supplies to war-torn Somalia from Mombasa. Rice, beans, cooking oil, medical supplies as well as a hundred cases of beer for the Red Cross workers. They deserved it. Mostly, though, the beer goes in bribes to the local and devout Moslem local mafia Moslem port authority who are corrupt beyond compare. They extort money from the local workforce in return for work permits and then control and supervise the looting with rifle butts.

Then, of course, there are the Red Cross workers. They are shot regularly and if still alive taken to hospital by friends. The doctors and nurses live and work under appalling conditions. The ship’s medical locker is opened and morphine, bandages and various pills are sent. The hospital has no supplies; they were looted a long time ago.

The Somalian women, old before their time, come down to the ship carrying babies when it gets dark. They come to sift through the dirt and dust for grains of rice that are left on the quayside after the ship has discharged its cargo. Never mind the probability of rape or indiscriminate shooting, it’s worth the gamble.

The bodies that float past the ship once or twice a day causes a fit of frenzy. The body is dragged out and stripped of whatever clothing remains. These garments are sold to the highest bidder in the marketplace. The bullet holes are taken for granted.

The marketplace includes the ship. Traders line the vessel’s side, selling looted luxury cars, fax machines, video cameras, watches, freezers and microwave ovens. The temptation to buy is high but an hour later a boy of ten could hold you up with an AK47 and demand it back. You don’t argue.

I look out of my porthole and watch one of the many armed militia masquerading as port officials shooting their rifles. The direction of aim varies according to the amount of alcohol drunk or ‘dagga’ smoked. They have one thing in common, these trigger happy brigands, not uniform or age, not really any allegiance to any particular warlord or military unit. Just regular flip-flops on their feet. Boys of ten are deemed old enough- if they are big enough to carry an AK47 for looting and killing.

An Arab dhow crept into the harbour a few days ago to take away Arab refugees. Men women and children crowded on board. The vessel was shelled and the bows were blown off. Those who lived jumped overboard and tried to swim to safety. Safety to them was the shark infested sea. None made it- they were all shot before they got half way across the harbour.

Perhaps it would have done some good to have had a United Nations observer on our ship. Mixing with American captain Chris Ross, Pakistani Mate Hussain and a crew from all over Africa. I was the Chief Engineer, a Brit now living in Cape Town.
The Red Cross boys and girls on the ground in Somalia are magnificent. Don’t ask them, though, what they think of all the armchair opinion that spouts from so-called ‘”do gooders”. Don’t ask what they think of African politics and don’t even think of asking them what the solutions are. It’s unprintable.


As the Language of the Community of Gipseys is very expressive, and different from all others, we think we shall gratify the curious by publishing a specimen of it.

* * * * *

ABRAM, naked, without clothes, or scarce enough to cover the nakedness.

Ambi-dexter, one that goes snacks in gaming with both parties; also a lawyer that takes fees of a plaintiff and defendant at once.

Alel-Wackets, blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief, instead of a ferula; a jocular punishment among seamen, who sometimes play at cards for wackets, the loser suffering as many strokes as he has lost games.

Abram Cove, among thieves, signifies a naked or poor man; also a lusty strong rogue.

Adam, Tiler, a pickpocket’s associate, who receives the stolen goods.

Air and Exercise. He has had air and exercise, i.e., has been whipped at the cart’s tail; or, as it is generally expressed, at the cart’s arse.

Alls, the Five Alls is a country sign, representing five human figures, each having a motto under him. The first is a king in his regalia; his motto, I govern all: the second a bishop in his pontificals; motto, I pray for all: third, a lawyer in his gown; motto, I plead for all: fourth, a soldier in his regimentals, fully accoutred; with the motto, I fight for all: and the fifth, a poor countryman with his scythe and rake; motto, I pay for all.

Amen Curler, a parish clerk.

Anodyne Necklace, a halter.

Arch Rogue, or Dimber Damber Upright Man, the chief of a gang of gipseys.

Arch Doxy, signifies the same in rank among the female canters or gipseys.

Ard, hot.

Autumn Mort, a married woman; also a female beggar with several children, hired to excite charity.

Autumn, a church; also married.

Autumn bawler, a preacher.

Autumn cacklers or prick-ears, dissenters of whatever denomination.

Autumn divers, church pickpockets; but often used for churchwardens, overseers of the poor, sidesmen, and others, who manage the poor’s money.

Autumn jet, a parson.

Babes in the Wood, criminals in the stocks.

Back’d, dead.

Badge Coves, parish pensioners.

Balsam, money.

Bam, a jocular imposition, the same as humbug.

Bandog, a bailiff, or his followers; a sergeant, or his yeomen; also a fierce mastiff.

Bandero, a widow’s mourning peak; also a musical instrument.

Baptised, rum, brandy, or any other spirits that have been lowered with water.

Barker, a salesman’s servant that walks before the shop, and cries, coats, gowns, &c., what d’ye buy?

Barking irons, pistols, from their explosion resembling the barking of a dog.

Barnacles, a good job, or a snack easily got; also, the irons worn by felons in gaols.

Barrel Fever, he died of the barrel fever; he killed himself by drinking.

Battner, an ox.

Bawbee, a halfpenny.

Baudrons, a cat.

Beak, a justice of the peace, or magistrate.

Beard splitter, a whoremaster, or a beadle.

Beater cases, boots.

Bellows, the lungs.

Belly cheat, an apron.

Bill of sale, a widow’s weeds.

Bing, to go, bing avast; get you gone. Binged avast in a darkmans; stole away in the night. Bing we to Rumvilck; shall we go to London.

Bingo, brandy, or other spirituous liquor.

Bingo boy, a dram drinker.

Bingo mort, a female dram drinker.

Bingowaste, get you hence.

Black fly, the greatest drawback on the farmer is the black fly, i.e. the parson.

Bleating rig, sheep-stealing.

Blind harpers, beggars counterfeiting blindness, playing on fiddles, &c.

Black box, a lawyer.

Black Indies, Newcastle, from whence the coals are brought.

Black spy, the devil.

Blind cheek, the breech.

Blowen, a whore.

Bluffer, an innkeeper, or victualler.

Boarding school, Bridewell, Newgate, or any other prison, or house of correction.

Bob, a shoplifter’s assistant, or one that receives and carries off stolen goods.

Bob ken, or a Brownmanken, a well furnished house.

Bone, to apprehend, seize, or arrest.

Bone box, the mouth.

Bone Darkmans, a good night.

Bone setter, a hard-trotting horse.

Booby hutch, a one-horse chaise, noddy, buggy, or leathern bottle.

Borde, a shilling.

Bouncing cheat, a bottle.

Bracket face, ugly, ill-favoured.

Brown George, an ammunition loaf.

Buck’s face, a cuckold.

Bufe, a dog.

Butt’s eye, a crown, or five shilling piece.

Bung, a purse, pocket, or fob.

Bur, a hanger-on, a dependant.

Bum bailiff, a sheriff’s officer who arrests debtors; so called perhaps from following his prey, and being at their bums, or as the vulgar phrase is, hard at their a—s. Blackstone says it is a corruption of bound bailiff, from their being obliged to give bond for their good behaviour.

Bum brusher, a schoolmaster.

Bus-napper, a constable.

Bus-napper’s kenchin, a watchman.

Bye-blow, a bastard.

Calle, a cloak or gown.

Cank, dumb.

Canniken, the plague.

Cap, to swear.

Captain Queernabs, a fellow in poor clothes.

Caravan, a good round sum of money about a man.

Case, a house, shop, or warehouse.

Cassun, cheese.

Caster, a cloak.

Calfskin fiddle, a drum. To smack calfskin; to kiss the book in taking the oath. It is held by the St. Giles’s casuists, that by kissing one’s own thumb instead of smacking calfskin, the guilt of taking a false oath is avoided.

Canticle, a parish clerk.

Canting, preaching with a whining affected tone, perhaps a corruption of chaunting; some derive it from Andrew Cant, a famous Scotch preacher, who used that whining manner of expression. Also, a kind of gibberish used by thieves and gipseys, called, likewise, pedlar’s French.

Catamaran, an old scraggy woman; from a kind of float, made of spars and yards lashed together, for saving shipwrecked persons.

Catch Club, a member of the catch club; a bum bailiff.

Chanticleer, a cock.

Charactered, or Lettered, burnt in the hand. They have palmed the character upon him, they have burned him in the hand.

Charm, a picklock.

Chates, the gallows.

Chats, lice.

Chanter culls, grub-street writers, who compose songs and carrols for ballad singers.

Cherubims, peevish children, because cherubim and seraphim continually do cry.

Cheat-the-devil, a dicky.

Chife, a knife, file, or saw.

Chosen Pells, highwaymen who rob in pairs, in the streets and squares of London; to prevent being followed by the sound of their horses’ shoes on the stones, they shoe them with leather.

Chuck farthing, a parish clerk.

Clank napper, a silver tankard.

Clickman Toad, a watch; also, an appellation for a West countryman, said to have arisen from the following—a West countryman, who had never seen a watch, found one on a heath near Pool, which, by the motion of the hand, and the noise of the wheels, he concluded to be a living creature of the toad kind; and, from its clicking, he named it a clickman toad.

Clowes, rogues.

Cloy, thief, robber, &c.

Cloyes, thieves, robbers, &c.

Cly, money; also, a pocket. He has filed a cly; he has picked a pocket.

Cold burning, a punishment inflicted by private soldiers, on their comrades, for any trifling offences of their mess laws; it is administered in the following manner—the prisoner is set against the wall, with the arm which is to be burned tied as high above his head as possible; the executioner then ascends a stool, and having a bottle of cold water, pours it slowly down the sleeve of the delinquent, patting him, and leading the water gently down his body, till it runs out at the bottom of his trowsers—this is repeated to the other arm, if he is sentenced to be burned in both.

Cloak, a silver tankard.

Coach wheel, or a fore coach wheel, half-a-crown; a hind coach wheel, a crown.

Cobblecotter, a turnkey.

Collar day, execution day.

Colquarron, a man’s neck.

Comefa, a shirt, or shift.

Commission, a shirt.

Comfortable impudence, a wife.

Cooler, a woman.

Costard, the head.

Court card, a gay fluttering coxcomb.

Cow’s baby, a calf.

Cow-handed, awkward, not dextrous.

Crab shells, shoes.

Cramp word, sentence of death passed on a criminal by a judge:—he has just undergone the cramp word; sentence has just been passed upon him.

Crew, a knot or gang: the canting crew are thus divided into twenty-three orders:—


1. Rufflers.

2. Upright Men.

3. Hookers, or Anglers.

4. Rogues.

5. Wild Rogues.

6. Priggers, or Prancers.

7. Pailliards.

8. Fraters.

9. Jarkmen, or Patricoes.

10. Fresh Water Mariner’s or Whip Jackets.

11. Drummerers.

12. Drunken Tinkers.

13. Swaddlers, or Pedlars.

14. Abrams.


1. Demanders for Glimmer or Fire.

2. Bawdy Baskets.

3. Morts.

4. Autumn Morts.

5. Walking Morts.

6. Doxies.

7. Delles.

8. Kinchin Morts.

9. Kinchin Coves.

Crookmans, hedges.

Coxy, a stupid fellow.

Crook, sixpence.

Croker, a groat, or fourpence.

Croppen, the tail of any thing.

Cucumbers, tailors.

Cuffin cove, a drunken fellow.

Cull, a fellow.

Cut his stick, run away.

Culp, a kick, or blow.

Cup hot, drunk.

Cursitors, petty fogging attornies.

Cussin, a man.

Darby, ready money.

Dace, twopence;—tip me a dace; lend me twopence.

Dag, a gun.

Damber, or Dimber, a rascal.

Dancers, stairs.

Darkmans, night.

Dash, a tavern drawer.

Dawbe, a bribe or reward for secret service.

Decus, a crown.

Degen, a sword.

Diddle, gin.

Diggers, spurs.

Dimber Damber, a top-man among the canting crew; also the chief rogue of the gang, or the greatest cheat.

Dimbermort, a pretty wench.

Doash, a cloak.

Dobin rig, stealing ribbons from haberdashers early in the morning, or late at night, generally practised by women in the disguise of maid-servants,

Doctor, milk and water, with a little rum and some nutmeg; also the name of a composition used by distillers, to make spirits appear stronger than they really are.

Doctors, loaded dice that will run but two or three chances—they put the doctors upon him; they cheated him with loaded dice.

Dodsey, a woman; perhaps a corruption of Doxey.

Downy cove, a smart fellow.

Drumbelow, a dull fellow.

Dunnikin, a necessary, or little-house.

Dunaker, a stealer of cows and calves.

Eriffs, rogues just initiated, and beginning to practise.

Eternity box, a coffin.

Facer, a bumper without lip room.

Families, rings.

Famms, hands.

Fastener, a warrant.

Fawney, a ring.

Feeder, a spoon:—to nab the feeder; to steal a spoon.

Fermerdy beggars, all those who have not the sham sores or clymes.

Ferret, a pawnbroker or tradesman, that sells goods to young spendthrifts upon trust, at excessive rates, and then hunts them without mercy, and often throws them into jail, where they perish for their debt.

Fidlam Ben, general thieves; called also St. Peter’s sons, having every finger a fish-hook.

Flag, a groat.

Flash, a periwig.

Flaybottomist, a bum-thrasher, or schoolmaster.

Flick, old-fashioned, or sly.

Flicker, a drinking-glass.

Flicking, to cut, cutting; as flick me some panea and cassan, cut me some bread and cheese.

Flute, the recorder of London, or any other town.

Flyers, shoes or boots.

Fogus, tobacco: tip me a gage of fogus; give me a pipe of tobacco.

Froglanders, Dutchmen.

Frummagemmed, choked, strangled, or hanged.

Furmen, aldermen.

Gaberlunzie, a beggar.

Gan, a mouth.

Gans, the lips.

Gage, a liquor pot, or a tobacco pipe.

George, a half-crown piece.

Gem, a fire.

Gentry cove, a gentleman.

Gibberish, the cant language of thieves and gipseys, called pedlars’s French, St. Giles’s Greek, and the Flash tongue: also the mystic language of Geber, used by chemists. Gibberish likewise means a sort of disguised language, formed by inserting any consonant between each syllable of an English word; in which case it is called the gibberish of the letter inserted; if f, it is the f gibberish; if g, the g gibberish; as in the sentence, How do you do? Howg dog youg dog?

Gigg, a nose: snitchell his gigg; fillip his nose: grunter’s gigg; a hog’s snout. Gigg is also a high one-horse chaise.

Gipseys, a set of wandering vagrants found in the country. When a fresh recruit is admitted into this fraternity, he is to take the following oath, administered by the principal maunder, after going through the annexed forms:—

First, a new name is given him, by which he is ever after to be called; then standing up in the middle of the assembly, and directing his face to the dimber damber, or principal man of the gang, he repeats the following oath, which is dictated to him by some experienced member of the fraternity:

I, Crank Cuffin, do swear to be a true brother, and that I will in all things obey the commands of the great tawney prince, and keep his council, and not divulge the secrets of my brethren.

I will never leave nor forsake the company, but observe and keep all the times of appointment, either by day or night in every place whatever.

I will not teach any one to cant, nor will I disclose any of our mysteries to them.

I will take my prince’s part against all that shall oppose him, or any of us, according to the utmost of my ability: nor will I suffer him, or any one belonging to us, to be abused by any strange abrams, rufflers, hookers, pailliards, swaddlers, Irish toyles, swigmen, whip jacks, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, domerars, clapper dogeons, patricoes, or curtails; but will defend him or them, as much as I can, against all other outliers whatever. I will not conceal aught I win out of libkins, or from the ruffmans, but I will preserve it for the use of the company. Lastly, I will cleave to my doxy-wap stiffly, and will bring her duds, margery praters, goblers, grunting cheats, or tibs of the buttery, or any thing else I can come at, as winnings for her wappings.

Gigger, a door.

Globe, pewter.

Glue-pot, a parson; from joining men and women together in matrimony.

Glaziers, eyes.

Glim, a dark lantern.

Glimfenders, hand-irons.

Glim, a candle.

Glimstick, a candlestick.

Gaoler’s coach, a hurdle.

Goose Riding: a goose, whose neck is greased, being suspended by the legs to a cord tied to two trees or high posts, a number of men on horseback, riding full speed, attempt to pull off the head; which if they effect, the goose is their prize. This has been practised in Derbyshire within the memory of persons now living.

Grannan gold, old hoarded coin.

Green bag, a lawyer.

Grig, a farthing.

Gropers, blind men.

Gutter-lane, the throat.

Hammer, a great lie, a rapper.

Halberhead, a silly foolish fellow.

Half nab, at a venture, unsight, unseen, hit or miss.

Half-borde sixpence.

Hams, breeches.

Hamlet, a high constable.

Hand-me-downs, second-hand clothes.

Hanktel, a silly fellow, a mere cod’s-head.

Hansan kelder, a jack in the box, the child in the womb, or a health to it.

Harman, a constable.

Harmanbeck, a beadle.

Hawk, a sharper.

Hazel gold, to beat any one with a stick.

Hearingcheats, ears.

Heaver, the breast.

Hell, the place where the tailors lay up their cabbage or remnants, which are sometimes very large.

Hempen widow, one whose husband was hanged.

Henfright, those commanders and officers who are absolutely swayed by their wives.

High tide, when the pocket is full of money.

Hocus, disguised in liquor, drunk.

Hodmendods, snails in their shells.

Hoggrubber, a close-fisted, narrow-minded, sneaking fellow.

Hop-merchant, a dancing-master.

Hum-box, a pulpit.

Humpty-dumpty, ale boiled with brandy.

Hums, persons at church.

Huskylour, a job, a guinea.

Iron doublet, a parson.

Itchland, Ireland.

Jackrum, a licence.

Jack Adams, a fool.

Jack-a-dandy, a little insignificant fellow.

Jack-in-a-box, a sharper or cheat.

Jack-at-a-pinch, a poor hackney parson.

Jacobites, sham or collar shirts.

Jack, a seal.

Jet, a lawyer

Ken, a house.

Kicks, breeches.

Kill devil, row.

Kinchin, a little child.

King’s pictures, money of any description.

Laced mutton, a woman.

Lag, last; lagging behind, to be hindmost.

Lage, water.

Lage duds, a buck of clothes.

Lambskin men, the judges of several courts.

Lansprisado, he that comes into company with only two-pence in his pocket.

Lantern. A dark lantern, the servant or agent that receives the bribe at court.

Libben, a private dwelling-house.

Libbege, a bed.

Lifter, a crutch.

Lightmans, the day, or day-break.

Line of the old author, a dram of brandy.

Little Barbary, Wapping.

Lop’d, run away; he lop’d up the dancers, he whipped up the dancers.

Loge, a watch.

Louse-trap, a comb.

Low tide, when there’s no money in a man’s pocket.

Lushy cove, a drunken man.

Maik, a halfpenny.

Mannikin, a dwarf or diminutive fellow.

Maunders, beggars.

Maundering breath, scolding.

Meggs, guineas.

Meet, to spend money.

Millclapper, a woman’s tongue.

Mist, a contraction of commission, signifying a shirt, smock or sheet.

Mishtopper, a coat or petticoat.

Moabites, sergeants, bailiffs, and their crew.

Moon-curser, a link-boy.

Mower, a cow.

Muck, money, wealth.

Muttonmonger, a lover of women.

Mutton in long coats, women; a leg of mutton in a silk stocking, a woman’s leg.

Nab, a hat, cap, or head; also a coxcomb.

Ne’er a face but his own, not a penny in his pocket.

Nim gimmer, a doctor, a surgeon, an apothecary.

Nubbing cheat, the gallows.

Nut-crackers, a pillory.

Oak, a rich man of good substance and credit.

Ogles, eyes.

Old flick a knowing fellow.

One in ten, a parson.

Pad-the-hoof, journeying on foot.

Panum, bread.

Panter, a heart.

Pantler, a butler.

Peaches, discovers, informs.

Peeper, a looking-glass.

Peter, a portmanteau, or cloak-bag.

Peg tandrums, as, gone to peg tandrums, dead.

Penance boards, a pillory.

Penthouse nab, a very broad-brimmed hat.

Periwinkle, a peruke or wig.

Philistines, sergeants, bailiffs, and their crew.

Porker, a sword.

Property, a mere tool or implement to serve a turn; a cat’s foot.

Prig, a thief.

Quail pipe, a woman’s tongue.

Queer cuffin, a justice of peace, also, a churl.

Rabbit suckers, young spendthrifts, taking goods on tick of pawnbrokers or tallymen, at excessive rates.

Rattling cove, a coachman.

Red rag, a tongue; your red rag will never lie still, your tongue will never be quiet.

Regraters, forestallers in markets.

Ribben, money.

Rotan, a coach, or wagon, or any thing that runs upon wheels, but principally a cart.

Royster, a rude roaring fellow.

Ruffin, the devil.

Ruffmans, the woods or bushes.

Rumbeck, a justice of peace.

Rumbo, a prison.

Rumboozling welts, bunches of grapes.

Rumboyled, sought after with a warrant.

Rum clank, a large silver tankard.

Rum degen, a silver-hilted or inlaid sword.

Rumdropper, a vintner.

Rum ogle’s, fine, bright, clear, piercing eyes.

Rum-strum, a long wig.

Rum-swag, full of riches.

Scab, a sixpence.

School butter, a whipping.

Sconce, to run in debt, to cheat.

Seeds, poor, moneyless, exhausted.

Setters, or setting-dogs, they that draw in bubbles for old gamesters to rook; also a sergeant’s yeoman, or bailiff’s follower; also an excise-officer.

Sharper, a swindler, a cheat.

Sharper’s tools, false dice.

Shot, clapped or poxed.

Shove the tumbler, whipped at the cart’s tail.

Skin-flint, a griping, sharping, close clown; also, the same as flat.

Smearer, a painter, or plasterer.

Smeller, a nose.

Smelling cheat, a nosegay; also an orchard, a garden.

Smiter, an arm.

Smug, a blacksmith, also neat and spruce.

Smite, to wipe or slap.

Snitch, to eye or see any body; the cub snitches, the man eyes or sees you.

Snout, a hogshead.

Sack, a pocket.

Shanks’s naigs, the feet.

Snacks, full share.

Son of prattlement, a lawyer.

Soul driver, a parson.

South-sea mountain, Geneva.

Sow’s baby, a pig.

Spanish money, fair words and compliments.

Spanks, money, gold or silver.

Specked wiper, a coloured handkerchief.

Spiritual flesh-broker, a parson.

Split fig, a grocer.

Splitter of causes, a lawyer.

Spoil pudding, a parson who makes his morning sermon too long.

Squeel, an informer.

Squirrish, foolish.

Stamps, legs.

Stampers, shoes, or carriers.

Stick flams, a pair of gloves.

Stoter, a heavy blow.

Strapper, a handsome woman.

Strommel, straw.

Strum, a periwig.

Stubble it, hold your tongue.

Suit and cloak, good store of brandy, or agreeable liquor.

Supouch, a hostess or landlady.

Swag, a shop.

Swell cove, a man with plenty of money.

Tagmans, a gown or cloak.

Tanner, a sixpence.

Tears of the tankard, drops of good liquor that falls aside.

Thrums, threepence.

Tickler, a knowing fellow.

Tile, a hat.

Tip of the buttery, a goose.

Tip, to give or lend.

Tip’s your flipper, give us a shake of your hand.

Toggery, clothes.

Top diver, a lover of women.

Topping cheat, the gallows.

Topping cove, the hangman.

Topt, to go out sharp, to be upon one’s guard.

To twig, to disengage, to sunder, to break off.

To twig the darbies, to knock of the irons.

Track, to go.

Trees, wins threepence.

Trib, a prison.

Trine, to hang, also Tyburn.

Troch, a drunkard.

Trooper, a half-crown.

Trundles, pease.

Tumbler, a cart.

Turkey merchant, driver of turkeys.

Vampers, stockings.

Velvet, a tongue.

To tip the velvet, to tongue a woman.

Vinegar, a cloak.

Wattles, ears.

Whack, a share.

Whids, words.

Whipshire, Yorkshire.

Whoball, a milkmaid.

Whisker, a great lie.

White wool, silver money.

Whibble, sad drink.

Whiddle, to tell or discover: he whiddles, he peaches: he whiddles the whole scrap, he discovers all he knows: the cull whiddled because they would not tip him a snack, the fellow peached because they would not give him a share: they whiddle beef and we must brush, they cry out thieves and we must make off.

Whinyard, a sword.

Whip off, to run away, to drink off greedily, to snatch: he whipped away from home, went to the alehouse, where he whipped off a full tankard, and coming back whipped off a fellow’s hat from his head.

White swelling, a woman big with child is said to have a white swelling.

Witcher, a silver bowl.

Wing, a penny.

Womblety cropt, the indisposition of a drunkard after a debauch in wine or other liquors.

Wooden Ruff, a pillory; he wore the wooden ruff, he stood in the pillory.

Word-pecker, one that plays with words, a punster.

Yam, to eat heartily, to stuff lustily.

Yarmouth-capon, a red herring.

Yarum, milk, or food made of milk.

Yellow George, a guinea.

Yelper, a town-crier; also one subject to complain or make a pitiful lamentation.

Znees, frost, or frozen.

Zneesy weather, frosty weather.

Passing the Time

Passing the Time W I. No 6.

There comes a time in every aspiring writer’s life when their need of support for earthly necessities, food, drink and somewhere to rest their weary head overcomes the burning desire to have at least one of their outpourings of literary splendour accepted by the publishing fraternity.

Marmaduke Updyke-Dickens, known as Mud by friends, of whom he had few and long forgotten family relations of whom he once had many, was impoverished, rather like his writing.  At sixty-four with no visible means of support, living in a derelict caravan perched on the edge of a disused stone quarry. This meagre amount was supplemented by occasional nights of shelf filling in a local supermarket allowing him first go at out-dated ‘sell by’ bread. To say that his circumstances were straitened is an understatement.

A battered Remington typewriter of dubious vintage and worn out ribbons sat upon an upturned tea chest whilst he perched upon a reclaimed sofa, which doubled up as a bed, stabbing relentlessly at jamming keys.  His only means of lighting were flickering candles made up of paraffin wax melted down and inserted with bits of string for wicks. An old wood burning stove supplied heat for cooking and heating.

His literary outpourings reflected his lifestyle. Reams of unfulfilled manuscripts filled any space not taken up by mouldy loaves of bread and rejection letters. The outpourings of endeavour consisted of tales of woe, suffering and misery. They were not in the least uplifting, intoxicating or stimulating. And yet, and yet, he had faith. Faith in his ability. A love of stringing words together forming compositions worthy of literary merit, an attribute unfortunately not shared by publishers, literary agents or magazine editors.

The need for a change of lifestyle was brought home to Mud one early morning when, after returning home from a stint of shelf filling with a dozen loaves of bread and a jar of stuffed olives he found his caravan home lying at the bottom of the quarry smashed to bits. It had been pushed there by a bulldozer employed by the local council with intentions to start using the quarry as a landfill site for household rubbish. The driver, wishing to make a good first impression on his employers, employed the blade of his machine to start the process with aplomb.

Grief-stricken Mud scaled down the rocky formation gathered his manuscripts and notes, stuffed them into a black bin liner and trudged off to find solace. Two hours later found him sitting on a bench in the town square. His father and mother had separated when he was fifteen, a brother and sister might as well be on the other side of the planet. His lack of friends and family, not to mention money, precluded him from finding shelter and as the afternoon dragged on into the evening, darkness descended a flash of lightening and following rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. It started to rain, gently at first and a vivid bolt of light throwing the distant chimney pots into stark relief followed by a loud clap of thunder announced a heavy deluge. Through the gloom and rain Mud, clutching his precious manuscripts, spied a figure approaching. As the newcomer dressed in a black cloak and helmet drew close Mud realising he was about to be confronted by a member of the local constabulary had a sudden burst of inspiration. He stood up and waited for the policeman to come near and without further ado swung his arm and knocked the constable’s helmet off.

The resultant night in the cells, apart from giving Mud succour in the form of food, shelter and warmth, also gave him time to reflect. The time had come to bounce back from the unmitigated pit of nihilism, but where to start. No qualifications of any significance, no work experience except shelf filling in supermarkets and certainly no ambition in life other than the overriding urge to see his authorship accepted by his peers. Trouble was he had no peers. He had no place to live either and no viable means of support.

These realities he reasoned, as he waited in the police cell for the law of the land to wield its retribution, were the result of a misspent youth progressing through middle age and now decidedly the last lap, it was time to take stock. The thought of ‘stock‘ triggered a thought process that was interrupted by the arrival of the desk sergeant with a plate of bacon and eggs and news that no charges were being brought as it would involve ‘too much bloody paperwork.’ The sergeant added he was free to go as soon as he had finished his breakfast. Mud thanked him profusely and received the sum of ten pounds, the result of a whip round by the station officers who all felt rather sorry for him and after collecting all his worldly possessions staggered out into the bright sunlight.

Mud walked aimlessly, oblivious to any sense of direction or plan. He passed a large rubbish skip and with an impulse he wasn’t really aware of dumped the black bin liner containing his life’s work. As he meandered forth towards an unknown destination his thoughts returned to the germ of an idea that started to germinate before the kindly sergeant bearing breakfast and the wonderful aroma of bacon invaded his olfactory senses.  Eventually, he found himself back in familiar territory. Black wrought iron gates drew him in.  A row of beach and silver birch trees intermingled with rhododendron  and  climbing hydrangea bushes brought back a sudden flash of memory;  an aged aunt’s garden he used to visit when a lad a but he couldn’t remember her name, let alone where. He sat on a bench, a shudder of pain swept through his body and he started to weep.

Some time later Mud realised he wasn’t alone, an elderly couple sat down beside him and out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a sort of fuzzy effervescence surrounding their bodies, as though he was looking at them through a kaleidoscope.
‘Hello Marmaduke’, said the lady.
‘We’re so glad you’ve come home,’ said the man.
‘Home’, said the lady, our home. You were happy here when it was our garden.’

M.O. Writing Imperative No.5 Inspiration

Sometimes flashes of inspiration come at the most inopportune times. Whilst locked in a passionate embrace with one’s loved one is but one example. For writer and war hero Freddy Periwinkle it was slightly different, he was locked in a passionate embrace with his next-door neighbour’s loved one in a small hotel on the South coast when a flash came to him. Glancing up from the matter in hand, he divined the pattern on the wallpaper. It was florid patterned wallpaper with a cacophony of vivid red, blue and yellow blotches swirling about in a field of what looked like mauve dead rhubarb stalks. This vision of dissonance prompted him to stop what he was doing and reflect on divine guidance.

Whilst he was ruminating, Dardanella, his partner in passion, didn’t notice Freddy had been distracted, she was used to intermissions due, she surmised, for the need to get his breath back. However, after five minutes of inactivity, her suspicions of other forces being involved were aroused when Freddy shot out of bed muttering exultations to unseen gods. ‘Is it cramp’, she asked, reaching for a cigarette.

‘Cramp,’ he said, staring wildly back at the bed, ‘cramp, no it’s not cramp,  It’s a sign. I have been called.’

‘I didn’t hear the phone ring,’ said Dardanella.

‘Elysian fields. I have been called by Perseus and, and the King and Queen of Thebes.’

‘Oh, that’s very nice,’ she replied, getting out of bed, ‘I’m going to have a bath.’

‘Well, they don’t think Homer did a very good job with his Odyssey.  They reckon I’m the very chap to put matters right.’

‘Will it take long?’ said Dardanella. Freddy wasn’t listening, he unpacked his laptop and started putting Homer right.

Dardanella shrugged and retired to the bathroom, ran a bath, poured in a goodly amount of foam inducing dead sea bath salts and sank beneath the lather. She was not what you would call ‘worldly wise,’ more sort of ‘worldly witless’, but knew when she was on to a good thing.

The good thing, after sitting and staring at a blank page for ten minutes decided to google Homer’s Oddysey. Half an hour later and being none the wiser regarding Homer’s illumination he spent the next hour reading Euripides, Pausanias, Philostratus and Virgil’s thoughts on the matter and was still at a loss. He studied the wallpaper again

Dardanella, in the meantime, having soaked her body in the dead sea until her eyes watered dried herself off and gave herself an all over body beautification starting with a pedicure and ending with an elaborate coiffure. She wrapped a bath towel around her and came back into the bedroom. Freddy was still staring at the wallpaper, the laptop still perched on his knees.

‘Have you finished?’ she said. ‘I’m getting hungry.’ There was no reply, there was no anything. She went closer. His eyes were glassy, he was very white and he was very dead. She glanced at the computer. His last words were, ‘It wasn’t a sign it was a bloody omen’.

The Writing Imperative No 4 Role Reversal


Peter awakes at six forty-five and stretches. He rolls out of bed onto the floor and goes through a routine of sit-ups, press-ups and other ups designed, he reckons, to get the blood flowing. When the red corpuscles are roaring around his body at the speed of light, he dons a track suit, lets himself out of the front door and goes for a two-mile sprint around the block. After an invigorating cold shower, shave and what have you he dons a ‘onesie’ and repairs to the kitchen, via his wife’s bedroom, giving a sharp rap on her door announcing the start of the day. Donning an apron, depicting a basket of prunes, he starts to prepare a pre-ordained breakfast of broccoli, goji berries and garlic for himself and a bloody Mary for Phyllis. Phyllis, meanwhile, in an adjacent bedroom, is still considering the outrageous proposal Clark Gable suggested in his Cannes villa.  She is oblivious to alarms, bangs on her door, or consciousness of any kind.

Peter and Phyllis have been married for twenty years; they are childless, mainly from the want of not trying. Peter was made redundant four years ago from his job as chief nutritionist at a chocolate pudding factory due, he maintains, to a sharp divergence of ideals with the managing director, the sales director and virtually all the other directors. The loss of earnings from Peter’s employ mattered little. Phyllis was earning three times as much as her husband due to her vast output of published novels and adoring readership among the sexual fantasist genre of ladies in suburbia..She had been an avid writer for as long as she can remember but it was the realisation that by imbibing  a certain herbal substance before bedtime that her resultant dreams of a particular intimate nature and noted down immediately upon waking could be turned into a cash cow and  Peter took on the role of a house husband.

Half an hour later Phyllis finds her tryst with Clark Gable well and truly disrupted by the sound of a vacuum cleaner bashing the skirting boards and doors of the landing. She sits up rubs her eyes, curses through clenched teeth and reaches for a notebook. After ten minutes as the sound of Peter’s cleaning exploits recede she puts pen to paper and tries to recollect the fascinations of the night. Nothing, nix, zilch, sweet Fanny Adams. It’s all gone. Up in a cloud of dust into the bloody vacuum bag.

The resultant meeting of two minds when they meet in the kitchen twenty minutes later is icy, to say the least. Phyllis has downed her bloody Mary and has another one ready.‘That’s the third bloody time this week,’ says Phyllis , clutching a tattered dressing gown around her shoulders with one hand and reaching for her third cigarette of the morning with the other. ‘You bastard.’

Peter, looking down at his wife from a chair on which he’s standing in order to reach the dark recesses of a wall cupboard top with a feather duster. ‘It’s got to be done my dear,’ he says, ‘your health is my concern,’

‘Bollocks,’ replies Phyllis.

‘Never mind them, says Peter, ‘hurry up and finish, I’ve got a shopping list to do and the beds to make.

Phyllis grabs her drink, cigarettes, notebook, and shuffles into her study. It has been cleaned and tidied by Peter. She can’t find anything. The phone rings, it’s her agent. ‘Morning,‘ says Phyllis.

‘Good morning,’ says her agent,’Phyl dear, it’s about the, you know the story line about the transvestite in the sauna.’

The only line that Phyllis is interested in at the moment are the railway ones she could tie Peter on. ‘What about it?’ she asks.

‘Well, I’m rather worried that we may be breaking the bounds of plausibility.’

Peter enters complete with feather duster.

‘Piss off’ says Phyllis.’

‘Well really,’ says her agent.

‘No not you,’ says Phyllis. ’It’s him, the answer to a dustman’s prayer.’

As lunch time approaches Phyllis goes to the door, listens intently for sounds of activity and hearing none creeps soundlessly into the kitchen and out through the back door into the garden. She goes behind a stone wall  gently dislodges a stone and extracts a half pint glass. Two yards further on another extracted stone reveals a bottle of gin. Pouring a good measure into the glass she replaces the gin and makes her way surreptitiously to the greenhouse. Underneath a six foot yucca she feels for a bottle of tonic water and tops her glass up. Sitting on a pile of compost away from prying eyes she demolishes the beverage, replaces the evidence into their hidey-hole and makes her way back indoors, feeling half human again.

By mid-afternoon, after another trip to engage the garden’s flora and fauna, she is qwerty bashing with renewed zeal. Peter is nowhere to be seen and all is well with the world.

At five o’ clock Peter re-enters, this time with a whole salmon in his arms. ‘You remember Joyce and Henry are coming for dinner tonight,’ he says, ‘ I’ve laid out your pink twin set on the bed, it will go nicely with your mother’s pearls.’

‘What!’ says Phyllis, deflating like a pricked party balloon. ‘Who the hell are Joyce and Henry?’

‘That nice couple that moved into number seventeen,’ he looks askance. ‘You must remember, we met them at the local resident’s association meeting last week.’

‘I have never been to a local resident’s association meeting, whatever that is and don’t intend to start now.’

‘Oh,’ says Peter, scratching his head, ‘I must have gone with someone else.’

‘You buffoon,’ says Phyllis. ‘Ring them up and say I’ve got a dose of the clap and it’s highly contagious.’

The evening wore on, Peter did a load of ironing whilst watching a documentary on television about carpet laying and Phyllis remained in her study imbibing great wafts of herbal essence and thinking. At bedtime, Peter made himself a malted milk drink and made notes of jobs for the morrow which he affixed with a magnet to the fridge door. Phyllis made her way upstairs, giggling with the anticipation of a night’s romp with half of Hollywood.

‘Good night darling,’ shouted Peter, ‘sweet dreams.’

‘You too,’ shouted Phyllis, with a smile, ‘you too.’


Modus operandi 3 The Degenerated Gentleman in Town.

The cat wakes our liver’ish, fifty-five’ish writer with a tongue, as rough as its owners, at ten o’ clock’ish, every day. A groan, developing into a coughing fit disrupts the cat’s onslaught. The smell of old tobacco smoke spilled beer and rotting fish invade his nostrils, and our writer engages his world. His world, that of a literary hack, is a downward stroll into oblivion. It is not entirely his fault, well, yes it is; it’s his set of ideals that have been his downfall, that and a strong penchant for alcoholic beverages. Twice married, twice divorced with three daughters and a son who visit him at very irregular intervals and two grandchildren who are not allowed to visit him at all. His income is derived from occasional royalties from a long-forgotten script for a sitcom but still popular in Burkina Faso and the Upper Volta. Otherwise, he has no visible means of support.

No morning tea for him, a stagger with his cat entwined around his ankles to the fridge develops into an obstacle race, around discarded manuscripts, reference books, ashtrays and dirty washing. This  crusade is even more commendable  when you consider that because he has mislaid his glasses and  lost the ability to focus on anything whatsoever he does the journey entirely by feel.  Eventually, when the finishing line is reached and the fridge door opened a can of beer is grabbed, a very shaky hand manages to pull the ring and he is sprayed with cheap lager. It is the only wash of the day. His next movement is to blunder around in the fridge’s innards to find something for the cat. A half full tin of mouldy sardines is discovered and after an inward struggle to eat them himself his compassion for his one true friend surfaces and it is deposited on the floor.

The need for the lavatorial department also surfaces, because he lives in a one room rented apartment, the contrivance he is getting desperate for means a trip down the outside corridor to a communal facility four doors away. He decides to put number two plan into action and opens the window. A dilapidated flower box with withered blooms of the last century receive some of the decantation but the pedestrians five floors below him, on the pavement are the main recipients. Some even put up umbrellas.

Eventually, a dressing gown, a garment held together by burning cigarette holes and the odd strand of wool, is donned and the search for glasses undertaken. They are found underneath his desk half an hour later in a bowl of congealed milk that the cat declined to poison itself on.  The computer is kicked into life and our hero searches round for his first gasper of the day. He finds a half smoked one in a saucer and has his second coughing fit of the day. Whilst the computer churns its constipated way through the start-up procedure a kettle of water is placed on an old gas ring. The resultant mixture of old coffee grounds, crusty honey, condensed milk and other unmentionable floating debris is taken back to the desk. Our hero’s day’s contribution to the literary world begins.

The state of the desk defies description, so I won’t, save to say the basic components, grease, bread crumbs, bits of bacon and spilt beer covered keyboard, monitor and mouse are just serviceable. After fifteen attempts to win ‘Free Cell,’ e-mails are the first port of call. The only one not binned straight away  is one from his literary agent asking if he wishes to ghostwrite a book for a retiring little-known footballer with no known charisma and even less known command of the English language. A quick search in a grubby notebook shows this is the fourth time he has been approached by this individual and been declined. The reply to his agent, telling him that the footballer can shove the football up where the sun ‘don’t’ shine is posted off.

By noon after a further twenty games of ‘Free Cell’ and twenty-five dog end cigarettes found half-smoked in the ash tray and floor,  our hero feels a little peckish and trolls off to the fridge. The remains of what, at first thought, was a jam roly-poly pudding turns out to be a rolled-up sock. So, he puts on an old pair of verdigris jeans a cigarette holed polar neck sweater covered in an ornate patina and a pair of non-matching flip-flops.  Making sure that no creditors are waiting to pounce he goes down the fire escape and makes his way to the pub.

The saloon bar of his local pub is the real stage for our hero. He tells tales of tremendous scoops that he just missed, television scripts that were stolen from him, famous film producers that died just before they were about to accept his film adaptation of Androcles and the lion and the publishing business’s sad decline due to the employment of illiterate twelve-year-old girls who wouldn’t know the difference between a book and a wet fish if it jumped up and slapped them in the face.

The pub’s newspaper is scanned for likely winners in the horse race meetings during the afternoon and names noted. The landlord is told to put what he owes on the slate and he will pay later. The trip to the bookmakers goes past a supermarket waste bin which after a careful perusal of its innards reveals two, out of sell by date, loafs of bread, a distinctly off-colour packet of lamb chops and a crushed box of cornflakes. These are put in one of the many bags blowing about in the wind on the car park. Further down the road, he passes a green grocer’s shop advertising, ‘ Todays’ special offer. Mangoes’ at half price.’ This isn’t the first time he’s had cause to remonstrate with the greengrocer about the misuse of the humble apostrophe and he gets as much abuse this time as he has before. But he has made his point and refreshed with the thought that the great jockey in the sky will surely favour his choices for the race meeting at Epsom he marches into the bookmakers.

At five o’ clock he stumbles out with a small return on his investment. Working out he has enough for a fish and chip supper, a couple of pints at the pub as well as his paying his morning’s slate and a packet of roll up tobacco he makes his way back past the half price mangos’ on the other side of the road. After a further rummage in the supermarket’s waste bin and finding six squashed tins of ‘out of date ‘tuna chunks in brine,’ he finally makes his way, full of the joys of spring, through the doors of  the saloon bar. At half past ten, he staggers home, completely forgetting to buy fish and chips and spends the next hour sending e-mails to newspaper editors complaining about the demise of the country’s social standards.  At midnight, he and this cat curl up under the bedclothes and fall under the guiding influence of Morpheus.


‘The Writing Imperative and How to Survive It’ No 2

The Single Country Lady.
At seven fifteen prompt, a housekeeper awakens our wordsmith by drawing the heavy velvet drapes revealing an immaculate lawn, a glimmering lake and distant wooded undulating uplands. On a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of two digestive biscuits rests the morning post. Sunlight envelopes a four-poster bed with rays of dancing dust-laden particles in which a lady of interminable age reposes. She gently sits up and tunes a bedside wireless to a serious news channel and her brain to the day ahead. After a shower, she dresses in tweed and makes her way to the dining room.
At nine thirty in the morning our Lady author, after breakfasting on muesli, a kipper and coffee during which a deep perusal of the newspapers is carried out. She gathers her writing paraphernalia, a bag containing a bottle of gin, a small pork pie and a jar of pickled onions, summons her four basset hounds and repairs to her writing habitat. The walk is very pleasant, through a small bluebell wood that gives her time to gather her thoughts and her dogs to gather buried bones.
A wooden summerhouse some three hundred yards away from the main residence is the natural abode for successful lady authors. Overlooking a weeping willow-bordered lake on one side and rolling meadows on the other. Inside is a bamboo chaise longue, a desk, a telephone connected only via the house which intercepts all calls and re-routes them to the summerhouse in cases of extreme importance. On one wall a bookcase containing a hundred or so reference books; atlases, ordnance survey maps, town street maps, train timetables, bus routes and police procedure. On an adjacent small round table on top of which resides a six pack of tonic water, a plate of sliced lemon a plate with knife and fork where she adds the bottle of gin and lunch.
Our lady author is a writer of detective fiction. Her family is steeped in crime fighting. She has developed a deep knowledge and love of crime fighting from her father, his father and so on. They have been involved in the security of the country for generations and having reached the higher echelons of the government security establishment they have been suitably rewarded.
She works assiduously until one o’clock taking occasional sips of gin and tonic. For the next hour, if the weather is clement, she takes a deck chair outside and sits by the lake, eating her lunch, sipping her gin, playing with her beloved hounds and thinking. The afternoon from two o’ clock until the gin bottle is emptied is taken up by planning. Notes are written, facts checked and telephone calls made and accepted by interested parties. The gin bottle is like an egg timer. When it is empty she gathers her writing paraphernalia, her hounds and retires for the day.
At home in the evening, she occasionally has a guest or two for dinner but usually sits and reads. The television is switched on for news and selected programs only; mainly the radio suffices for background noise, a lot of thinking still pervades her time. At eleven o’ clock she goes to bed
Because deadlines determine her literary output her life this daily routine is a seven-day week activity. Holidays are mostly taken in locations which stir the imagination and plots can be hatched. Her work is her life and life is wonderful.