February 29, 2012
Humour is a funny old thing. I guess the purists out there would maintain I should say it is a peculiar thing. But, I’m sure you know what I mean. Personally, I can appreciate any humour as long as it is combined with wit. Even hurtful sarcasm directed at me, provided it is clever and droll, can cause me to smile. I am a sucker for a play on words. On many occasions, without even looking for it, I’ve found humour at the oddest of times and in the most unlikely circumstances.
I remember stopping before a clothing shop front to look nostalgically at the displays of male mannequins wearing the latest styles in suits. I hadn’t bought a new suit for years. My wife walked back and asked what I was thinking about. I replied that I could remember when I was smart. She retorted that she could remember when I had been well dressed but there was never, ever, a time when I had been smart.
On another occasion, in a different age, I was in Luxemburg with a close colleague. At that time, my girlfriend was a keen collector of porcelain statuettes and had a wide selection of Lladro figurines and busts. He and I stopped to look at a collection of that brand, in a storefront window, which was themed on circus personalities. I happened to say that X was particularly interested in clowns. He looked at me and said simply,” I know.”
When I worked for the U.S. Government as a foreign national in Germany, there was an incentive scheme whereby a worker would be selected as the employee of the quarter. The award consisted of a financial bonus, a reserved car park space for a year, and a head and shoulders photograph of the individual to be displayed in the main hallway, among other notables. I was fortunate enough to be selected as the winner of this award. However fate, and I’m sure humour, was waiting in the wings.
The German Government refused to allow non-American citizens to participate in any schemes where monetary bonuses were part of the structure. Also at that time, my driving licence had been confiscated for twelve months, by the police, for an alcohol related driving offence, so I could get no real benefit from the earmarked parking space. To add insult to injury, the first glimpse I had of my photograph, was after some japer had been there and blacked out my front teeth with a felt tipped pen.
Recently, prior to prostate surgery, I met with the consultant who was to perform the operation, a Mr Chun Ya Yip, who originally came from Kowloon. I had lived there for four years and we had a warm and friendly conversation full of reminiscence about the city. When the subject moved on to my medical problem I was astounded that a consultant in the field of medicine could wield so much power and influence in wide ranging fields. Apparently, he had the wherewithal to politically disenfranchise me and take away my vote.
He said that, after this type of operation, it would be highly unlikely that I would ever again experience an election.
At least, that’s what I thought he said.
February 22, 2012
In the Army of my day, friendship was based on criteria that didn’t always conform to that of civilian relationships. Take Jock Gillon, for example.
We were well aware that each had faults but could overlook these, knowing that one would always have the other’s back. Jock and I were mates until I let him down and I blame the Sultan of Johore, and his one-handed ape from Borneo, for that.
Jock and I were as thick as thieves, and although he had a cruel streak and could appear unfeeling, we had the same sense of humour and a propensity for seeing a fight through to the finish. He looked like Danny Kaye but with rimless glasses, which he used to extremely good effect, as a ruse ,when fighting. He would remove the glasses to clean them, lulling a would-be opponent into a false sense of security believing as they did that while his hands were occupied nothing would happen. The swiftness, and vehemence, with which Jock could administer a Glasga Kiss with his forehead showed many how wrong they were. Jock would then stand over the fallen, because they invariably went down, and say gleefully ,
“How d’ye like them apples?”.
The Sultan was not, I believe, the richest of the group of potentates who were the titular heads of the various Malayan states in the Fifties. I believed this because, although he had a sumptuous palace, his zoo was a rundown monstrosity of a place.
The cages were not permanent constructions but consisted of old-fashioned wheeled animal cages, used at the turn of the century by circuses. All four sides were open to the elements, consisting of stout iron bars, with a feeding trap on the front side that was a hinged-at-the top nine-inch metal section, opening outwards, allowing the occupant to be fed without the necessity of entering the cage.
In the early days, long before we arrived in the country, the zoo management had placed the Orangoutan’s cage rather too close to that of a Sumatran tiger. The ape had reached between the bars to ‘pet’ the big cat and had lost a hand when the carnivore took umbrage. The monkey was given first aid and the cages were re-located. Now that the Orangoutan was full grown his cage was furnished with two old rubber tire swings, a tattered Army greatcoat for a bed and a pie dish for his meals.
Jock and I would go to Johore Bahru on Saturdays for our drinking sessions but, to pace ourselves, would first go to the zoo, in the afternoon, to while away the time, until serious drinking commenced. Jock always bought a bunch of small bananas for the Orangoutan but sympathy or compassion for the beast had nothing to do with it. His favourite past time was to offer the ape a banana, while concealed in his other hand would be a cluster of ten-cent pieces wrapped in a handkerchief, which he would use to rap the beast’s knuckles when it stretched for the fruit. Jock found this uproariously funny, the ape less so. Eventually, the animal would get the bananas.
One Saturday, when Jock stopped at the stall inside the entrance to buy the bananas, I walked ahead and stopped at the ape’s cage. He recognised me I know because he shuffled forward to the bars to look past me, down the way I’d come. He spotted Jock and I swear he smiled with satisfaction before he scuttled back to his greatcoat. The grin disappeared and he looked particularly mournful. He pretended belatedly to see Jock and then waited to be enticed forward.
When the fruit was offered he reluctantly and slowly inched forward on his behind but front and centre of the cage. He would not deviate and Jock was forced to adjust his position until he was in front of the food trap. He had just reached into the cage as far as he could, with his body tight against the bars, when the Orangoutan shot out his right leg to slam the hinged door up, outwards and into Jock’s genitalia.
Both whooped, but the exultation displayed in the ape’s holler was absent from Jock’s.
The Orangoutan was beside himself with joy and leaped around his cage shrieking with uncontrolled hysteria. He then leapt up at one of his tires and swung himself with vigour towards the other which he reached to grab, obviously forgetting in his mind-bending jubilation, that the hand which should have been there was long gone. He crashed with a bone crushing sickening thud into the iron bars and slithered down to lie prostrate on his Army coat.
I swear to this day that I heard a voice, and I can’t be sure that it was Jock’s, say, “How d’ye like them apples.”
February 18, 2012
While I was in the military, being in regular contact with the folks back home relieved the boredom and monotony of loneliness. My mother was a great support for me and used to write regularly. She’s gone now but I have kept her letters and thought I’d like to share one with you.
Just a few lines to let you know I’m still alive. I’m writing this letter slowly because I know you can’t read fast.
We are all doing very well. You won’t recognise the house when you get home – we have moved. Your dad read in the newspaper that most accidents happen within 20 miles from your home, so we flitted. I won’t be able to send you the address because the last family that lived here took the house numbers when they went so that they wouldn’t have to change their address.
This place is really nice. It even has a washing machine. I’m not sure it works so well though: last week I put a load in and pulled the chain and haven’t seen them since.
Your father’s got a really good job now. He’s got 500 men under him. He’s cutting the grass at the cemetery.
Your sister Mary had a baby this morning but I haven’t found out if it’s a boy or a girl, so I don’t know whether you are an auntie or an uncle.
Your brother Tom is still in the army. He’s only been there a short while and they’ve already made him a court martial!
Your Uncle Patrick drowned last week in a vat of whisky in the Glenfiddich Distillery. Some of his workmates tried to save him but he fought them off bravely. They cremated him and it took three days to put out the fire.
I’m sorry to say that your cousin Hector was arrested while riding his bicycle last week. They are charging him with dope peddling.
I went to the doctor on Thursday and your father went with me. The doctor put a small tube in my mouth and told me not to talk for ten minutes. Your father offered to buy it from him.
The weather isn’t bad here. It only rained twice this week,first for three days and then for four days. Monday was so windy one of the chickens laid the same egg four times.
We had a letter from the undertaker. He said if the last payment on your grandmother’s plot wasn’t paid in seven days, up she comes.
About that coat you wanted me to send you, your Uncle Stanley said it would be too heavy to send in the mail with the buttons on, so we cut them off and put them in the pockets.
John locked his keys in the car yesterday. We were really worried because it took him two hours to get me and your father out.
Three of your friends went off a bridge in a pick-up truck. Ralph was driving. He rolled down the window and swam to safety. Your other two friends were in the back. They drowned because they couldn’t get the tailgate down.
There isn’t much more news at this time.. Nothing much has happened..
Your loving Mum.
P.S. I was going to send you some money but I had already sealed the envelope.
February 10, 2012
On my first tour of the Far East, I worked in an office with a Warrant Officer. Between us we controlled the disposition of all British Army vehicles for the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore Island. Needless to say, he did very little, or I should say he did all the supervising. I did most of the clerical work, being responsible for the transit tracking and eventual end location of all the individual vehicles.
Every day, hundreds of pieces of paper, transportation notices, movement orders, dock arrival orders, convoy notes etc. would land on my desk and I would transfer the information to the visual system.
This structure covered the whole of one wall and was a huge blackboard, with various locations within the Far East, represented by down columns and each type of vehicle by a horizontal space, with a white, plastic disc, identifying the registration number of a specific vehicle, on a nail in each. One could see the total quantity of Landrovers, for example, passing from the docks, to storage, to maintenance, to issues, to particular units etc. or how many tanks were en route to exotic places.
After three years, I hated this wall with a passion. When I was under orders to return to the UK, I waited until two days before I was due to fly out then spent the whole afternoon mixing up all the discs and moving them into erroneously different columns.
Just before finishing time, I read the last movement order for that day. It was simple but probably the one that had the most dramatic results for me. It said quite simply:
“Your RTU (Return to UK) delayed by minimum of three weeks due to more urgent medevac requirement of BMH patient. You are to remain in post and perform normal duties until further notice.”
February 2, 2012
Like most boys of my age in our area, I was larcenous by nature. If it wasn’t nailed down, chained to a wall or guarded by a brace of Rottweilers I would requisition it. Yes, all right then, steal it. Apples, pears, plums from orchards, empty refundable bottles from the backyards of pubs, ideal for taking round the front and cashing them in to their original proprietor, fruit from open stalls or greengrocers etc.
When I was twelve or so I body swerved school lunch and went to a small tearoom run by an man of indeterminate age. I would go into his café, order a tea and when he went out to his kitchen I would reach around the glass display unit and snatch a cake. I was successful only twice. The third time he pretended to go to the kitchen, but spun round and caught me cake handed. I dropped the bun and he ordered me off the premises telling me never to return.
Twenty-four years later, as a Warrant Officer, I was in my hometown on leave and was asked by the local British Legion to represent the Parachute Brigade at the funeral of one of their members who had fought at Arnhem. I was glad to do so and attended in full dress uniform, Sam Browne belt, medals and my red beret.
Afterwards as I walked up the High Street I passed the tearoom and thought I would love a tea. After all this time, it would certainly be under new management, the proprietor having gone on to greener pastures. Wrong!
As I passed through the doorway, too late to withdraw, I saw it was the same old boy. I decided to brazen it out. What would be the chances he would recognise me after all this time?
I asked for a tea. He poured it, set it in front of me, then with the tongs selected a slice of fruit cake, placed it on a plate alongside the drink, looked me in the eye, without the glimmer of a smile and said,
“I’m just away out the back. Have this, so you’ll no’ have to steal it.”