European Discoveries

Sometime ago, Lonely Planet published a hundred words I wrote. The brief was ‘a special moment experienced while in Europe’. My moment happened in Paris and it was the first time I considered leaving Britain for the Continent. The page has since been retired, so I thought I’d republish the text here.

“Sitting in a park in Saint Michel looking across the Seine at Notre Dame on a late spring afternoon, my eyes fell on some pigeons. They looked different. Not tearing manically across the streets at the threat of being trodden into the pavements as they do in Britain, but sauntering cheerfully about their business. I looked around me; even the most hurried were taking their time lounging on the backbeat of the city’s pulse, instead of running to keep up with it. I checked my heart rate; slower than I’m used to. So, this is Europe, a different world!”

a thing that goes thump in the night

The faint line of dawn creeps over the curtain rail, diluting the darkness. It wasn’t the only polutant contaminating my sleep. The dream of a grey rabbits foot thumping a warning formed itself inside a bubble in my mind. I saw the grey fur and the fluffy tail. Another thump burst the bubble, scattering the parts, while I found myself upright and trudging out of the bedroom in a state of vague consciousness onto the balcony to see what’s caused her to wake up the neighbourhood – yes, it’s that loud.

Drawing back the blanket that darkens her hutch and opening the door, I see her twitching nose peer out from the back room where she spends the night hours.
“What are you doing up at this hour?” Her twitching nose seems to ask.
“Your thumping foot, your majesty.” I tell her audibly.
She turns her back dismissivly and the silver specks in her grey-blue coat catch the light from the kitchen.
She’s not interested in a cuddle, so I replace the blanket and close the balcony door after me.

Back under my duvet, the dawn creeps over the curtain rail, spreading its long finders over the ceiling. Thoughts begin to populate the strips of light I stare up at as my girlfriend sighs a sleepy sigh. She’s lived her whole life with me in my environment and I have taken the greatest care to tailor our shared space to her needs. She’s never known a predetor, or felt the hedgerow brush her face as she’s burst through towards the entrance of the warren, heart in her mouth, unsure if she’ll make it into the tunnel safely. And yet, that warning thump that penetrates my sleep, puncturing my dreams brings me to the edge of hers. A smell, a sound; something has found its way into her mind and awoken the need to warn her warren-mates who are sleeping humans with jobs and deadlines and now a sleep deficit.

Her small brain doesn’t recognise this. To her we are large, naked rabbits who put ourselves in great danger to bring her food. She knows this because we sometimes smell of things that are not in our home. The reward for our great risk is a lick on the nose whenever we come down to her level. And at least twice a day, she will settle down on the bed and allow us to stroke her. She understands that we like this.

At the end of every day she watches me place a piece of cucumber in her hutch before jumping in and turning to look up at me. I administer the final part of our nightly ritual – a head rub – and close the door, stretch the blanket over the front of her hutch and hope there are no strange smells in the air, no sounds that might signal threat and no thumping to invade our sleep.

There’s a foul smell about the place

There’s a lot of hot air floating around the internet; much of it quite pungent, as if some-one had a egg sandwich too many. The good folks of twitter have smelt it and are looking around to see who dealt it. The culprit seems obvious.

In Britain, we take our politicians with a pinch of cynicism, which is something that seems to baffle Germans. I’m not sure if that’s because German politicians are actually more honest than their British counterparts, or because the quality of shyster in British politics has severely declined in recent years. Either way, I’m worried about Britain. All this noise about leaving Europe. I’m not going to go into why it would be a bad idea; may good journalists have laid out the arguments in print and online. I’m also not going to tell my compatriots who they should vote for at the coming European elections. It’s their vote to use as they see fit. But before you do go to the polls, there’s something I’ve noticed that I want to share with you.

After the first round of televised debates on Europe between Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Daily Mail ran this article. In it are profiles of the two men. Two things written about Nigel Farage caught my eye.



So Farage speaks English, which is a natural condition of an Englishman. It suggests he doesn’t speak any foreign languages, but isn’t explicit. It leaves you to assume that he doesn’t, while stating clearly that Nick Clegg speaks English, Dutch, German, Spanish and French (I wish I could speak that many languages.)

About feeling awkward when foreigners talk on trains: I’ve lived in many places across Britain and heard countless people say “I don’t like it when foreigners talk on the bus/train/in the street/in restaurants”. Whenever I asked them what bothered them about hearing a foreign language, the nub of the answer was always not knowing what’s being said and assuming that they should fear for their safety. This, in essence, is a fear of foreigners, or Xenophobia.

Nigel Farage is a Member of the European Parliament and spends much of his time in Brussels, or Strasbourg. I would have thought all those hours in the company of ‘foreigners’ would cure him of his awkwardness around foreigners and their languages.

His hobbies are very interesting: fishing, country sports, English pubs and organising tours of WWI battlefields.

Britain’s class system is broken into 3: working, middle and upper. Fishing appeals to both the working and middle classes. Country sports – that’s hunting to you and I – appeals to the middle and upper classes. English pubs: well, who doesn’t like a cosy pub with a roaring fire and a tasty beverage to blur the edges a bit? Something for everyone. WWI Battlefields: the glorification of Britain’s war past.

Read the list with your left brain disengaged and you immediately think “Englishman to the core!” An emotional reaction. Read it with your whole brain engaged and it somehow feels wrong – ok, most things written in the Daily Mail feel wrong – but these hobbies paint a picture of a kind of archetypal Englishman that never really existed, the kind of landowning aristocrat found in movies that appeal to what people think English is. I’ve lived on a country estate where the land was used for shooting (country sports) and fishing, and the people who owned it had more in common with the Queen than with ordinary folk, as did many of those who visited for this purpose.

Reading those two snippets made me feel that the man being presented to the British public is a composite of traits, designed to appeal as widely as possible. It feels like the work of a PR person and not a real human being. If Nigel Farage really is awkward when he hears foreign languages uttered, then you’re voting for a xenophobe. If this is indeed the work of a PR machine, then you’re voting for a fiction. I don’t know which it is, but then, I’m not voting for British MEP’s and I don’t have to live with the consequences of UKIP’s political boulder when it has finished gathering moss.


Memories of a Former Life

Sometimes I get homesick and memories of the life I lived in Britain spill through my mind in random order. Remember when…

When we could buy four mangos for a pound and you taught me how to make a Lassi? I still make them now.

When I stood on windy platforms in remote towns waiting for a trains that never arrived? You were sorry for any inconvenience caused. I never believed you.

When streetlights and rain mingled, filling the red brick gloom with a jaundiced haze? I hated that weather.

When we lived in Sunderland? Do you? I don’t.

When the snow was taller than me and you dug a tunnel through the garden to the wood shed? I followed you looking up at the thin strip of sky between walls of snow.

When I’d go into the garden and look out onto miles of forest. I’ll never forget Stobo.

When you’d floor the accelerator driving through Carstairs. I vomitted every time.

When we raced to Murrayfield in time for kick-off of the Calcutta Cup? Scotland lost.

When I’d spend my Saturday’s sketching Arthur’s Seat from our living room window? On Sunday’s we’d climb to the top and try to spot our house among the rows and rows of Edinburgh terraces. You’d always point to it. I never knew which one you meant.

When you took us to the docks for Iron-Bru and crisps on a Saturday morning? It was only once, but I still remember how they tasted.

When we packed up home and left Scotland because the job centres were full, but the job boards were empty? I missed it then. I miss it now.

When you arrived unannounced on my 12th birthday? It was the best present.

When you finished our last tennis match by handing me a new racquet? I lost it moving house.

When a boy from Pakistan told me to go back to where I came from? Because irony isn’t taught in English schools.

A Table with a View

His lips searched hers as they sat side-by-side on the concrete terrace. The other diners didn’t seem to notice when she pulled her head away, leaving his lips unmet. He lunged again with the certainty of a man used to hearing ‘yes’.
She shook her head, as if to dislodge a resting fly from her hair and a reproachful murmur shot from her lips. She gazed straight ahead.
No-one stirred from the coffee and ice cream, except to raise their squinted eyes at the spring sun.
His hand snaked around her throat and rested. For a moment, her head sat at an odd angle, as if a screw had been removed from the back of her neck causing her skull to fall forwards, if it were not for his large hand keeping head, and dignity, in place.
One squeeze. The peace of the whole scene hung on how deeply his fingers would imprint her throat. How much pressure he would put on her Trachea.
She froze, watching the traffic pass her gaze. His too fixed on the moving cars, waiting, hand resting on her throat.
She gently slid from his grasp and into the far corner of her generously wide seat.
He turned to rouse the waiter’s attention, waving his wallet.

It was only supposed to take a morning..!

I began on Tuesday. It started with a theme. These things always do.

By Wednesday I was in trouble. Widgets not working, unknown settings mis-set. A migration from Blogger to WordPress gone hideously wrong. This is what happens when you take things out of their box and fling the instructions aside in a fit of childish joy. The lovely Joe at support helped me out, congratulating me on making less of a mess than many people. And here we are – four days later – with something vaguely resembling the elegant presentation of musings that materialised in my mind at the beginning of the week. 

I should have been writing. I was making a blog.