Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Home-made Expectations

A rainy day in Hong Kong can resemble life in England: grey, dull and best spent morosely indoors, perhaps writing a romantic-gothic novel or, failing that, at least an epistle. Okay, I may be exaggerating a touch, but here I am, one week on, back in Hong Kong after a trip home to England and feeling not a little grey and dull myself to be between these two otherwise very beautiful and colourful, but quite different, worlds.

All week, as I have slumbered my way though work, clutching cups of tea and coffee in an effort to over come the double jetlag and general sleep deprivation, I have had kind enquires of "How was your holiday? How was England?" – or, rather, 'the UK' as it is referred to it, thus kindly including Northern Ireland into the equation.
"Great!" comes my answer, "Wonderful! Lovely!" and "Tiring…but worth it."
Then, “How was the weather?”
"Cold."
“How was the food?”
“Indian.”
“What was the best bit?”
“Seeing my niece.”
And from those in the know, "Did the dresses fit?" But here, I should, as my Australian friend insisted when we reunited over our Thai salads and view of the fairy-lit sea, go back right to the beginning and start my story again.

Well, the week before leaving was busy. Isn't it always? At work we had people in from around the region for a conference and I was rushed of my feet trying to get things wrapped up before going away, leaving my role vacant for a whole week. (Though judging from my return they can, of course, manage perfectly - or at least, sufficiently - well without me; but we do like to give ourselves illusions of grandeur, don't we? Makes having to work for one's living seem somehow more worthwhile.) In between all this I was trying to get my head around the question of whether and, if so, what presents to take for people back home and indeed, what to pack for myself – my mum having already assured/threatened me [delete as appropriate] that there were plenty of big woolly jumpers knocking around that I could wear, so no need to pack any – as if I owned any! And of course, as if this wasn't enough, I was starting to get sick. And nervous. Oh yes, the prospect of going home was certainly raising all sorts of expectations, great (one of the books that were to accompany me on the journey, and one of many to return) - joy, bliss, showers of love and warmth and fondness... - and otherwise. The question that had suddenly dawned on me of 'What about when you have to leave?'

Well, by Tuesday I at least felt happy that I had resolved the first problem: I would take presents only for my niece who, after all, was the person who would appreciate them most, and so I headed to the lanes off Queen's Road Central to the market stalls and Chinese touristy-fayre shops to purchase some traditional qipaos for my nearly two year old, but rather advanced, niece. The shop assistant directed me to what I wanted and left me alone to choose from among the beautifully coloured and embroidered dresses and trouser-shirt suits for little children. That is, for very little children. But after some rooting around I had decided on some large bright pink ones and was ready to pay, when the shop assistant asked: "For what age?"
"Two year old," I replied, knowing that I was holding something deemed considerably larger than that, "but for a big baby...a Western baby."
"I will get you the size," she replied, disappearing into the back for some time while I stood outside in a state of worry and dismay, knowing that she would come out with something significantly too small for my darling niece who, from Facebook photos and Skype footage I knew to have inherited the family genes and be a tall, chubby and very active toddler now - one who liked, as she had from the word go, her food second only to yours.  If I hadn't seen her for over a year, I still knew that. And sure enough, five minutes later the woman emerged holding up two doll-sized outfits: very cute but certainly not big enough to squeeze my niece into. 
"No, sorry, a BIG baby," I said.
"Next size up?" she replied. 
"Make that two." 

Some time later I left with my roomy purchases still in a state of concern. What if they were too small? To give a child you had not seen for a year a present she could neither use nor enjoy would be heartbreaking for both of us but for the child would, I felt, be a disappointment, the momentousness of which I could still remember something about. Besides, I thought as I made my way to met a friend for dinner, the last thing I wanted to do was give the poor child a body image complex! And those articles that the shop assistant had held up were hideously small. Even at six months they wouldn't have accommodated my bonny niece. And what was more, these beautiful qipaos would after all only be used for dressing up. My sister would hardly be allowing the child to be seen, even (or, especially) on special occasions, out in these clothes. So bigger was definitely better. And yet I worried, until hoping to find reassurance from my friend, I held them up over the dinner table and realised yet, I could probably just about squeeze into them myself. 
"Oh, yes, plenty of room I should think," she said, not without a faint hint of uncertainty – the kind that single women for whom thoughts of motherhood are a very long way off might express.
"Yes," I replied, examining them and looking with similar doubt down the neck of the dress to the tent-sized space within. "I’m sure they'll be ok."

Thank heavens! They were. My niece went "oooooh" with excitement and chose the "red coak" (coat being still rather hard for her to get her mouth around) to try on first and which fitted just fine: nice and roomy. While the pink (but also red for the purposes of my niece's limited semantic range) dress was in fact a little long, almost tripping her up as she walked. Bless! Needless to say she looked very lovely and my relief was complete as she posed for a photograph and I managed not to fall at the first long-lost auntie hurdle, and after that – playing Playdough, pushing her on the swings, teaching her to say my name and other choice vocabulary and anatomy (the shape and location of one’s Playdough heart) – well, she made it all rather easy by being by being quite possible the best person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet again.

Back in Hong Kong it is spring now. The morning mist bleaches the world-made-home, but is by afternoon burnt away to reveal a landscape seemingly artificial in its intensity, in its almost overpowering vividness of colour and form. It demands attention, but like the sun itself is blinding to look upon: a violent assertion of presence upon the eye. But by evening, when the mists have rolled in billows like smoke from the fire, it is veiled again in a haze of smog and light. Thus an elusive landscape in which city and country appear in a collusive infidelity to the image of itself, engaged in its own striptease, and the neon signs that map the night city, prostituting itself, are just as swiftly lost to sight, smudged by hot damp night air rendering the names a blur of colour. The most elusive of all, however, is not the buildings now resplendent in their sunlit finery now concealed in cloud, or the verdant peaks draped in a dewy mist, but the sky: rarely blue, and rarely glimpsed even then between the mirrors of sunlight and blue that rival for supremacy. For the sky, it seems once again this spring, has been left behind in England – a canvas on which one’s hopes are or would be pinned.

In England, in the Peak District, on a moor, on a farm, my mother lives beneath a wide-ranging blue sky. Or at least she did when I went to visit her. The sunshine was out, the snowdrops were out and the lambs were being put out of the shelter of the barn to pasture with their mothers. And I too. She lives quite deep in the country now, but a nomadic life: a few months here, a few there. She calls herself a gypsy and I fear it is becoming true. My mother has a van whose name is Bongo. Suitably nutty. This van, which really seems to have a life independent and of its own, happened to be in the garage while I was there, having its bodywork seen to. We stopped by one morning on our way to the local swimming pool (or baths, as we used to call it), and oh dear God!

I waited in the courtesy car while my mum went to speak to the guy and find out from him what the damage was and how long it would take to be repaired and at what cost, etc. But after about three minutes of sitting (about my limit ordinarily but not least after having endured 13 hours straight of sitting 13,000ft up in the air) I started to get restless and fidgety. So I crane around to see where she is but can only make out the top of the guy’s hat. It is quite a remarkable hat, one of those Canadian deerstalker types with the earflaps that tie up on top. This one is tied up on top and, what is more, appears to be made of real deer. Well, it is cold, I concede, but it’s not artic! if you will stand around outside talking all day... A few more minutes and I’m staring at the clock. We have plenty of time, but what is she doing? How can this be taking so long? Finally, I see them coming towards the car and walk straight past it – what?! – to stand in front of the garage sign, looking and pointing up at it and continuing their conversation, which apparently now has little or nothing to do with Bongo. A few moments later and thank god! They are walking back to the car but now have stopped outside. My mum sneaks me a quick raised-eyebrow look at me which says ‘I know you’re loving this but if only you were where I am! I really can’t get away!’ I see my mum point at me and thank him for lending us the car, at which point he opens the door and leans in to direct himself at me with a friendly, “Oh, so you’re the daughter from…where is it again?”
“Hong Kong,” I reply, smiling politely but not a little embarrassedly, as if I’m declaring I’ve come from the Moon just for a little visit to see me old mam.
“Hong Kong,” he repeats, somewhere between impressed and marvelling. “I’ve seen that place on telly. Buildings so tall they make your neck ache to look at, and a million people on the streets walking this way and that. Am I right?”
I told him he was not wrong.
“Eee, no. I don’t know how you do it. Not for me,” he says and as my mum offers up salvation in the wisdom that “it wouldn’t do for us all to be the same” he continues to tell us his life story: how he hasn’t had a day’s education but had to teach himself his trade from scratch, how he and his hawk-owl have lived poaching off the land, catching squirrels and rabbits to eat, and how he couldn’t possibly leave our little town – not for Hong Kong nor even for London thank you very much. And just as I start to think that I too will never get to see those cities ever again, but must be trapped with the badger-bating yokel-mechanic from the moors, I hear a voice say “Well, actually we’re just off swimming” and just like that he replies, “Well, I won’t keep you then,” and is wishing me a pleasant visit as we are driving quickly away in near hysterical relief.
“I bet you don’t get that in Hong Kong,” Mum smiles at me after a safe distance has been placed between us and the object of her remark.
“No,” I reply, trying to imagine how that would go down in a 7/11, at my local drycleaners or in a taxi, but finally conclude that in a city where time is money and no matter how many hours you add to the working day they still not enough, “It just wouldn’t happen.”

We made it to swimming, and I won at Scrabble, and I baked a banana cake, and I chased and carried the toddlers around play areas, and I ate freshly laid eggs for breakfast, and walked through a village churchyard (hearing Blake's 'The Garden of Love' echoing off the two-hundred-year gravestones)  and over grey-green fields in my old wellingtons, and fell asleep with the light on like when I was young because there was still someone else there to turn it off, and drank cups of tea one after the other.

So when they ask, how was your holiday?
Lovely, I will reply.
How is your family?
Oh, very well.
How was the weather?
Cold - but, I will remember, the sun shone through the chill moorland air.
What was the best bit?
All of it. 

We [had] changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I [ - we] went on.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A year in love

Travelling home on a very packed ferry yester-evening I had the uncertain privilege of being sandwiched for the 25 minute duration between, on my left, a couple sitting in silence, apparently on or coming home from a date; he trying to stroke her knee but succeeding only in affectionately patting the designer handbag that took pride of place there...Or, now I come to think about it, perhaps that was his true object of desire. For I have learnt, in my time observing the species of rich Hongkongers I dwell among, never to overestimate how much care and attention can be showered on a costly Louis Vuitton or Prada by both the woman who owns it and the fella who bought it; the handbag being, it seems, something synonymous to a couple’s first child before they get the dog and eventually, if they have endured those preliminaries tests, the real kids, and often even then outperforming the others in terms of affection. After all, it is always at and on your side, silently asserting its superiority over others without ever arguing back... Meanwhile another obstacle intervened between them. Like a privet hedge between two neighbours, sat an ostentatiously oversized bouquet of Ferrero Rocher and which, it strikes me, must the perfect gift-concept for Valentines who, judging from this pair (and apart from reading my book and slurping my drink as quietly as possible so as not to spoil the romance blossoming at my elbow, what else did I have to do given our imposed proximity but judge?), like to kill two clich├ęs for the price of one, and which clearly they had acquired earlier in the evening as part of the elaborate but dubiously successful, given the complete dearth of scintillating conversation sparking between them, ritualised public foreplay going on beside and all around me, thus forcing me back to my book. While to my right sat a kindly middle-aged woman who, until I pointed it out, had completely failed to register that the inordinate numbers of spruced up people parading back and forth between island eateries and forcing us to sit like sardines in a tin – instead of aphrodisiacal oysters in our own little paradisal shells – signified that it was St. Valentine's Day.

So that was what I had to come home to after work. Joy! Oh, of course, there were red envelopes in the mailbox, a candlelit dinner waiting, followed by a hot scented bath and the bed loving strewn with rose petals…but that’s when a stray thorn burst my bubble and I realized I was in the wrong story: I was Goldilocks and this was someone else’s perfect Valentine's scenario.

But having endured the couple(s) on the ferry and having spoken with the lady who so innocently sat beside me in the midst of the Big Love In, it struck me to ask: who was having the best time that evening? They, with their glad-rags on, clutching their bunches of chocolates ready to do battle with anyone who accused them of being single, and traipsing out in the cold to go and sit with all the other couples in an overpriced restaurant; or she, who was simply pleased to have the reason for unusually heavy traffic revealed to her, and even more gratified to think what roaring trade our island’s restaurants would be doing, because, she assured me, they need the business. Clearly an economist if ever I met one! Well, after much careful consideration, I think I have to conclude, from my brief survey of the market, that the economists are winning in the happiness stakes. After all, it certainly cannot be me, a single girl. No, not I nor any of my many other single and equally ineligible friends, and especially those who have recently broken up with someone. We have no right to be happy on this day of the year, but since being in a couple does not seem to be much better – being positively coerced into buying cards, flowers, chocolates, and chocolate flowers, and made to go out with millions of other romantically expectant people to have a wonderfully romantic time at great expense… leading one to think that Alexandra Kollantai had it quite right in thinking that, as Laurie Penny put it, “the fetishisation of the bourgeois couple above all other forms of human love was the foundation of oppression of all working people” and so leaving her husband to pursue revolutionary activism - I feel I can hear her now: “Darling, I’m leaving. It’s not you, it’s Marxism” - ...I guess, we shall leave it to the capitalists to rub their hands and smile.

And yet…being in someone else’s "just-right" fairytale home alone, does give a girl a chance to don their most outlandish, unmatching sets (plural, because Hong Kong’s just got cold again) of pyjamas, crack open the bubbly, scoff down their Cadbury's Roses and contemplate the age old question: Is love a fancy, or a feeling? Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII, from which this question derives, argues against the idea of the merely conceptual or perceptual nature of Love – against its relegation, demotion or trivialisation to the realm simply of thought, feeling or imagination: fancy. Instead, the speaker argues for love as an objective correlative to experience, as something that does have existence - and even greater existence – outside of ourselves and our control; argues, in short, for love’s endurance and steadfastness, untouched by the tides that come and go, the years - the ferries - that shuttle back and forth, marking time and the beginnings and endings of love as numerous as our daily journeys. No, he says, love it not a passing fancy: a 20 minute commute… But here, you may read it for yourself:


Is love a fancy or a feeling? No.
It is immortal as immaculate Truth,
'Tis not a blossom shed as soon as youth,
Drops from the stem of life--for it will grow,
In barren regions, where no waters flow,
Nor rays of promise cheats the pensive gloom.
A darkling fire, faint hovering o'er a tomb,
That but itself and darkness nought doth show,
It is my love's being yet it cannot die,
Nor will it change, though all be changed beside;
Though fairest beauty be no longer fair,
Though vows be false, and faith itself deny,
Though sharp enjoyment be a suicide,
And hope a spectre in a ruin bare.

It being the season to be loverly and all, I recently came upon an article in Time Out magazine on the vexed question of the “barren regions” of romance where “all be changed beside”: that is, of the long distance relationship, or LDR as they abbreviated it to and which when you put it like that, does indeed sound like some terrible sexually-transmitted disease. Seeking to offer advice to those poor souls who find themselves in one, the article began by investigating the main problem with LDRs, which – for those of you unable to possibly imagine – was (shock horror! Knock me down with a feather!) lack of physical contact. Try as they may to remain in touch, the lands-aparted lovers are ultimately doomed by the lack of touching. Write as many letters, emails or make as many phonecalls as you like, but we all know that it is not the will of the head or heart but the oxytocin that is released when couples are intimate that makes them – at least believe themselves to be – in love: it is merely a feeling that gives way to a (albeit chemical, neurological) fancy that is love. Nothing more. Without the feeling there is no true (oxymoronic) fantasy and no love. So, sorry Hartley, you with your romantic notions of eternities and immortalities had it all wrong: love will not grow where there is no water, no light, no air to feed it. It’s just a matter of chemistry, biology… Or is it?

Speaking as, it seems, a girl doomed to always leave romances behind in an English world for a life as a singleton in a no less romantic Chinese one (“no, I’m not married yet,” I once had to reply to a four year old student of mine, “not since you asked me last week”) I can vouch that no, absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder: passions can cool and the memory forget; that yes, time does heal and the endless, trivial, nonsensical but delightful things that once one had to say to the loved one can dry up, fall away or be said to another… and another... For, if not to touch and see and be seen, how is love different from any other passing acquaintance one might have, say, with colleagues, neighbours, fellow passengers on the way to work or the grave? Listening to Harold Jacobson on Desert Island Discs (thanks BBC, your Radio 4 airwaves colour the world a shade of pink still!) I was struck with the way in which he described his relationship with his wife. Asked whether he would survive if cast away on this imaginary desert island with nothing but his eight disc tracks, he replied very much that no, he needed company – that people, his wife not least of all, gave him his sense of self: “I need the company [of marriage], I need the support, I need to be looked at with love to be sure I’m there, maybe I need to be looked at in the beloved’s eye to see a nicer version of myself than is actually the case or than I fear might be the case…It’s as though I can’t trust my own version of myself,” he said. Scary! But perhaps at the heart of each of us is this unknown – this void – that Jacobson expresses, or as Shakespeare has Achilles say in Troilus and Cressida: the “mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred; and I myself see not the bottom of it”, the idea being that we cannot wholly know ourselves, but rather that it is other people who help us create and shape our image, like looking in a mirror. But what if we look not in a faithful mirror? A cruel or selfish lover; possessive, jealous, mean? Someone who does not reflect but imposes, who twists and distorts - a carnivalesque hall of mirrors. Couldn't that be as harmful as being left Crusoesque alone gazing deep into the dark abyss of ourselves? But to be in a loving and faithful relationship can, as Jacobson suggests, be creative, affirmative. It can be to have a Mirror Mirror On the Wall – a Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder, a conscience and guide telling you who is fairest of them all and whether and when it is or is not You. And, I suppose, this loving relationship need not be just with someone else... Couldn't it be with oneself? 


Is love than nothing more than a passing fancy or a feeling: the desires and impulses, racing heart and beating veins; the attendant dreams and imaginations that weave a fairytale romance about us, give our   chemical-biological flutterings form, decorum and longevity in the belief in a happy ever after? Or is love as fundamental and eternal as Truth? Does it reside in the beloved, or is it merely imagined and overlaid there by the fancy of the lover? Or, a third option: is it possible that the feelings and fancies, passions and conceits – the conceit that you are here with me now, that I am talking to you – give us access to something higher, more enduring, something possibly resembling truth, that the beloved for example, might not only to reveal to us the image of ourselves but be instrumental in creating that image? Not the passive receptacle of our desires, fancies, feelings, but the maker of them through time – from here to eternity?

Wow! But what about me, I hear you ask: what loving relationship are you in? When I think of my family and friends now it is as if I must needs chart them on a map. I see where we were, where we have been, where they are now, including who they are with and where their friends and family are, where they might yet go and where I might see them next. My relationships are a map that stretches around the globe in a way that even Columbus or Cook might be jealous of! Some dearly beloved are here, but  relatively few. “Thou must needs find out new heaven and new earth,” as says Anthony in an attempt to verbalise – to declare and by declaring prove – the vast size and scale of his love for Cleopatra; and I too it sometimes seems must do the same if I were to have in one day, one life, all the people and loves I have known. But are not all modern relationships doing - and having to do - the same? Email, Skype, Facebook… When the loved one is beyond the reach of touch, they are no longer (as too they were not for the speaker of Coleridge’s Sonnet VII) quite out of sight. But do then we think of them lovingly, or only with jealousy, fear or the sadness of loss? This, Time Out claims, is the reason for LDRs’ limited success and poor reputation: without the euphoria/eudaimonia of physical presence - its reassurance - these emotional and psychological demons reign supreme. But why, I would cry, when our friends, family and lovers are not 'ours' to begin with do we presume to lay most claim to them when they are gone? Must they be hurting us in their absence, detracting from or diminishing us - separating us from our enjoyment of ourselves - either by their happiness or by their mutual sense of loss? No, rather, let us be reminded that they are individual, that ‘we’ – the couple, the pair of us – are divisible and if we are alone, why then, we are merely back in the place of our beginnings. Why can we not then imagine ourselves young and new again in love, free to love that person, another or simply ourselves and the world all over again? The excitement of discovery, the thrills and laughter, the feel-good of talking late into the night, or being surprised by a kiss boldly written into a message. Should not we treat all our relationships – near and far – in the same way: as a chance to court, to come out from afar and meet the other halfway? And if that relationship is romantic, then to embrace the coyness and frustrated longing that the distance imposes for that kiss, touch, sign of understanding and affirmation? It’s just a thought – a passing fancy, really – that out of sight doesn’t necessarily need to mean out of (your) mind, but rather in one's mind as the autonomous, charmingly individual and unique person they and you are. Did we not love first because they were different: different from others and different from ourselves? They were a looking glass seen for the first time and in which we saw ourselves anew. Do we not all secretly think (and sometimes suffer in feeling) of ourselves as different while wishing that our difference was understood by another, held within them and their hearts: that our uniqueness was perhaps not so different after all, but loved all the same - nonetheless - from a distance that does not seem far? Or, perhaps, I am just speaking for myself as a stubborn, single girl. One who knows that even when in family, friendship and in love, and perhaps then most of all, there is a need to remember who you are, who you were and who you would be, individually, and to celebrate the same in the other - first and foremost and to the very end. As immortal as immaculate Truth.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds damn saucy"

There’s a saying…no, a quote, that I would share with you. Something of a joke and it goes like this: “Giving English to an American is like giving sex to a child. He knows it's important but he doesn't know what to do with it"
- Adam Cooper (19th century)

In my job I deal with a lot of American English, constantly correcting ize to ise wherever I see it and doubling ls. However, it strikes me that the differences between American and British English are much more profound than this. I mean, I understand (and am generally quite sympathetic) when a Yank admits that American is a bastardized English – the spelling does not make that much difference – but if, for example, they were to start flattering me on my new pants I would consider myself to be in a whole heap of trouble – not necessarily only linguistic. And I am not the only one. A recent conversation an Australian girl friend had with a Yank started off innocently enough: on the subject of long-haul flights. “Oh, I just love it,” my friend rhapsodised, “when halfway through the night Qantas bring round Magnums!” This, perfectly acceptable to me (I was nodding in jealous agreement: BA do not provide such service), was apparently met with stunned silence and raised eyebrows by the American in question. “You know,” she continued blissfully ignorant, “I love seeing those shiny wrappers appear from out the darkness. I always get so excited!” I am still in agreement: ice-cream at 2am what could be better? But clearly the American’s mind was running along other lines… Did he think Qantas provided 4.4 firearm cartridges at that hour to its sleep-deprived travellers, or enormous bottles of champagne to celebrate the midpoint on its long haul journey (“Woo hoo, we’ve made it this far without a) crashing, b) being set upon by terrorists armed with handguns and ice-cream, or c) the pilot getting blotto…oops, until now!)? No. None of the above. Magnum, in the US – for all of you who, like me, didn’t know – is a brand of prophylactic. A condom. From the Latin magnus, meaning great. Well, of course! Now it makes sense. Americans are famous for being  not exactly shy and retiring, for being encouraged by the likes of Oprah (god love her) to ‘big’ themselves up and, as Blackadder would say, ‘blow their own trumpet’ – if you can possibly excuse the irresistible pun? 

But of course, it works all ways and between all nations. While recently demonstrating the art of (mainly rude, it has to be said) Italian hand gestures, a friend added “but of course, it means something very different in India.” What you might use to tell someone to kindly “F* off” in Italy would, apparently, have you inviting them into your house for curry in India. “That’s quite different,” I replied, reminding myself that for every useful lesson you learn, there is always an important footnote to be added and for every rule, an exception. Personally, my difficulty with Australians has always been – again, underwear related – that they will insist on referring to their Havaianas as thongs. “What,” I ask, “do you then call your…well, thong?” “A G-string,” they reply, in a tone that suggests that I, with my onomatopoeic flip-flops (a word bordering on the inanity of whoops-a-daisy), am the idiot. And fair play to them, I have to admit they have that sussed, and they certainly have more call for both flip-flops and thongs in their summery climes. But, I ask them, footie and soccer aren’t the same thing in the land of Oz? In England football, footie, soccer are one and the same: a kick-out, down the park, lads and dads, the beautiful game…We’re all talking about football (EPL style). In the US and Australia, however, you have football and soccer and you are all referring to different games. But such problems, I have come to appreciate, stretch far and wide. So, in a gesture towards greater cross-cultural understanding, I have complied a – by no means exhaustive, but still quite extensive – glossary of some of the English words and phrases that may lead non-British English users into trouble or at least a state of consternation.

I will admit though, before we begin (because the above has so far merely been the prologue to my tale), that this is by no means intended as a guide to formal English usage. These are not the type of phrases I would generally advise my students to use, but rather ones that growing up in my mother’s household – in which, it has to be said, Jesus did most of the sweeping, as well as the occasion weeping – I have long been acquainted with, without ever really stopping to think how completely incomprehensible or bizarre they may be to an outsider. But for a student going away to Winchester, Eton, or even the wilds of Staffordshire and the Peaks – usually on a Duke of Edinburgh weekend assault course (why else venture in the North, ie, north of Watford Gap) – they may find that, having read the following they are better prepared for the semantic hurdles and linguistic buggery that no doubt awaits when, stopping to ask for directions you are told, like my uncle, that “ee, duck, it’s agin Argos”; or a merely curious Anglophile or bemused American may I hope gain some rare glimpse of the nuances that comprise a culture…

But equally, do not be surprised if this farrago of a dictionary is so full of odds, sods, and gubbins that you are left jolly well naffed off and reaching for the booze and fags. Let me reassure you, it is all much of a muchness, six of one and half a dozen of the other, that you shouldn’t let Old Uncle Tom Cobbley get your knickers in a twist but just keep your hair on and Bob’ll soon be your uncle. In which spirit: I wish you happy – nay, over the moon - reading!

Well me ole’ mate - mate, noun, friend: eg, “He’s me mate” and “Ay up mate” - let’s start at the beginning. Ay up, how are ya me old?  Meaning, ‘hello good fellow.’ If I knew you very well, of course, I may also call you me ole’ mucker, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. How about we start with a nice cuppa? Pronounced Cup-pah, noun, meaning cup of tea, never coffee. When I was growing up tea came in cups and coffee in mugs, but that was of course back in the days before Starbucks had us all drinking hot milk (with, what’s that, a faint hint of coffee?) out of paper cups. So now you can have a cuppa coffee, but if you just say cuppa on its own I’m afraid we‘ll assume you mean tea. But how about we make this more special? Can I offer you a cream tea? Cream tea: not a hot creamy beverage (eg, Hong Kong style, with condensed milk) but a traditional afternoon tea set consisting of fluffy scones, jam and cream (preferably warm Cornish clotted cream) and (freshly picked, sun-ripened) strawberries if you’re lucky, washed down with lashings of hot tea (with a dash of milk). To which sumptuous offering you would of course reply ta: expression, (and about the first word my niece learnt to say, probably because she knew it won her food) meaning thanks. Well, Cheers! expression, a toast; also thank you; and as in the antiquated greeting what cheer, now more commonly whatcha. Now, that’s the basics sorted. Once you have got those down to a T - expression, meaning perfect or exactly (eg, you can say “it suited her down to a T”) – you will be ready to move on to the next stage: Food.

Aubergine, noun : (US) eggplant; courgette (pron. cor-gyet), n, (US) zucchini

Bubble and squeak, n.: not two cute children’s cartoon characters as you might be forgiven for thinking, but an English dish of left-over mashed potato with green vegetables, such as cabbage, and onion mashed in. Food of the gods or fodda, Old English word still used colloquially in some places, though more restricted to cattle feed and school canteen food

Chalk and cheese, phrase, this may sound like traditional bland English fare but the point of this phrase is that it is two items that are not recommended to be put together; it is, in fact, a phrase that means ‘two things dissimilar that don’t go together’

Butchers, v. (Cockney rhyming slang: Butcher’s hook) look: “Give us a butchers”

Butty, n, sandwich; and Ploughman’s, n, traditional pub sandwich of cheese and pickled onions; which might be eaten with crisps, n, potato chips – only wafer thin; chips are fried, thick potato chips. As children crisp butties were a definite favourite: delicious and nutritious.

Chippie, n, a fish and chip shop; not to be mistaken with the slang term for a carpenter. If crisp butties were weekend lunchtime meals, chip butties were easy Friday night dinnertime meals, stodgy - adj, the definition of English food: filling, heavy, thickenough to give you heartburn for several hours and possibly reaching for the phrase had his chips: to be finished/done for, eg, after accidentally choking on a carb butty and performing a tracheostomy with a fish knife, you might say he’d had his chips.

Double-decker, n, two-storey bus; also a chocolate bar with two layers – nougat and crispy cereal. Umm…double-decker…

Drinking-up time, n, sad time of the day (used to be 11pm in England) when the local – n, pub or bar nearby that a person normally frequents: “I’m just going down the local” – closes

Elevenses, n, Morning tea or coffee break – a splendiferous thing, eg, “Isn’t it time for Elevenses yet?” In many people’s vocabulary, consisting merely (like breakfast) of a fag, n, cigarette and coffee, but if, like me, you’re from out the shire it’s an opportunity for a second breakfast.

Indian, noun, An Indian restaurant; so if you hear “I’m going the Indian” do not be deceived that they are going to seek the wise Brahmic counsel of the only person from the vast Indian subcontinent living in their English town, but to eat an Anglicised curry at an Indian restaurant

Yorkshire pudding, n, not a dessert; batter baked in the oven and eaten with Sunday roast. And in the pudding club does not mean to be a fan of the Yorkshire or indeed sweet baked goods, but is a phrase meaning to be pregnant; also bun in the oven and up the duff, eg, “She’s dead chuffed she’s up the duff” – as the Angel Gabriel reported back to God on Mary’s feelings on receiving the annunciation: she very happy to be with child.

Lolly, n, boiled sweet or flavoured ice on a stick; from which we get lollypop wo/man, n, road crossing assistant, because they, at least used to, carry a big lollipop-shaped staff to stop traffic with – though, arguably, their presence standing in the middle of the road should (one hopes) serve that purpose too

Milkfloat, n, not a delightful dairy beverage, but the slow-moving electric-motorised vehicle that used to carefully deliver bottles of fresh milk to people’s doorsteps at 4am every morning. Incidentally, growing up there was a boy in our class whose father was a milkman and for some reason that fact instilled as much quiet awe in me as if he’d revealed his dad was in Superman. It seemed that impressive, but FYI the relationship (like the milkfloat) never really got going.

Plonk, n, cheap wine, such as that one might purchase from the offie – abbreviation, off-licence (7/11) – on the way home from the local.

As far as food goes, that about takes the biscuit: phrase, that beats everything. So, lest you’re feeling a bit shagged out, adj, absolutely exhausted and knackered, adj, tired: “I’m bloody knackered I am,” after all that food let’s retire from the dinner table into the drawing room, noun. Let it be noted no one really uses this word anymore, but in case you are reading Austen, no, they are not all unusually into their art; rather they (the women after dinner) are ‘withdrawing’ into the living room to let the men smoke over port (“pass the port”) and politics. I’ll let you decide who is getting the better deal.

And while we are on the subject of rooms, note that in English a restroom is a room for resting in and not a toilet as the Americans have it. Funny story actually on the subject of toilets, or WCs as they have been known in the UK for many a year (water closet – how coy!): in Hong Kong, common usage is to refer to the toilets as the bathroom which, while technically implying that one can bath, shower and shave (soak in a bubbly tub with a book and glass of wine), is I think a reasonable compromise between the American unusually prim rest room and bizarre, out-dated British water closet, and is a Hong Kongism that I have become accustomed to, feeling that it reduces the embarrassment caused on all sides of having to excuse oneself in the middle of dinner by announcing “Everyone, I am going to the toilet,”  from which unnecessary images inevitably follow. However, when back in the UK last year, I was in our local library which for some reason (and everyone I’ve spoken to has been of the same opinion) within ten minutes spent in there brings on the acute desire to use the toilet. Well, after many years of having to leave before deciding on which book to borrow, they have acknowledge this universal truth and installed a solution upstairs. But on asking one day for the key – for clearly this is now a sacred and well-guarded room of requirement – to the “bathroom” I received in return only looks of blank bewilderment. After repeating my request a few times in the hushed tones appropriate to a reading room, I realised the error of my ways. “Oh, I mean the toilet,” I cried out rather too loud in a combination of triumph at finally finding the linguistic key to unlock my meaning and my increasingly desperate need to get the key to unlock the toilet room. And bingo! Bob was my uncle. But have I ever found both the words “bathroom” “toilet” more embarrassing? No.

Time’s gathering apace and we must march on with it. So get your togs on – phrase, (outdoor) clothes on – as my mum would say, always wanting to be out walking no matter the weather or how freezing cold. ‘Put your togs on, it’s a bit parky out’ - parky, adj, chilly, cold: “Oo, it’s a bit parky out” (meaning: cold outside) – and where we’re going you’re gonna need some defences against the elements. Oh yes, we’re leaving the cossetted world of the kitchen, dining and bathing rooms behind and going out on the tilesphrase, on a night out, not to be confused with on the game, another phrase but referring to prostitution: “She’s on the game” – where, in true English pissed up style - pissed, v, drunk, also pissed up; but pissed off means angry – we may be exposed to terms of abuse and content of a sexual nature. Don’t say you’ve not been warned, you muppet!

Muppet, noun, a personal favourite, meaning ‘a stupid person’; e.g. “Oi, you muppet” and “God, what a muppet”; also pillock, n, another great and expressive way of saying someone is an idiot, a useless or stupid person: “You’re a right pillock”; and wally, n, an idiot, someone so dumb he doesn’t even know how dumb he is.

Berk, n, (Cockney rhyming slang: Berkeley Hunt) an undesirable person, e.g. “That George Bush, he’s a bit of a berk!”

Daft, adj, foolish; as in the phrase ‘Daft as a brush’ or the rhyme my mother used to sing: “You’re daft, you’re potty, you’re made of treacle toffee” because that’s not silly mummy! Note that daft is less offensive than berk or pillock – just because the ‘k’ sound in English is harder while the ‘ft’ which is soft.

Naff, adj, means untrendy or uncool; but naff off, phrase, means go away’ and was apparently coined by one of my favourite TV programmes Porridge (meaning, jail-time).

But these can’t really be considered swearwords. They are often playful or mocking – the English being quite a fan of sarcasm and curses the world over (none less than in Cantonese) tending to be quite … colourful. Nice examples of English sarcasm include pigs might fly, phrase, a way to say that something is absurd: “Oh yeah, and pigs might fly”, meaning that whatever it is won’t happen. Queer as a clockwork orange, phrase, means strange: “Ee, thou art as queer as a clock orange” (says he), and another adjectival simile (we love them!) would be to tell someone they’re as much use as a chocolate teapot, meaning not very useful at all. Fun! If these don’t quite cover it though – if you’ve really taken umbrage (offense) to something; if you’ve got the hump – not least, perhaps by now, with the English language in which one word can have at least three different meanings: 1) noun, ridge in the road, lump on a camel’s back; 2) verb, to carry something heavy: “I’ve been humping it around all day,” 3) phrase get the hump, meaning ‘to get annoyed’ as in, a distempered camel; and 3) verb, as a euphemism for sex – then you might want to step it up a grade, with expletives.

Bloody hell (pron. Blud-ee ell), expression: an (mild) expletive, expressing surprise or astonishment, perhaps as when you’ve just come a cropper – a phrase meaning had an accident or something’s ended badly. “Cor blimey, I wor crossing the road when this truck came r’ait at me, and I nearly come a cropper!” In such an instance you might add, “I wor jolly cross I was.” In which case jolly, adverb, means very – not happy. If you are jolly cross, you may well be said to be in a paddy. Another phrase which also means to be angry; and like a paddy field, you can be in one or have one: have a paddy, eg, Every Saturday my little sister (Lord bless her!) would have a paddy in Woolworths if she didn’t get a new Barbie. Yup. And then a smack-bottom, which was the cheaper option. If someone is having a paddy, you might be tempted (but it is generally not advisable) to say: keep your hair on, or don’t get your knickers in a twist, two phrases that are aimed at calming someone in a temper down but which usually have the opposite effect. Keep your pecker up is another cute but annoying phrase used to encourage or cheer someone up; to which you may want to reply (well, bugger off – but also possibly) cobblers! As a noun, cobblers (Cockney rhyming slang: Cobbler’s awl) means testicles, but as an expression it implies nonsense or “What a load of codwallop!”

Another charming euphemism for the male member (not to be confused with honourable members of parliament, though some would say they are just a lot of d*cks too) – as the English would rather not name It if we can avoid It, not when they are so many potentially ridiculous (excuse the pun again) alternatives – is goolies, eg, “Aw ref’, he got me in me goolies.” Sounds rather like a race of Enid Blyton characters doesn’t it? Bum meanwhile can be used to mean borrow, eg, “Can I bum a fag?” and randy is an adjective for horny, hence why the English find Americans with the name Randy so frightfully amusing.  Bob-a-job may sound like a euphemism but is simply phrase from back in the days of shillings and pence and means doing a job to raise funds, which I suppose could be appropriate to much of the trade that takes place with ladies of the night in Wan Chai but usually applies more innocently to boy scouts or unemployed window-cleaners.

Moving swiftly on, leaving the obscurities of the night behind and relegating all such ambiguities to drunken dreams and alcoholic amnesia, all that leaves us is to deal with is – appropriately enough – the gubbins: noun, collection of general worthless items. A personal favourite, thanks mainly to the pronounced (in the senses of regular, strongly emphasised and articulated) use my mother always made of this word. Whenever anything needed cleaning, moving or removing it was referred to as gubbins - “What’s this gubbins?” – usually followed, if referring to our clothes, by the interrogation “Clean, dirty or indifferent?” If it was indifferent gubbins, we usually went to school wearing – ie, covered in – it the next day.

Odds and sods is another choice phrase of my mother’s meaning odds and ends, bits and bobs; or in other words, a random collection of stuff. As you’ve probably gathered from this collection of English words so far, references to homosexuality and acts of buggery feature quite highly in spoken English language (I don’t know if odds and sods has this derivation, but…) – a possible reflection of a culture steeped the contradictions of public school fagging and imprisoning gay playwrights? Perhaps it is as my mother would say “Well, there’s two choices” (or more in this day and age, mother) and that, whatever the question the answer you can be sure is, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Growing up this phrase was the stock answer aimed at my sister’s and my protestations and mutual accusations that “she started it!” “Oh,” my mother would exclaim, “you’re as bad as each other; it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other,” usually followed swiftly by “I’ll knock your silly heads together” which had more effect than the seeming incomprehensible mathematic equation, until finally one day – probably around the time of revising for GCSE Maths – I figured it out. Eureka! And, feeling like I’d outsmarted my mother, declared “But they’re the same thing!” to which her reply was “of course,” not seeming to realise then that all those years her homey wisdom had therefore quite failed to reach home. But it’s all swings and roundabouts, as they say, another phrase meaning that it’s all about the same, along with much of a muchness, phrase, recently made familiar by Alice in Wonderland, also meaning equivalent to. Does the preponderance of these synonymous phrases suggest something drab in England and Englishness? That like our food, you cannot tell life apart – one weary day from the next, one grey sky from another, one monotonous street, park, tree or bird? Does it represent apathy or, does it perhaps say something positive about our culture as one of liberal tolerance – that we have so many queers, odds, sods, Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all (another old (and odd) saying long conveyed to me through my mother’s love of idioms and which is an exhaustive way of expressing ‘and all this/these/those as well’, basically meaning etcetera)? Or is it that having watched a once rich empire fall away and been beaten for years at our own sporting games, we are now left mere to stand, gazing on with resigned detachment before turning away in search of our pipe and slippers, to make a hot cocoa and mumble the quick prayer  “It’s all much of a muchness” before falling back to sleep? 

So, is Bob your uncle? Phrase, is everything complete

Yes, I am felicitous to reveal that I have terminated my pre-meditated categorisation of the more esoteric vocabulary of our demotic post-Norman tongue. C'est fini. Merci.