Sunday 24 February 2013

German Jews, Turkish Jews, the British Mandate and Howard Jacobson on better reading...Jewish Book Week 2013

Its hard to believe that a year has passed since 2012's Jewish Book Week, but it has and the first weekend has already hit some tremendous heights that will be challenging to sustain throughout this, London's largest literary festival.

I went along on Saturday night to one of the first events, "Dilemmas of Difference - German Jews, Jewish Germans". The session featured two writers - Rafael Seligmann whose family returned to Germany from Israel in 1957 when he was 10 and Olga Grjasnowa born in Baku, Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union and one of around 150,000 Soviet Jews who arrived in Germany during the 1990's.

Ably chaired by Tina Mendelsohn, also German, they discussed a number of issues including relations between the longer established German Jewish community  - a remnant of about 25,000 following the Second World War - and the more recently arrived Russians, many of whom are not religious or are in mixed marriages; the anti-semitism of the German intelligentsia, often, although not always, masquerading behind anti-Zionism before moving on to Jewish cultural regeneration in Berlin.

Seligmann and Grjasnowa represent two different Jewish experiences in Germany but they concurred on a number of issues including the astonishing recent debate in Germany on circumcision. Seligmann had been ambushed on German radio when invited to speak about Jewish culture and was bombarded with questions on one subject only - circumcision. Explaining that this was not just a Jewish matter, but also one relating to Muslims and many others regardless of religion, he also reminded his host that Christ had been a circumcised Jew. Apparently the host became apoplectic saying "don't say bad things about Jesus".

Grjasnowa was a little more positive, saying she felt at home in Berlin but was suspicious of nationality and governments. She felt that although there is anti-semitism in Germany, it is more subtle than in Moscow and Warsaw where she had experienced overt prejudice. She also identified an interesting kind of philo-semitism where certain non Jews express their admiration for Jews or for Israel before going on to trot out all the old tropes about wealth, business and all that goes with it.

Someone in the audience asked Seligmann why he had remained in Germany. His reply was interesting. Its not all bad, he told us, but more than that he is a prisoner - a prisoner of the German language and culture - which for me resonated with Amos Elon's book "The Pity of it All" which charted the journey of German Jewry from success and assimilation to annihilation at the hands of those whose culture they had adopted and most admired. Seligmann went on to remark that although the Jews were and still are traumatised by the Holocaust, so are the Germans, acknowledging the difficulty of being the inheritors of such a legacy.

Grjasnowa, who has recently published her first novel, represents the changing face of German Jewry. Born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, she is familiar and comfortable with Azeri culture, knows about Muslim festivals from her childhood and told the audience that several of her Jewish relatives had managed to marry anti-semites. There has to be some great material here for several books. I will be looking out for them.

The panel also discussed the official attitude to Jews in Germany which is welcoming and conciliatory. However, they agreed that to a large extent this is used as a cover for not addressing wider problems of racism in German society. Mendelsohn told the audience that it is only a few years ago that the word "negro" stopped being used in children's books with an attendant outcry from parents.

The importance of one's "home language" came up in an interesting session today. Mario Levi (pictured below) is a Turkish Jew who has written five novels over a number of years - just one of which "Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale" has been translated into English. He explained that although he had grown up to be fluent in Ladino and French as well as competent in English, he chooses to write in Turkish. The reason for this was that his "feelings" are experienced in Turkish - happiness, first love, anger and even the use of bad language. He was anxious to point out that although his novel charts the history of a Turkish Jewish family over several decades in the 20th century, he is not a historian. But, interestingly, he advised the audience that if they wanted to know real history, they should read novels about cities and countries as it is here we would find the "feelings" of the times written about, rather than the facts which are often re-written.

Levi was an extremely personable and entertaining personality and charmed the audience with his plans for a new novel centring on Sephardi cookery, its stories and traditions.He told us that his mother has now retired from cooking for the family seder at Pesach due to age, but that he has happily taken over. It was clear that this will be a novel full of the feelings he referred to earlier, indeed, these feelings tripped over into listing the menu for his forthcoming seder -albeit at the request of the audience. In addition to the charming Mr Levi, I was thrilled that the session was chaired by non other than Maureen Freely, translator of Orhan Pamuk's books, lover of Istanbul and excellent writer in her own right. What a treat.

Earlier in the day I attended two very different sessions. Howard Jacobson, despite being troubled with a cold, was his usual entertaining, challenging, provoking and downright funny self. He read a little from his latest book "Zoo Time", spoke about finally getting the recognition he has long deserved in securing the Booker Prize for "The Finkler Question" and in response to a question from the audience explained that his books would never become films because they rely on words rather than on action. Well thank goodness for that.

He joked about the theme of "Zoo Time" in which the main character finds himself attracted to his now mother-in-law, saying that of the three mothers-in-law he had had, he preferred at least two of them to the wives. He also gave us some serious stuff. He was critical of those who would only offer young people books they can "identify with", denying them access to some of the greatest writers because those young people don't happen to be white or middle-class. He was exasperated with people who say they can't identify with characters in his and other novels, or that the characters are not likeable - arguing that they are missing the point of fiction, which is to broaden horizons, challenge the reader, make them think and to represent the breadth of human experience. It was a bit of a rant. But it needs saying and more often. Nice one Howard.

My other session of the day was "Out of Palestine" the title of Hadara Lazar's book about the lasting influence of the British Mandate. This is not a new book, but newly translated into English and was the result of over 100 interviews that Lazar conducted in the 1980's with Jews, Arabs and Britons who had lived through the end of Mandate period in the 1940's and who recounted their personal experiences to her. She described the British as "carriers of dreams" for both Arab nationalism and a Jewish homeland - big projects which were (and still are) seemingly irreconcilable.

She feels that the British tried early on in the Mandate to resolve these conflicts, partly though developing the country's infrastructure and bringing benefits to both communities, but having realised the difficulty,  carried out an orderly withdrawal.  Unfortunately they omitted to hand over control to either side, resulting in chaos and war. She reminded us that similar things had happened when the British withdrew from India and Cyprus, but at least there had been some handover there and the problems of those countries, although continuing, are in a sense, resolved, whereas those of Israel are not. She somehow gained astonishing access to leading Arab families, mainstream Jews from the Palmach, at least one member of the Lehi and a number of Britons who had held positions of responsibility at the time. Almost all of these people are now dead and her work is an important record of the time. Like Mario Levi, Hadara Lazar is also a novelist and denies being a historian. I bought the book (and a lot of others!) and am expecting to find evidence of the "feelings" that Levi mentioned in his session.

An absolutely cracking start to one of the best weeks of the year. There's lots more to come. I can hardly wait.

Monday 18 February 2013

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, acknowledged as an early example of expressionist film. Directed by Robert Wiene and released in Weimar Germany in 1920 as a silent movie. More of the film later, but the simple8 theatre company is currently performing a short run at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, of a new play based on the film and I saw it a few nights ago.

It is a difficult story to transfer to the stage. The film was after all a "silent" and a whole script has had to be written to enable the transition from screen to stage. Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton have made a good job of this, convincingly communicating the feel of a small German town shortly after the First World War with its prejudices, snobbery and suspicion of outsiders, which at the same time could be almost any small town anywhere. They also include some amusing references to expressionist themes and techniques - look out for the human clock!

On a more serious note, the play develops some interesting and to some extent disturbing themes. A couple of examples stand out. Oliver Birch was convincing as the mysterious Doctor Caligari in the exercise of power and control. He is confident, evil and bullying - but also to some extent pathetic. The nature of bureaucracy and the "machine" is also examined, including its inability to stop or turn back once it has started to work. Witness the experience of Franzis Gruber played by Joseph Kloska - surely the performance of the night.

The play runs until mid March so I won't give too much away. It will be followed by another simple8 production - a new dramatisation of Moby Dick. It will be interesting to see how this works in the small (and far too hot) basement studio at the Arcola. The programme says that simple8 "...specialise in creating innovative, bold new plays that tackle big ideas using large casts - all on a shoe string budget"- which means the script and the acting have to be good. That shoe string budget also means that the company have to be inventive and lighting, white sheets and shadows are used to full effect in Doctor Caligari. It is a one act, straight through production running for 80 minutes - 80 minutes in which I was in that small town, sharing the anxieties of the characters and feeling concern for the outcome.

Back to 1920 and the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari became one of the most influential expressionist films and is considered one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era. Director Wiene made used of stylised sets with angular and abstract buildings painted on the backdrops and jerky and dancelike movements by the actors. In addition to this, simple techniques involving the use of shadow and of course the lack of colour add to the threatening and disturbing mood of the film. The movie ends a little differently to simple8's production and is credited as having introduced the twist ending in cinema.

Its easy to find the DVD of the movie if you want to see it, and if you want to see it for free, its all on youtube here. If you want to see the play, its running at the Arcola until March 16th. Worth a visit.

Sunday 17 February 2013

London Art Deco - Part two, city streamline moderne and a sculptural controversy

Just one week on from my pilgrimage to London's art deco buildings from Southgate to Selfridges, I hit the road again to take a look at some more treasures of that most stylish genre, including some of London's best remaining examples of streamline moderne - a style that grew out of art deco, but rejected some of its more decorative elements. Some key features of the style include rounded edges, corner windows and smooth exterior surfaces.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

My first stop was Ibex House (pictured above and below), which is probably my favourite London building.  Tucked away at 42-47 The Minories, between Tower Hill and Aldgate, this huge structure was designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham These three also designed Blenstock House, the Bonhams building in the west end and which I wrote about here - and which was built in the same year as the Ibex. The Ibex is nine storeys high and clad in beige faience with the longest strip windows in London. It's curved walls were inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Berlin Schocken department store. Walking along the Minories from Tower Hill, one is struck by its exquisite curves and clean lines and looking down either Hayden Street or Portsoken Street, there are additional treats in store with the spectacular glazed central stair turrets.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

Today, Ibex House houses a number of businesses including a pub, a branch of a gym chain and a small Italian cafe which served me the strongest cup of coffee I have had in a very long time. The cafe retains what appear to be a number of original features in chrome and glass but best of all is the curved glass entrance that reminded me a little of the glazing on the former Simpson's Department Store on Piccadilly - now Waterstones. The cafe is a London style "caff" that sells "English breakfasts" as well as a selection of popular Italian treats and sandwiches. I am sure I can still feel the impact of that coffee - two days later. Great.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

Moving on, a quick journey on the District Line from Tower Hill to Chancery Lane station followed by  a short walk took me to Fleet Street, once the heart of Britain's newspaper industry. Most of the newspapers left in the 1980's - remember the mass picketing to oppose the moves from Fleet Street to Docklands and the increased automation of the printing process? Reuters held on until 2005 but the others were already long gone by then. What does remain however are some examples of art deco/ streamline moderne architecture that are still referred to by their former function.

The former Daily Express and Daily Telegraph buildings neighbour each other close to the Farringdon Road intersection of Fleet Street. My favourite of the two is the streamline moderne former Express building (pictured below), at number 133, built from 1930-32 and designed by architects Sir Owen Williams with Ellis and Clarke. The exterior features black vitrolite and a glass facade - which retains the  "Express" name at ground floor level. I understand that the interior includes an incredible art deco entrance hall. Unfortunately this is off limits to all but employees and people with appointments. The interior relief panels were sculpted by Eric Aumonier, creator of the archer at East Finchley station.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

Today, both the  former Express and Telegraph buildings belong to Goldman Sachs. The old Telegraph  headquarters retains its colourful art deco clock hanging over Fleet Street, telling the time for city workers and tourists passing on open top buses. However the "Telegraph" legend has been removed from it, as has any clue to the former use of this building.

Turning off Fleet Street and along Farringdon Road towards the river leads to the new Blackfriars Underground Station which is just a few stops from St. James Park on the District Line and home to Broadway House, the nerve centre of London Underground. The station itself and the small shopping arcade leading to the platform retain a number of deco features, but the real treasures here are the sculptures on the exterior of the building. The upper levels of Broadway House are graced with sculptures by Henry Moore, Eric Gill and Samuel Rabinovich - but unfortunately these are so far up that its difficult to spot them and just about impossible to see the detail. Incidentally Rabinovich was an interesting character who in addition to being an artist was an Olympic bronze medallist, representing the United Kingdom at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 - in the wrestling competiton!

London Art Deco by Yekkes

The real stars are a pair of sculptures by Jacob Epstein - Day and Night. Commissioned by Charles Holden to create these two pieces, Epstein was a controversial figure, subjected to vicious criticism for his work which often fell over into anti-semitism - this was the late 1930's after all, and the British press had its share of fascist supporters at this time. Once unveiled the sculptures caused a storm of controversy, one London Transport Passenger Board member board member offering to pay to have them removed, and Epstein being required to remove one and a half inches from the penis of the naked figure on "Day" (pictured above) before the furore died down! Its hard to believe that these two wonderful pieces could have excited such opposition. I particularly like the hooded figure of "Night" (pictured below) above the northern entrance. The Daily Express begged to differ describing it as "a prehistoric blood sodden cannibal intoning a horrid ritual over a dead body". Perhaps this says more about the "critic" than it did about the piece.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

My final treat on this particular tour was a short walk away from Broadway House along Victoria Street - the Apollo Theatre, currently showing the musical "Wicked" in case you are interested, but which started life as the New Victoria Cinema. Built from 1928-1930, the theatre was designed by architects Ernest Warmsley Lewis and William E.Trent. Its hard to get a really good view (or photograph) of the theatre at the moment as the whole of this part of Victoria is a building site, but  did get some shots of the two art deco silvered bas-relief panels depicting two distinct film genres on the exterior above either side of the exit doors. Both panels were the work of Newbury A. Trent - brother of one of the architects. A detail from one of the panels is pictured below.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

Monday 11 February 2013

London Art Deco - part one

A couple of years ago I bought a great little book called London Art Deco, by Arnold Schwartzman. Since then I have been planning to visit several of the buildings covered in the book and last week I finally managed to organise myself enough to make a start.

I have always been a fan of the London Underground - "the tube" and decided I would start by visiting some of the wonderful art deco influenced stations built during a great surge in the network's development in the 1930's. This meant starting with a long journey from my home in East London to Southgate, just three stops from the very northern most station on the Piccadilly Line.  Southgate is one of a number of stations designed in the 1930's by the great Charles Holden. Working under the leadership of Frank Pick, the visionary commercial manager of the then London Electric Railway Company and inspired by the red brick designs of the Dutch architect Willem Marinus Dudok.

London art deco by Yekkes

Southgate station, opened in 1933, is one of Holden's proudest achievements. Built in the art deco/ streamline moderne style, the station building is circular with a flat projecting concrete roof. Perhaps the most outstanding external feature of the station is located on the roof - an illuminated feature resembling a tesla coil. Despite the loss of one of the three original entrances to accommodate a modern ticket office, the station retains its 1930's feel with a beautifully up-lit escalator and ceramic tiled lower hall. The station has been used to film numerous period dramas including scenes from the 1999 film adaptation of Graham Green's "The End of the Affair". It took about an hour to reach Southgate from home, and I arrived a little thirsty. I was very happy to find a small cafe opposite the station serving great coffee, home made cookies and cakes as well as soups, salads and other light meals. Friendly staff and free wi-fi made this a great little find. The Harris and Hoole cafe is one of a small chain of cafes across north London.

Suitably refreshed I jumped back on the tube to travel just one stop south to Arnos Grove, another of Holden's stations. Built from 1932-33, the dominating feature of this station is the central red brick "drum" which gives an almost monumental height to the ticket hall. The drum is said to have been inspired by Swedish architect, Gunnar Asplund's design for the Stockholm City Library built from 1920 to 1928. I was able to visit the Stockholm library a few years ago, for work reasons, and can see a clear likeness. The ticket hall is lit by a number of high level windows and there are some art deco features inside the station - the up-lights on the bridge between platforms and the bannisters from the bridge to the track side. Someone needs to give those lights a bit of a clean.

London art deco by Yekkes

Back on the tube again for one more stop south, getting off at Bounds Green Station, designed by C.H. James, a colleague of Holden, and opened in September 1932. The station has a few interesting features, including an (inaccurate) plaque remembering the 17 people killed in 1940 when the station was hit during a German bombing raid. From Bounds Green I took a short bus ride to my favourite London Underground station - East Finchley on the Northern Line.

London art deco by Yekkes

East Finchley opened in 1939, and is another Holden designed structure. I like this station for a number of reasons. I love the curving, narrow, white painted waiting rooms on the platforms (pictured above), referencing the often used nautical theme of art deco architecture. These buildings would not look out of place in Tel Aviv or even Eritrea! I also like the semi-circular glazed stairways leading to the enclosed bridge over the tracks where the station offices are located. East Finchley station is well known for it's 10 foot tall sculpture of a kneeling archer, executed by Eric Aumonier and visible from the main road as well as from the end of the south bound platform. Known affectionately to locals as "Archie", he is said to commemorate Finchley's historical association with hunting in the nearby Royal Forest of Enfield, whilst I am also advised that there was once a sculpted arrow at Morden Station - the southernmost end of the Northern Line - courtesy of Archie. East Finchley's Phoenix Cinema is just across the road from the station and has some art deco features - mainly in the auditorium which features attractive freezes

From East Finchley, I again headed south on the Northern Line to Mornington Crescent in Camden to view the stunning former Carreras cigarette factory, now the Greater London House. Built from 1926 - 1928 (and originally known as the Arcadia works) for the Russian Jewish inventor and philanthropist, Bernhard Baron, the building was designed by M.E. and O.H. Collins and A.G.Porri. It is a very large building - 168 metres long and dominates this part of Hampstead Road. Best known for its two black cats that stand guard over the main entrance, the Carreras building was once home to the Black Cat cigarette factory, it also sports beautiful and brightly coloured painted details - including giant leaves at the base of the front columns and the faces of a row of black cats at the upper level. All of this is set against a striking white background.

The original design included a solar disc to the Egyptian Sun god - Ra but when the factory was converted into offices in 1961, this and several other features, were lost. A renovation in the 1990's restored much of the detail and the two current (replica) black cats appeared. The original Egyptian theme was inspired by the uncovering of Tutenkhamun's tomb in 1922 leading to a demand for this style which was played out in Hollywood movies set in ancient Egypt and demonstrated at the Paris Exhibition of 1925. The architects also drew inspiration from some of the treasures held in the British Museum, whilst commercially, the cigarette company used the imagery to imply luxury in their advertising. This was born out by the somewhat outrageous opening of the building which apparently included covering the pavement in front of the building with sand to resemble the Egyptian desert, a procession of the then cast of a production of Aida around a temple structure - in full costume of course, and get this, a chariot race on Hampstead Road!

London art deco by Yekkes

From Mornington Crescent to Oxford Circus is a short tube journey and I was soon in the heart of the west end, where there are also some art deco treasures. Turning left from the Argyle Street exit and walking towards Liberty's department store, Palladium House (pictured below) is situated on the junction of Argyle Street and Great Marlbrough Street. (Incidentally, Liberty is also worth a quick look - there are some interesting features from the 1930's still to be found if you look hard enough - and there are often items of furniture from this period on sale on the top floor!).

At first glance this looks like a very simple, if very shiny, black building. In London we say one should "look up" to see the interesting things and this building is an example of that. The shiny black granite cladding is topped with persian style enamel on bronze decoration produced by the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft. Built in 1928 and originally called Ideal House, National Radiator Building it is the work of architect Raymond M. Hood with additions from Gordon Jeeves in 1933. It was modelled on the American Radiator Building in Bryant Park, Manhattan whilst the colours - black and gold - were the colours of the company.

The ground floor is now home to Garfunkels, a spectacularly uninspiring chain restaurant, but look above the windows and the entrance on Great Marlborough Street for the easier to see decoration. The black cladding led to the building being referred to as the "Moor of Argyle Street" in its early days.

London art deco by Yekkes

Walking back up to and along Oxford Street towards Bond Street, there is a small side passage called Woodstock Street. Looking straight down from the main road there is a vision of loveliness in the shape of the Bonhams building, also known as Blenstock House (pictured below).  It features a curved stair tower to the left and a three bay elevation set back to the right. This beauty was built in 1937, designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham. These three also designed the extremely modern looking building  - Ibex House in the Minories near Tower Hill, which I have pencilled in for another day.

Blenstock House takes its name from fusing the names of the two streets it straddles - Blenheim and Woodstock. It was originally the home of Phillips auctioneers, which was bought out by Bonhams in 2001. The original tenants also included Berker Sportcraft Limited - a sportswear manufacturers, who were succeeded by a variety of other tenants until Phillips took over the entire building in 1974. This lovely building doesn't feature in my little book by Mister Schwartzman and when asking friends about it, few could picture it - but its one of my favourites.

London Art Deco by Yekkes

It was beginning to grow cold at this point and rain looked a distinct possibility, but I couldn't resist a little look at one of the west end's loveliest sights - the fabulous clock that stands guard over the main doors to Selfridges (pictured below), just a bit further on from Bonhams. Selfridges is a great weakness of mine - clothes, cafes and several floors of temptation, but I resisted going in and instead finished my tour with a photograph of the clock. The store opened in 1909 thanks to the American millionaire entrepreneur, Gordon Selfridge so it was a bit early perhaps for art deco - but the Queen of Time riding in the ship of commerce designed by British artist Gilbert Bayes has some definite deco features. And anyway, its just great.

Sometimes I forget that you can also be a tourist in your own city. Big thanks to Mr Schwartzman for his book - and more plans being hatched for further tours - there's lots more to see yet!

London Art Deco by Yekkes

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Travel unplugged - the darker side!

Travel is my absolute passion. From being very young I had a strong desire to travel to different places and to see the world. I was brought up in an extremely small and non-cosmopolitan seaside town in the north-east of England and had early anxieties about never being able to travel abroad. My aunt, uncle and grandparents went on a Wallace Arnold coach tour of Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands when I was about ten years old. I loved going to my aunt's home to look at the travel brochures from the holiday and would set them out on her kitchen table, pretending to have my own travel agency! Yes, travel was the most wonderful thing, impossibly exciting and insanely glamorous.

Wallace Arnold Tours - Leyland Tiger - LNW 262

Of course, travel can be all of these things and for the most part its great. However, it also has a darker side. I learned this quite early on when I went to Scotland with my parents at age 12 and stayed for one night in a small hotel just outside Edinburgh. The hotel provided my first glimpse of the "seamier" side of travel as there were a number of mushrooms growing in the shower tray. The hotel made great play of its locally grown mushrooms on its breakfast menu. I gave them a wide birth.

Many (many) years later, I went with a friend on my first visit to Paris. A bit green, we arrived without a hotel room and spent a morning looking around the Marais for somewhere we could afford to stay. We eventually settled on an Algerian owned place where we were told we had to be in the hotel by 11 p.m. as the door would then be locked. This seemed a bit onerous but growing tired of tramping the streets we took it, dumped our bags and went out. Returning in the evening we found we had been moved to another room where the bathroom had clearly been the scene of a death of some sort as the stench of decay was overpowering. Desperately tired, we opened the window and went to bed. Packed and ready to move in the morning we went in for breakfast - which consisted of coffee, jam and butter. And that was it. No bread. No nothing.

These days I am well able to handle situations like this and have rather more cash at my disposal which helps. However, there are other shocks and horrors that even the most seasoned traveller can experience. One of my pet "problems" in a range of countries is the over familiar guide or driver. The vast majority of people working in the travel industry are polite, helpful and appropriately friendly. But, from time to time, some of them can become a little too comfortable. I know why this happens. If you are spending long stretches of time with people, over a number of days, driving from one part of a country to another, the conversation can stray into more personal territory - are you married? do you have children? why did you get divorced? how much do you earn? With some carefully constructed responses it is possible to close the questioning down or change the subject. Much more difficult is to stop the supply of personal information from you companion. Perhaps my favourite was "I like ladies with big bottoms" which came totally unsolicited from a driver in an "eastern" country.

It also happens that once comfortable with the client, your host will allow little prejudices to slip out, expecting your agreement. This frequently strays into what would be deemed racism if coming from the mouths of people in the west. My most "interesting" examples include being asked if I had ever been to Hungary and when confirming I had, being told that "the country is full of Jews who are all wealthy and control all of the country's financial institutions". This and similar statements come as an unwelcome shock and any kind of response can be extremely difficult if you are travelling alone with a guide or driver. My usual approach is either to ignore the remark and move the conversation on by "spotting"something interesting on the roadside or responding with something along the lines of "I don't know anything about that" or "that hasn't been my experience".

Food can be another tricky issue. I don't eat meat. Explaining that in some countries can be a little difficult. A long (long) time ago in Madrid I ordered "vegetarian rice" from the menu in a small restaurant not far from Plaza Mayor. The dish arrived. I looked at it and wondered what the dark pink diced things were. I poked them with a fork. They looked like meat. I called the waiter and told him I had ordered vegetarian rice. He agreed I had. "So what's this" I asked him pointing to the pink spongey stuff. "Ham", he said with a smile. "But I ordered vegetarian rice" I said, a little bemused. "Yes, that's right" he said. "So why the ham then?" I asked. "To spice it up a little" came the reply. I gave up and shoved the offending substance to the side of the plate.

Menus can hold some surprises too. On a visit to Prague in the early 1990's, not long after the fall of communism, I went to the French restaurant in the now beautifully restored Municipal House known as the Obecni Dum in Czech. I looked at the menu. A lovely onion soup starter. Yum. Scanning the menu for a vegetarian main course I thought I was mistaken, but having checked several times I noted that a poultry dish, strangely listed as "vegetarian" was on offer. Strange enough, but stranger still was the full description. "Chicken breast, roasted vegetables and two turds". Gosh. Two of them.

Which brings me to language. The British are renowned for being more or less crap at speaking other people's languages. Me included. But I do like to try. I spent six months in Thailand back in 2001/2. I went to school to try to learn spoken Thai - the written format was just too hard for me. I struggled a bit as Thai is a tonal language, with five tones. This means that some words that sound the same to an untrained western ear can have completely different meanings depending on the way they are pronounced. During my time in Thailand I was a major target for heavy duty mosquito bites. The itching was terrible and the family I stayed with gave me a soothing balm that helped a lot. The mother of the house, who did not speak English was the keeper of the balm. One particularly itchy evening the older children of the house told me to knock on their mother's bedroom door and ask for the antedote, reminding me of its name. I knocked, she answered, I said what I thought I had to say. She looked surprised and said nothing, just stood staring at me. I said it again. She looked confused. A third time and she called her son. A short conversation ensued and he asked me what I had said. I told him and he laughed out loud. You have just called her a Burmese cu-t he said. Right words, wrong tone. Oh dear.