Thursday, 25 June 2009

Everything but the oink

In common with most towns, my new adoptive home has a few charity shops. A couple of them are really rather good; the Oxfam shop in particular has a rather splendid selection of books, whilst the Cancer Research establishment has a superior line in Bric a Brac. And it was in this latter shop that No.1 daughter purchased a piggy bank.

Said piggy bank has a kind of charm about it that can generally be found in china objects made in...erm...China. It has a rather smug, self satisfied look, and eyelashes that wouldn't look out of place on a L'Oreal TV ad. It is also pink and fat, which is the least you expect from a piggy bank. And it only cost her two pounds, which to my mind is something of a bargain. However, one thing does seem a little curious to me. Given that the purchase of a piggy bank generally heralds an intention to start saving money, then why begin your savings regime by splashing out cash on a china receptacle? Cash that you could have put in a drawer, a pocket, an empty jam jar, or even (heaven forfend) a bank? I recently saw a painted earthenware pot called a Terramundi (which is Latin for, I believe 'Land of the World'). It costs twenty quid, comes in several different colours and designs, and, like the piggy bank, you put your spare change in it. However, unlike the piggy bank, you have to smash it to pieces to retrieve your money when it's full. Now, let's look at the logic of this. You waste twenty pounds you could have saved buying a pot that you will ultimately destroy and will not be able to reuse. Then, you use twenty pounds that you have retrieved from the shattered Terramundi to buy another one, and the whole sad business continues, either until the company that makes the Terramundi goes bust, or you come to your senses and stick the money in a drawer as I first suggested.

It's uncertain as to why pigs became favoured as money boxes. There's a suggestion that, in the middle ages, people placed whatever spare money they had (and I doubt there was much) in a receptacle called a pygg jar. In case you're wondering, pygg was a type of orange-coloured clay. Our modern day salt pig is a living reminder of these original pyggs. It's also mooted that the piggy bank was a kind of china representation of the real animal; in earlier times, families kept a pig that was fattened on scraps until it achieved sufficient weight to be slaughtered. The piggy bank likewise hoovered up bits of spare change until it, too, was 'fat' enough to be broken open.

The pig finds its way into quite a few sayings. We use the expression 'pigs might fly' to denote something that's unlikely to happen; we call a stubborn individual 'pig-headed'; and describe someone as 'happy as a pig in muck' when they are in a particularly cheerful mood. And we mustn't forget 'bringing home the bacon', which denotes the act of working to put food on the table. Did I say bacon? Dear bloggy friends, have you any idea how many bacon-related products are out there? Apart from bacon itself, of course. You can buy bacon flavoured dental floss, toothpicks, and even mints, marketed under the Uncle Oinker name. If you should be unlucky enough to stab yourself on a toothpick, then there are plasters amusingly shaped like mini rashers. Time to go to work? Put on your bacon tie, wrap a bacon scarf around your neck and pick up your bacon briefcase. Ah! Lunchtime! I think I'll have a bacon doughnut, washed down with a nice cup of Java coffee, flavoured with bacon and maple syrup...

I seem to have become a little carried away with the bacon motif. I do apologise. But they all exist, I swear. And don't even get me started on bacon undergarments...

Have you ever wondered what sound pigs make in other countries? Well, not the sound they actually make, of course; that probably doesn't vary that much across the globe (unless, of course, you know differently!) No, I'm talking about the (supposedly) onomatopoeic word we ascribe to their grunting. For some obscure reason, oink oink has become the phrase of choice in this country. But what of the Great Abroad? Croatians would have it that pigs exclaim rok rok. In Japan, pigs go buu; or more properly, buu buu. In Thailand your average prime porker ood oods away to his heart's content, whilst his Vietnamese counterpart goes for ut it. The prize, however, goes to the French for the rather racy groin groin. (Stop press! Late entry from my good friend Punk in Writing in Sweden, where the pigs say nöff nöff).

I think the final word has to go to Sir Francis Bacon. 'Acorns were good until bread was found'. Try telling that to pigs. They love acorns.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Help! I'm turning into a pensioner!

Some years ago, that most ubiquitous of facial preparations, Oil of Ulay, unaccountably changed its name to Oil of Olay. What made this even stranger was the fact that, in Germany, its name remained Oil of Olaz. This change occupied my waking thoughts for at least an hour. Why did they do it? Did they realise how expensive the change would be, reprinting all the packaging and re-shooting the TV ads? I don't think they thought it through properly. What they needed was someone like me. Someone who could step back from the problem, mull it over, look at the pros and cons, and then announce: 'No. Leave it as it is'. Just think of the money I'd have saved them.

I naturally assumed that the change wasn't just some whim. It had to be because Olay turned out to be some filthy word in Farsi, or Esperanto, or somesuch. After all, that's why you'll never see a Foden lorry in Portugal, and why Ford went for 'Capri' rather than 'Caprino' when launching their sporty car in the 196os. Sadly, the best I could come up with was that Ulay was the stage name of a German performance artist of the 1960s and 70s. So, Ulay wasn't the Icelandic word for 'arse'. I was quite disappointed. I rather liked the idea of a beauty product being called 'Oil of Arse'. But a point occurs to me. If (as it appears) that Ulay was called Olaz in Germany due to the difficulties experienced by the Teutonic tongue in pronouncing the former, why on earth would a German artiste give himself a name that was unpronouncable in his own language?

If you look at the blurb produced by the Olay people, you'll see that they make a big thing about The Seven Signs of Ageing. So I looked them up on my ever-helpful computer, and this is what they are:

1. Lines and wrinkles

2. Uneven skin texture

3. Uneven skin tone

4. Appearance of pores

5. Blotches and age spots

6. Dry skin

7. Dullness

Having reached my grand old age, I think I can say without doubt that I have the lot. Especially the dullness. Because there's something about ageing, nay, about retiring, that changes you in subtle ways. You don't notice it at first. You think you're the same person you were when you were working, plying your useful trade and having (in my case) cups of tea made for you without even having to ask for them. So, yesterday, as I sat on my comfy sofa, listening to my hair (especially the hair in my ears) grow whilst I polished off yet another sudoku, it suddenly occured to me that the Olay people had got it all wrong. Yes, I do have their seven signs, but no, they're not really important. It's not just my skin that's changing; it's my personality as well. I'm not the same person I was a year ago. I am undergoing a Kafka-esque metamorphosis, a change which involves seven signs of ageing of a rather different flavour. Listen in...

1. Heightened Fiscal Awareness. As a shift worker of many years, shopping was something usually done at the gallop. This was generally because (i) we needed to do it before I went off to work; or (ii) we needed to do it after I returned from work when the last thing I wanted to do was go shopping. So (as Mrs. H would tell you) I tended to walk a few paces behind her, muttering and mumbling, willing her to fill the trolley and get to the checkout with all due speed. I didn't particularly care about the cost; notes were proffered and change accepted and I couldn't get out fast enough. Now, things are different. No work, so I have no excuse to rush Mrs. H round the shops. The effect of this is that I can now tell you the price of bottled water in all the local shops (36p), the date when Morrisons' discount on chilled Chicken Jalfrezi ends (14th June) and the fact that a very useful cleaning product called The Bar Keeper's Friend is marginally cheaper in Sainsbury's than elsewhere. I have a serious case of this, but it's probably reversible. I need to adopt a trance-like state when shopping and feign indifference to the special offers.

2. A Need for Semi-Recumbency. You know they say that, when cows lie down, it's going to rain? Round here you know that, when pensioners sit down, it isn't. Age seems to bring with it this overwhelming desire for 'a nice sit down'. If it's 'a nice sit down with a cup of tea', that's even better. The other day, in an uncharacteristic fit of fiscal abandon I paid a nice Kosovan gentleman to wash my car. Did I go for a walk whilst he was doing it? Did I survey the wondrous hills, the clouds heaped up on high like ragged battlements, or the nearby stream as it chuckled its course over glistening flints? No. I went for a cup of tea and a nice sit down.

3. Consummate Procrastination. Remember the old adage: 'Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today'? This phrase might have been the watchwords for my former trade or calling. Policing demands immediacy. We've all heard stories about the cops turning up two days after the burglar was disturbed, but generally speaking things that demanded my immediate action were acted upon immediately. But now it's more like 'Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow, or preferably next week'. I have (as you can imagine) a whole housful of jobs that need doing. None of them are urgent, so I think they can probably wait until I've finished this post. In fact, next week might be a better time to start. I need to stop procrastinating, but not yet.

4. Stranger Engagement. When I was a child, off to school or about to run some errand to the corner shop, my Mum would say, 'Don't talk to any strange men'. Of course, I always agreed not to, not really knowing what she meant. I do now. They are the strange men (and women, let's have a bit of equality here!) who insist upon engaging you in conversation, having not been properly introduced to you; in fact, having not been introduced to you at all. Their favourite haunts tend to be the checkout queue, the bus stop, the post office; in fact, in any place where it is impossible for you to escape without abandoning your trolley, missing your bus, or not posting your parcel. The conversation will generally tend to feature the weather, the length of time s/he has been waiting, and sundry other topics of a most diverting nature. I was recently stopped by an elderly gent outside the bank, who proceeded to try to recruit me into a retired business peoples' luncheon club. I am as yet undecided as to whether I should accept his no doubt well-meant invitation. I am in the early stages of this sign of ageing, indulging in light banter with shop assistants. No doubt the full horror of Total Stranger Engagement will follow soon.

5. Monomaniac Tendencies. If you get a chance, visit a steam railway. There the retired will be. They'll be wearing little engine drivers' caps, waving flags, selling fudge in the station shop... Why? because of Late Onset Monomania. When you're a child, you develop all-consuming obsessions. It might be about cranes, lorries, particular types of mobile phone; but whatever it is you manage to jabber on about it unceasingly, until your friends' eyes glaze over and your parents threaten to thump or disown you. Then you grow up and put aside your obsessions in favour of leading a balanced life. But what happens when you retire? The obsessive gene switches on again and you devote a sizeable portion of your time (and sometimes money) to train spotting, stamp collecting or genealogy. My current obsession is writing, where I have managed to combine the maximum of effort with the minimum of financial recompense. Would that my obsession were decorating. I have so much of that to do.

6. Professional Purposelessness. Have you ever gone to the corner shop to buy a newspaper, and then, on a whim, just decided to wander about for no particular reason? In fact, for no reason other than that you can? Have you ever gone into a charity shop just to browse the books, or sat down in a library to skim through Practical Woodworker magazine? You have? Then, oh dear, you, like me, have become Professionally Purposeless. When I worked in London there were whole tribes of these PPs. They would meet in Macdonalds for an early morning coffee, and then betake themselves to Uxbridge Magistrates Court, where they would listen to the litany of drunkenness, shoplifting and casual violence that went before The Bench. Their afternoons were generally spent snoozing in the library, and then they would toddle off to their respective homes when it closed, only to repeat the whole dire routine the following day. I have this sign of ageing in a mild form. I sometimes take the long route home from the paper shop via the seafront, but only on a Sunday. I think I need to work at avoiding becoming fully PP.

7. Forgetfulness. I can't remember what I was going to say about forgetfulness.

So there you have it, dear bloggy friends. The Real Seven Signs of Ageing. The Seven New Geriatric Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Now that you know your enemy, you can work at avoiding them, just as I am attempting to do. If you should happen to see me in the street, reading the 'for sale' ads in the newsagents' window (you know - the ones that look like they've been written by kidnappers - upper and lower case letters in the wrong places), or attempting to strike up a conversation with some unsuspecting soul in a bus queue, do me a favour; strike me about the head until I stop.

Mrs. H has just brought me in a cup of tea, so, now that I've finished, I'm off for a nice sit down on the sofa.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Spies Who Snubbed Me

Way back in the fifties and sixties, when I was smaller than I am now and you could buy individual Hovis loaves for around sixpence, it was fashionable for the Security Services to recruit their staff from public schools and universities. I often wondered how the selection process worked. Did a member of HMG just sidle up to some floppy-haired undergrad, hand him a prospectus that had been produced using an ancient 'Roneo' copier, and say, 'If you're interested, old son, give us a ring.'? Was that how it worked? No glossy brochure, no website with interactive content, no email address to contact? The student probably didn't even have access to his own personal phone; you can imagine him in the lobby of Jesus College, two old pennies in hand, waiting for the public phone to become free. ' that MI5? It's about the spying job...'

I was both a public schoolboy and a government servant, but, sad to report, no-one ever tried to recruit me into the probably terribly bureaucratic world of spying. Now that I have my Open University degree, I suppose I could be in the frame. But the OU, despite the high regard in which it is held, is unlikely to attract the attention of MI5's upper echelons ('Get Hale at any cost...yes, the one who wrote the dissertation on Roman dinner etiquette!) I'm probably more likely to be recruited by some charity wanting a late middle-aged Chugger who is marginally less irritating than the young, failed-TGI Friday wannabees who currently accost one in the street. But I digress. As per usual.

How did spying work way back when? We're so used to having the internet, mobile communications, video and audio surveillance that it's a wonder how spies were able to cope with their job. How could you tail a target vehicle if you didn't have a vehicle yourself and no tracker to slip unobtrusively under the car? What if you needed to phone in a sighting of a terrorist and there wasn't a phone box handy? It must have been hell. In modern spying a suspect can be tracked by satellites with cameras powerful enough to read his number plate from space; then, you just hoped that your binoculars were good enough to clock the index. If you could get any binoculars out of stores, that is. In my juvenile mind I like to think that modern spying is as sophisticated as it appears in 24, where Jack Bauer is able somehow to tap into the schematics of an apartment block, and activate the security cameras to see the baddies holed up in some washroom. And then call in a helicopter gunship to 'take them out' by being all shouty down his cellphone.

Taking someone out by calling for a helicopter gunship wasn't something that ever came to mind when I worked for HMG back in the mid 70s. On my desk I had a blotter, a mug with a couple of pens in it, and an old sit-up-and-beg phone, that actually made a ringing sound when My desk had two drawers; that's because I was an Executive Officer and was only entitled to a desk with two drawers. A Higher Executive Officer was in receipt of a desk with four drawers - two each side - and the next rank up got something nice in polished wood. Our desks were uncluttered by computers. Everything had to be written out longhand and then forwarded to the typing pool in a brown folder. It would come back a couple of days later, riddled with errors that could easily have been spotted if the typist had actually bothered to read over what she (and it was always a she) had just typed. I once visited the typing pool. You couldn't actually go in; you just handed your work through a little hatch in the wall and then went away. I like to think that the ladies in the typing pool were a kind of 70s equivalent of galley slaves, tapping away to the drum beat of the Hortator or Pausarius. Either that, or the poor girls were so dangerous that they were kept under lock and key for our safety. But there was a little light relief. On the wall outside the room was a much photocopied picture of lots of little cartoon men falling about laughing, bearing the legend, 'You want it when?'

I spent three and a half years with HMG, each day more exciting than the last, especially when a new consignment of paperclips was due. But my work colleagues were a quirky and marvellous bunch and, were I gifted with the power to write a sitcom, I'm sure I could do something with Arthritic Near-Pensioner, Welsh Lady with Glass Eye, Cheeky Barrow-Boy Type, Snooty Colonel's Daughter, and Glamour Puss with Sulty Voice and Loads of Make Up...

Which reminds me. I asked Mrs. H if she had any ideas what I could write about in my next post. She thought for a moment, and then said, 'make up'.

So I got there in the end.