If I were starting from scratch I could have segregated the stories into “Customs and Immigration”, “Military”, “Travellers' Mishaps” and so on. Let us start with a particularly grim story from the U.K., early nineties. A little Asian lady on entering the country through one of the Channel Ports presented her passport in the name of “Lady Smith”. [I can't remember the actual surname.] The Immigration officer said “We've got too many fucking coons coming in as it is, but this takes the proverbial biscuit”, and they locked her up. After several hours she persuaded the officer in charge to let her phone her husband, who would be worrying. It just happened that her husband was a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, which meant that he was one of the country's most senior judges, being a member of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. That is why her title was “Lady”. (Tony Blair removed the Judicial Committee from the Lords and set it up as The Supreme Court). The sequence of events went something like this:
2:00 a.m. Wife phones husband.
2:02 Husband phones the Lord Chancellor, who is the political head of the Judiciary and a member of the Cabinet.
2:03 The Lord Chancellor phones the Prime Minister, who was at the time John Major.
2:08 The responsible Minister is in 10 Downing Street, having been fetched still in his pyjamas by the police. He is being asked to explain what has been going on in his department.
2:09 The Prime Minister's bullet-proof Daimler is speeding, with motorcycle escort, sirens and flashing blue lights, towards the M2 and the Channel Ports.
2:30 a.m. Home Office staff have been called in to prepare P45's (that is, certificates of pay and tax deducted that are required to be given to employees on termination of employment).
This story indicates that the British State can move with remarkable speed when there is deemed to be the need. It does make one wonder why government action is usually characterised by lethargy and sloth.
A good military story concerns flying saucers. Towards the end of the War, the Nazis were anxious to develop a Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft, since their airfields were being bombed night and day. What they came up with was a circular craft, powered by a central jet engine directed downwards. Steering was provided by a series of vanes that diverted the downwards thrust as directed by the pilot. Stability was maintained (if indeed it was maintained in practice) by part of the outside of the circular structure being made to rotate in order to create a gyroscopic effect. At the end of the War the Americans kidnapped the engineers who had been working on the project in order to develop the idea. Members of the public who happened to observe trials of such a machine were encouraged to believe in little green men, and the science of Ufology was born. Other flying saucer tales were fed to the press, and various natural phenomena, such as lenticular clouds or reflections off clouds, were fed into the mix. Mentally unstable people were found who could testify to having been abducted by aliens, and the secret was preserved. Obviously the Flying Saucer concept was found wanting and abandoned. Later on, the same trick was played during the development of the Stealth Bomber. Unfortunately for the United States Air Force, while development was proceeding under the most elaborate secrecy, little boys could find plastic models of the Stealth Bomber in corn flakes packets.
During the War, United States forces were segregated into Black and White. It was this that offended my father and explains his anti-Americanism. I am proud, therefore, that it was the people of my adopted county of Oxfordshire who made an important contribution to the abolition of this segregation. Black American troops were billeted in Oxfordshire, where they were warmly welcomed and treated as human beings. It was this that encouraged the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to believe that equality was obtainable as well as just. Sometimes local people went beyond the call of duty to welcome the Americans. One lady police officer was patrolling the Oxpens in Oxford when she came across a young woman draped over the rail of a bus shelter and being vigorously serviced from behind by a black American soldier.
“Just what do you think you are doing, my man?” she demanded.
“Say, lady, if you doan know what I'se a doin' you sho is havin' a most miserable life”.
This story was still being told in police circles during my younger days in Oxford, so I suppose that the police officer in question was still serving in the City Constabulary and had no doubt achieved a high rank in the service.
At the other extreme, a General, a Southern Gentleman, was being entertained in a country house somewhere in Oxfordshire. The butler appeared with a silver coffee pot on a silver salver, with milk and sugar in silver receptacles.
“And how would Sir like his coffee?”
“Ah like mah cawfee just the same as Ah like mah women – hot, strong and sweet”.
“Black or white, Sir?”
Not all Americans were welcomed. They were said to be Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here. In order to smooth things over, the Government sponsored a radio propaganda programme intended to demonstrate that the Americans were decent chaps, really. This was in the days before tape recording. A Somerset farmer was being asked his opinion of the American troops; the professional interviewer was ready to answer any criticisms with authoritative pabulum.
“Tell me, my man, what do you think of the American troops that are stationed in your area?”
“You couldn't find a nicer body of men anywhere.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, they are all thoroughly decent people and it is a pleasure to know them.”
“Umm. Surely you must have some criticisms of them.”
“Well... I don't much like those white ones that they've brought with them.”
The United States has been running democratic politics for far longer than we have. As a result, Americans have developed a certain robustness in their political vocabulary. One might instance claptrap, fatuous rubbish designed to attract applause, bunkum from a Representative who used to claim “I speak for Buncombe” (in North Carolina), codswallop being small beer (wallop) injected with carbon dioxide in Mr Codd's patent bottles, and horseshit which was plentiful and valueless in cities before the internal combustion engine. The word bullshit, however, deserves examination, for it is not what it seems. Chinese labourers were imported to do the rough work in building the railways. Politicians and railway magnates would travel the lines and make speeches about how great the United States was, and how well the workers were treated. Sullen Chinese would express their disagreement with the words bu shih, which means “It is not”. This was understood, by analogy with horseshit, as bullshit, and the language was thus enriched.
Each State of the Union elects two Senators. It was expected of a sitting Senator that he should make the speech of welcome for a newly-elected colleague. On one occasion the new Senator belonged to the other political party, so the incumbent thought he had to get a jibe in somehow. So he poked his new colleague and political opponent in his capacious abdomen and asked “What are you going to call it?”
“If it's a boy, I shall call it Franklin. If it's a girl I shall call it Eleanor. But if as I suppose it is merely a bag of wind and piss I shall call it Senator Jones.”
Oxford Colleges are prone to believe that when they are wining and dining Prime Ministers and other important dignitaries, it is the College that is conferring the favour, not the dignitary adding glory to the College. All Souls is perhaps the grandest of the grand, in its own opinion. After the wining and dining of Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister) and Lord Nuffield (formerly William Morris, the motor manufacturer), at the porter's lodge Lord Nuffield was presented with his hat and coat.
“Oy, this ain't my fucking hat!”
“Possibly not, my lord; but it is the hat that your lordship was wearing when you arrived”.
The wine cellar of All Souls is reputedly more valuable than some other entire universities, or even the odd smaller member of the United Nations. A great deal of trouble is taken to make privileged guests aware of the quality of the wine that they have had specially shipped in from the most prestigious vineyards.
“A distinguished Burgundy that betrays its breeding, wouldn't you say, Prime Minister?”
So when it was discovered that the College Sommelier had for years been decanting the good wine and taking it home, and refilling the bottles with Château Sainsbury, you could hear the laughter many miles around. Ninety miles at least: I got the story from Cambridge!
There is only one more military story in this essay. A retired naval officer had made himself an expert in cryptogams, which is an old-fashioned word for non-flowering plants such as ferns, mosses, liverworts and so on. Cambridge University has a Cryptogam Garden. So on the strength of his special knowledge this officer was required to report to Bletchley Park to help Alan Turing, Bill Tutte and their colleagues with deciphering cryptograms. Not having the slightest idea what he was supposed to be doing there, he set himself up as the camp bookie's runner, taking (illegal) bets to the bookmaker's.
Let us now come to travellers' tales. Visitors to Namibia might be rewarded by an exhibition by the Himba. These are a very primitive people who live in mud huts with reed thatch. They glue their hair with clay to keep the sun off, but they do not wear many clothes. The women will dance around half naked jiggling their titties and the men pass the wooden ladle round the tourists. What the tourists are not supposed to see is the Himba then disappearing round a corner, slipping their clothes back on, and driving off in their cars to count the money. Something similar occurred in a television documentary about the Dinka of South Sudan. These people genuinely do not wear clothes, and they live by herding cattle. An educated English voice giving the commentary continued:
“Let us now take a look inside a typical Dinka hut”.
The Dinka hut was circular, and made of mud with a reed thatch. On the earth floor was a carved wooden headrest: this is the only sleeping facility that the Dinkas enjoy. Round the wall of the hut was a continuous wooden shelf. And on the shelf was a complete Shakespeare and a copy of the full Oxford English Dictionary. Then the penny dropped. I remembered once in Walton Street, Oxford, late one night, encountering four (fully-clothed) Dinkas singing a tribal song about how they had stolen cattle belonging to the other tribe, the Nuers. Above their heads they were carrying the unconscious body of an anthropologist, whom I knew. He was a small man and he had clearly not been able to match the very tall Dinkas drink for drink.
My late friend D went to Colombia before the time of their civil war. From Bogotá his small party took a light aircraft to an otherwise inaccessible village in the Eastern Andes. The village was so remote that they spoke some derivative of Chibcha; Spanish was for external relations. My friend happened to like the alpaca sweaters that were on sale in the market, and was struggling with his Spanish phrase book trying to find “Have you one in a larger size?” and “How much does it cost?” when the stallholder interrupted:
“Mutual comprehension would be substantially facilitated if our conversation were conducted in your native language.”
It turned out that the stallholder had a degree in English from Oxford University.
Ireland is one of a number of countries these days in which the capital contains half the population. So there is a clear division between the metropolitan folk, who consider themselves to be sophisticated, and the rural dwellers, who are supposed to be half-witted. Dublin folk are called Jackeens, and rural folk are called Culchies. Culchies are supposed to come out with Culchie-isms such as: “If there were any more of us in here we wouldn't all have been able to get in”, or of a Kerry policeman: “If you want to stand there you'll have to move along”. It has been suggested that, like the Himba, the Culchies put on a show of idiocy to please the tourists. However, as a proud Englishman I have to insist that when it comes to Gran Culchismo my countrymen can beat the Irish hands down. For instance, year 1965, location Somerset. I asked a countryman how to get to a certain village, and this was the reply:
“You turn left half a mile before where gaffer had his haystack last year”.
Think about it. This contains layers of stupidity far greater than anything a Culchie can achieve. Or, to reinforce my argument, I refer to an earlier radio news item. In a spirit of Gleichshaltung which afflicts the Brish political classes now and again, it was decided to rationalise the boundaries between Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. Previously there had been a patchwork where individual parishes were randomly allocated between the counties so that the map looked like some horrible disease. An interviewer asked an old man what he thought about his parish being transferred to Gloucestershire.
“Oi don't like it at all. It allus rains in Gloucestershire.”
In Dickens' Pickwick Papers there is a joke about how the Pickwick Club have found an earthenware receptacle with an ancient inscription on it. The members of the club treat this piece of pottery as a valuable ancient artefact, whereas the reader is shown that the inscription actually reads X BILL STUMPS HIS MARK. My father told me that before the War Watford Public Library had on display an earthenware receptacle in which was incised a Latin inscription. It read:
Apparently it remained on display for some years.
Last but not least, if you travel North along the A352 from Dorchester, you will see ahead of you the Cerne Abbas Giant. This is a gigantic chalk figure of Hercules brandishing a knobbly club. He has enormous and ithyphallic genitals. This is still supposed to be a bronze age figure on a par with the White Horse of Uffington. It is said that young women wishing to become pregnant take their beaux up to the giant at daybreak and have sex on his magnificent lingam. The truth is much more mundane, though more interesting. During the early 1640's, when relations between King Charles I and Parliament were reaching breaking point, one of the King's fiercest critics was one Denzil Holles. Denzil Holles was one of the five knights whom Charles tried and failed to arrest in the House before he retreated to the country and started the Civil War. Holles was clearly one of life's cantankerous people, for it did not take him long to fall out with Cromwell. When a printer published a eulogy of Cromwell called “Cromwell, Our Hercules” Holles had that image carved into the chalk hillside of his estate in Dorset. The Cerne Abbas Giant is a piece of seventeenth century satire. Holles welcomed the accession of Charles II, but soon fell out with the new king and retreated to his estate. The young women part of the story is probably true, though.