Recently, we’ve been hit by an icy blast from Siberia, dubbed the Beast from the East. This is my humorous take on it.
Recently, we’ve been hit by an icy blast from Siberia, dubbed the Beast from the East. This is my humorous take on it.
As my Brexit-inspired satire continues, here is my mini-glossary for those reading this post outside Great Britain.
UKIP stands for the UK Independence Party, which is a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist political party in Great Britain. The party strongly opposes immigration, pledging to reduce it to zero within five years. Incidentally, the wife (alluded to below) of the party’s former leader (who is a great fan of President Trump) is German.
Brexit refers to the British exit from the European Union, narrowly voted for in the 2016 EU membership referendum. Brexit has bitterly divided the country, and even the government cannot seem to agree what sort of Brexit it wants. Needless to say, Europe is baffled …
We don’t want no immigration
To pollute this brilliant nation;
We were once the purest race
Which this Mother Earth did grace
(Sorry, there is one correction:
German wives are an exception),
But the EU plots and schemes
To extinguish our dreams
About being alien-free
In this land of ours – see?
Our challenge is immense –
We must mount a bold defence.
When we seal our porous border
We’ll restore all law and order,
And, to pick our fruit and veg,
We will summon good old Reg
(He is 80 – did we mention? –
This will help him boost his pension).
We will stop most foreign aid
And engage in global trade
Beyond EU neighbourhood
(North Korea would be good),
Plus, in line with our agendum,
We will rule by referendum.
Also (you’ll be filled with glee),
We will let you park for free*
When you do your weekly shop
(We don’t reckon it’s a sop:
As an ordinary Brit,
You’ll be rather badly hit**).
Even if our gut gets busted,
We want to be done and dusted
By the end of next year – max;
See how neatly all this stacks?
(We can – by all indicators –
Trust our clever negotiators.)
To take charge of our laws,
We must rally to the cause
With a zealous incantation:
“We are here to save our nation,
And, in Donald’s dazzling vein,
We’ll make Britain great again!”
*For at least 30 minutes
**In your pocket
Wanna know – that’s by the way –
What folk Googled the next day***?
“What’s this construct called EU?”
You are laughing? It is true;
Still, we say: “You know the score,
That’s**** what you have voted for.”
***After the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership
****Whatever that is; if the government still (at the beginning of 2018) can’t agree about what sort of Brexit it wants (hard, soft or anything in-between), you can jolly well make up your own wish list and announce that this is exactly what you have voted for – hey ho!
**An expression Boris Johnson used to describe the likelihood of his becoming Prime Minister
* We shall not dwell on those, though
**The lovely natives routinely place the apostrophe before the ‘s’, where it’s redundant because ‘3s’ is a regular plural; we may be aliens, but we have studied English grammar – in depth
****Well, at least three of them
It’s been a while, but I’m sure you’ve been so busy you’ve barely noticed. Anyway, I’m back but will be changing course: I’m working on a book of humorous verses, some of which will be posted here from time to time. This one, which comes with warm season’s greetings, is about my stress-free Christmas – hope yours is too.
Granny and I left the gallery and headed for the mackerel. Unfortunately, our way was blocked by three highway-maintenance vehicles, a mechanical digger and a large sign proclaiming Men at Work.
“Those British men, they aren’t terribly modest, child, are they?”
“Why not, granny?”
“Well, our men just go to work and that’s it. But, here, they put up signs.”
“No, no, granny, it’s simply a warning.”
“Do you have to warn people that your men are at work? Is this a rare occurrence?”
“No, no: it’s only when they dig up the road.” Indeed, when we got closer to the sign we could see a large hole in the road, with exposed pipes jutting out from both sides. One highway-maintenance man was peering intently into the hole, another highway-maintenance man was shouting into his mobile phone, two highway-maintenance men, their backs to the hole, their arms akimbo, were ogling the passing females and wolf-whistling at the younger ones, yet another highway-maintenance man was leaning on a shovel and puffing on a fag, and the sixth highway-maintenance man was sitting in the cab of his vehicle reading a newspaper. Well, reading might be stretching it somewhat, for my sneaky peek revealed that the gazette was full of photographs of scantily clad lovelies and appeared to feature very little print, but, one way or the other, he seemed totally engrossed in it.
“Where are they?”
“Those men at work.”
“Here, here, these six here.”
“But they are not working.”
“Maybe they are on a break.”
“But it’s not long since lunchtime.”
“It’s probably an early-afternoon break, granny. I imagine they will then have a mid-afternoon break and a late-afternoon break. Unless, of course, they’ve gone home by then.”
“Do they need six men to dig one hole? When they have a digger.”
“A-a-a-a, they might not need six men, but at least they have created employment for six men.”
Having pondered this rationale for a while, granny followed me to the supermarket.
“Where the hell is everything?” Having purchased smoked mackerel at the fish counter, we made for the sauerkraut, but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. “Blast, they’ve moved everything around again.” We walked up and down several aisles in pursuit of the elusive sauerkraut. “Here it is! We can make you some bigos now; it will remind you of Poland. They call it a hunter’s stew over here.” I grabbed the jar, and we made for the checkout.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but where did you find this sauerkraut?” enquired a deep manly voice behind me. I nearly tripped: he said my! I quickly turned round, and, for a brief moment, our gaze became locked. “Of course I don’t mind your asking,” I said with a broadest smile I could muster. “It’s down the next aisle – on the left. By the pickles.” He smiled, nodded his acknowledgement and kept looking at me. It was clear that, in that fleeting moment, there was created a bond of common understanding between us: he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. And he knew that I knew that he knew … anyway, I’m sure you get my drift. Then, granny tugged at my sleeve and hissed, “Stop staring at him like this; you are a married woman.” The spell was broken, the stranger turned away and proceeded in the direction of the pickles, and we made for the checkout.
“Why were you gawping at him?”
“I wasn’t gawping!”
“Yes, you were. You looked as if you’d seen a unicorn.”
“Did I really? Well, he did say my, granny.”
“What was he supposed to have said?”
“You see, many people would have said me: do you mind me asking. But he said my. And I said your – to let him know that I also knew.”
“Is it such a big deal, child?”
“Well, not if you are a well-rounded human being, granny, it isn’t. But you know that I’m mad about grammar, don’t you?”
“If you ask me, it’s the most superior form of madness, child.”
“Thank you, granny. People have been saying things like ‘I hate them misbehaving’, ‘she feared him leaving’ or ‘there is no chance of us winning’ for yonks, of course.”
“Of course, child.”
“A-a-a-a, but that’s just it, granny.”
“That’s just what?”
“Well, the participial constructions such as these make much more sense when their personal pronouns are in the genitive case.”
“What’s the genitive case?”
“A type of possessive.”
“As in their, his and our, child?”
“Absolutely, granny. After all, I’m not trying to say that I hate them, am I?”
“Well, you might be. If they’ve been beastly to you, for example.”
“No, no: I didn’t hate the perpetrators themselves – I hated their misdemeanour.”
“That’s more like you, child.”
“Thank you, granny. So you just say ‘I hate their misbehaving’, and you can rest assured that you won’t be scarring them psychologically for the rest of their natural.”
“Life. By the same token, she did not fear him himself, did she?”
“You never know, child: he might have been violent. Or offered to help with the ironing.”
“No, no: she feared his leaving. Changing the case of the personal pronoun from objective to genitive – or possessive – transforms the participle from purely verbal into a hybrid.”
“A hybrid? You mean like a Labradoodle?”
“Great analogy, granny. A hybrid participle has some features of a verb and some of a noun. Hybrid participles are sometimes called gerunds. Whichever label you use, they denote the thing you hate – or the thing she feared.”
“Nimble things, these participles: metamorphosing from verbs into nouns just like that.”
“They certainly are, granny. By contrast, the purely verbal participles in constructions such as ‘them misbehaving’, ‘him leaving’ and ‘us winning’ have been dubbed ‘fused’.”
“The Fowler brothers. Over a hundred years ago, they heaped condemnation on such usage.”
“Did it work?”
“No, granny; condemnation rarely does; you need far subtler tactics. Anyway, fused participles continue to be widely used. But the thing is that, these days, pretty much all of those who are clued up about grammar agree that, in similar contexts, the genitive case of personal pronouns is vastly preferable to their objective case. Actually, in formal communication the possessive has become the norm. It’s like a litmus test.”
“A litmus test?”
“Yep. You know instantly that people who say ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking’ know their onions – you just know.”
“Onions are every bit as good for the brain as the mackerel.”
“No, no, granny: it’s just a saying – I meant grammar.”
“Indeed, indeed: a well-nourished body will allow one’s mind to fire on all cylinders, and grammar certainly requires all of one’s cylinders to be in tip-top condition; you know what they say.”
“What do they say, granny?”
“Mens sana in corpore sano.”
“Absolutely, granny, but even copious quantities of onions and mackerel won’t do the trick if grammar is off the menu.”
“How could grammar possibly be off the menu, child? It’s the structural basis of communication.”
“I know, granny, I know, but they had it off the menu here for decades – I’ve told you. It’s only now that they seem to be waking up to its importance.”
“Well, onions should certainly help there, child: they improve alertness.”
I have been quite busy contributing to, as well as copy editing, typesetting and publishing, a book by Skiddaw Writers, of whom I am one. The book, entitled Beyond the Misty Fells, is a kaleidoscope of travels and personal journeys; it explores landscapes, adventures, discoveries – and language, the last bit reflecting my own contribution. The paperback is out now (link below); the e-book will be published next week. Below is quoted one of my humorous chapters.
“I’ll pay for the cruise if it’s the last thing I do!” declared my mother, an ardent Anglophile, rather effusively. The cold war was on, the iron curtain was down, communism was in full swing and the free world was out of reach to us Poles. But she was head over heels in passion with the English language and worshipped a small island hanging off the western edge of Europe and, somewhat confusingly, concealing its greatness behind the white cliffs of Dover. Seeing as we were firmly in the grip of communism’s tentacles and couldn’t wriggle free to travel to the West, my mother hatched a cunning plan: she would send me on a cruise taking in the English Channel so that I would at least be able to catch a glimpse of the famous cliffs, which, to her, symbolised Britain. Granted, I wouldn’t be allowed to disembark, but my simply feasting on the sight of the island so revered by her would, she decided, be enough.
Although I never did go on that cruise, I nevertheless studiously devoured English and its grammar and, like my mother, fell hopelessly in love with the language, which would become the great passion of my life that would eventually lead me to Britain – and to this book.
Getting to this juncture had been a long, circuitous and bumpy ride, though. The English textbooks of yore, which were a veritable font of knowledge about those faraway islands, depicted a baffling but oh-so-tantalising world inhabited by moustachioed gentlemen invariably called Mr Black or Mr Brown, who always wore bowler-hats and pinstripe suits and carried umbrellas. I remember wondering whether these umbrellas offered adequate protection against the cats and dogs which were apparently always raining down on them. The sugar-coated ladies in frilly pinnies were continually rustling up heavenly delights, and the beaming and well-scrubbed kiddies at their knee were, without exception, referred to as ‘merry and gay’. I couldn’t quite understand why, when I finally made it to Britain in the early Eighties, I’d get filthy looks off blithe young gentlemen, otherwise perfectly agreeable, whenever I complimented them on their exuberance with the entirely fitting – or so I thought – “My, you are so gay!”, but that’s by the by.
But even such wholesome-looking people as those depicted in my English textbooks would evidently get peeved from time to time, and I formed the impression that they would then let off steam by kicking either the bucket or themselves. Oh, and they’d also kick the habit. I wasn’t thus in the least surprised that their dialogue was peppered with the interjections “My foot!”, as foot injury must have been an inevitable consequence of such outbursts. If you discounted those who didn’t have a leg to stand on, that is. And, judging by how often they would spill the beans, they seemed to me rather clumsy. On the other hand, they’d get on their high horse without falling off, so I failed to reach a definite conclusion one way or the other.
I also wondered why they were so fond of expressing themselves cryptically: you see, while they would say “Come through”, they would never explain through what exactly. Or whenever they announced they had fallen over, they kept you guessing as to over what exactly they had fallen. And why did they never give you a straight answer to “How do you do?” Such a perfectly straightforward question, you would think, yet they never actually explained how they did. But that’s not all – far from it.
Apparently, everybody in Britain always talked about the weather. And they had some very interesting national dishes incorporating cool cucumbers, keen mustard and red herring. Why, when they had such delicacies, they’d also eat their hats seemed entirely unfathomable. Then again, they appeared to harbour a strange dislike of the old hat, so maybe that’s why. And, of course, they drove on the wrong side of the road, which – to them – was right, although it was actually left. Another unsolved mystery was why they would stuff their fish into kettles. Confronted by such eccentricities, I felt I had no option but to try to read between the lines. Imagine my relief when I realised that, despite their frequent references to pet hate, they didn’t really hate pets all that much – certainly not the top dog or mother hen. On the other hand, they did chase wild geese and seem strangely reluctant to be sold a pup. And I must admit that their practice of skinning the cat appeared to me thoroughly repugnant, but they made up for that somehow by organising parties for stags and hens.
Their eccentricity notwithstanding, most of them seemed kindly, polite (it was only their health that was rude) and beguiling, so I grew up with the notion of a genial, though decidedly quirky, people who spoke a difficult but fascinating language which was hard to write and even harder to pronounce and where every rule had umpteen exceptions. Little wonder that, to me, Britain was mysterious, intriguing and alluring; it was also tantalisingly out of reach.
But, finally, when your border guards happened to be on a fag break, I managed to sneak into this great country (that your border controls were lax even then is incontrovertible). Imagine my delight when, at long last, I was able to delve deeply into the British psyche. Take the writing on the wall, for example. Since the lovely natives always uttered this phrase in grave tones, I was able to deduce that, like me, they didn’t approve of graffiti. And when you heard that they were always getting a third degree, you couldn’t help but be awed by their putting such great store by higher education. Needless to say, I was deeply touched by their enthusiastic “You can say that again”, with which they were always letting me know that they simply couldn’t get enough of my exotic accent. Charming people! And very, very helpful when it came to giving directions: they were always telling you where to get off. And what amazing generosity: they would even lend you their ear!
Anyway, lady luck had undoubtedly smiled on me, allowing me to put down roots in this wonderful country and to indulge my all-consuming passion for English with utter abandon. After a spell as a teacher of English and broadcaster at the Polish Section of the BBC, I enjoyed many adrenaline-charged years running public examinations, developing different types of qualifications for both English and Scottish authorities, carrying out linguistic research, copy editing and penning articles and books on English grammar, punctuation and usage. The sketches which form my section of this book are representative of my frolicsome style, offering a glimpse into my weird inner world, where humour and grammar blend into a whimsical mix.
Aren’t they a marvellous invention, shopping trolleys? Mine, of sleek design and funky appearance, is rarely parted from me, and I wheel it around exuberantly. So it was to my stripy Rolser that I entrusted some books and other reading matter that day. The stuff was heavy, and I can’t be doing with attaché cases and the like. But one thing a loaded trolley doesn’t like is being dragged up the stairs, so there was only one thing for it – the lift, an invention nearly as marvellous as the trolley itself.
Even though I rarely take lifts, I summoned this one unhesitatingly, stepped in gingerly and pressed the up-button – somewhat nonchalantly. The machine creaked, shook and commenced its upward crawl. As we inched upwards, I marvelled at this ancient piece of engineering and wondered whether it would qualify for a listed status – grade C, maybe? As I was pondering if a lift could actually be listed as an object of special architectural or historic interest, the thing came to a gentle stop. I grabbed my trolley and moved towards the door – only to find that there was no door.
I stood there, startled: where the hell has it gone? I looked around, but all I could see were walls – on all four sides. Good grief! I looked up, and there it was, a sliver of light at the very bottom of the door. But it was way above my head; even on tiptoe, I couldn’t reach it. How? Why? What the …? I looked around my trap: the only thing I could do – apart from screaming, obviously – was to press the buttons. One was the down-button, one was the up-button, one was the panic button and one was the stop button. Well, I certainly didn’t need that one! I pressed the up-button with all the force I could muster – nothing. I frantically pressed the down-button – not a thing.
The next logical thing was to scream at the top of my lungs, at which point it occurred to me that the panic button could also come in handy. Granted, pressing it didn’t offer any practical solution, but both actions produced the desired effect: after a spell of my hollering from the depths of the lift shaft, reinforced with the alarm bell, a female chin appeared high up in the small window positioned at the top of the lift door. The owner of the chin, a female council clerk, for I was in the offices of our borough council, looked down into the lift shaft.
“Have you pressed the button?”
Have I pressed the button!?! Never in the history of button-pressing has there been a more concerted effort expended on pressing the damn thing.
“I have, I have, look!” I yelled and repeated the manoeuvre in a most demonstrative way I was capable of. The clerk nodded and disappeared from view. I could hear footsteps echoing in the free world and then some sort of commotion. Another chin materialised high up. I waved, rather pathetically. The possessor of the chin cheerily waved back and made a helpful enquiry.
“Have you pressed the button?”
Have I … ? “Yes, yes, look!” Reassured that I had, indeed, pressed the button in question, my interlocutor nodded and said, “We’ll get you somebody”.
“Maybe the fire brigade?”
The chin disappeared, and I could hear more noises; one female voice was pondering the practicalities of using a crowbar in similar situations, with others making contributions I couldn’t quite catch, although somebody did mention a ladder. Now was the time to appraise my predicament more coolly, if coolly could be applied to what was in effect an increasingly stuffy cage. I examined my trap again. How far was it to the bottom of the door – five/ six feet, perhaps? So, after they have smashed the door, they would have to lower a ladder to get me out. How many rungs would that be? Now, I have a confession to make: although I have scaled innumerable mountains, I’m no good with ladders and turn to jelly after the first few steps. But, somehow, I didn’t think I would be a reluctant ladder-climber on this particular occasion and began to feel slightly better.
“Are they coming?” I yelled.
A voice from above said, “Some council bloke is.”
“What council bloke?”
“From Workington? But it’s miles away – with the parking and that, it may take an hour!”
“No, no, they said 12 minutes.”
“But you can’t get from Workington to Keswick in 12 minutes!”
“No, no, they definitely said 12 minutes. Have you pressed the button?”
My exasperation with this line of questioning notwithstanding, I felt that, if they’d definitely said 12 minutes, further arguments would be futile. Besides, I wasn’t exactly in a strong bargaining position, although – with hindsight – I could have feigned a faint or something. But people of my moral rectitude don’t pull stunts like that. The only thing at this juncture was to relieve tension by cracking manic jokes, and I believe I started demanding that my rescuers be handsome and making other similarly inappropriate comments. Gallows humour, they call it – I can certainly see what they mean.
After more than half an hour, however, even this strategy began to show cracks.
“May I have the fire brigade, please!”
“He’s coming, he’s coming!”
“The fire brigade?”
“No, they are not allowed to call the fire brigade.”
“Who is not allowed?”
The reply, if there was one, was drowned out by all the noises on the floor above, and my anxiety began to get the better of me.
“Please, please, get me the fire brigade!”
“Not long now, not long now. But we’ve found the manual!”
Now, lady pensioners, of whom I am one, are incontrovertibly a pillar of the community, but the image of them holding the manual with one hand and fiddling with lift electrics – or was it electronics – with the other somehow failed to offer me the reassurance I so desperately needed at that point. Were any of them (apart from the clerk, they were all lady pensioners) into electrics at all? I knew for a fact that one was into bird-watching and another into table-tennis, but I wondered about the others. Wait, wait, one said she was in the Women’s Institute! Didn’t somebody tell me once that the WI is supposed to have made great strides since the days of jam-making and was now into all sorts? But could they have possibly progressed so far? I mean, providing women with educational opportunities is one thing, but actually branching out into engineering …?
“Fire brigade!” I wailed in a voice I barely recognised.
“Won’t be long, won’t be long. But you know what?”
“Apparently, they serviced the lift last week.”
Heavens above, was our local government in such dire financial straits that they couldn’t stretch to half-decent lift maintenance? If so, we were surely all doomed, this refrain from a well-known British film racing through my mind. But the thought of my own impending doom was far more pressing.
“GET ME THE FIRE BRIGADE!”
“He’ll be here in a minute!!”
An hour into my imprisonment, I heard some loud banging and, for the first time, a male voice. A male voice! Now, I defy anybody who denies men their uses.
“It may be the fuse,” said the male voice.
“This fuse?” My lady pensioners were clearly on the ball.
I heard some more noises, and then, out of the blue, the light in the lift went out. What the …?
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I should have warned you,” said the male voice.
So he should have, but at least he was apologetic.
“I’ll let you know before I turn it off again.”
“Please do,” I squeaked. He did, but no amount of fiddling with the electrics – or was it electronics – could bring the lift back to life. There was further banging and shaking, there were further footsteps and confabulations, but I still wasn’t going anywhere.
It was now an hour and a half into my ordeal, and, to make matters even worse, I could no longer hear the male voice.
“CALL THE FIRE BRIGADE, PLEASE!!!”
“We are calling the fire brigade.”
Did I hear this right? It looked as if the lady pensioners had taken matters into their own hands – at long last! The fire brigade arrived within a few minutes. When it appeared high up in the little window, the first male chin, with a helmet above it, was a vision to relish. The boys set to work immediately. Amid much noise, the lift began shaking violently and then, millimetre by millimetre, making its slow descent to the floor below. Suddenly, a portion of a little widow appeared at the very bottom of the lift. I crouched and, instead of chins, I could now see foreheads, then eyes, then noses, then lips, then entire faces, for, in anticipation of my imminent release, the congregation had relocated to the lower floor. And then, I was free. Needless to say, the firefighters were the handsomest men I had ever set my eyes on!
I have since written to the Chief Executive of our borough council, who has replied, assuring me that he ordered ‘a thorough investigation’ into the incident. To me, the key thing is to ensure that nobody is ever again left trapped for that length of time – over an hour and a half – because of some, totally inexplicable, rule preventing council staff from calling the fire brigade. On my release, I simply couldn’t believe my ears when the council clerk told me that her line manager had FORBIDDEN her from calling emergency services. She did phone the firm responsible for servicing the lift, but, despite the 12-minute reassurance, the lift engineer arrived only AFTER I was freed by the fire brigade. And, when he did turn up, he appeared completely unperturbed, dismissing my question as to the exact time of his arrival with a shrug and failing to show any concern at all. ‘Excellent customer experience’, which our borough council apparently prides itself on providing, it wasn’t – although it certainly was an experience! (By the way, show me ONE ‘customer-facing’ – urgh – organisation which doesn’t pride itself on ‘providing an excellent customer experience’, and I will show you a three-legged Kakapo.)
The said lift engineer, who breezed in blithely after the rescue operation had been concluded and seemed to exude I-don’t-give-a-fig indifference, had Express Elevators emblazoned on his sweatshirt. Express – you couldn’t make it up!
But council officials have been contrite and promised an investigation and a review of the relevant procedures; they have also sent me a nice bouquet of flowers. Given that I’m fine, we might just remain friends – as long as nobody else is put in a similar position.
“It says here that Nicky Morgan is your Education Secretary.”
“She is indeed.”
“No, no, they say she is quite good.”
“It’s not that!”
“What do you mean it’s not that? You wouldn’t want cabinet ministers to be incompetent, would you?”
“No, no, it’s how she was quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. She is supposed to have been speaking about changing her mind on gay marriage.”
“Oh yes, yes, she used to be against. I mean, honestly – in this day and age …”
“No, no, NO: it’s not THAT!”
“So what is it then?”
“How they put it.”
“How did they put it?”
“So? All credit to her, I’d say. Not everyone would publicly admit to changing their mind – and on such a sensitive issue at that.”
“No, no, no, it’s this idiotic comma!”
“What idiotic comma?”
“The one they plonked after ‘mind’. Look at this!”
And, indeed, there is was, leaping off page 5.
“Oh yes, yes, it’s not all that uncommon, the comma separating the subject from its verb.”
“How come? Isn’t that a basic punctuation principle? I mean that you don’t separate those bits of the sentence that are closely related?”
“Of course it is. But I don’t think British schools used to be bothered. They may be now, but they weren’t for a long time.”
“I know, I know. So many folk are in the dark.”
“Including newspaper sub-editors?”
“Including newspaper sub-editors. And, of course, to avoid this error in all contexts you need to be taught that the subject needn’t be a noun phrase and may be a nominal clause such as this.”
“I wonder what your Education Secretary would make of that.”
“‘Must try harder,’ I should imagine.”