FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 12: A toddler in the boxing ring


12. A toddler in the boxing ring


Previously, I had “done” a thing called Languages, the way other people had “done” History or Politics, as a sort of stepping-stone. Now I am back in England, they have graduated, and I am turning inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain before leaving. It is a recent novel, set in Oxford, and I think it might be an interesting experience to look at the city through Spanish eyes, as I return, tainted by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish.

The book is narrated by the Spanish “lector” (a glorified, and, this being Oxford, indeed prestigious, visiting native-speaker assistant), a role now taken by my friend and confidante, the witty and fascinating Xon de Ros. In fact, the narrator lives in the very same pyramid-shaped house where she and I share wine and cheese. I say “the very same house”. In this fiction, the author makes real a house that I think I already know. I can no longer visit Xon without having the impression that I am stepping into a novel. (It is a tribute to her fascination that this is not an entirely new feeling).

There is something deliciously subversive about the underdog (the walking dictionary) turning his gaze on the pompous professors- especially if you have been dismissively called “an impertinent boy” by a flesh-and-blood one, when you tried to argue your case with a hint of sarcasm. Other members of this Sub-Faculty are described with great warmth, which only heightens your own affection for the versions of people you thought you knew on your last visit.

On reflection, maybe I had been impertinent. There was a game going on, about our respective roles. I was fresh out of school, in one of my first “grammar classes”, and, quite simply, I shouldn’t have answered back in front of 20 people from different colleges, while under his authority (he was running the class, like it or not), and on his territory (in a college so prestigious any references to books in its library would be followed, as his eyes scanned the room and noted the presence of outsiders, by the phrase “I’ve no idea whether you might have this in any of the other college libraries”). The fact that my remark got a laugh from my fellow students obviously didn’t help.

Some lecturers enjoy variations on the Socratic dialogue. A friend, recently appointed in Oxford, got a shout from the back row “We can’t hear you”, so he tried to bellow for a bit, and then checked in: “Is that better?” The reply: “Well, it’s certainly louder.”

When I am lecturing post-graduate students or professional interpreters now, I embrace any heckles in the same way I would when performing stand-up i.e. if it hits the mark and/ or is funny, the audience member is figuratively elevated onto the stage, or podium, for a moment. They have helped break the routine, which is a very powerful disruptive energy- it is my role to ensure that their contribution adds to the momentum of the class, rather than competing with it. Since we are now abandoning the script for a different genre, the rules of improv apply: I must do a “Yes and…” rather than a “Shut up! So anyway…”

A heckle may hit the mark either with its deeper truth, or expression of what is silently on the audience’s mind, both of which are hugely valuable things for us all, especially me, to hear, and in this case help me avoid the constant insecure badgering “Is that clear? Is that surprising? Are you convinced? Can you all see how that would work, yes?”. But if it neither hits the mark, nor is funny, I will ignore it, and mercilessly shut it down if it persists. In these cases, I am taking the gamble that the majority are thinking “Shut up and let him get on with it”, and so I try to implement their will.

I felt unjustly shut down by an authoritarian, so I did what most people would do in the circumstances: I performed and recorded a rap in his distinctive voice and posture, consisting mainly of the sample Spanish phrases he used to explain the same points of grammar I had covered with Margalida in The Old Trout in Windsor, but with a mixture of the weirdly archaic (“Si yo tuviera dineros, me compraría un caballo”-a reference to buying a horse that sounds a bit like “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, though I am reliably informed the textbook equivalent of this is “mi sastre es inglés” or “My tailor is an Englishman”) and the downright wrong, given as counter-examples, a practice that, even then, struck me as of dubious pedagogical value, given the way curious-sounding phrases tend to linger in our minds (“Como andaba por la calle” as how not to translate “As I was walking down the street”). (When points of language crop up in my classes now, I try to stick to the motto “Don’t tell people how you don’t say something”).

The upshot was that I earned myself an enemy in a high place. When Xon told him that she was attending a college ball at which I was performing, as my guest (“Just good friends”, remember) he strongly discouraged her on the basis that tongues would wag. She apologetically withdrew her acceptance.

What happened in my first grammar class was symptomatic of a wider malaise: I think a generational change was taking place on several fronts. Firstly, the authoritarian approach, whilst still firmly rooted in Spain, was undermined in Oxford by the potential of the tutorial, that fabulously Socratic enquiry that propelled a toddler into the boxing ring. It wasn’t that we weren’t immediately pummelled and flattened- it was the fact that we were allowed to punch back at all that made the difference. After landing a timid blow on the Goliath whose books adorn the shelves behind you, you cannot take a didactic, out-dated, prescriptive pronouncement from on high without at least throwing in a firecracker one-liner to test its intellectual foundations. Secondly, thinking on “grammar” had moved on rapidly since this particular don had trained. In parallel with the postilion prose, we were receiving linguistics lectures from a dynamic new recruit who had just christened her first-born Noam. Thirdly, for all sorts of other political and economic reasons, the teacher-pupil relationship was changing. This was true of the outside world, and within a decade I was noticing it on all the MA courses in the UK on which I was teaching, but perhaps Oxford has remained impervious to the trend. Anyway, two snapshots of it: a course director whose number one priority is pre-empting, and if all else fails, rebutting, student complaints; and a post-grad student in the early 2000s, who just could not hear criticism. When light finally dawned, I was confronted with the remark: “I get what you’re saying, but I’m paying my fees for you to tell me how brilliant I am, not for this shit.”

She probably felt I was impertinent, too.


FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 11: No more orange spaceship


11. No more orange spaceship

In spring and early summer there are many long weekends when there is an exodus of students from Granada. The academic year seems to start winding down from April on, apart from the exams. My classmates look forward to retiring to their second home, for a break from routine, to do their revision away from noisy distractions, and catch up with school-friends, and Mum’s cooking. A stillness descends on the city, and I prowl the streets alone.

I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to set up a student drama group in the School of Translation with English student Susana, a tertuliana with traffic-stopping symmetrical freckles. We have shared many frustrations together, and at this point I must be sounding sorry for myself, because she and her sister take pity on me, and invite me to stay with their family in a village near Albacete.

Their company is wonderful, and as a tourist I appreciate the scenery and food, but I find the small-town gossipy nosiness unbearable. It is recognisable from Galdós and Lorca, but I have already met the reality described in the fiction- I don’t need it rubbing in. Even the small perks, such as jumping the queue at a disco for being tall and blond (without a Jimmy Somerville in sight!) seem scant compensation.

I am treated to all the stereotypes about the English (I must actively enjoy terrible food, whilst also being incapable of showing my feelings). Then, slowly comes the insinuation that I must be the boyfriend or prospective boyfriend of one of the sisters. It reminds me of when my best friend Petra came to stay in the family home in my first year. I had to explain to my parents that we wouldn’t be sharing a room. “We’re just good friends”. “I’ve heard that one before!” joked my father. But I had felt relaxed and open with my parents. If I’d had a girlfriend, I would have said she was my girlfriend- when I said “friend”, I meant “friend”. In Spain, although the courtship rituals no longer involve cat-flaps and dowry-dealings like in Brenan’s day, several female friends tell me that, generally speaking, the only reason for a male friend to meet their parents would be to ask for their hand in marriage. Until then, young women can go out with friends of both sexes, and even sleep over at people’s houses, but everyone is to be described using the same word, and meeting the family is out of the question. So the word “friend” has become laden with the kind of innuendo that makes older men chortle.

Everything I do that attracts attention, or forces people to confront their own habits and assumptions, is because I am English: if I help with the washing-up, it’s because I am English (“there are seven women and an Englishman in the kitchen ha ha ha”); if I wear a seat belt, it’s because I’m English. Yes, yes, you may have rational, objective reasons for your behaviour, but haven’t you realised yet? We just don’t do that here! Haven’t you noticed? They are genuinely astonished, and slightly offended, every time I buckle up.

I am quite looking forward to returning to England. I will be back in my place, with my people.

But when I transfer from Granada to Oxford for my final year, it doesn’t feel like “coming back”. I am acutely aware that what for me has been an interlude, for my friends was the final act. All the non-linguists have already graduated and are starting their lives in the big wide world, or, more likely, London. Those of us who have been away have been altered by the experience, and as fourth years, are given a strange intermediate status with some of the gowned, claret-enhanced privileges of the Middle Common Room, the home of post-graduate students. A couple of terribly fresh-faced second years come to visit me to say that they want to go to Granada, and do I have any advice? One of them has long blond hair.

There is to be no orange spaceship for my final year. I am housed right next to the library and the chapel, like a grown-up, and expected to knuckle down accordingly. I hardly perform any comedy, as apart from needing to swot, I discover that my main partner in crime, Jeremy, is by now off winning awards at The Royal College of Music. He comes back for a swan song we call The Dead Perret Sketch.

I am, in fact, beginning to turn inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain just before leaving. It is a recent novel, set in Oxford, and I think it might be an interesting experience to look at the city through Spanish eyes, as I return, confused by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish. Through fiction, the author has made a Spanish reality of something I thought I already knew.

So here are my streets, the bells, and the steeple; open the lecture hall, here are the people.all-souls



10. Granada Tango

I live in a tiny street above the Moorish tea-houses, and below the gypsy Hobbit-holes, on the hill looking across at the Alhambra. Mornings are punctuated by the cries of hawkers of honey, pots and pans, and canisters of butane for cooking. Large deliveries are made by donkey. When I step out of the front door, I meet a street at 45 degrees. Up to the left is a fountain inscribed with sensual verse, down to the right is a bar whose only food is spicy snails.

Tapas are served the old-fashioned way, free with drinks. There is usually a sequence, so that you do not repeat food with subsequent rounds, the bar staff shouting your ranking to the cook. It is theoretically possible to come full circle, though. Who doesn’t like a challenge?

After lunch, the siesta. On hot and sticky afternoons, windows are left open to let air in, blinds pulled down to keep eyes out. But what reaches the ears in the Spanish afternoon is so much more interesting than the banalities visible to the human eye. The air is already swollen with the life of the internal courtyard. There is a background of snores, with the occasional yelps and groans typical of old age- or is it exuberant youth? A trained ear can track rhythms as they emerge: is that disco music, flamenco or football commentary? All three come and go. There are periodic climaxes to the symphony, during which all of this disappears: a loud, brutish, villager’s voice, insensitive to distance, careless of the proximity of others, summons each family member repeatedly and insistently from a seated position in one corner of the house. Luíííííís. Ramóóóón. Pili. ‘Sabeeeeeeer. Ramóóóón.

Maybe some classes, if it isn’t a week containing a public holiday, local feast day, or religious festival, and the teachers turn up. I’ll probably see them out tonight anyway.

An Argentinian exile, an anarcho-nihilist, and a Communist walk into a bar. No, hang on, they run the bar. La Tertulia was founded by Tato (Horacio Rébora), who was fleeing the “Dirty War” and Videla dictatorship of the late 1970s. In newly democratic Spain, he found a welcoming, politically engaged artistic community in the city of Granada, and in 1980 he opened a bar where he organised poetry readings and book launches (Rafael Alberti and Vargas Llosa were among the visitors), as well as political meetings. He also founded a Tango Festival which has become the biggest outside Argentina.

More importantly, La Tertulia is, well, a tertulia. This means many things to many people. To me it is a place where I can write and talk to writers, read my work and discuss translations, listen to the best and develop comical impersonations of them with a tango soundtrack, and workshop with young students. It’s hugely successful as a cultural reference point, but, unlike anything I’ve come across in Britain before, its people do not measure success in commercial terms. Yes, it sells drinks and books to keep the conversation flowing, and I run up a crippling tab when my first term’s grant runs out. But when I come back after Christmas, Paco tells me he hasn’t kept the accounts book from the previous year. “Fresh start,” he says, with a wink, and draws a sketch of me. I have no debts.

Paco is a great friend, something only made possible by my diplomacy and tact. He is a hard-line Communist, atheist, and fan of bullfighting; interestingly for an atheist, he believes in the superiority of Man over other animals (which until then I had thought of as a Biblical concept), and that their sole purpose is to serve our needs. He is entirely uncompromising in his beliefs, always says exactly what he thinks, and brooks no argument. If I were anywhere near as dogmatic as him, any kind of friendship would be impossible, since I am a romantic agnostic, politically uncommitted, and vegetarian. I can’t help thinking that he is sometimes almost Roman Catholic in his dogmatism, but I never dare tell him.

Alfonso is an even better friend, because as well as being a great poet and social activist, he has subtle self-deprecating humour, and a sophisticated sensitivity to wine and food (in that order). We give poetry readings together, but also explore the back-streets and hatch literary plots in tiny bars run by old men, all of whom he knows well. He takes me to a very brisk anarchists’ meeting, run by another Argentinian exile: he is proud to announce that “What sets anarchists apart from other left-wing activists is our common-sense adherence to practicalities”. When the agenda is exhausted, and action plan drawn up, we adjourn to the filthiest bar I have ever seen. I am by now quite used to customers dropping cigarette ends and paper tissues on floors which are regularly swept, but here there is a thick layer of prawn and snail shells, sawdust, olive stones and spit, with dogs constantly nuzzling through this pungent sub-soil in search of nutrition.

One night, a brick smashes through the window at La Tertulia, and we hear a voice shout “I am a disciple of Adolfo Hítler”. We have just held an anti-racism rally, with poet Luís García Montero, and actor Paco Rabal, both of whom are in the bar. Tato, Alfonso and Paco stop serving and sprint for the door. The bar next door is having work done and there are bricks lying around. Paco picks one up and throws it at the fleeing attacker. Alfonso and I are half-hearted and only make it to the end of the street. The others catch him and pin him to a car. It is Alfonso who calls the police. The man is arrested, but greets the desk sergeant by his first name, and is released the same night. Still, the anarchist did his duty- it was the system that let him down.

I walk back up the hill in the moonlight.fwf-10

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 9: Sweethearts through the cat-flap


9. Sweethearts through the cat-flap

On long dark idle winter evenings, as a teenager living at home, you can imagine what I was getting up to, right? Yes, you got it- browsing my parents’ bookshelves in the sitting room. There were lots of Folio hardback titles, some of which Dad had signed up for without meaning to, including a lovely Lord of the Rings with wafer-thin pages, an extraordinary and incomprehensible (to me) set of jokey kitsch pre-war cartoons entitled “Love is…”, Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, An Almanac of Words At Play, A Pictorial History of Slough, The Birds of the British Isles, A Gardener’s Yearbook, World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, and a dark brown slab quite simply entitled The Last Two Million Years.

I didn’t work my way through all of them. I had a life! I genuinely think all these tomes were of equal interest to Dad, but after the Tolkien, I read only one other volume in full, and a new, exciting, future suddenly took shape before my eyes. I’m referring to World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, obviously.

Just kidding. The book I examined, initially with the same scepticism I reserved for the other worthy, slightly dusty, post-war hardbacks, had a very simple premise: a well-educated but broke young man, aspiring to write, goes to live in a tiny mountain village in southern Spain. He gets help from locals to set up a modest home, has only occasional access to funds (loans from relatives back home), and sets about observing the social interactions, curious rituals, superstitions and eating habits of the people around him, without condescension or romanticisation. Sometimes he has to explain lots of background stuff about the church, politics, and history, so that we understand what he’s seeing. Then his posh friends from London unexpectedly come to visit… with hilarious consequences! It could be any one of a dozen airport paperbacks or a thousand blogs.

Except- this is the 1920s. The Spanish Civil War hasn’t happened yet, gypsies accost foreigners in the mountains and take them to the mayor at knifepoint, convinced that they are mythical monsters. There are no roads. In unruffled, unassuming prose, he moves from lucky charms and thistle soups to his visitors, who happen to be Lytton Strachey (suffering from haemorrhoids, forced to ride side-saddle on a mule alongside a sheer cliff drop to access the village, and on arrival refusing to eat garlic or olive oil) and Virginia Woolf (gabbling poetry as she scrambles amongst the fig trees, and slagging off D.H. Lawrence).

Perhaps his slight sense of inadequacy helped make his voice so young and accessible to me, as I sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, hearing the hum of M4 traffic and the buzz of landing planes through the double glazing. The narrative, whilst edited in a literary spirit, is far from formulaic. It winds up the hillside like a narrow street, reaching dead ends patrolled by cats, and doubling back on itself- it has two consecutive chapters entitled “Almería and its brothels” and “Almería and archaeology”. 

On re-reading, I realise quite how much of an interest he was taking in courtship rituals. Perhaps there’s a reason why this didn’t strike me as strange. I do remember wondering if much would have changed in these small villages of the Alpujarra 70 years on.

Men would crouch or lie in the street next to small windows, or even cat-flaps, in houses, talking to their sweethearts within, and occasionally clasping their hands, until midnight. In towns, they would shout up one or two floors if necessary, for instance if the girl failed to obtain the use of a ground floor window from neighbours, friends or relatives. Only when society became more permissive in the 1930s, and young couples could go out to the cinema together, did customs change, and high blocks of flats start to appear. Before then, they weren’t built because no-one would have rented them- a girl living too high up would never have got married.

There is an extraordinary dowry-provoked dynamic in his village: the most eye-catching young women happen to be from the more modest families, so early courting is a painful, protracted process. The men are keen to seduce them, but never make an above-the-board move because of parental disapproval. The girls cannot get physical with them, because if anyone hears about it, their chances of finding another suitor are done for. So they are all in an unbearable state of tension until eventually the time comes for the young men to settle down, and their parents fix up a financially beneficial match with someone else.

So the poorer girls are desperately trying to catch their men and get them to over-rule their parents, but without appearing overly familiar with them in the meantime for the sake of their reputations, while the “lucky” few young women whose parents have a bit of land for their dowry can afford to play the waiting game, all the time privately seething at the flirting and intrigue they are witnessing, but are personally denied.

If you add into the mix the fact that the street itself, and the afternoon stroll, is, as Brenan describes it, the equivalent of an English ballroom dance for getting to know people, then you have what must be an arresting spectacle for this young man: a street full of women, half of whom are making promises with their walk and their eyes that cannot be seen to be directed at any one man. He mentions in passing that when they do dance, at a village fair, some of them have the “snaky, contortionist’s ripples of a gypsy”.

2 years later, as a student, I discovered that one option for my grant-funded integral “third year abroad” was a year at the University of Granada. Maybe there were some other options on the list, since no-one else came… I can’t seem to remember now. Snaky, contortionist’s ripples, you say? Yes, I’ll write. Bye!fwf-9

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 8: I’m SO sorry- he’s not from Barcelona

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8.  I’m SO sorry- he’s not from Barcelona

Catalan had been a hobby-horse for a while, and I leapt at the chance of turning it into a Grand National winner. Well, a Special Subject in 20th Century Literature in my Final Exams, to be marked by the language assistant. So I’ll settle for: a kind of domesticated stallion. It was also one of those languages that tourists in Edinburgh and Oxford expected you not to understand when they were speaking it to each other, sharing their intimate feelings about fun, constipation, and how to make cava. Until they met you, and realised you spoke it. Then they spoke it and quite relentlessly did expect you to understand them.

So at the end of my first year, I used a college bursary to attend two courses in Barcelona: a Catalan course (on which I improved my Spanish, the mother tongue of all my classmates) and a Spanish course (on which I learnt some Japanese, and the lengths to which bearded middle-aged Germans will go to try and sit on the teacher’s lap).

The beard laws in Spain have changed since then, of course. It was partly Helmut’s beard that made him look middle-aged in the eyes of the rest of us. But for Spanish men under 35, ironically, a beard is now a mandatory legal requirement. You’re not allowed to leave the country without one, especially if you’re moving to Kreuzberg, Berlin. And let’s face it, most of them are.

But Helmut was moving in the opposite direction. Recently divorced, he had decided that Spaniards were spontaneous, noisy and tactile, and that therefore his future lay in Barcelona, a place where he could be himself, and let his inner Latin temperament, and indeed hands, run free- interrupting the teacher with smut, sharing too much information with his classmates, and trying to make lavatorial jokes in a language he barely mastered.

Registering for the Catalan course was a daunting bureaucratic procedure for a foreigner. It didn’t occur to me not to use the language to explain my peculiar circumstances to the secretary, so the upside was, when we were finished, she told me I had been excused the evaluation test and could go straight into the top stream.

This meant my classmates were all Spaniards, generally not linguists, who’d been living in Catalonia for a few years, and needed a certificate for some reason, often professional. Everything seemed to revolve around certificates. We had to turn up, we had to hand in projects, but we didn’t really have to speak or understand the language, except to avoid embarrassment in the social interaction sessions.

I sensed these were much easier for my classmates than for me- after all, they didn’t only have about 10 years more life experience than me, they had also had the cultural experience of living in Spain, and Catalonia, which gave them immense common ground. They all invariably spoke Spanish amongst themselves, and with me, in the breaks and at after-class tapas, but could switch between the two languages to describe common realities. If they sometimes slipped into Spanish, the teacher knew what they were trying to say, because not only was she bilingual in their mother tongue, but they were inhabitants of the same city, she was on their wavelength. To say I didn’t quite fit in would be putting it mildly. Each week we would be asked to tell a story about something that had happened to us, and whenever I started speaking, I could tell that they didn’t believe a word. A strange expression would come over their faces, and they would exchange glances. Life in England, especially Oxford, was too far-fetched for them, and the only local anecdote I had was that I had got locked in a nightclub toilet on a beach, and had to climb out over the top of the door, which I relayed as best I could i.e. in slightly archaic and literary language.

In everyday life, I felt I was approaching fluency, but was just not quite on the same wavelength there either. It often turned out I’d said something perfectly correctly, it was just that nobody could imagine that that was what I’d been trying to say. The same thing also happened in reverse.

When the lift in my host family’s apartment block was out of order, I passed a lady on the stairs and greeted her.

“Are you Catalan?”

“No, I’m English.”

“Ah, you said good day very nicely.”

She was approximately half my height, plump, and had a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you.”

“The English are very bad, aren’t they? Very bad.”

She then seemed to give a sort of karate kick and spin around. I began to fear for my safety, and peered nervously down the lift shaft.

“Except for one,” she said, waggling a finger. “Just the one.” She kicked an imaginary ball of socks up the lift shaft.

Perhaps the exception was me, because I could say “bon dia”. I started to relax.

She seemed to be waiting for a contribution from my side. She willed me to speak.

My lips didn’t move. I froze again.

She fixed me in the eye for a few seconds and then let rip, as if exasperated.

“Leen ache HAIR!” she said, in what sounded exactly like accented English.

“Leen ache HAIR!”

Somehow inspiration came.

“Yes,” I said, “Gary Lineker is the only decent player.”

That lesson would later be helpful to me as an interpreter- whenever you haven’t the slightest clue what’s going on, it’s probably due to somebody’s assumption about the universality of association football. Thinking about it now, I could have learnt a more general life lesson too: when you sense that someone has sinister intentions, it’s probably just a reference to England being knocked out of a sporting event called the World Cup. “Sorry about the double Brexit ha ha ha” Germans had been saying to me inexplicably, and slightly offensively, all last summer.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 7: I Am Left-Handed and Would Like To Sing A Song


7: I Am Left-Handed and Would Like To Sing A Song


For a long time, I went to bed late.

You remember every single thing that has happened so far in the twists and turns of Fun With The Foreigners? Ma-fa-yu, the bhajis, the mustard on toast, the akabanga, the croquet potatoes, the grammar lesson in a pub, the hairpin bends and the sudden memory loss? Not to worry either way, really. No, relax. It all starts again from scratch today. It’s a new story.

But you need just one more tiny fix of chilli, to get things moving, right? Think of Thai food. A meal is not a meal, including a salad, if it does not contain fresh chillies, and most people add dried chilli, or chilli with fermented shrimp paste, at the table. It is an intrinsic part of the diet, like chocolate in Switzerland, or potatoes in Germany. But of course like cocoa and potatoes, chillies originate in the Americas, and the rest of the planet has only had them for some 500 years. There was life, and culinary tradition, before they arrived.

When Columbus brought chillies back to Spain, people were far more interested in his tobacco cargo, didn’t consider them food, and kept them as ornamental plants. The Portuguese were more open-minded, started eating them, and took them to Brazil, West Africa, and Goa (now part of India), all places where they are an integral part of the diet to this day. The Portuguese had a brief presence in what is now Thailand, where they put all their efforts into converting the population to Christianity. The attempt was a remarkable failure, and they soon departed- but they left behind the seeds of a revolution. Thai cooking became much closer to what it is today.

So what was Thai food like before the 16th century? Historians believe most foods included a ground-up paste of fresh green peppercorns, galangal and ginger. A labour-intensive method was used to achieve a strong flavour. It’s as if they were waiting for chilli to happen.

When I left home, two very British activities dominated my life for the first year: performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, and studying at Oxford. But in almost every area of my life, I was behaving like someone who lived abroad. I moved less than 40 miles (on the “big day”, after much packing, and saying farewells, we arrived at my orange spaceship Hall of Residence in less than an hour), but I was clearly someone who was waiting for the chance to get out of the country.

At 17 I dreamt of performing on the Edinburgh Fringe, but also wanted to use my French. At 18 I appeared there as Mario in Marivaux’s Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard, performed entirely in French- what more could I dream of?

Being precocious is the first chapter in a life of disappointment- either you fail to reach that early potential, or you achieve exactly what you want, and then realise that you were lucky but stupid when you were deciding what you wanted. By the time you mature, it’s too late for anything. Any new hopes you come up with are likely to be dashed- plus, you are childishly ill-equipped for failure. This is the huge boo hoo from the blessed.

My subsequent dream was to carry on doing shows and having fun forever, and I have done some sort of show, and had some sort of fun, at most Fringes since my 1989 debut. My one-man show exactly a quarter-century later even included French dialogue again, and indeed every other official EU language, in a satirical triumph that did so much to prevent the rise of Brexit.

But the most fun I ever had on the Fringe was with my first one-man comedy show (“I Am Left-Handed and Would Like To Sing A Song”), in 1990. The best thing about it for me, and no doubt for some of the audience, was when it was over, and I could start grinding away at those green peppercorns. Mine was the first show of the day, and I was a free man at 1pm, having a pizza on a plastic plate for a pound, a pint of Guinness for 50p, and then going out flyering. This was basically an excuse for having fun with foreigners- chatting to tourists who spoke my languages and trying to make friends who would put me up when I was Inter-railing.

Reading French and Spanish at Oxford was in essence an opportunity to write and talk preposterously about literature, and the collegiate system meant one could do so whilst living alongside musicians, chemists and future politicians. I heard all the stories about the Bullingdon Club, but never went near it, so didn’t meet my near-contemporaries Cameron and Johnson. I was too right-on to get involved in the Oxford Revue, so I only met comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring years later in Edinburgh.

I did meet and collaborate with some incredibly talented British people though- some of whom I still socialise and work with on Fringe comedy projects. Others have gone on to much grander things, like the shrewd historian behind “Al Murray- Pub Landlord” and the gifted voice artist behind “Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg”, who is still going strong.

One didn’t really speak foreign languages as a bookish Oxford linguist, but I didn’t mind. That almost helped with my compartmentalisation. Off-duty, there was galangal and ginger aplenty. Rather than hanging around in the incestuous environment of the college beer cellar, where men outnumbered women 3 to 1, I did all my socialising in the Welsh Pony pub (named after the Welsh pit ponies previously sold at nearby Gloucester Green Market), a dive by the bus station (in a fit of literalist zeal, now renamed “Eurobar” for the new millennium), that had been taken over by visiting Spanish students.

Spanish parents were spending hard-earned cash sending their offspring to “Oxford” to learn English, and aforementioned offspring were spending the whole time hanging out with other Spaniards in the Welsh Pony. They never showed any evidence of being aware of local licensing laws, so they would start gathering at around 10pm, dance wildly while the last orders bell rang an hour later, and then stand in the street at 11:20pm, in all weathers, discussing what to do next. One option was “International Night” at the Manhattan Nightclub, in a basement under a theatre, memorably described by Javier Marías in the novel All Souls (as, somewhat mischievously, were all my tutors- tune in later for that!), when his Spanish narrator goes on the pull there in the early 80s. It was tacky, sweaty, and I was guaranteed not to bump into anyone from the university. But the more popular option at weekends, to avoid the queues and fees and extortionately-priced stingy measures of spirits and understaffed bars and naff music and humourless lager louts, was a house party, where we could eat, drink and make merry exactly as if we were in Spain (until someone started removing the salami slices from his pizza, and the whole edifice came crashing down).

Back in bland Blighty, my tutorial partner speculated that my motto might be “Don’t shit in your own nest”.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 6: The Late Late Breakfast Show


“Like silence meets salami- with added Palaeozoic megaliths!”

6. The Late Late Breakfast Show

You remember what happened in yesterday’s mind-bending tie-loosening underpant-miming episode of Fun With The Foreigners?

You DON’T?

There’s no point in doing today’s one then!

Tune in first thing tomorrow morning for Episode 7!!fwf-6-kenny-everett