Catching Crabs

Those naughty young men at Warwick University Rowing Club certainly know how to perk up a dull day.  Since first getting their kit off in 2009 to raise money for their club and to combat homophobia in sport, they’ve raised over £200,000 in 77 countries. Not to miss a trick, the enterprising bunch have also branched out into posters, tee shirts, greeting cards and hoodies. They’ve dropped their drawers again for 2015 and have just completed a three-week promo tour in the USA. These boys are getting as big as the Calendar Girls.

Believe it or not, back in my old school days I used to row myself. No, really, I did. And I wasn’t the cox. It was infinitely preferable to playing rugby, a sport I loathed with a passion. Paddling up and down the Thames in the rain could be a bit grim but mucking about in boats during the summer months was a pleasant way to pass a warm Wednesday afternoon. I was the Bow in the B Crew and we excelled only at catching crabs.* As if to prove our uselessness beyond reasonable doubt, in 1976, we proudly came last out of a cast of hundreds in the Head of the River Race, an event that takes place between Mortlake and Putney every year. Quite a feat, don’t you think?

Here’s the school boathouse at Barnes Bridge.

Emanuel School Boathouse

Needless to say, none of my crew looked anything like the fit boys from Warwick. More’s the pity.

*A rowing error where the rower is unable to timely remove or release the oar blade from the water and the oar blade acts as a brake on the boat until it is removed from the water. This results in slowing the boat down. A severe crab can even eject a rower out of the shell or make the boat capsize (unlikely except in small boats). Occasionally, in a severe crab, the oar handle will knock the rower flat and end up behind him/her, in which case it is referred to as an ‘over-the-head crab.’ Source: Wikipedia.

The Faerie Queene

Faerie QueeneIt’s my birthday today and I’d like to share a little poem that my English teacher, David Steddall, wrote in the card he gave me when I reached sweet sixteen.

I know you’re not a fairy queen

I know you’re not a donkey

Perhaps you’re something in between

Like a hairy gnome gone wonky

It reads worse than it was. It’s certainly true that I was relentlessly bullied as soon as I entered the gates of my ancient and prestigious South London grammar school. The other kids knew I was pink-leaning even when I didn’t (well, actually I did but that’s another story). I survived the ordeal by developing a sharp tongue and fast legs. But, by the time I reached my O Level years, the torment had subsided and I’d won the grudging acceptance of my peers, and high praise for my compositions. What Dave was actually telling me was to pull my finger out in the poetry stakes. “It’s not that difficult,” he wrote in my final school report after I miserably failed my English Literature mock. You see, I just didn’t get it. Simile, descriptive prose, analogy, word play?  It just flew right over my cute curly head. Do I get now? Well, let’s see:

“I know you’re not a fairy queen”

Because we’re not all camp as a row of tents (ok, I can be a little lary and loose-wristed, particularly when on the sauce).

“I know you’re not a donkey”

I’ve never claimed to be hung like Eeyore.

“Perhaps you’re something in between

Another sexuality reference, perhaps?

Like a hairy gnome gone wonky”

Well, my balls did drop sooner than most of my cohort and I was (and still am) vertically challenged. And the wonky bit? Another allusion to the Friends of Dorothy? I have a feeling in my water that this isn’t about Shakespeare’s sonnets after all.

There you go. Sorted. Now, where did I put my Chaucer?

PS.  I’m sure this degree of familiarity wouldn’t be allowed these days. We live in more hysterical times, imagining a pedo lurking round every corner. And, just in case anyone’s wondering, as far as I remember, Dave was a straight as my school ruler. No mucky business going on or intended.

Jack Scott’s School Days

Quite by chance, I’ve just discovered that Sebastian Wood became the British Ambassador to China in 2010. Why should I be interested in Her Maj’s representative to the Middle Kingdom? Well, I went to school with him. We weren’t in the same class but we were in the same play. He starred as Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; I was cast in the bit part of Snug, the Joiner. He was cream of the straight ‘A’ crop; I was middling in the could-do-betters. He studied hard; I hardly studied at all. He became a member of the civil service elite; I became a middle ranking municipal bean counter. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Our man in Beijing got me thinking about other boys I schooled with. Tomasz Starzewski is an internationally successful designer who’s done rather well dressing the rich and ridiculous. He charges top dollar for his top notch frocks. I remember being rather unkind about the ample curves of his puppy fat years. Kids can be cruel and I had an acid tongue. Tomasz began his path to profitable haute couture at a young age and, when he found out that I worked for Habitat in Chelsea, popped in now and again. It was his way of pointing out that he was on his way to wealth and distinction while I was working in a shop on the minimum wage. Revenge, no doubt, was sweet.

I was a lazy pupil and tended to focus more on my hormones than my homework. I’ve never much had an ear for languages (my persistent failure to acquire more than a few mispronounced words in Turkish is a case in point). During Latin lessons I made sure I always sat next to Mario Franz Xavier Victor Joseph Thomas Da Souza (Mario’s family came from Goa in India, hence the saintly Portuguese roll call). Our chalk-dusted old teacher’s style was lamentably predictable. Working left to right from the back of the class, he would ask each boy in turn to translate a single line from a passage. All I had to do was count the number of boys and the number of lines and get Super Mario to translate my line for me. It worked a treat until my abject failure at the end of year exams.

I last saw Mario (at about the last time I saw Tomasz) when I bumped into him in Kings Cross. I’d just been to an appointment at the Institute of Ophthalmology where a research professor had been fascinated by how I’d managed to contract an STD in my eye. Who knew? Not me. It certainly brought a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘It’ll make you go blind.’ Ah, memories.

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It’ll Make You Go Blind

Midsomer Murder

I’ve been asked what the book is actually about. You’ll have to read it to find out, but suffice it to say, I learned some valuable lessons from David Steddall, the English Literature teacher at my South London grammar school. “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end,” he would say. We’ve all heard the mantra. He seemed to like my essays, even if they were sometimes a little risqué in a post-pubescent, hormone-raging sort of way. His encouragement gave me confidence. He would often give me top marks and have me recite my work in class. Tragically, I failed* my Lit O Level. I just didn’t get the poetry and I was a lazy little student. Still, I’ve stayed faithful to Dave’s cause ever since and my book has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not a random series of observations like the blog. It’s the full story of our time in Turkey, warts and all. It’s not all light and frothy either. We’ve experienced some dark moments here:

Liam left exactly two months after we moved into the house in Bodrum. He dashed home on a mercy mission and I had no idea when he would be coming back. Üzgün’s death had thrown him off kilter and now he was needed in London.

The night before, we had dined al fresco to take advantage of yet another blessed, balmy evening. Liam’s gastronomic ambitions had reached such a pinnacle that we had less and less reason to eat out. The courtyard was a perfect setting. We reminisced about the days when, at the slightest hint of fine weather, we would rush home from work and grab the opportunity to eat in the garden.

We chinked glasses. “To the good life, Liam.”

It was a hollow toast. Üzgün’s murder had changed everything. He had been raped, robbed and murdered by three teenagers in a back street of Yalıkavak. His body was found in a dry river bed, naked, beaten and barely recognisable.

Liam got the call he had been dreading. He packed a suitcase and taxied to the airport to pick up the next available flight. I stayed awake for most of the night, texting Liam and trying to make sense of the mess around us. I camped on the balcony for hours, questioning my flawed understanding of Turkish society, balancing the highs with the lows and wondering if, ultimately, we had made one huge mistake. My head was a mass of interconnected thoughts and contradictions, each leading to a different conclusion and each stirring up an emotion that took me right back to where I started. I set myself a challenge. I would stay awake until the morning; by then I would know what to do.

The lights went out in Türkkuyusu just as they had done many times before. How could Turkey ever hope to become an industrial powerhouse if they couldn’t keep the bloody lights on? I stared into the darkened streets, lit only by the headlights of passing traffic. I wanted to speak to Liam but he was in the skies somewhere over Europe. I wanted to ask him why we didn’t go to Spain or why we left London in the first place. I knew he would answer, “because we’re different and different is good. Remember the pioneers. ‘Good As You’, they said.”

*I passed English Language with flying colours (along with history). Liam is trying to convert me to the joys of poetry. I fear it’s a lost cause.

Check out my book.

It’ll Make You Go Blind

Clive and I know one another from our salad days. In those distant times we were two of the three fey musketeers. Our third partner in camp crime was Paul who jumped the good ship Blighty many decades ago to dwell in a Parisian garret and chain-smoke Gitanes. Birds of a feather flock together. We somehow knew we were different and so did everyone else. We were relentlessly teased from the moment we entered the school gates. Nothing physical, you understand. That would be unseemly at a traditional grammar school with 400 years of history. Besides, beatings were reserved for the teachers to discharge. I suppose we hardly helped our cause by being rubbish at rugby and lip-synching to the backing vocals of Mott the Hoople’s Roll Away the Stone in Clive’s front room. Our sex education consisted of lecturing hormonal adolescents on the evils of masturbation. It nearly caused a riot.

Ian is a more recent acquaintance, a mere 15 years so a young friendship. As saucy singletons he and I trawled the dances halls of Europe and had a ball. Nowadays we are both hitched and respectable members of the elder gay community. Ian exists at the epicentre of gay culture by managing a licenced sex shop in Soho. He won’t tell his mother he’s gay. She knows of course. Mothers always do. But then, being nearly 50 with teeth and hair intact and never marrying is a bit of a clue.