Monthly Archives: February 2015

“¡I not know you speak Swedish!”

My learner, Jovi, a Filipino, arrived back from his driving test scuffing the kerb, then managed to pull up so far from the pavement that a drawbridge would have been useful. I waited, watching through the windscreen as Jovi sat impassively while the examiner reeled off his faults and told him he had failed.
“Ee cooodn’t ooonderstand a werd ‘e sed!” said the examiner in his Yorkshire accent as he eased himself out of the car. “Wors ‘e frum?”
“The Philippines.” I informed him.
” Bloooody ‘ell!” He rolled his eyes.
I opened the car door and sat in the passenger seat recently warmed by the examiner. “Well Jovi what went wrong?” I asked.
“I no oonerstan’ wot he say me!”
“But you understand me, Jovi?”
“You talk different, I oonerstan’ you!”
I resisted the urge to head butt the dashboard. I might have activated the passenger airbag.

Over the last five years as a Driving Instructor I have taught people from all over the globe. Many have an excellent command of English but most have, to varying degrees, a very loose grasp. Having never learned a foreign language, I admire these migrants who sometimes can speak two or three tongues, besides their own. Apart from struggling to master English, they have to contend, as Jovi did, with the various regional accents; he was accustomed to my mild Scottish lilt, not the examiner’s flat Yorkshire accent.

Famously, the English referee Mark Clattenburg fell foul, so to speak, of this accent problem. During a match between Chelsea and Manchester United in 2012, Ramires one of the Chelsea players claimed that Clattenburg had called a fellow player, Mikel, a monkey. The Society of Black Lawyers made an official complaint and set in train an eleven month investigation. It turned out that Ramires and Mikel had a minimal command of English at best and in the cacophony of the stadium he misheard Clattenberg who is from County Durham. A Newcastle or Geordie accent, to the untrained ear, is almost a foreign language in itself; English fed through a mincer. Laughably, the Society of Black Lawyers, despite their professional calling, totally ignored the fundamental evidence and pursued the the racial discrimination investigation with an excited vengeance until common sense prevailed and the investigation by the FA and the Metropolitan Police was dropped.

All this brought to mind an experience of language and accent difficulties I experienced during my time in Spain. For a while, I worked with a Spanish builder called Jaime or, as he was known in the British community, Jimmy; his main line of work, villa renovation and swimming pool installation. He introduced me to his unsuspecting clients as his Architecto. In Spain, like the far edge of the Wild West, you could claim to be anything or anybody, so Jimmy simply elevated me from Interior Designer to Architect. I didn’t disabuse any of his clients of this minor deception.

imagePopular and colourful in equal measures, Jimmy, as a result of living for many years in the UK, spoke faultless English. His son, Giuseppe, however, not having the advantage of having lived in Britain, had a just passable grasp of English. Physically, Jimmy was Rizzo the Rat and Giuseppe, Fozzie Bear. Genetically, there was no trace of Jimmy in Giuseppe. His mother, reputed to be Italian must have been some Mamma.

We had a loose arrangement, I produced the designs and drawings that helped sell the ideas to Jimmy’s mainly English Expat clientele; Jimmy and Giuseppe carried out the building work so that the villa loosely resembled my artistic impressions. Usually, Jimmy was there with me at the sales pitch, but on this occasion Giuseppe attended the meeting to discuss a pub refurbishment. We arrived outside of the premises, a retail shop unit. In Spain, it was quite common for shop units to be used as bars or restaurants. As we approached we noticed two men loitering in the doorway dressed in Newcastle United shirts, their exposed, sun burned arms, displayed a vivid array of tattoos. For a brief moment I considered asking them to move on, then, following the self preservation rule: never tell football supporters to ‘move on”, or anything else for that matter I decided to say nothing. This decision proved to be a good one. The Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley tribute act introduced themselves. They were were the clients.

Keys were produced and we stepped through the unlocked doors into the gloomy shop interior the battleground of a fight between the smell of stale lager and the aroma from the toilets. A battle that the lavatories were winning. The shop had already had been converted into a bar, one that had gone bust, another victim of the lapping waves of the looming financial crash. The project was to alter what was already there.

imageGiuseppe stood with his note book at the ready, pencil poised.
“Wid leek t’ booar to be coot back t’ aboot ‘eer, leek, man.” Said Alan Shearer pointing to where the bar was to be ‘coot’ back to.
“Coot back aboot foor fit, leek.” Beardsley, his striking partner providing the measurement.
Fozzie Bear looked sideways at me confused, his eyebrows more tightly knitted than an Arran Jumper. “¿Que?”
Realising that the Newcastle accent had totally thrown Giuseppe, I quickly stepped in to translate.
“They would like the bar to be cut back by 120 centimetres, to about here,” I said, unravelling the sentences. “Like.”
“¿Comprende?” I asked.
Giuseppe, back in the loop, started to scribble furiously. “¡Vale! Claro.”
Shearer and Beardsley exchanged looks, obviously wondering why on earth I was repeating, in English, everything they had just said, in English.
And so the meeting progressed. I was Igor Korchilov translating for Gorbachev.
Eventually the meeting ended and the Torrevieja battalion of the Toon Army wandered off in search of a bar that was still actually trading. As we watched them disappear round a corner Giuseppe turned to me, a puzzled look on his face.
“Sandy, mi amigo. What do you English say, you have kept that under your hat!”
“What do you mean?”
“I had no idea you speak Swedish!”




Dancers are the athletes of God

This is another tale from my days at Lasswade Secondary School. A story about a Christmas dance organised by my nemesis, Mr Stewart the P E teacher, known, behind his back, as ‘Peasel’. Due to my dodgy left lung physical education was not my favourite subject, ergo, I was not Peasel’s favourite pupil. But looking back, Peasel was a pivotal figure in the organising of community events at the school, in the church and the village.

imageThe dulcet tones of “Chattanooga choo choo” seeped into the changing room and swirled around, mingling with the smell of stale sweat and the unique aroma of well used gym shoes.
“Whit the fucks that…..?”
The changing room swung open with a bang against a bench as Peasel, our PE teacher, feared by many, marched in.
”That, Murchison is music. Melodious music, you moron.”
“Sir, sir,! An excited voice from the far side of the room. “That’s alliteration, Sir!”
The room and thirty buttocks tensed. Such a display of being clever would normally be stamped on, the culprit earning himself two circuits of the rugby pitch in the late November drizzle or if it was a nice day, fifty press ups with Peasel’s foot on his neck.
But Peasel was in a trance, absent, his eyes glazed over, lost in the swirling, undulating music. He had probably been transported in his mind to some far off WWII theatre of war, dancing, in a Nissan Hut to Swing Music with a pretty nurse or Wren.

The distant music ended as the gramophone needle began to squeak and scrape and Peasel snapped out of his reverie.
“That, Murchison,” he said reverently, “was Glen Miller’s Big Band.”
“y’mean, like the Troggs?” asked Big Murch, recklessly, then quickly adding “Sir!”
“The who?” Asked a bemused Peasel.
“No The Who, The Troggs. They’re a band, ye ken, like The Who, Sir,” Big Murch endeavoured to bring Peasel up to date with the current Pop groups, “and they’re big, the noo.” Had he been born later, in another era, Big Murch would have been a fan of the Sex Pistols or perhaps head banged to heavy metal music.
The changing room tensed at this exchange. A whiff of fear merged with the other changing room odours. But Peasel simply emitted a slow, resigned sigh of someone that had listened to, but did not comprehend, an obscure scientific theory. He shook his head, and asked us to assemble in the gym.

It was circa 1964 at Lasswade Secondary School. Christmas was tantalisingly close and the annual school dance was on the horizon. The year before, the organisers had pandered to the new Pop Music culture. As the music of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals throbbed round the Assembly Hall, the pupils had gravitated into two distinct groups, boys on one side of the hall and girls on the other. We had posed and preened like mating birds, casually glancing at each other, across the fug of faint sweat and and our father’s Old Spice aftershave.
That would not happen this year, not be allowed to happen. Peasel had a plan; a plan to be executed with military precision.

As we trooped reluctantly into the gym we were lined up in front of the, thankfully, folded trampoline, with its blood stained canvas. A few weeks before, Willie McRob had nearly severed an ear when his head was trapped between the springs. Bouncing around on the trampoline was no longer regarded as fun.
Peasel stood arms akimbo facing us. “Right, pay attention!” he barked, “today, we are going to learn to dance. Proper dancing, not jerking around like demented puppets!”
“Ah thought we were playin’ Murder Ba’, Sir.” This was Big Murch, sounding like Jim Taggart at a crime scene, asking if we would be playing Murder Ball, his favourite indoor game.
The clue was in the name. A large leather ball, filled with, what felt like sand was place in the middle of the gym floor and opposing teams strove to carry the ball to the opposite end of the room. There were no apparent rules and inevitably, many injuries. Base on selection by height, Big Murch fronted one team and I the other. It was like facing Attila the Hun at the apex of a phalanx of bloodthirsty soldiers. Many us still nursed a catalogue of injuries from the previous week’s fixture.

Ignoring Big Murch, Peasel separated us into two groups, one to represent the girls, the other group the boys, which of course they already were.
Once the protest from the group designated as the girls died down, Peasel marched over to the gramophone, and like a surgeon performing an intricate operation, delicately placed the needle on the disc. After a few seconds of scratching, “In the Mood” flowed gently over the room.

image“I will now demonstrate exactly what I expect.” Peasel announced as he picked one of the smaller, more athletic of the ‘girls’ and launched into a sort of waltz, smoothly progressing around the polished parquet floor. We watched, astonished at this revelation of Peasel’s feminine side, then tried to emulate this exposition of ‘proper dancing’. We stumbled about, standing on toes and colliding with each other, amid laughter and curses. But eventually our skills improved and order slowly replaced chaos. Every week Peasel alternated the roles of each group. He had obviously watched Steptoe and Son, the popular TV comedy of the time, about the fractious relationship between a father and son. Harold Steptoe’s father, to his surprise, helps him prepare for taking a new girlfriend to a social event, by teaching his him to dance. But in the training sessions Harold always took the female role , the father, his mentor, the male. Predictably, the Harold’s relationship embarrassingly hits the rocks on the dance floor where he finds he has no idea of how to dance as the male partner.

As the week’s progressed and the School Dance loomed, more dance genres were added to our dance repertoire; The Gay Gordon’s, Canadian Barn dancing and, of course, Scottish Country Dancing, and, thankfully actual girls. The essential etiquette of dancing was introduced into the training and Murder Ball was forgotten as a real enthusiasm for dance slowly developed.

At last the evening of the dance arrived. We flowed in, through the rotunda into the assembly room. At first we formed the usual gender groups and gazed at each other across the fug of faint sweat and Old Spice aftershave. But as the music began the training kicked in. Or, at least we did as we had been trained to do before Peasel kicked in. The boys politely asked the girls to dance and took to the floor. ‘In the Mood’ was followed by Scottish Reels, Canadian Barn Dances, and later a few popular song to twist and the shake to, or as Peasel thought, jerk around like demented puppets.

imageAt the time we teenagers probably would not have admitted to enjoying the Christmas Dance. After all, it had been foisted on us, forced on us by Peasel; an almost military event. But, Peasel had something. The dancing to Pop Music required little etiquette or normal human interaction, unless it was a dance to slow music, which was virtually fully clothed adolescent foreplay. The ballroom room style of dancing encouraged, required, manners and respect for the partner you were dancing with. The country dancing, the Scottish Reels and Canadian Barn Dances, fostered a true communal spirit, something missing from previous school dances. Something, which sadly is sometimes absent in today’s society.


A Scotsman abroad


This a tale of my early experiences of being a Scottish immigrant in England. It is the beginning of the 1970s. Not the best of times to leave a warm secure home and move to a damp bedsit. A tale of language and cultural misunderstandings.

imageIn 1970, I qualified as an Interior Designer at Napier College of Science and Technology, in Edinburgh. I had letters after my name and no apparent prospects. After a few weeks trolling around architects practices looking for work as an Interior Designer, in desperation, I ended up selling curtains in a furniture store in Edinburgh called Frosts, modelled closely on Grace Brothers in the TV comedy ‘Are you being served’. As I was to curtain selling to what Mike Tyson is to flower arranging, I had to look further afield for a job to suit my professional qualifications. I quickly found employment in the Architect’s Department of John Collier the men’s outfitter based in Leeds. I was about to move abroad. To England.

imageI arrived in Leeds in 1971. Then a drab industrial northern English city, after Edinburgh it was a severe cultural shock to my system. My first attempt to buy a drink in a pub proved a disaster. Uncertain of the English beers, Bitter and Mild, I asked for a Brown Ale. The barman looked down at the bar top, a mortician looking uncertainly at a body on his slab, then wandered off muttering. I leaned on the bar and examined the array of spirits at the back of the bar. In my native land this would have been row upon row of whiskies; every whisky under the sun. Or at least a weak, watery Scottish sun.

“Roight, loove.” The barman in his flat Yorkshire vowels, as he carefully placed a small glass of green liquid in front of me. “Whits that?” I asked, while simultaneously pondering on the barman addressing me as ‘love’; perhaps he thought I’m a thespian from the Grand Theatre across the street from his pub.

My request for a Brown Ale had been interpreted as a Double Pernod. To the Yorkshire barman “I’ll hae ah broon ale”, probably did sound like “Double Pernod”. I realised then that I would have to modify my, albeit mild Scottish accent, and speak slower. I wasn’t partial to Pernod.

My name also proved a hindrance. My parents christened me Alexander, after an uncle my mother was fond of, then, as customary in Scotland, called me ‘Sandy’ thereafter; a custom the English are totally unaware of. If I attended a meeting, the other party or attendees, expected someone wearing a frock, lipstick and high heels to enter the room, not a 6’2” Scotsman. When I answered the phone the caller would, having expected a woman’s voice, ask to speak to a lady called ‘Sandy’. To this day I still receive correspondence was addressed to Miss Sandy Wilson.

My brother’s name too once caused an incident. A very embarrassing incident. One lunchtime, I met up with Ann, my late wife, in the spacious and busy reception of the company where we both worked. We sat idly chatting, Ann absently leafing through a magazine. “Look at this picture! That looks just like your Willie” she exclaimed in the sort of loud voice you use when you are surprised by something. This sudden change in direction of the conversation wrong footed me, but not as much as the secretary about to climb the nearby stairs, her files falling to the floor with a clatter, as she stumbled on the first step. The receptionist, on the phone, paused mid sentence, and stared, eyebrows arched, across the top of her desk. For a few seconds the hubbub of the reception froze. A visitor sat opposite peered at the magazine, wondering if it was some sort of medical journal.

imageEarlier in our relationship, I took Ann on a date to see a well known American singer, David Gates, perform at Leeds Town Hall. It was February and the auditorium was freezing, the victim of a power cut, and everyone was dressed in winter attire; the audience a sea of fur hats, it looked like a Dr Zhivago convention. This was the 1970’s the decade of power cuts, miner’s strikes and three day weeks. Followed by more industrial disputes and power cuts. Gates heroically performed in a thin suit and a shirt with buttons undone to reveal a bare chest, no doubt covered in more goose pimples than hairs. We speculated that he must from Alaska. An equally heroic orchestra provided the music, accompanied by the castanet chatter of teeth. The audience clapped manically at the end of each number, the only way to generate bodily heat.

Periodically, during the performance the man next to Ann climbed over some empty seats in front of us, scuttled along the row and left the hall only to return again a few minutes later. When he was not seat hurdling he quietly, and annoyingly, hummed and softly whistled along with the performer. He either had a severe incontinence problem or he was one, or maybe two, notes short of an octave. At first he was an amusing diversion and Ann and I smiled at each other in the darkness.

imageAs the second half of the show starts there was a strange rustling noise from our bizarre neighbour. “What’s he doing now?” asked Ann out of the side of her mouth. I leant forward and peered through the gloom, leant back and whispered out the side of my mouth “He’s got his piece out” I answer. The seats creaked and squeaked as the audience within earshot of my sonorous stage whisper shifted uneasily, the way sheep react when they notice a dog peering with intent through a five bar gate.

“CHANGE SEATS WITH ME, NOW!” demanded Ann, now rigid with fear, in a much louder stage whisper. We changed seats and I sat next to the oddball as he noisily munched his ham sandwich … or if you are a recent immigrant from Scotland, a ham piece.