Out Now!

Friday, 27 July 2012

Isles of Wonder. The Opening Ceremony

'Save the surprise' was the watchword and when Danny Boyle requested it once again, the stadium roared its support. This was the second and last full dress rehearsal and so far the promise has been largely kept. It shows a generosity of spirit, not altogether matched in the press. 

I caught a snippet in the Radio Times, which pointed out that the LA Olympics in 1994 started with a spaceman and a jetpack: Seoul in 1988 began with a giant river barge ten miles from the stadium, Sidney 2000 had a formation horse troupe...and ‘Tonight, artistic director Danny Boyle has promised us sheep.’

The media has both hands behind its back carrying, respectively bouquets and knives freshly sharpened. The key word is ‘quirky’. The media has decided Danny Boyle is quirky, a nice slippery word that will later explain either failure or success.

We were there at the dress rehearsal and without giving the game away, yes, there are sheep. And they are more exciting than the ‘clouds’. And if that was all, Danny Boyle would be less quirky than actively deranged.  

What we saw was a triumph in the act of trying to please as many people as possible. The fact that there were a few aspects of the ‘whole’ that left me cold bears out that fact. Dear God in Heaven, an Opening Ceremony that talked exclusively to me would leave the greater part of the nation untouched. The overall impression I had was a powerful balance between the traditional and subversive, populist and punk, and the darker, mischievous spirit of the surreal and British bloody-mindedness. Beijing spent £64m on their Opening Ceremony and it had something to prove. Boyle worked on a budget of £27m and a generous and dedicated cast. (And my daughter who is carrying Qatar's standard as they enter the stadium)

Perhaps the finest contrast between good cheer and optimism as opposed to a more sour spirit is to be seen in London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. The contrasting tone is to be found in a rather snide and sour piece in the New York Times with phrases like ‘Reports this week from London speak of tension on the set; if tempers are running high, it’s probably because so much is at stake. Critics are questioning the expense of the games, with words like “fiasco,” “disaster” and “complete nightmare.” I think, like Mitt Romney, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky will eat his words. Except that academics rarely do.

Well we can at least hope we don’t repeat the mistake of the Seoul Olympics when hundreds of doves were released, many of whom landed on the rim of the Olympic cauldron and were promptly incinerated.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Cheyney and the Swami. An adventure in Cadogan Square

The amazing thing about the Peter Cheyney canon is that every one of his heroes, villains and exquisitely dressed women all live within a three mile radius, Belgravia as its centre. These characters are so densely packed – often living in an adjacent or the same street to each other - that only the fact they exist in parallel universes prevent them from feeling acute claustrophobia. Cheyney, too, shows an obsessive interest in the minutiae of landscape and so the reader is able to follow each character’s journey step by step. It is difficult to get lost. When the pilgrimage to Baker Street tires future tourists might well enjoy the ‘Cheyney walk’.

            My daughter and I were on such a walk, exploring the leafy grandeur of Sloan Street. As we passed Cadogan Square I heard a voice; a voice so low as to be subliminal. I heard it again, its oriental accent dispelling the notion that Cheyney was speaking to me. I turned, and a bearded man in a dark suit and turban stared into my eyes.

“You are wise man,” he said. 

As chat up lines go it was up there. I warmed to him at once.

He turned to my daughter.

“And you, so beautiful – so lucky!”

This was clearly a man of sagacity and sense. Before we knew it he was breathing on our hands, folding pieces of paper, writing down our answers to various questions – such as for example our favourite colours, our deepest desires -proving without doubt that we were even luckier than he had at first imagined – and immensely wise.  And he should know. He was a Swami. He opened his wallet to reveal the picture of his teacher – a master Swami with an even more luxuriant beard, and surrounded by children. 

Children that needed feeding. 

He said it with Paul McCartney eyes, and looked meaningfully into his still opened wallet.

We fumbled in our pockets, knowing we were no longer wise, or even lucky. A pound coin should do it I thought. He guessed my intention. Maybe he was a Swami

Again the subliminal voice:

Most people put a note in the wallet. The children…
I avoided the eyes, those diffident eyes and dropped a coin in the wallet.

Personally I reckon he was lucky he chose us to wheedle his magic on, and not Peter Cheyney.

Friday, 13 July 2012

God has a sense of humour

At first we thought it a seagull. The voice was high. “Aliii…” a piercing shriek that cut the air.

Hyde Park was warm below a grey sky. Couples - young families - the odd errant sandwich eater - gazed around, curious, mildly concerned.

A small woman in pink - rucksack bouncing on her back - raced along a nearby path, looking wildly about.

She was terrified, desperate; in her cry a fatal acceptance - she could do nothing else but run from path to path to path, calling her little boy’s name. And that is what she would do until darkness fell and the park closed. 

I said a quick, and as I supposed, a futile prayer for her as we rose to our feet.

“We might see him on our way,” said my daughter. “Look out for a small boy.”

“We’re only going to the toilet,” I said, “but yes, we’ll keep our eyes peeled.”

I had barely unzipped my jeans when half of Bagdhad – women all screaming - invaded the toilet. They were dragging a harassed-looking attendant. More women pushed in and my bladder miraculously dried. I held my ground, giving it one more chance.

“Smash the door. Smash the door,” two or more screamed.

“Aliii...” screamed another. (Not the woman in pink)

And then another, smaller but equally desperate voice:

“I’m on the toilet!”

“Smash the door down!”

“I’m on the toilet,” Ali sounded terrified. To be on the toilet surrounded by these door-smashing maenads. I knew how he felt. I was terrified too, wondered if there was another toilet close by.

“I’m nearly finished”

He should be so lucky.

“Smash the door!” This was one little boy who would never go to the toilet again without first telling his mother and probably not do so even after he was married. 

God, though, had listened to my prayer; perhaps not in the way I intended.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Nidderling is a wonderful word. The mouth frames its disgust in just saying it, and it slides from the tongue like gristle and spit. Nidderling: a thin, mean sound, which sums up its meaning: An unworthy fellow, a coward, a man of no consequence. You do not want to die a nidderling. You don’t want to live a nidderling. 

The Anglo Saxons, masters of brevity, when they chose, created this brilliant fusion of meaning and sound - well not quite. They had help. The original word was 'Nithing' or 'Niding'. An even meaner sound perhaps but less poetic. We owe it to a shortsighted sixteenth century printer, a compositer who had trouble with medieval manuscripts - in this case William of Malmsbury's Chronicle. His misreading of 'Nithing' gives us the glorious Nidderling. That is the true glory of English - fusion and accident, and an ear for the 'sound'.

‘Word’ however disapproves. It lines it in red on the screen. It’s never heard of such a thing - a challenge to  put it in your dictionaries at once. And use it! Or join the ranks of nidderlings browbeaten by Microsoft Word.

We are surrounded by nidderlings, we are run by nidderlings. But that's no reason to join them. Don’t on your death-bed realise the unpalatable truth. Here dies a nidderling. Don’t have engraved on your stone: ‘Here lies a nidderling’…or  even worse – a ‘Niddering.’

How to avoid it? Listen to David Bowie's ‘Ashes to Ashes’ at least once a week – in lieu of Church for the non-religious – and focus on the verse:
I’ve never done good things
I’ve never done bad things
I’ve never done anything out of the blue
Especially that last line.