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Sometimes I feel like one of those kids who always gets left behind on school trips. They pop into a toilet for a quick piddle, only to find the bus has left without them when they pop out. Nobody notices they’re not on the bus until roll call back at school.
Just in case anyone’s interested, I have’t posted anything since last January. I was in England for over a month. The first time in more than ten years. Seemed like a lot longer. Not since I’d last been, but the amount of time I spent there. Even then I’m not convinced Angelica knew I was gone. On my return she reacted as though I’d nipped down the road for a packet for a packet of fags. I haven’t smoked in years. Hello there, it’s me, I’m back. Remember, I’m the one that rants to myself all the time.
One thing I noticed while I was there is just how far the old country has drifted from Europe. Even though it’s a short hop across the Channel, you can hardly see what we used to call ‘the continent’ from the prom at Broadstairs. Even on clear days. Even standing on tippytoes. There’s just a mist where I suppose it must be. I get the impression the anchor has been hoisted and France may have already slipped below the horizon. A warning to all those aboard the sceptred isles: there are some very stormy seas in the Atlantic between the British Isles and America. Bon voyage!
Before jumping ship, I grabbed the chance to observe how a great number of English people go about their daily lives these days. What an eye-opener that was. Maybe it’s just me, but it was rather like watching an ageing retired couple with nothing left to do but spy on their neighbours. I got the sneaking feeling that, despite appearing over-polite to the point of obsequiousness while out and about the aisles of Marks & Sparks food emporiums, things might be different back behind closed doors. There was the nagging suspicion that after a long session of poking their noses into other people’s business from behind net curtains, more than a good few little Englanders whittle away their lives fretting and grumbling about untoward goings-on up and down their streets. I suppose I would think that owing to all the foreign blood swashing about my veins. When all’s said and done, I was born with one foot in Europe, as my mother was Norwegian. And what with having lived abroad since the late 20th century, I must now qualify as a complete turncoat. Anyway, without any coat at all I returned to Spain having felt more foreign in the country of my birth than I do in my adopted nation.
Things really hit home in both a figurative and literal way when a welcoming guide at Canterbury cathedral asked my nephew and I where we were from in that “bain’t be from round these parts” manner even the most kindly Christians can exude. Admittedly, my nephew has that attractive Mediterranean aspect many women swoon over, and I sport the sort of tan you get from from years spent in more temperate climes. Nevertheless, though tainted by Scandinavian blood on my mother’s side, we were both born and brought up in England, and are as English as pork pies and pickled onions. My father – my nephew’s grandfather – served in the RAF during WWII, and my grandfather – his great grandfather – was captain of the SS Den of Crombie, which was torpedoed by a U-boat in WWI in the Mediterranean, while transporting much needed supplies for the war effort. Being the sensible sort of captain that refuses to go down with his ship, he abandoned it along with the rest of the crew. Arriving back in England for Christmas 1915, after many months at sea, he set about performing his husbandly duties with gusto. If it weren’t for that sequence of events, I wouldn’t have been here writing this. My father was born nine months later. In an odd sort of way, I suppose I ought to thank Kaiser Bill for that. And the rest of you can curse grandad for not going down with his ship like all good captains are supposed to.
So what was I ranting on about? Ah, yes. On hearing I lived in Andalucia the guide set about digging an even deeper hole for himself by claiming he was a regular visitor to the north of Spain, as if to claim some sort of kinship with us. I assumed my keep digging face and he kept digging. “It rains more there,” he tried. In that same moment he realised he sounded as though he was attempting to claim it was more like England than Andalucia, which was the last thing he wanted. I was beginning to enjoy watching him squirm immensely, but my nephew was offended. Justifiably so. Only a couple of months before a frothing nationalist had chased him down a street in Margate shouting for him to go back where he came from. He, his wife, and their two toddlers, are too happy living at their house in Broadstairs to return to their flat in Hackney.
So, to swerve radically back to the point – if ever there is one where ranting’s concerned – back in the 1980s I’d hop onto a plane to Istanbul to spend a few weeks travelling around East Anatolia. When I got back nobody seemed to have noticed my absence. On nipping into my local for a pint instead of being greeted with: “I haven’t seen you in ages. Where have you been all this time?” all I got was: “Didn’t even notice you were gone.”
No sooner had I begun to recount my tales of faraway places than I’d be interrupted by the news that old Fred – or old somebody else – was dead. What did they expect? He was old. After expressing my condolences, I’d try wading into my tale of sitting cross-legged in dusty, dark carpet shops in Kurdistan buying tribal rugs and weavings from men called Ali, only to be informed that QPR were playing at eight and it was on the telly. I never managed to get as far as the bit about drinking sessions at belly dancer clubs. And the night police armed to the teeth swarmed all over one gaff we were in. For chrissakes! The police pull your nails out for smirking in Kurdistan – luckily, I managed to hold one back. I’d just got back from a country where tribesmen used to kidnap Westerners like me back in the 1980s. They would drag us off to mountain hideaways and hold us for ransom under threat of death. And I was supposed to worry about QPR? If they’d been playing Leicester then I could’ve been interested.
Thinking about it, the sort of Kurdish tribesmen I ran into were pretty friendly. All they wanted was someone different to share bottles of aslan sütü with. Lion’s milk, as aslan sütü translates into, is the popular name for rakı, the aniseed spirit drank in astounding quantities all over Turkey. The all-male drinking bouts would eventually descend into raucous singing and wild dancing. There was that time one lot of tribesmen I impressed with my nifty footwork did try to tempt me up to their mountain village to continue drinking and dancing into the early morning. Any doubters haven’t seen me dancing on a night of rakı. I still think that particular group of tribesmen might have intended to kidnap me in order to sell me on as a dance slave. I’ll never know now, as I had some laundry to collect from hotel reception next morning . The desk clerk had told me it was a twenty-four hour service when I left it two days before. Needless to say it wasn’t ready. It only takes twenty-four hours the clerk told me again. That’s if they start it the same day you leave it with them, of course.
That reminds of the time I ended up in Armenia, like you do. Not the laundry reminds me, that reminds me of another time, the drunken singing and dancing reminds me. It wasn’t long after the fall of the Soviet Union, just following the war with Azerbaijan over Ngorno Karabakh. The Daily Telegraph rather unexpectedly rang me one morning about a proposal I’d foolishly hoped nobody would take me up on. To put it mildly, the streets of Yerevan were more than a bit lively what with mafia gangs and the police vying for control of the lucrative bribery and corruption industries. Most sensible foreigners disappeared into their hotels before nightfall on their own account so they wouldn’t get disappeared by someone else. By not wanting to go missing they didn’t know what they were missing. Normally, I had difficulty finding my way back to my hotel after dark, due to the generous helpings of vodka lavished upon me and the lack of street lighting. That was another time I might have just popped out for a pee to judge by the muted reactions I received in the pub on my return. I might tell you about that when I get more time.
Well, for those that have noticed my absence over the last few weeks, it’s nice to be back. For those who never even saw I wasn’t here; a pox on all your houses. You know who you are, even if I don’t.
To finish off, a belated, but still very special thanks to the exquisitely named Peppina R. Harlow, who managed notice I wasn’t there only after discovering where I used to be. I’ll get back onto the Bill Hopkins story as soon as I can locate the draft, Peppina.
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