Ladylike & Sportsmanship

These are two words which appear to have no current relevance. They may now join the plethora of English words which have passed their sell-by date such as fizgig, gadzooks and doxy. The positive attributes they once indicated are no more.

One might find an excuse for the passing of the former if it implied that all females had to abide by the Victorian ideal of ‘lady’. It doesn’t and never did. The talent of ‘swooning’ to order has vanished along with the ever-present handbag accessory of smelling salts but I’m not sure that screaming at your child in Tescos and swearing like a three-badge stoker while you light up a spliff are tolerable substitutes.

Many witnessed the modern idea of sportsmanship displayed by Brazilian Neymar in the 2018 World Cup, or by members of the sandpaper squad in the Australian cricket team, or Lance Armstrong’s substance abuse in the Tour de France. These are insupportable but there is a wide-spread attitude that tactical fouls; diving; Hand-of-God Maradona incidents; claiming throw-ins, corners, penalties etc. when a player knows he’s lying, are now perfectly acceptable. They are not: cheating is cheating and has no place in sport.

The excuse often is, ‘well there’s so much money at stake nowadays’ as if this were a justification. The cream of footballers already earn as much in ten days at the average citizen in Europe earns in ten years and they are often the ones setting the example.

Naturally one sees a reduction in morals when the ideas of God and Heaven are in retreat. I am not a believer in either but if you are certain there is no hell or punishment for bad behaviour then what’s the point in behaving ‘correctly’ if you lose by it? How many Muslim ‘martyrs’ would there be if the guarantee of virgins in Paradise could be proved a lie?

Plato believed that Man wanted to be virtuous, which is probably true of the majority but unfortunately it is the minority that plagues us. Witness the security performances at airports necessitated by a few crazies. ‘Virtue is its own reward’ won’t cut the mustard any longer.

What is the answer? Is there an answer? If you have any decent ideas pass them on. We are in desperate need.

We don’t want to put females on pedestals but it would be nice to see parents setting an example to their offspring. Those who believed and acted as ‘ladies’ always had the power to curb the behaviour of their men and their young.

Maradona’s and Neymar’s actions should be reviled not lauded and similar performances should hit the criminal where it hurts – in the pay packet along with a big dose of man shaming.  End of rant.

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Tales from the Frontier No. – 10

What a strange thing man is; and what a stranger thing woman – Lord Byron

One thing Byron did know a lot about was ‘strangeness’. He was wildly unconventional for his time. He behaved as he wanted. If there had been a Georgian #metoo campaign he would have topped the poll for the number of accusers. Men and women. Not that he didn’t have a lot of satisfied customers as well. He would have slotted in here better than he apparently did in England – what is usual in this place is the unusual. Border towns encourage a variety of people and plenty of odd behaviours.

Obviously the three main nationalities predominate: the orderly Germans, the stylish French and the acquisitive Swiss. But currently there are also any number of immigrants who have made the journey from various lands south of the Mediterranean. What do they find ‘strange’?

‘Strangeness’ is difficult to define because it depends upon your standpoint. For example, what could be more strange for someone coming from the windswept desert-like land of the South Sudan than a grown man in funny coloured trousers chasing a small white ball merely to bash it often enough to drive it into a small hole in the ground? And these comically clad people purposely build large pockets of sand in a green fertile land.

I guess the funny coloured clothes wouldn’t alarm African and Indian ladies, who celebrate a wide assortment of gay patterns in their dress. Coats of many colours don’t signify for haute-couture conscious French damsels who strive to find exactly the correct shade of accessory to match their costume. Many of the lady members of our golf club have matching grips, gloves, bags, wooden tees, and head covers which blend nicely with their slacks and polo shirts. Their object seems to be to look enchanting and to navigate the course with a minimum of creasing and wrinkling to their natty outfits. Most Arabic ladies have no such problem: black goes with everything, they don’t play golf, and a non-ironed burka doesn’t look out of place anywhere.

What must seem odd to many foreigners from male dominated societies is that it is the men not the local women shoppers who lug the heavy carrier bags and struggle with the laden wire trolleys. In the Middle East I have seen a woman with a five gallon jar on her head, leading a goat and several children, a jumble of kindling stuffed under her arm, following her husband who was trying to look important whilst managing to multitask waggling a camel stick and simultaneously chewing qat. A local man’s place on the border is not so clear cut or so easy.

The Swiss lady, if accompanied by a husband taking a break from bank duties, carries the important purse and doles out the franken. The male’s job is to shepherd the purchases. You can understand why a Chelsea tractor is necessary to accommodate the contents of several crammed supermarket trolleys.

The French ladies don’t carry anything in case it chips their nail varnish. All right, maybe a pigskin Gucci or suede Chanel handbag. Their chaps scurry around like sheepdogs manoeuvring a flock whilst juggling packages from the better shops. Their ornamental partners stand about posing and looking good. These lasses must really hate it when they have to climb into a tinny Citroen or Renault when others have the pleasure of sliding onto the soft leather seat of a classy BMW or Mercedes.

The Germans seem good at sharing tasks, which is not surprising since many of their womenfolk are as powerfully built as the men and sometimes more aggressive. Beer and würst puts hair on the chest. The independent frau is a good example for the newcomers.

Immigrant women are beginning to find their feet, which are increasingly less hidden by floor-length shapeless black. Jobs are hard to come by but more and more supermarket checkouts bleep at the hands of a lady whose customers have never heard of the foreign currency she was familiar with at school. It was rather odd the other day coming out of a shop where seven of the nine women shoppers or staff were wearing headscarves and yet within sight were three different hairdressing salons – all busy. You wonder if the ladies are sad that so few get to admire their neat new coiffures.

Odder perhaps are the many examples of Thai massage parlours in the area. Or perhaps not so odd since the average male border dweller’s body has an abundance of flesh that would benefit greatly from being pounded into shape by an expert masseur or masseuse. Paying to get beaten up is probably a status symbol for the Swiss who admire anyone with currency to spend. Money promotes strange habits.

Tales from the Frontier – No. 9

The place is very well and quiet and the children only scream in a low voice – Lord Byron

Byron’s ‘the place’ doesn’t exist in the real world. Few young children I’ve ever met would recognise the concept of ‘low voice’ and not one would apply it.

The other night everyone was restfully banging out the zeds under their duvets. Peace reigned. One child, age undetermined, went off like a siren heralding an assault by a squadron of bombers. Everyone noticed. None of us had noticed when the kid fell asleep in the first place but we all were aware when the sleeping discontinued. This seems very unfair. Sound engineers need to research the nature of silence and make it more aggressive. We’ve all been disturbed by a sudden crashing sound but never overwhelmed by an unexpected blast of quiet.

Generally speaking our little enclave of maybe fifty families is ‘very well and quiet’ and Lord Byron’s observation would fit the bill. But very intermittently. The interruptions are legion and like the Romans of that name they make their presence felt. Peace may be shattered in a variety of ways.

The Hausmeister is responsible for the building’s upkeep and also for the surrounding gardens. Unhappily he is something of an equipment nut. He has a machine for everything and they are all driven by what sounds like turbo-props. He has grass cutters, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, rollers, rotor-cultivators, insecticide sprayers and a diesel van to load and off-load them. He likes to flash them up in the early morning following a televised sporting event on the US west coast. Witnessing a transmission of the final round of golf in Pebble Beach or the end of the Superbowl means crawling into bed in the advanced early hours of the morning – just about the same time as our Hausmeister is getting out of his pit and heading towards the hangar that houses his latest mechanical toy.

The variety of gardening equipment is matched by the variety of games that are played by the youngsters in the central area between the flats. A large chess or chequers board is integrated in the central flagstone design but no modern child plays these silent, contemplative games. The kids indulge in football, cricket, tag or anything that involves pounding feet, shouts, cries and appeals. Screaming in a low voice is one of the skills yet to be learned. Screaming in three and four part harmony seems to have been mastered. Even hopscotch appears to engage the vocal chords rather more than might be expected. One Indian family plays makeshift cricket using a wheelie bin as stumps. The three boys are no great shakes but the young girl bats like a Big Bash or IPL star and the tennis ball thuds round the walls in every direction. She has great skill because so far we have not been treated to the shattering sounds of an imploding window or glass balcony door.

Grown-ups aren’t left out. We have, as multi-culti Germany does have, a decent percentage of Turkish folk living here and they do like to get married. Weddings always involve drums and a very big noisy penny whistle (I don’t believe this is the technical term) which has a wail designed to levitate cobras from wicker baskets. The bridal conga takes place round and round the chess board and the songs without words possess at least a hundred verses. The building walls are designed to keep the music from escaping and reflect it and amplify it in every direction. I’ve been in concert halls with less effective acoustics. The celebrants then drive off in a fleet of flag-bedecked cars honking wildly all the way down the road.

The direction and strength of the wind is important when it comes to noise level. To the north is the football ground and although the attendance is roughly the same as a Commons debate on rural drainage, the crowd is rarely heard; the screams however, resulting from mistimed tackles, carry easily on a light breeze. To the distant west lies the airport and with only a medium-sized gale the Easyjets can be heard revving-up and taking off. In the opposite direction is the railway goods yard and the long line of empty freight wagons belting out of Switzerland rattle like Jacob Marley and his chains. If there is a fog and no wind then the occasional blast of a foghorn from a barge ploughing up the Rhine gives mournful accompaniment to the Hammer House of Horrors mistiness.

Ambient noise is a problem of the past for most inhabitants in this town. I strolled to the local Lidl recently, which is packed with Swiss marauders (see TFTF – No. 2), and at least half of them were plugged into mini headsets. I made a face at a passing baby and elicited a howl of rage but not one person connected to Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music even raised their eyes. I wonder if Byron was listening to his inner music when he was in ‘the place’.

Tales from the Frontier – No. 8

The poor dog, in life the firmest friend, the first to welcome, the foremost to defend – Lord Byron

It’s always dangerous to mention animals on social media or any kind of public forum. Reactions can be unexpected and vitriolic. Some animals lovers don’t seem to feel anything for humans.

Most of us only closely encounter animals in the form of household pets. (A trip to the zoo to see the elephants and lions isn’t really an encounter although a petting zoo probably qualifies). Matadors, wild-life vets (see footnote) and Crocodile Dundees don’t qualify in the ‘most of us’ category. The ‘most of us’ world is divided into three groups:

• those who love animals inordinately;
• those who’ll pat your dog, stroke your cat, then immediately forget about them;
• and those who are frightened of, or dislike pets hanging around their ankles.

We’ve all seen the ‘welcoming’ part of the Byron statement in action. The dog jumping up in delight, or trying to wag its tail off when it sees the person who fills its food bowl returning. And it’ll usually be the ‘first to welcome’ because the cat pretends disinterest, the life partner could never move as fast as Fido or Rover, and the kids are too busy thumbing some machine or other.

The ‘defending’ bit depends on the temperament of the beast and cannot be relied upon. Rottweilers and fighting breeds can be trained to kill but I’ve known one or two Labs and Cavs who were born cowards and prefer to slink under the sideboard. Still, one out of three Byronic dog qualities may not be as good as Meatloaf, (video) but it’s at least on the scoreboard.

Reading about Byron’s life brings little surprise that he regards the ‘poor dog’ (why poor? See below) as the firmest friend. He so often let people down, betrayed them, slept with their relatives, or ran away after borrowing money from them that to admit to being a firm friend of his and remain constant would necessitate having brain damage or an IQ below the waterline. Or being a dog.

‘Poor’ dog might have resulted from Byron’s brief visit to Switzerland. In 2012, a Swiss newspaper reported that dogs, as well as cats, are eaten regularly by a few farmers in rural areas. While commercial slaughter and sale of dog meat is illegal, farmers are allowed to butcher dogs for personal consumption. ‘Poor’ dog indeed! The favourite type of flesh comes from a dog related to the Rottweiler and is consumed as Mostbröckli, a form of marinated meat. I doubt in these areas the Rottweiler would either be ‘first to welcome’ or be anywhere near ‘the foremost to defend’.

When you’re in the running to be the main course on a rural menu it seems sensible to keep a low profile.

It should be pointed out that according to Wikipedia, 25 million dogs were eaten worldwide in 2014 and the consumption of dog meat is legal in 43 states of the USA. Hot dogs might be literal in these states.

Byron aside, it is not quite so easy to understand why someone (and we all know of at least one person or FB friend) who, otherwise normal, is convinced their pet is their ‘best friend’. And it is not merely a form of words, they really mean it. They rarely post pictures of their life partner (they sometimes do have one) but flood social media in the false belief that we should care about snapshots and videos of the non-interesting actions of their pets. Some even give regular updates on how trips to the vet (see footnote) went. Shepherds and Police canine units rarely post videos of their dogs working and yet they have some potential to be interesting.

‘He understands everything I say’ is a statement often attributed to a person’s canine friend. I guess the reaction after shouting ‘walkies’ and shaking a lead, or calling ‘din-dins’ when scraping a tin into a food bowl might give this impression. Try explaining Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to Fido and see what reaction you get. Mind you, a similar dazed look of incomprehension might appear on the face of a human acquaintance. Indeed I know one or two people who can only understand emojis so such a test is probably unfair.

I have seen some cases round here when a dog might be truly considered a person’s firmest friend. That is among the homeless. When you’re squatting in a cold doorway with only your mutt for company then that particular ‘poor dog’ probably ticks all the Byronic boxes. And if you’re Swiss it could double up as a possible lunch.

Footnote: (UK meanings apply) Wild-life vets are veterinary surgeons for wild animals not ex-US serviceman who enjoy a knees-up. Vets are animal doctors and not restrained ex-US servicemen.

Tales from the Frontier – No 7

Switzerland is a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world – Lord Byron

I think his Lordship is being a trifle unkind to the inhabitants of the land of William Tell and the Geneva Convention. But only a trifle. Why did he come to this harsh judgement? Did a lady from Berne resist his charms or one of his Zurich-bought insurance policies refuse to pay out? What was the explanation for his anti-Helvetian ire? He liked the snow-capped mountains well enough, but must have been convinced the lush valleys were occupied by a very unprepossessing class of peasant.

Maybe he was a touch liverish because he had recently split up from his wife of barely a year. She was Baroness Wentworth and being named after a golf course is known to be off-putting for a sensitive young poet. She might have been named after an American course and be Baroness Whistling Straits or Baroness Brickyard Crossing so it could have been much worse. But the Swiss could hardly be held responsible for his wife’s moniker.

He left England under a bit of a cloud. He was apparently dallying with his half-sister (not illegal but frowned on by the sister-less majority and presumably by the lady Wentworth), only to encounter a bigger continental cloud.

In Switzerland in mid-June it was almost perpetual rain due to an ash-laden volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year resulting in 1816 being named, ‘the year without summer’. Switzerland in cold rain can be almost as depressing as the Ruhr valley in any weather. (Maybe the real reason the Dambusters had a go at drowning it).

‘Wandering lonely as a cloud’ or the Byronic equivalent is no joy with rain coming down like stair rods. Icy water tops up your wellies, and your Young Romantics hairdo gets flattened resulting in it resembling large road kill. As a dedicated philanderer our George knew that looking like a rioter strafed by water cannon wouldn’t elicit a welcoming response from the local people. Being a wordsmith, ‘curst’ is probably the politest word he used as upper lips began to curl when he squelched into view. I write ‘people’ rather than ‘ladies’ because George was known to swing both ways and contempt for his sodden appearance would have been bipartisan. If the people weren’t ‘brutes’ they would have given the poor man a rub down and a hot toddy.

He and his team, including Mary Shelley before she married Percy Bysshe, did do a lot of wandering and Byron admired the ‘romantic region’ after clambering up and down a few mountains despite the weather. Byron had a lifelong propensity to seek ideal perfection in all of life’s experiences. He would have found plenty of that in the glorious mountains of the Bernese Oberland and the Alps but the inhabitants themselves certainly fell well short of ‘perfect’. The fact that Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein’s monster was engendered in Switzerland is possibly coincidental. I have noticed a few flat heads but no eight-footers with neck bolts.

The Swiss, where Byron was staying near Geneva, are rather different from the Swiss on the other side of the border from here. There they tend to be more French than German and as an English aristocrat, Byron knew it was his duty to feel superior to, and disapprove of, the French. Presumably Swiss-French would have merited twofold rejection. Being doubly foreign and half-French has absolutely nothing going for it.

Byron was only in Switzerland for about four months so his judgement as well as being harsh was speedily arrived at. The few locals he did meet were probably just as wet and grumpy as he was and were more interested in getting into something warm and dry rather than chatting to a man reported to be, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. They wouldn’t be too concerned as to what his Lordship thought of them since at this time he had no money to invest.

As his comment above shows, he was not in the airiest of moods or at his most charitable during his stay. It was about this time that he wrote Manfred and that is far from being a bubbly light-hearted piece – rather an accompaniment for a wrist slitting session. Not the kind of prose to appeal to the Swiss where the finest writing is reckoned to be that adorning high denomination banknotes.

Tales from the Frontier – No. 6

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication – Lord Byron

I hadn’t realised how few places there are in this town to get legless. During my youth in the UK there was almost literally a pub on every street corner. Royal Naval recruits were unlikely, on their initiation, to make it a hundred yards down the Strip (Commercial Rd., Portsmouth) because there were that many hostelries. Inns like the Mucky Duck saw more than their fair share of capsizing matelots. In all major cities in Britain only an experienced drunk could stagger to the end of the main drag without falling aft over fo’c’sle if he had half a pint in every pub.

The axe fell on English boozers after drink-driving laws came in but I guess here the local German, French or Swiss beer aficionados have never had the dubious joy of doing a pub crawl. Not much of a crawl if you have to jump in your BMW and motor a kilometre or two to get to the next village kneipe.

They have few establishments in this border town dedicated purely to drink. Most of the food places sell beer but a pub crawl where you’re expected to scoff a plate of chips with every pint is a different kind of challenge. An Irish pub used to stand on one corner but it had so few customers it was finally bought out and converted to an Argentinische Steak House. The Swiss cram in by the canton load for fresh meat because even a McD’s burger cost twice as much in Alpenland. They mostly sip couth wine and not yobbo beer whilst munching their rump or T-bone.

Not that there aren’t a few winos sleeping rough. You can tell them by their clothes. I’m not sure if they put on their shabby drinking clobber to go out tanking up, or they naturally take on the look of the undead clambering from a non-too-recently buried coffin. And they all look surprisingly similar, as if they all might be family members or come from the same graveyard. One thing is sure, but for a few exceptions, they do not demonstrate Byron’s words as to the ‘best of life’. Mind you, having to down glasses of Pils instead of pints of decent real ale would make any beer-lover look like they’d been left out for the bin men. Not that beer is the tipple of choice. From my observation the drink is usually the fiery colourless spirit often referred to as Korn, a kind of schnapps with bells on. Its price reflects how many minutes it was in the barrel before they tipped it in a bottle. The bottles containing this White Lightning are always glass because plastic containers would dissolve like a ginger snap dunked overlong in hot coffee.

Not that intoxication necessarily means over-imbibing in alcoholic beverages. The OED defines the state, besides that of inebriation, as, ‘the action or power of highly exciting the mind; elation beyond the bounds of sobriety.’

The English are familiar with the idea of the excitability of the French and emotional Johnny foreigner, but the Germans and Swiss are associated with a sense of order and dour nit-picking. It is common knowledge that the Germans have no sense of humour (although they did invent the cuckoo clock) and the Swiss idea of fun is creating a chocolate bar the shape of Toblerone. ‘Elation beyond the bounds of sobriety’ therefore would seem an unlikely state of mind for the majority of border dwellers in these parts. That is until the Winter Olympics take place.

You don’t have to trek far in the depths of winter to find a ski slope. I can see the snow-bedecked Alps from the twelfth tee of my local golf course. Elation for the Swiss consists of hearing the hiss of biting ski-edges, the click of knee hitting slalom pole, the blurring vision of descending snow flurries, and beating the bejabbers out of a huge cow bell. An added advantage is that sponsors can flog a lot of expensive precision timers to organisers. The idea of money always excites them.

Sport that requires an outrageous outlay of money for equipment, club membership, or participation, has always excited the Swiss – skiing, tennis, Formula One, roulette, but for the Germans it’s all about the result. What pushes German buttons is winning – what, how or who doesn’t really matter. Anyone who has stood on the jam-packed Berlin ‘fan mile’ knows the feeling, and few win more than the Germans at the Winter Olympics. So, if you want to see the OED’s definition of intoxication in action here, it’s not crawling through a row of back-street boozers, it’s on snow-covered slopes, frozen half-pipes, and makeshift ice-rinks as youngsters battle to emulate their cold weather medal winners.

On the other hand, the writer, being ‘reasonable’ prefers his intoxication in a warm, dry bar. After a few jars, it does seem to be the ‘best of life’ during a winter on the border.

Tales from the Frontier – No. 5

I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone – Lord Byron

One thing may be said of a weekend on the border – it is bustling. Several outlet centres have their home here and the out-of-town hordes pour in to pick up cheap jeans, shoes, handbags and other vital necessities. Many shoppers must have families with more members than the Labour Party. They buy by the gross. (That’s 144 for our young readers who haven’t encountered a peck, pole or perch nor a rod, chain or acre).

Once or twice in life I have added a second pair of socks or underwear to my purchases. It saves having to go out shopping next year, but never have I cleared a complete shelf of 34 inch waist, 32 inch inside leg stonewashed jeans as I saw one family quartermaster doing. I was only in the shop because it is a short cut avoiding the crowds queuing out the door for a fatty, tatty, double shot, soya mix crappy latte. (I think that’s what I heard someone calling out). Not that anyone was paying attention since they were huddled over their phones comparing what their pal further up the queue was going to order.

Crowds here are always a pain to negotiate. When I was a kid in the UK there were occasional gatherings of half a dozen shoppers who had saved enough money to make it worth while going into C&A or Marks and Sparks. If there was the smallest possibility of pedestrian collision a long exchange of ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, ‘after you’ and so forth ensued. Here, you get a short sharp Swiss elbow, an ice hockey style body-check, or several bruises round the knee area as they swing their overloaded carrier bags to clear the way. Only the Austrians can compare with the Swiss for lack of manners. (What do you mean, I shouldn’t generalise? Whose blog is this anyway?)

Large crowds ensure excellent business for the retailers but wide benefits also extend to the local council in the form of parking fine receipts.

Most traffic signs nowadays, especially in the EU, can be understood by one and all. And of course they may be ignored with equal ease. A huge new multi-storey car park has been built recently but that is pricey and widely avoided. Visitors seem unaware that nearby roads lie in controlled (and patrolled) parking zones. Some Saturdays it feels like I’m back on a packed parade ground during my military service, although the uniforms are less smart and the phalanx of traffic wardens are a lot snappier with their machines than we were with our SLRs.

There was a time when no-parking areas were clearly designated by multiple yellow lines, large coloured signs, and threats of hanging, drawing and quartering for the motorist who dared violate the regulations. That is clearly counter-productive since the new intention is not to prevent illegal parking but collect massive contributions for local government coffers.

French visitors and particularly the Swiss find this annoying. Actually the Swiss have no legitimate complaints because for a parking fine of a few dozen euros they could leave their gigantic SUVs in a side-road and hire them out by the hour to the local hookers. The majority of the wagons are roomier than most hotel suites in the neighbourhood. French drivers are less fortunate. Chances are if you intend to dally romantically in a Citroën deux chevaux then at least one limb will be poking out a window flap. A rumour abounded that the amatory spirit of the French ran to including a 2CV position in their version of the Karma Sutra and also in the vehicle’s operating manual. I cannot confirm this since no one I know is daft enough to own a French car when they can get a BMW/Merc/VW with more leg room.

Crowds at the weekend are not helped by us having a local minor league football team. ‘Minor’ is probably flattering since they are currently in the fourteenth level of German football and are having trouble hanging on to that honour. Their attendances are in treble figures since there’s nothing else to do in Germany on winter Sundays. You can go to church or hang around the football ground drinking lager, singing and barracking the opposition supporters for having a Smurf as a team mascot. One team did have a goat mascot. Our lot celebrated an unexpected victory over them by having an impromptu barbecue. Whether the two facts are related is not known.

So, if you enjoy being bustled by aggressive shoppers, hustled by uniformed flunkies, accosted by young ladies trying to lure you into the back of a camper van, or appreciate being screamed at by banner and scarf carrying football hooligans then our border town is right up your double-parked street.

Personally I follow Lord Byron’s advice and only take a trip out on the weekends to remind me I shouldn’t.