Saturday, 31 March 2012

Estate Agent

It wasn’t easy to understand what she was saying because she had a way of omitting half the syllables from many of her words – as if speaking a kind of slang. But I picked it up after a while and then countered with clear enunciation in order to make a point - although she probably just wondered why someone speaking posh was looking at properties in that area.

She was showing me round a couple of flats, something she did most days and, judging by her lack of enthusiasm, didn’t find rewarding. I sympathised: all that flustered fumbling with unfamiliar keys, shoulder-shoving at reluctant doors and hesitant heaving at sticking windows can only be embarrassing when you’re trying to sell a property.  Perhaps she had imagined it would be a more glamorous job: she would open elegant doors into impressive hallways revealing beautiful interiors to expectant customers while she, smiling contentedly, would relish their delighted responses.

I could tell from the outside that I wouldn’t like this flat. All the buildings in the landscaped scheme were designed to look like a village but the ‘houses’ were really flats in disguise - and there were no shops, schools, churches or pubs. It was a fraud. I hope I did a fair impression of open-mindedness as she led me up the toy-town staircase to the second floor. I hope I didn’t betray my dismay as she opened the door into the series of small rooms which had been described in the advert as a spacious, 3-bedroomed flat.  I hope so because I felt it wasn’t her intention to mislead customers. She didn’t seem to like it either. Maybe years of opening doors onto cramped and dismal interiors had diminished her expectations of the job.

The flat was uninhabited, empty of furniture but full with the smell of paint. My instinct had proved accurate but I couldn’t say so for fear of implying that she was responsible: instead I feigned interest. She wasn’t able to answer any questions - her knowledge-base was fixed at the level of price and availability – so it wasn’t long before our conversation ran out. I thought for a moment of asking her about her job and whether she was comfortable about being alone with strangers in empty flats. I had remembered a case, years ago, in which a woman in the same situation had disappeared never to be seen again. But we had another flat to see and I didn’t want to disconcert her.

At the next place the owner was at home (which relieved any tension that might have been building between us) having taken time off work to come and sell his flat. Evidently unaware that flats sell themselves he enthused about features that were unimpressive. He had lived there so long that he had convinced himself it was a great place. He told me what he liked about the neighbourhood (and what I would like about it) and why he wanted to sell and move on. At his bidding I stepped into a bedroom and the smell of a stranger’s sleep wafted over me; the malodorous bathroom looked dingy; the open-plan kitchen appeared cluttered and disorganised and the lounge really was dominated by the TV. I found myself evaluating not living spaces but lifestyles and I was unable to separate one from the other.

She said nothing during this visit. Even as we shook hands she did not enquire of my opinions or intentions (perhaps they were easily read). I excused her lack of interest on the grounds that she might be pressed to meet another appointment - but perhaps she was just glad to be rid of me.

It was a warm, sunny day - perfect for the short, contemplative walk back to my place. By the time I entered my own, familiar threshold, I had already concluded that the grass is certainly not always greener.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Fitting In

At the age of seven I was temporarily relocated to a different town and found myself, one Monday morning, deposited by relatives at the gates of an unfamiliar school. The timing, part-way through the school-year, was unfortunate: mine was the only new face and, even at that age, I could see that there were two possible outcomes from the situation - acceptance or rejection. It was touch and go until playtime when one of the older kids barged up and demanded to know my name: “Holdsworth” I said. “Ozzy Oldsworth” he countered and, from that moment, I knew everything would be all right. I had been anointed with a name which was acceptable to the group and I was not to be ridiculed, ostracised or thumped.

Years later I came to appreciate just how fortunate I had been. Displaced people throughout history have felt obliged to change their names in order to avoid stigmatisation - to ‘fit in’ - and mine had been sorted for me, in the playground, long before it had become a burden.

The name Holdsworth is itself the product of the ‘fitting-in’ process. Although it can be traced to a hamlet in Yorkshire where stands an eponymous medieval manor house, it did not emerge fully formed. In 1272 a certain Monsieur de Aldeworth bought the land there but evidently began to feel culturally uncomfortable amongst the natives. So he adopted a few of their customs, married a local lass and eventually Anglicised his name by dropping the ‘de’ and adding the ‘H’ and‘s’. And so the paternal side of my family established its local credentials long ago. Monsieur was not to know that ‘H’ was destined to become mostly redundant in Yorkshire parlance.

The maternal side also has a mongrel ancestry but its consolidation is more recent. My mother’s father was born in the Lebanon in an era when the essentially tribal, nomadic residents of the middle-east looked upon state boundaries more as guidelines than as sacrosanct borders. Passports were considered to be of little use or consequence: the family name was the true repository of a person’s history and identity - and his family name was Beycour-Hayek.

He fetched up in Egypt where he subsequently met and married a French national – one of the many who had taken up residence there to secure their interests in the Suez Canal. It seems that he also felt the need to join the ‘in crowd’ – perhaps especially so since he was trying to build a western-style business in the form of a string of optometrist shops. So he dropped the Arab-sounding first part of his name and the French did the rest: they abandoned the ‘H’ (a trait they share with Yorkshire folk) and moulded the rump into a more French-sounding ‘Ayac’ – albeit with a colonial flavour.

But what if my Lebanese grandfather, Mr Beycour-Hayek, had chosen to marry a Yorkshire lass instead of a French one? My fantasy is that he might have ended up with the surname By'Eck - and that's what I would call "fitting in".

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Business of Fitness

When I first joined the local gymnasium I was quite proud of my membership number, 0002 (although the credit was really due to my ultra-competitive partner, 0001, who dragged me there so that she could get a discounted, family-membership rate). But they don’t call it a gymnasium any more. Not even a gym. In fact they have discarded the use of a place-name in favour of a branded concept: it is now called Wotsisname Fitness. I have done my best to live up to Wotsisname’s concept - albeit with limited enthusiasm for the method. I would have preferred a more natural approach - manual toil and outdoor activity - which does not involve the payment of membership fees - but life has a way of thwarting dreams, so my years spent behind a desk have condemned me to exercise on a machine.

I once heard a doctor pronounce that half an hour per day of aerobic exercise is all you need to maintain a healthy heart so, conditioned as I am not to question scientific authority, I have adopted precisely that regime. The cross-trainer has been my vehicle of choice. It has its own TV and touch-screen controls so that you can set your personal exercise parameters - length of time, age, weight and degree of resistance. Once set, I like to distract myself from the tedium of the actual process by listening to stimulating music through headphones while watching repeat episodes of Location, Location, Location with the subtitles turned on.

But Wotsisname recently installed new machines and their screen ratio is set so that the sub titles are now only partially visible. This could be rectified easily but the manager won’t agree to it. “We would have to change all the screens because it’s a linked system”. “Yes” I said, “and?” “And some people might complain” she replied. It seems to me unlikely that anyone would complain about now being able to read the sub titles fully but, since I have seen the repeats of Location many times, am familiar with all the picky house-hunters and have even calculated that Kirsty has had at least seven children, I am saving my energies for other battles.

A more worrying feature of the new machines is that they display an intermittent message: “Attention! Heart rate is high!” accompanied by a flashing, red heart symbol. It is possible to dismiss the warning but it is persistent and keeps popping up. I guess it has been incorporated as a requirement of the insurance policy so I’ve decided not to trouble the manager again. Instead I am dealing with it by ignoring the screen altogether: I now simply close my eyes and listen intently to the music.This has proved to be quite beneficial: apart from no longer being haunted by warnings of a heart attack, I find the music is even more stimulating when my attention is concentrated on it. In fact I am now frequently moved into a dance-trance which helps to make the 30 minutes feel less interminable.

Yesterday I was nearing the end of my dance routine (I peek at the clock from time to time) when I felt a hand on my lower back. I opened my eyes, turned and saw a friendly but concerned face a few inches from mine. He was saying something. Did he want to use the machine, perhaps?  Without missing a beat, and at considerable risk of unbalancing, I released one of the handles in order to remove my headphones. “Are you all right?” said the face. “Yes” I replied tentatively, recognising him as one of the staff and wondering whether I had triggered the flashing heart symbol. “It’s just that I thought you were about to fall off the machine” he said. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Temporary Friend

I hauled myself out to a live gig one dull Tuesday evening. It had been too long and I was beginning to fear for the consequences: losing touch with what’s hot and falling into constant replay mode while waiting at home for some old dinosaurs to re-form for their latest farewell tour. Tuesdays are normally reserved for less famous - even experimental - musicians so it’s a chance to see a rising star if you’re lucky. I was kind of lucky.

The advertised band was not on my radar so, before committing, I conjured them up on the internet. They sounded - and looked - interesting: they comprised a variable and eclectic bunch of instrument-swappers headed by a woman with a sweet voice and no name that I could discover. Their sound was contemporary but folksy.They called themselves by a title which is, technically, a sentence and which gives no indication of their individual identities. This is not good practice for advancing one’s career: imagine a conversation “Hi. I’m Dave Blenkinsop, you know, former bass-man with Suddenly It’s Over”. “Oh yeah, I remember them”. Musicians, like artists, can be slow to adopt the principles of self-publicity. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was  an exception: it was effective branding for Jimi, less so for the other two blokes.

The venue was sparsely populated so I easily found a seat, at a table, in a prime position. Another chap moved over to let me in and we fell into conversation. He was a Dutchman, working over here for a couple of weeks, condemned by his employer to stay at a hotel near the airport from which he had escaped for the evening. As the performance began he pulled a large bag from under his seat, extracted a serious-looking camera and set off to find advantageous shooting positions. I didn’t see him again until the interval.

The performers hit some musical highlights but had a ramshackle stage presence, mumbling incomprehensible banter amongst themselves while swapping instruments in between every song. This distraction and their naive disdain for showmanship began to grate on me - despite the very reasonable cost of entry. 

I met up with the Dutchman again at the interval when, glad of each other’s company, we had a beer together and probed the standard repertoire of conversational topics. We became temporary friends; indeed, I wondered as we stood together at the bar - he with his camera, me with my notebook - whether we might be mistaken for gentlemen of the press; if we were, no-one mentioned it

The second part of the performance was no less shambolic than the first but the talent and the sincerity of the performers gradually won me over so that by the end I had developed a warm feeling for the whole show. I met my temporary friend back at the bar where he confided that the performers were too casual, scruffy and introvert to be photogenic and that he preferred jazz because of the way the lights reflected off the brass instruments.

The artists, as is customary, set up a table in the bar for the display and sale of their merchandise although, true to form, they left it too late to catch most of the audience who had already drifted off. Which left me and my temporary friend sitting there, outnumbered and feeling somewhat obliged. It was difficult to ignore the implicit plea for us to buy, or at least say, something. My temporary friend chose to buy his way out, while I finished my beer (Dutch courage?) and approached the female singer to enquire after her name. I was surprised to discover that her diction off-stage was perfectly fine and we exchanged awkward pleasantries until someone distracted her attention by putting a plate of curry in front of her.

Thus we made a respectable escape. “Come back on Thursday” I said “there’s a good jazz band on”. But I’m ashamed to say I didn’t turn up. Still, it was only a temporary friendship.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


My partner has always wanted a pet: a dog; a spaniel, to be exact. I don’t want a pet, especially a dog, of whatever breed. Such a disagreement could be a deal-breaker when negotiating the start of a relationship so, during our courtship, we made light of the difference -such was our enthusiasm for each other. We explained it away as a consequence of my pet-free upbringing and then implicitly agreed to avoid the subject.

But it never quite went away and, over the past few years, my partner has gradually re-introduced it into the relationship. She was never so crass as to watch Cruft’s Dog Show on the telly - at least not in my presence - but began occasionally to pass comment on dogs we saw in the street, dropping hints like “That’s exactly the kind of dog I want”. Hers is a technique of suggestion rather than confrontation but it has led me to conclude that a) she would still like to have a dog and b) it should be a spaniel - one of those wet-eyed, curly-haired little creatures which many people find irresistibly adorable and others find just irritating.

So, have we reached a crisis point in our relationship? Have long-suppressed differences now surfaced to signal that it is headed for the rocks? I hope not. I cling to the evidence of other couples I know who remain intact despite their obvious incompatibilities. There’s couple A: he likes camping and outdoor adventures whereas she would rather, if she had to go anywhere, stay in a comfortable hotel. There’s couple B: he likes music, fine wine and good food while she cares nothing for music, is teetotal and enjoys eating junk. Then there’s couple C: he is an omnivore while she is a vegetarian. And only yesterday I heard a radio interview with a Palestinian who is married to an Israeli. Vive la difference. Love conquers all, it seems.

So need I worry?  Maybe not. Regarding the acquisition of a dog I do have a reasoned argument for my position, which is that we live in a high-rise flat. But still my intransigence nags at me and, in the spirit of compromise I am moved to demonstrate empathy with my partner’s desire. So I took it upon myself recently to research “easy maintenance pets” and discovered there is one which I could entertain - the solitary bee. A coincidental trip to the hippy shop decided it: while searching the shelves for a packet of quinoa (another concession I make for the sake of the relationship) I saw that they had a beehut for sale - at a reduced price! A beehut is a man-made residence for a species of bee called the Mason which likes to live alone, requires no feeding, walking or ball-throwing and is generally no trouble at all.

The beehut is now firmly fixed to the railings of the balcony, facing South East, in the hope of it catching a few rays of sun and attracting a homeless, grateful and, I hope, friendly Mason. Fortunately my partner is appreciative of the selflessness of my gesture and has refrained from showing any disappointment. Nevertheless, I am the one checking, several times a day, for signs of habitation, despite the fact that it is winter and even I know that it’s too early to expect a result.

Yesterday I found an idle moment in which to google bees. I am starting to worry that this could be the start of a whole new relationship.