Dabbler Diary – The Lives of Others

Like Kim Wilde I was in the nineteen-eighties much attracted to the kids in America. I had a hankering to join them in gang bike rides around their capacious Californian neighbourhoods, and to eat delicious junk food in their diners, and to outwit their Fratellis and other incompetent bandits and to wear their snug hoodies at dusk and to attend their elaborate Hallowe’en parties and eerie travelling funfairs and to go on Prom dates with their perfectly toothed and tanned blondes and to smuggle their extra-terrestrial visitors into their toy closets and to live in a spotless eternal sunshine world soundtracked by the Beach Boys and to eat a Twinkie.

It never really occurred to me that I would not get to live the life of such an American kid in some vague future Other Life. Nor did it occur to me that I would never be a famous professional footballer, nor an England cricketer, nor a rock star, nor a suave Edwardian gentleman travelling around the great cities of Europe on a luxurious train. Come to think of it I’m still not sure the reality of any of that has quite sunk in. Except now and again in brutal 3am awakenings after one has been in one’s cups.  But to a child life is not singular or brief and no reincarnaton fantasy is impossible, so the prospect of growing up again in some Sunshine state was still on the cards. I should have been content with where I was, which was idyllic enough.

Or perhaps I was. There were a couple of eternal summers playing War with Ben and Dale and others on Braunton Burrows. We would run very fast and uncontrollably down the Great Dune, also play hide-and-seek stalking games on a scale far beyond that afforded by any sensible playground. Near the Burrows lies the Great Field where in other summers I walked Jason the dog while composing in my mind a preposterous sword n’ sorcery saga which, had I ever written it down, would almost certainly not have made me as rich as George R R Martin. When they spread fertilising excrement on the Great Field the stench would waft across the town, sending all indoors except Jason who would stand in the back yard, nose in the air, savouring it. Sometimes we would go all the way across the Burrows from the rough carpark to the sea and back, me and Ben and Dale and my sister and others, an epic voyage up and down dunes after which, burnt, knackered and grinning our crooked NHS grins, we’d flop into Dad’s Passat, either the back seat or even better in the boot with Jason, boy girl and dog, and the tape of Born in the USA would be on as we drove and we’d all squint at the sun and pant with a raw unslakable thirst.


In a funny and near-the-knuckle piece here Javier Marias lists seven reasons not to write a novel (including: novels are too commonplace; it won’t make you rich; it won’t make you famous; you won’t gain immortality, and others). He also gives the ‘only reason’ to write a novel:

First and last: Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen.


To The Big Sheep, North Devon’s premier sheep-based theme park! We go nearly every time we’re down on holiday and the girls enjoy it more and more. Wes and John the shepherds round up Indian runner ducks with a collie. They also shear sheep for our entertainment and tell very bad jokes (the same ones, every time). They have a sheep race with little woollen jockeys which you can bet on and win a mug. We’re building a collection of Big Sheep mugs. At the lamb feeding show you all sit along a great big bench holding your bottle of warm milk, then they open a door and all these crazy lambs come charging out and jump on you. You can keep your Disneylands.

This year there’s also a piggy ride – a train of little pig-shaped carriages pulled around the fields by a tractor. Only tots are allowed to go on it. Our girls clambered in together and waved goodbye gleefully and without qualm. Mrs Brit and I watched their little curly mops bobbing away. ‘Off to university next,’ I muttered. We looked at each other and shared the faint fleeting horror. From the duck trial arena Wes was making his joke about the birds, when they were looking around anxiously, being ‘peeking ducks’ . The crowd groaned and booed happily. It’s a grand day out, there’s even a beer show for the Dads.


Often, the facts about people’s lives, when written down in a sort of summary, are scarcely credible. My friend and colleague John B died two weeks ago. A Geordie who lived most of his life in London but retained his accent, John was a morbidly obese chartered accountant, a giant grizzly bear of a man (so exceptionally fat that we had to keep a special super-sized chair in the office just for when he visited). He worked for large city firms but was wholly irreverent, plain-speaking, funny and loudly contemptuous of corporate bullshit. He once made a colleague weep by stating, correctly, that her edit ‘looked like someone had swallowed a load of wanky business terms and vomited them over the article’. That was a bit harsh. He sometimes dyed his beard purple, and once he inexplicably dyed his hair, eyebrows and beard brilliant white, which made him look very old and like Santa’s miserable even fatter uncle. He had quite spectacularly bad taste in music – many were the weekend writing marathons during which I had to endure not only endless proof-reading of tax articles, but also John’s obscure Country & Western CDs.

He could be infuriating but really he was very soft, very sensitive and very kind. He was briefly married to a tiny Asian lady, which caused much eyebrow-raising, but then some years later he came out as gay, which caused even more. He suffered dreadful problems with his legs and ankles and seemed to be heading for depression and miserable lonely life in his expensive prison of a London apartment. And then wholly unexpectedly he found happiness, in what turned out to be the final stage of his life, when he met a giant ginger Pole called Rajmund. They became civil partnered and a few years ago moved together  to a rustic wood cabin deep in rural Poland from where John sent regular lengthy missives featuring photos of the snow and his menagerie of pet animals. We were delighted for him. A fortnight ago he went to sleep on Saturday night and didn’t wake up on Sunday morning. He was cremated last week in a low-key ceremony in Poland, so there was no chance for us to attend and say our goodbyes. This will have to do. He was 55. RIP.


One last anecdote related to Pavement Panto™, this time concerning speaking foreign languages.

I can’t say I speak German as such but I have just enough to not to die of thirst, starvation or chronic urinary retention when on holiday. However, I’m good at accents, and that can get you into terrible trouble when locals assume you can speak the lingo much more fluently than you really can.

An example occured in a Berlin hotel. Using my GCSE knowledge and a German phrasebook, I had carefully prepared a fairly long and complex question to ask the concierge. It was something like “What is the best way to get to the main train station from here – is it quicker to get the tram from just over the road or is it better to walk to the U-Bahn. Or if we walk, how long will it take?” So I practised this Germanic spiel on Mrs B, rehearsed it in the lift on the way down to the front desk, uttered a cheery “Guten Morgen” and reeled it out with careful effortlessness in my best Kraut tones.

Well, I hadn’t thought it through, had I? The girl at the desk beamed with delight at my apparent and, for an Englishman, highly unusual fluency in her native tongue, and then launched into a rapid and detailed answer. I was drowning from the off, but instead of owning up foolish pride meant that I instead opted to perform some Pavement Panto™ to indicate that I was following every word of her answer.

This Straßepantomime consisted mostly of nods, raised eyebrows, thoughtful Jas and neutral chuckles. By God she went on, even producing a series of maps from beneath the desk to illustrate the intricately nuanced nature of the question I’d asked her. By the end I was a total wreck, and it was all I could do to cry a feeble danke schoen over my shoulder as I fled the lobby.

Speaking languages is one thing, it’s when the buggers speak them back that the problems start.


I’ll be doing a proper write up of this later, but in the meantime check out Anima Mundi, an extraordinary multi-faceted artwork by Bristol-based artist Tim Lane – copies available to buy now!


Here they are then, the Lives of the Others, the multiple simultaneous reincarnations of a skinny lad, all growed up. Here is A G G ‘Britty’ Britson, opening bat for Gloucestershire, now on debut for a desperate England, striding into the middle betwixt chirping Aussie fielders. An expectant hush around Lords. He thumps his guard, one two three. ‘Play’ calls the umpire, and now here’s the fast bowler, looming from background to foreground with shocking suddenness. The ball is a whistling blur; Britty makes an automatic movement of defence, nothing more; the stumps are shattered behind with a sickening clack. Back he goes, back to the Pavilion betwixt shrieking Aussies and politely coughing Taverners, back to the counties, back to obscurity. He glances up to the media orb, where Boycott is already dissecting his technique for BBC radio, and yearns to be there, behind its safety glass, talking about cricket instead of having to actually play it.

What of Andy Birtle, professional footballer, did he fare any better? Not really. Hampered by injuries to back, knees and ego his top-flight career fizzled out just before Sky brought all the money in. Slogging around the regional mudbaths and shitpits of Divs 1 and 2, he at least bagged Championship WAG Shaznay Plumms (a Maxim regular who once appeared in a Fratellis video). The divorce wiped out most of his testimonial money, and now the pub he bought with his savings (The Rising Sun, mock Tudor job on a dual carriageway, edge of Birmingham, two steaks for the price of one on Thursdays) is losing it hand over fist, times are tough. Nineteen year olds are now getting £100k a week playing for Man United reserves, and the knees are killing him though it’s not so bad in the summer. He grew a ‘tache for Movember, giving something back.

At least there’s Andros Britterelli, 80s guitar hero, now on his three hundred and forty-first poodle perm, surely he’s living the dream? Back in the day he wrote the defining blue collar rock anthem A Man’s Gotta Do a Dirty Job Sometimes and the royalties from the Glee version are keeping him in booze, birds and guest spots. He’s into doing some acoustic stuff these days, bluesy, back to the roots. Most nights he drinks a bottle of Southern Comfort and dreams about death. But other nights he thinks about how it felt when he was 12 years old, biking round his capacious Californian neighbourhood with his gang of perfectly tanned American kids, hoodies in the warm dusk, bellies full of Big Macs, peddling furiously down the wide street and then sailing up, up, up into the night, framed all in silhouette, black shadows against the gigantic impossible moon.

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18 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – The Lives of Others

  1. henrycastiglione@hotmail.com'
    July 28, 2014 at 09:43

    When I watched American as a child I used to marvel at their enormous well-appointed rooms. Even the supposedly poor children had stereos, TVs and video games in their own rooms. I could never understand how you could be angst-ridden when you have your own telly and video recorder.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 28, 2014 at 20:04

      I always liked the way they could crawl under the house.

  2. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    July 28, 2014 at 11:27

    In the seventies, the Canadian government declared itself offically bilingual to save the nation, and ordained language lessons for the civil service. Thousands of resentful, tone-deaf, middle-aged Anglos were frogmarched into nine weeks of fulltime training, where they were tutored and tortured by foxy young separatists. Success was tied to career advancement in several ways and so, predictably, very few actually failed. It was said that successful completion of the course qualified one to converse in French with other English-Canadians who had taken the course.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2014 at 11:53

      Occasionally while on Saturday errands I will tune the XM radio to Premiere, in hopes of improving my ear for French. This works about as well as 15-minute stints once in three weeks might be expected to. But I remember from one comedy sketch a bit in which Canadian citizenship information was delivered first in English, then in mis-translated French. Of that one bit was

      E: Polygamy is forbidden in Canada.
      F: La polygamie en Canada est formidable.

      • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
        July 28, 2014 at 12:19

        George, if you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy this one. It’s a protest video Quebec artists made when the Anglo-heavy Conservative government tried to cut back funding for the arts several years ago. The star is a genuine Quebec icon. It helps to know that the French word for seal is phoque

  3. Worm
    July 28, 2014 at 12:36

    re. the pavement panto with foreign languages (esperanto panto?) – that’s also similar to the selection of faces one is required to pull when having a conversation with someone in a nightclub that you can’t actually hear. It usually goes –

    – they bellow something in your ear
    – you move your head back and widen your eyes and make and ‘oh really, wow’ face
    – they bellow the next bit
    – you smile and shake your head in a ‘well I never’ way
    – continue ad infinitum

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 28, 2014 at 20:07

      Also when an IT person is talking to you about what’s wrong with your computer.

      • Worm
        July 29, 2014 at 10:57

        and, as a man, in the driving seat, ‘listening’ to someone give you directions through your car’s open window 🙂

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 28, 2014 at 14:37

    Some survival notes regarding the holding of discourse with a German. It is as well to note that, whilst mainly harmless and mostly good company (apart, of course, from the older, shit-faces ones) they do like to get one over as we say. Having tried guns ‘n sharp swords and been well and truly thrashed they now resort to more sedentary methods, superiority in languages being among the most obvious “we speak better English than the English” is the current No 1. They want to bounce their English off you, unless you can go a full monty, never talk to ’em in their own language, try perfecting your English, now that really freaks the little possums out.
    Watching the thrashing of the English by the Germans in the 2010 World Cup second round at a Köln street restaurant, surrounded by Germans and by the time Lampards goal was disallowed I was, on account of an excess of alcohol, gibbering in German in front of the screen. An evil kraut replied, “revenge for 1966, old chap” in perfect BBC English. As the afternoon wore on the goals piled up, 4-1 the result, the restaurant, at the Köln Symphony, was by now full of musicians, post rehearsal. I was commiserated by the female bassoon player and a Norwegian flautist.

    The very next time England are Thrashed by Germany I shall do my gibbering in my native language.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 28, 2014 at 20:13

      But Germans are at least very sympathetic to your attempts to speak their language. I’ve never understood how the French can be so unselfaware. They can’t bear hearing their tongue mangled by an Anglo accent so insist on speaking to you in English – it never seems to occur to them that they’re mangling your tongue with their own outrageous accent.

      The best English-speakers are the Dutch – some are virtually accentless.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        July 29, 2014 at 09:37

        Except the ones who speak like Sean Connery…”Robbie Willimssssss, Britney Ssssspearsssss, Ssssscotland. Heard a conversation in the Royal Mile recently, two people discussing historical stuff, “Murray, queen of Scats”

        Winston spoke near perfect French, except when talking to the blighters when his French was pants, if it’s winding up the frogs you wanted, WSC was yer man, frequently had CDG in a Gallic frenzy.

      • Worm
        July 29, 2014 at 10:54

        it’s not just the dutch – danes and swedes are also capable of almost accentless english – I gather a large part of their success in this field is because they all get to watch plenty of undubbed BBC programmes.

      • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
        July 29, 2014 at 11:27

        I don’t get this accentless bit. The whole point of Brits is that we can pigeonhole someone within two seconds of them opening their mouths. Foreigners who have no trace of their native accent discombobulate us because we can’t place them in our God given order.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      July 29, 2014 at 00:54

      In 1944 or 1945, my father was one of two rear-echelon GIs told off the guard a working party of German POWs somewhere in France. They had been told that one of the Germans spoke English, and I suppose had received a description of him. The other GI, from an ethnic enclave in Massachusetts, said “Is you da guy what speaks Englitch?”, to which the prisoner replied, in BBC English, “Why yes, I’ve spoken it for ten years now.” My father turned away to avoid harming discipline with his grin.

      • davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
        July 29, 2014 at 17:24

        Which is why, in time of war, one can be shot for not splitting infinitives or for avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition.

        • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
          July 29, 2014 at 23:53

          While in peace the practices should be punishable only by heavy fines? Ever since I read Fowler, long ago, I have been on a mission to ruthlessly split infinitive and seek out prepositions to end sentences with.

  5. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    July 29, 2014 at 17:27

    How well I remember my boyhood daydreams of courageously defeating some evil Brit with his plans of world domination.

    And of course it came to pass.

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