ON BEING ONE OF THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT

BEING ONE OF THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT…

One of the interesting things about travelling elsewhere is what you learn about yourself.   I did not realise how much I loved Britain until I first went abroad.

What amused me on our recent trip to Japan was how, although I regard myself as an original and independent thinker, holding to no particular body of opinion, it appears I am in fact just the product of my background the same as everyone else.

Because my father had, as I used to tease him (and not absolutely without malice either), his own hot line to God and an urgent desire to persuade others to his opinion, which I found irksome, I myself have been careful not to express my personal philosophy to others and to leave everyone alone to form their own religious view (or not, as they please.)     I found it surprising that at least one of my children had an antagonistic attitude to religion of any description, considering that no religious issues of any kind had ever been presented during their growing up.    I think the actual objection was ‘other people telling you what to think’, a view with which I had the utmost sympathy.

I would regard myself as being, in the widest possible sense, within the great body of the Christian – well even here I hesitate to say ‘church’ – Christian ethic, though I accept no creed or instructions from anyone and make no visible external demonstration of my inner belief.    I suppose one could be put in the category of Do It Yourself religion that the present Papal incumbent so disapproves of, though a greater authority than he is did say, My father’s house has many mansions.     To those persons of such poor judgement as not to recognise the inadvisability of summoning an irritable householder to his own door to ask fatuous questions at inconvenient times, eg what do you think God’s plans for world peace might be, I resist the temptation to reply:  Actually He was talking to me about this only last week; and deliver a 30 minute oration along the lines of ‘God’s idea is this’…     I politely say that I’m comfortable with my religious philosophy and don’t wish to discuss it, and wish them good-day.

If visiting a Stone Circle, I hail the gods of long ago; and I never undertake so much as a river crossing without making a (mental) genuflection before the altar of the god Neptune.    My father had a beautiful well, 9 rings deep, and every summer before we left to return to the South, I would say to him, Let us visit the Temple of Neptune then, and we would ritually walk with the little children and the two cats trailing behind us down the hill to the place of the well.     We would pass through the meadow, waist high with summer Scottish flowers, and larks would sing above the other moorland fields.      My father would solemnly unlock the well shed, and then remove the well covering.    I would kneel at the edge and stare down into the still depth of the crystal clear water which miraculously seemed to remain full to near the brim however dry it was or how much we used it.   My father, who, in the kind light of retrospection, sometimes did know when to be silent, shared my reverence for the bountiful planet which gives us life;  what does it matter to what name you offer your expression of gratitude?

You will perceive therefore that I regard myself as enlightened and tolerant (though I held it against a woman who once called me ‘pantheistic’; and in the case of another ‘christian’ who said to me once that ‘for a pagan’ I was well educated in religious matters, I doubt if I ever exchanged more than the minimum of polite greetings with him thereafter.)

So I am completely surprised by my hostility to non-European religions.     Buddhism.     Although I find the beauty and simplicity of a Zen garden attractive, and the faces of some monks have an innocent joy, I do not find it an appealing philosophy.   Fat man sits under a tree and gets enlightenment.    And in his writings, ‘It is very difficult for a woman to walk the path  to enlightenment’.    I think, could this be because she might have too much to do, not being able to sit under a tree all day?

And a Shinto shrine…   beautiful, of course, and generally wonderfully set in the landscape.   But I find this religion difficult to understand at all.    It’s as if we had made Memorials to former kings and worshipped them as gods.    Henry VIII as a god.   Well, I’m sure he would have approved.

 

So it would appear that European gods I can accommodate.   Confronted by non European religions, that Scottish Presbyterian I didn’t know I was rises up in righteous disapproval.   Heathen gods and superstitious nonsense, I find myself think, and then wonder, did I say that?   I am ashamed of my reactions and would disown them if I could, but it seems an unfortunate truth that though I may masquerade as a moderate modern woman, in fact there lurks in my secret heart a creature of covert Scottish prejudice.   

Daughter of John Knox?   I fear I am, monstrous regiment of women though he said we were…

BRAIN OR BODY?

BRAIN OR BODY?

 

I sometimes wonder just who’s in charge here – is it the brain, or the body?

Mostly of course you feel it’s the brain.   The thinking capacity (in my case anyway) takes charge in times of crisis and talks to the body in low, clear tones, as if to a child or animal.   For example when some distressing event happens and the system is about to collapse, the brain will flood the senses with the order, Hold tight.   We can’t lose it here.   Hang on until I get us to a safe place.

Of course frequently the brain gets too big for the body (I’d have said boots, but the vision of the brain stomping about in its boots put me off my train of thought.)   When we were recently in Japan we were looking at a fruit, a little bigger, more squashy, and more orange than a tomato.

Elisabeth said to me, ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied.

 Brain said to me, ‘It’s a persimmon.’   

‘What?’ I said.

‘A persimmon.’ said the brain firmly.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked irritably.    ‘I don’t know that.   I’ve never seen it before.    And whose brain are you anyway?’

‘It’s a persimmon,’ said the  brain, with dignity.

When we get back home, we look it up.   Yes, there it is in a picture.    Yes, it is a persimmon.   Brain remains smugly silent.

But sometimes the body dictates the pace.  I once lay on my sofa for two whole days, doing nothing at all except watching crap TV, even although there was nothing wrong with me.   I just felt like lying on my sofa.   Then I got up and went on what turned out to be a  most difficult weekend of which I had no prior (conscious) knowledge.   Does the body have its own awareness of which the brain knows nothing, and vice versa?

I woke the other morning in a state of total instant alertness.  Brain said, What’s happening?   Body said, Be quiet.   I’m listening.   Brain obliged.   Body listened to various minor noises.   Then body announces: Danger over.   Nothing’s out there.   Go back to sleep.

Brain thinks (but doesn’t complain to body), if only it were that easy!

Memo to self:   Brain, listen to body.   Body, do what brain tells you.   

Am I the brain or the body?   Both, I suppose.

PS   Brain, who can be the most irritating know-all, has pointed out to me that I must have seen a persimmon before now, because though it was true to admit I had no recollection of this, I know exactly what one tastes like and what is more, I do not like it.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

SERVICE WITH A SMILE  

I have outlined previously some of the difficulties encountered during a visit to Japan but where ‘service’ comes into anything,  Japan is vastly superior to anywhere else I’ve been.    Tips are not expected and should you offer one, generally refused.

We had requested wheel chair assistance on arrival at Narita (because it was in the middle of the night, body time) and this was offered with great care and courtesy so I felt like a piece of valuable china.    (A very good service was also offered at Heathrow.)

Elisabeth and Rob’s flat was a wonderful affair on the 27th floor of a modern tower.   After our outings but before their return from work, we would rest in their sitting room and watch the light change over the city, noting the daily alternation of the glorious Autumn colours.   As darkness fell, the lights would come on one by one.   Tokyo is a lovely city with many parks.   The building had white gloved doormen who would rush to help you with your luggage, or open the doors for you, and a receptionist who would receive messages and parcels.   

 

We went with Elisabeth to Comptoir des Cotonniers (http://comptoirdescotonniers.com)  where she had been thinking of purchasing a coat and suit for her working wardrobe.   Service here was excellent.    They settled me down in a comfortable chair.   The saleslady listened carefully to what Elisabeth had to say, and then directed her junior assistants to bring a selection of clothes, all the correct size and meeting Elisabeth’s brief.    At some point they realised that John was lurking outside, not wishing to enter a ladies’ clothes shop, and presumably recognised that if he were comfortable, we could spend more time in the shop.   “We have a seat for your father,” they said to her.   We answered he wouldn’t come in, but two of the young pretty girls were despatched and in that tactful but persuasive way of Japanese ladies would brook no refusal.    He was made comfortable in a corner.      Meanwhile Elisabeth was trying out outfits, with their accessories, my scarf, her own garments…     While she was dressing, the saleslady would talk to me.    I said my daughter was getting married.   “Oh,” she replied.   “In England?”    When I said, Yes, she asked, ‘Will it be like a wedding in  a film?’     Wedding in a film, I thought.   Does she mean, like in The Godfather?   Four Weddings and a Funeral?    Pride and Prejudice?    Anyway, Elisabeth decided to buy a camel coat and a black trouser suit.    The junior girls busily took away the rejected clothes, and the next in seniority to our saleslady wrapped the clothes up beautifully.   Elisabeth was asked for her card, and permission was sought to advise her when new collections came in and I am quite sure when she makes her appointment and goes there, they will have a selection that does suit her and is appropriate hanging up in the correct size waiting for her to try them on.    She was given a lovely mirror in a white leather case  ‘and one for your mother’.     Then they all accompanied us to the door, and bowed us out.     It’s a seductive experience, let me tell you.

You could argue that Elisabeth spent a fair sum there, and that this level of service would be forthcoming in many places, but our greatest service experience was not costly.   The lens of John’s glasses fell out into his hand but was fortunately not damaged.   However, a small screw was missing.   Rob and he attempted to fix them with a screw from a redundant pair of Rob’s glasses but only succeeded in disabling two pairs.    The receptionist downstairs produced an address for an optician open mid morning on  Sunday just around the corner, so we went there with me holding John firmly by the hand (no jokes about the lame and the blind please!)     We all went into the shop and John presented the problem.    We were all gathered in and all four of us relieved of our glasses.   We were seated.   We were served green  tea.   My glasses were returned to me, cleaned as they had never been cleaned before, and with the nose supports replaced.    Equal attention  had been  paid to everyone’s, and the  two pairs of damaged glasses were as new.   We gave our thanks and John asked for the bill.   No charge.   Four of them had worked for perhaps quarter of an hour.     We were horrified.    There was nothing for it but to smile and leave.    Elisabeth suggested we might take them a small gift which they  could all share – but it had to be wrapped.   Next day we purchased a box of French macaroons (a luxury there I assure you!) and duly returned to present it – mindful of Elisabeth’s instructions, John presented the gift with his two hands and the nod of the head that is the nearest Scots are going to approach to a bow.  He just offered it to the lady who came to meet him, but was quickly redirected to the master of the establishment.    They seemed pleased and enquired after our ‘son and daughter’ and ‘children’ – they spoke good English, so they do not seem to make a distinction for relatives by marriage, and I had noticed that the Empress was referred to as being ‘with her mother’, when the accompanying  lady was in fact the Dowager Empress and therefore her mother in law.

You encounter this level of service everywhere.   On the legendary bullet train, the beautiful Shinkansen, there are four staff (at least) – the driver, the guard/ticket inspector, and one or two people serving snacks who bow to the carriage on leaving and entering, and to each customer in each transaction.   John put one young girl thoroughly off by selecting an item himself from her trolley before the bowing was finished.   At the front of the train is a section with a moving map where young passengers can sit before a wheel and ‘drive the train’ and an attendant scours the train winkling out young future train drivers and their mothers.    (Some fathers looked on quite wistfully…)    And on one journey in Tokyo, using the ‘Oyster’ cards our children had given us, I could not walk through the barrier as mine needed topping up.    I was tired and getting a bit stressed.   A guard came and asked us to follow him to his little cubbyhole where he took John’s card as well and disappeared within.    When he came out he presented the cards to John (two hands presenting the card, with bow.)    “They get you home now.”    John thanked him and asked what we owed him.   He waved us on.      “Courtesy of Japanese Railway.”    

One shudders to think what the Japanese make of our levels of service.   Somehow I can’t see British Railways being so courteous.   I don’t think they give a toss whether you ever get home or not.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

 

When I was a small child, I used to read with relish a battered old book that belonged to my grandfather, giving useful and necessary phrases for travellers, translated into several African languages.      I looked forward to the day when I too could insist imperially:  ‘This room has not been cleaned sufficiently.’    Or declare, ‘You are  charging too much.   I refuse to pay.’    Then there was the dramatic, ‘Has anyone with cholera slept in this bed?’    And (my personal favourite): ‘This person seems to be dead.    Kindly fetch the appropriate person in authority.’   Though I have on my travels occasionally found it expedient to enact the English memsahib, emergencies of these types have not happened to us (yet.)

 When we first visited Japan in 1997, people outside of Tokyo would stare to see a European, and travel was very difficult because there was virtually no signing in English.   This is not at all the case now which makes travelling in Japan a lot easier.

I have explained before how this family has a shameful record of incapacity in acquiring anything other than a rudimentary grasp of other languages.   Elisabeth’s fiancé, Rob, has a much more commendable thoroughness in his language studies and we tended to depend on him in any situation where English would not suffice.

When I looked at his Japanese equivalent of our ‘Janet and John’ books, lazy as I am in these matters, I’d have promptly consigned it to the ‘too difficult’ category.   For a start there is the lack of any alphabet that we recognise.   There are three different systems of characters – thousands of those (I am reminded of the chrysanthemum fancier’s  500 million).   They  use all three systems, sometimes in the same sentence.     There are only past and present tenses.   With our complexity of tense, I found restriction to only two, impossible to imagine.   Japan is a caste oriented society so there are many varieties of phrases addressing people in different relationships to yourself.    Japanese used by men and by women is quite different.   (Apparently, when the Emperor Hirohito addressed the Japanese people after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recommend surrender, he used the language of the court and the majority of ordinary citizens did not understand him.  He described their situation as – ‘the war has developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’)     There are standard phrases which may mean many things and which might be employed say when concluding a transaction.    I do recall eventually becoming very irritated with a tour guide who used exactly the same phrases all the time.    When you consider the extreme shades of subtlety with which you can take your leave of someone in English, it is hard to contemplate there being one phrase to cover all eventualities.

While I was writing this I heard a good example of what I mean by this subtlety of English.   Ann Widdecombe on Andrew Marr, discussing issues of the presumed eventual succession to the throne, said of course it would be the heir apparent, there ‘was not going to be a plebiscite.’   I wondered what the difference was between plebiscite and referendum, and looked them up.    There is virtually no difference: both mean that the entire population votes on one issue.    But I suggest that in choosing the word ‘plebiscite’ with our association of common, uneducated and uninformed in the word ‘plebs’ Ms Widdecombe was subtly scornful (possibly subconsciously) of the very idea of the Great Unwashed being so bold as to have an opinion on the holy issue of Majesty.   (She probably believes in the divine right of kings.)    

To return to Japan however, everyone there speaks ‘English’ which is wholly admirable, but they have often been taught by a teacher who has never visited our islands and may therefore not be very easily understood.

Children on the other hand often understand remarkably well, and I said to a little girl of 8, dressed in her ceremonial kimono, ‘How beautiful you are.’ – thinking she would not understand but her grave face broke into a broad grin of delight and she rushed off to tell her father.

We had coffee in a French bistro in Tokyo where a sign said, Les huitres sont arrives.   Underneath it said, Fresh oysters has came.

On a boat, ‘Remember the finger thing’, was interesting to contemplate.

In general, Rob’s instruction to a taxi driver would be accepted at once, whereas Elisabeth saying exactly the same would be repeatedly queried until we decided what was actually happening was that they were saying, Are you sure you know where you’re going, Missy?

However the most annoying communication on this trip came in English, on the plane.   I hate it when the crew make prattling announcements or talks more than is necessary.   The assistant pilot was so bouncy and garrulous you felt as if ‘Roo’ was flying  the plane.   He interrupted our thoughts.   Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a problem with – then something took his attention and he fell briefly silent.   Problem with what, I thought.    The engine?   The fuel pump?   The landing gear?    When he continued, ‘with the Entertainment system’, I really felt quite annoyed.

You realise how the language you learn at your mother’s knee to some extent directs how you later think.   In English it may be customary for women (certainly of my generation) to swear less than men, but the whole of the subtle and complex language is at your disposal.   You are not required to define your relationship with the person you address, and you can, if you choose, be both very polite and extremely insulting at the same time.    Doubtless there are in turn subtleties in the Japanese language which are beyond our comprehension, but when I’m examining other tongues I’m always extremely grateful to be English mutter-spreche!