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Sunday, 16 January 2022

Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux:
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (5*)

In 1973, Paul Theroux set off alone by train from London to Tokyo, taking numerous side-tracks along the route. But this is not so much a book about the countries he passes through, it is more an account of his experiences and emotional states. He does not seem to have enjoyed it much. Neither would I. It was what walkers call a Type 2 experience: you enjoy the telling of it afterwards. Like my Iceland saga?

He meets lots of strange characters along the way. I knew it was going to be entertaining when he introduces the first, Duffill, who carries his luggage in paper parcels. They board the Orient Express. Duffill takes a top bunk. Theroux struggles to sleep beneath. 

And then something else alarmed me: it was a glowing circle, the luminous dial of Duffill’s watch, for his arm had slipped down and was swinging back and forth as the train rocked, moving this glowing green dial past my face like a pendulum.. (p24)
The great thing for a writer of this kind of travelogue is that once they have done with a character they can simply get rid of them. Duffill gets accidentally left behind on an Italian station platform and Theroux hands over his parcels to an official at Venice.

For me, though, the book truly comes alive when Theroux reaches Pakistan. Crossing Iran, he seems depressed by the landscape, the most infertile soil he has ever seen. Afghanistan is “a nuisance”, expensive and barbarous, which even the hippies have begun to find “intolerable”, and where “the food smells of cholera”. He passes over it by plane, with only a brief, joyless stay in Kabul (p87-88). His mood then lifts as he descends through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar on a local train.

From there, he goes south by train to Ceylon, then back to Calcutta, flies to Bangkok, takes the train to Singapore, which he detests, and spends some time in war-ravaged Viet Nam just months after the American withdrawal, where he is astonished by the country’s beauty (I am using place names as they were in 1973). He then flies to Japan (the tracks through Hanoi and China being closed) and takes a prurient interest in the Japanese taste for bloodthirsty eroticism. He returns on the Trans-Siberian Railway without getting off, depressed again because of the Japanese people, the sea-crossing to Vladivostok, the cold and dark, the bleak settlements, the never-ending portraits of Lenin and four months of travel.  

I loved his description of the remote, imagination-catching Gokteik railway viaduct in Northern Burma, built in 1899 to expand the influence of the British Empire in the region: 

... a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle … bizarre, this manmade thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seeming more grand than its surroundings … the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of trees. (p230).

Memories of British dominion are everywhere. One eighty year-old tells his life story of starting as a cook in the Royal Artillery officers’ mess and ending up praised in person by the likes of Field Marshall Slim and Chiang Kai-shek (p215), almost like a Burmese version of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day.

Theroux also encounters the inevitable hippies and commercial travellers in all kinds of unlikely goods: seamless tubes, plastic washers, bleaching agents and rubber casings for lugged sprockets (p158). He sees so much poverty: people crouching by the side of the railway to defecate, children who raid the train at stops to steal water from the toilet compartment, Singhalese living in ramshackle huts with an acute shortage of food.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s point in The Road to Wigan Pier, that our comfortable English lives are the legacy of a hundred million Indians living on the verge of starvation (p148). It has been estimated that, over the course of two hundred years, the British extracted £45 trillion out of India at present day prices.* That’s a million pounds for each person living in Britain at the time. It remains all around in the infrastructure, institutions, artefacts and systems you see, and in the shipwrecks and shrapnel scattered further afield.

I am also reminded of Ted Simon’s books about his trips around the world on motorbikes, the first around the same time Theroux was on the train, in which he fears that when the countless millions see what we have and they don’t, “there probably will be hell to pay”.

They’ve seen it now. 

*George Monbiot, The Guardian, 30th October, 2021.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

I am a Mole

We were sitting quietly, me reading the newspaper and Mrs. D. getting on with some important knitting.

“I am a mole and I live in a hole,” I suddenly exclaimed.

Mrs. D. looked concerned, as if I had acquired some kind of cognitive deficit. She had heard the phrase at the group she runs for people with memory problems, where one lady sometimes comes out the very same line, just as I had.  

I had to explain that the newspaper contained an obituary of someone called Allan Wilmot* who had died in October, aged 96. I had never heard of him, but, along with his brother Harry, he had been a member of a Jamaican-British singing group, The Southlanders, who had enjoyed moderate success in the nineteen-fifties. I’d never heard of The Southlanders, either, but I knew their song: ‘I am a Mole and I Live in a Hole’. It was often played on Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites and at other times on the station then known as The Light Programme when I was little. I doubt I’ve heard it in sixty years, but the way the title line is performed is unforgettable. “I am a mole, and I live in a hole. Dum dum dum dum.”

Listening now, it’s great, although I doubt you’ll thank me for it.

I'm not a bat or a rat or a cat,
I'm not a gnu or a kangaroo,
I'm not a goose or a moose on the loose,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

I'm not a cow or a chow or a sow,
I'm not a snake or a hake or a drake,
I'm not a flea or a wee chimpanzee,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

Yarg yarg, quarck quarck, fried boiled or roast,
You're the slick chick I dig the most.

I'm not a ram or a clam or a lamb,
I'm not a hog or a frog or a dog,
I'm not a bus or a hip-potomus,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

There were a lot of these ‘novelty songs’ on the ‘wireless’ before 1960. I would hear them as I moved my toy cars, trains and farm animals around the floor while my mother did the housework. I remember Pickin’ a Chicken, a Little Blue Man with a funny voice, Seven Little Girls huggin’ and a’kissin’ with Fred, an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini, some creeps Standing on the Corner Watching all the Girls Go By, and that one full of terrible puns on the names of American States. Most were either silly, irritating or both, although not as irritating as the awful show-offs who learnt the words and insisted on singing them to you.

But I quite like ‘I Am A Mole’.  Mrs. D.’s memory group liked it too - members and helpers - although, sadly, the lady who seemed to know it hardly reacted at all. 

Evidently, The Southlanders eventually tired of it and wanted to take it out of their act, but audiences always expected them to perform it.

The video link, if you can’t see it, is:

* Allan Wilmot came to Britain in 1947 after wartime service with both the Royal Navy and the RAF. After leaving ‘The Southlanders’ he became a Post Office Telephone Operator and helped set up the West Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Association. His elder brother, Harold (Harry) Wilmot, arrived in Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was father of the actor, singer and comedian Gary Wilmot. He died in 1961 when Gary was 6.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Aunty Bina’s Farm

First posted as on 14th October, 2014
About 1300 words. Contains local dialect.

In a quiet southern corner of Yorkshire where the tributaries of the River Humber lock fingers with the Vale of York, there lies an expanse of pancake-flat country that geographers call the Humberhead Levels. It was once the bed of a glacial lake. Stand on the slightest rise and to the East you see the welcoming, chalky yellow-green hills of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Look to the West and you can just make out the menacing, inky-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

In winter, there is little protection from the North and East winds that blow up and down the Vale or in along the estuary. In autumn, thick fogs rise up from the fields and drift in from the rivers. In summer, the baking sun cracks the earth into deep fissures. Spring reveals the richness of the soil. Parts of it are warp land, where turbid river waters were once diverted into the fields to leave layers of fine, fertile silt.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina lived at the end of a long lane that stretched straight and level from my grandma’s village, past silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now if not in a motor vehicle or dressed in lycra, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. It lives in my imagination as an expedition through an extraordinary landscape. 

Anna had been staying with us while Aunty Bina was in hospital for an operation. It was supposed to take a couple of weeks but things went wrong and it was four months before she got out. Even then, she was still too ill to cope with a one-year old, so Anna stayed with us a lot longer. We loved it. It was like having a new baby sister. She learned to walk and talk before she went home. Neighbours thought my mother had had another baby. 

We visited regularly for Bina to see Anna. It meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian. It never failed to bring new adventures. Some of the buildings were two hundred years old. There were sweet smelling hay stacks to climb and burrow in, quiet shady barns to explore, nests of semi-wild, warm, furry kittens to stroke and befriend, and, away across a field, a mysterious, dark wood with fallen trees to scramble over. 

In summer you could channel mazes and crawl through the long wheat, provided Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. The one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had gone home.

Uncle Ben worked hard lonely hours on the farm, and had the farmers’ pragmatic acceptance of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him across a field, standing motionless with his gun, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits” [shooting crows and rabbits]. He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but, for farmers, there is no room for sentiment when a hen’s egg-laying begins to decline. He had a series of farm dogs, loud, ferocious, vicious things that sprang up at your face on chains, snarling as you edged past against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he bought white Charolais calves and raised them like his own family, but in the end they were always sold on for slaughter and replaced by younger ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, like one of his ‘be-asts’. He thoroughly knew his job, the diverse skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to fill in government forms, how to buy calves, when to sow and harvest crops, when the weather said to wait a little longer, and when the weather said it was all right to hide indoors out of harm’s way and play pool with Brian, or watch cricket on television. Aunty Bina would have been quite happy to retire to a little cottage in the village, but Ben would not entertain the idea, and continued to raise Charolais, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

His rural toughness applied to his dealings with people too. He could seem rude and aggressive, and more than one relative refused to have anything to do with him. We used to tell ourselves we visited the farm to be insulted. As I got older he always looked me critically in the beard and said, “You scruffy bugger! Can’t th’afford a razor?” And when it started to go white it was, “Well! Bloody ‘ell! Look who it is! It’s bloody Father Christmas.”

I once drove my dad there and Ben came in saying, “Ah cou’n’t see who it wa’ from ove’ thee-’re across o’t’ field, except it were a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” [I couldn’t see who it was from over there across the field, except it was a rich b- with a new car and a scruffy b- with whiskers]. I wish I’d been brave enough to tell him the new car was mine.

This confrontational humour came straight out of pre-war village life, from the days of communal field work, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they forked hay or straw on to horse-drawn wagons. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed. Farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down on their tractors. So Ben saved his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune, he was one of the most amusing people you could ever hope to meet.

“What! y’don’t ‘ave sugar in y’tea? Bloody ‘ell! What d’y’think we grow it fo’?” [You don’t take sugar? Why do you think we grow it?]

“Vegetarian? Y’r a vegetarian? We wo’k our bloody guts out raisin’ t’be-asts fo’t’market, and y’come in ‘ere sayin’ y’r a vegetarian!” [We work hard raising be-asts for market and you dare to say you are a vegetarian!]

Ben had been born in another village, some distance across the river, and implied he married Aunty Bina only to improve the local bloodstock.

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.” [If the Blue Line bus hadn’t started coming through the village they would have all been imbeciles because of inbreeding]

If ever I had an accent like that, I’m sorry to have lost it in pretentious jobs and places. One day over the phone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger askin’ fo’ y’r on t’phone.” Bina defended me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she said, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk like that when y’r at work.”

One way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was to ignore him. That’s what Bina did, but there were others who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and an equally overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly along the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, saddles submerged in the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms, skirts gathered under to reveal thighs wobbling like jelly as they pumped against the pedals.

“Look who it is!” shouted Ben from his stackyard. “It’s t’Rolly Pollies.”

“Bugger off Ben Smith, y’mucky farmer blattered up in cow clap,” came the reply. “Get back on t’land whe-‘re y’belong!” [Go away you dirty farmer covered in cow muck. Get back on the land where you belong]

When you think what else they spread on t’land, that’s a pretty good put down.

Friday, 24 December 2021


Mrs. D.’s homemade Dominosteine: an unusual thing to bake in an English kitchen.

When my mother-in-law was a teenager after the Second World War, her school organized food parcels to send to families in Dusseldorf. I imagine most of it would have been tins of meat, vegetables and condensed milk, and maybe a few perishables such as sugar, butter and cheese. Dusseldorf, like many European cities, had been bombed to ruins and the people were starving.

This, and similar schemes, were not universally supported. When the Mayor of Reading spoke about families in Dusseldorf living in dreadful conditions in bunkers and cellars, there were angry letters to the press condemning the Boche for not working to feed his children.

My mother-in-law’s family did support and contribute to the scheme. The school also encouraged children to write letters to send with the food parcels, and, as a result, there began a life-long friendship with a German girl called Ingeborg. There were visits between the families, and, during the nineteen-nineties, mother-in-law brought Ingeborg to stay with us for a few days.  

As Europe recovered from the war, the German children began to send Christmas presents to England. Ingeborg usually sent dominosteine, lebkuchen, stollen and spekulatius. You would have been hard pressed to find these delicious continental treats anywhere at all in Britain during the sixties, seventies and eighties. Later, my wife always managed to find them at Christmas, even if they had to be ordered by post from Germany. I had never tasted or heard of them before.  

Dominosteine and stollen are my favourites, but, this year, there were no dominosteine to be found anywhere except at exhorbitant prices. So, Mrs. D. made her own, baking the gingerbread, building up the layers of jelly and marzipan, cutting it into squares and covering them in soft, dark chocolate. They’re enormous. Four times the size of those you buy. And more than two tins full. Yummy!

POSTSCRIPT - coincidentally, Graham Edwards also mentioned German treats in his recent post, with a photograph of a box reminscent of what Ingeborg used to send:

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

The Inter-Varsity Club

It can be hard moving on your own to somewhere you don’t know anyone. Perhaps it’s not so bad when you are young, but I did it in my thirties. Things were fine at work, but home alone in the evenings, well, you don’t expect it to be like that.

I moved to the Midlands. I’d had enough of working in universities – that’s another story – and come to accept I was better on my own – also another story, a long and disagreeable one.

In universities, you think you are solving the world’s problems and work too much, but in this new job, when I went home, the time was mine. I looked around for things to do. I went to a couple of po-faced meetings of Friends of the Earth, but it was too much like work: sub-committees and working-group meetings. Then I saw an ad in the paper: IVC: ‘The Inter-Varsity Club’; it said something about “meeting people with similar interests” and “broadening your social life” with “concerts, meals out and other activities”. It met on Monday evenings in a scruffy room above a dingy pub. We carried our drinks up from the bar and mixed and chatted in small groups. It was full of eccentrics and misfits. I fitted in perfectly. 

The IVC had started in London after the Second World War when a group of Cambridge undergraduates wondered how they might “replicate their busy university social lives through the summer vacations”. Whatever could they have meant? They organised dances for students, graduates, teachers, nurses and almost anyone else with nothing better to do, and soon added other activities such as walks and theatre trips. By the nineteen-eighties there were branches all over the country and the focus had shifted to year-round activities for young people who had moved to unfamiliar places. Some remained members for years, even into their forties and fifties. It was definitely a mixed-age group that I joined.

I have never had such an active social life. Some weeks I went out every night. 

Activities were organised by members, with participation by sign-up. We went to films, plays and classical and pop concerts. We had meals out, days out and evening and weekend walks. Some events were in members’ homes, such as craft activities, coffee evenings, colour slide shows and parties. I went on a couple of long weekends away: walking in Exmoor and the Forest of Dean.

The walks were always popular: you tended to chat naturally with everyone else at some point along the route. I ‘hosted’ several myself, but also dragged people along to things like talks and poetry readings. One of ‘my’ events was a lecture about the Luddites by an almost eighty year-old Michael Foot. He shuffled on, steered by an assistant, wearing a shapeless cardigan buttoned out of alignment with a spare button hole at the top and a spare button at the bottom. Things looked distinctly unpromising until he began to speak, when he proceeded to mesmerize everyone in the theatre with a brilliant talk in the richest, most authoritative voice you could imagine.

Two twice-yearly events were especially well-anticipated: ceilidh dances and the ‘Galloping Gourmet’.   

The Galloping Gourmet, a miracle of organisation, was a five-part meal (sherry, starter, main course, pudding and coffee) with courses in different homes. It worked like this:

To take part, you either (a) host sherry or coffee, (b) provide a course for six people, or (c) are a driver.

Each starter, main course and pudding is served to groups of six in five different homes at a time. Everyone starts in one of two locations for sherry. They move on in threes to somewhere else for starters, joining with three from the other sherry location to make six. The threes are then re-shuffled and move on to somewhere else for main courses, and again for puddings. Everyone ends up at the same place for coffee.
Thus, with 30 participants, there are 3 sherry/coffee hosts, 10 drivers, 15 course providers and 2 organisers who get a free ride. Instructions to drivers are prepared ready to be handed out by the hosts, e.g. “Please take Margaret and Jim to Margaret’s at 1 Sandy Street, Wibbleton, to arrive by 7.30 for your starter”, where the next instruction might be:  “Please take Jim and Sue to Bill’s at 2 Rocky Road, Wobbleton, to arrive by 8.15 for your main course”.

Apart from one or two legendary mess-ups (such as the clueless chap who asked “what do we do now?” when he and five others arrived at his bedsit expecting a starter) it worked brilliantly. 

But you know what happens in clubs like IVC, don’t you? You find that those with similar interests attend the same things, and you make friends, and they ease into your thoughts and you begin to wonder what if you had a special friend. One, with laughing blue eyes and a liking for Bushmills whiskey, looked delighted when the clockwork of the ceilidh brought us together. I began to go to all her events and she to mine. The Galloping Gourmet organiser sent us to the same places most of the way round. One warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow, where heron rise and kingfisher flash along the Kingston Brook, I offered a hand over a difficult stile. “What are men for,” she wondered, “if not to help you over difficult stiles?” Her hand lingered a little longer than necessary and I went kind of shivery and weak all over.

Herons and kingfishers bring luck, peace and love. After that, Dear Reader, we had a few private events of our own. We’ve been married now for thirty years.

It wasn’t all that long before I had another university job, too.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

A Fiddle Too Far

This is my parents’ brass carriage clock. It was a touch of luxury, new around nineteen seventy. I seem to remember it ticking in their bedroom, but there it is later on my dad’s mantelpiece around fifteen years ago, just before we sold his bungalow. That picture could be a whole blog post in itself.

On the back it gives the maker’s name as St. James of London. A few clean and shiny ones otherwise the same are for sale for £300 or £400 on ebay, although around £100 seems more the going rate. That is when they are working. This isn’t.

It worked until recently. I assiduously wound it up every Sunday morning, and it kept good time until a few months ago when it began to stop mid-week. A little nudge would start it going again, but gradually became more and more ineffective until it stopped completely.

Could the cause be a simple lack of lubrication? I bought this clockmakers precision oiling tool. 

Four screws under the base of the clock secure the case. I undid them, lifted it off and applied tiny drops of oil to the centres of the large and small cog wheels visible here above and below the hairspring. It worked. The clock started up and ran well for a few minutes.

Just before putting it back in its case, I thought it might better disperse the oil around the mechanism if I wiggled the slow-fast lever. Idiot! The hairspring broke. One bit of wiggling and fiddling too far. It doesn’t go at all now.

It would cost at least its value to have it repaired, not really worth it. It has little sentimental value because I was no longer at home when my parents bought it (I wouldn’t have fiddled in the first place if it had). Should I label it “not working” and put it in a charity sack, or just send it to scrap metal recycling?

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

New Month Old Post: Dill in Mustard Sauce?

(first posted 12th January 2017)


“But dill is a herb!” Mrs. D. gave me that withering look she normally reserves for her ageing mother. 

 I still thought I was right.

“They’re little fish - dill in mustard sauce.”

“It’s a herb! You wouldn’t get dill in mustard sauce. That would be like having basil in Worcester sauce or parsley in pineapple marinade.”

I sighed. “There was a tin last year in the Christmas hamper your mother gets from the pension company: a tin of dill in mustard sauce. They were little fish. Your mother gave it to us and they were really nice.”

“Sure it wasn’t sild?”

“It was definitely dill. As in a shoal of dill.”

There was nothing in the dictionary about dill as fish, only as Anethum graveolens, a European, pungent, aromatic, umbelliferous, annual, yellow-flowered herb of the celery family Apiaceae, used in flavouring pickles or to relieve excess wind, although in Australia and New Zealand it colloquially means a fool. Mrs. D. said that’s what I was being - or doing. I said we needed a better dictionary.

At Christmas, I can usually guess what’s in presents before I open them, but this one had me puzzled. It was too thin for a dictionary and the wrong shape for DVDs. I unwrapped it still wondering. 

It was a tin of John West herring fillets in mustard and dill sauce.

Dill in Mustard Sauce