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LAUGHING FISH (4)


(This was written during the 2002 World Cup)

 

The World Cup final today saw Brazil beat Germany 2-0. And even after more than a week, the Spanish press is still belly-aching over the fact that Spain were robbed against South Korea. Only this morning in the newspaper it referred to the forthcoming final as “Spain’s final”. Commenting on Collina as the referee, it was “finally FIFA sees the error of its ways”. There was an article affirming that a “close friend” of the Egyptian referee – the only cause for Spain not being in the final – had told a friend of the reporter’s that he had been told that it was “better if South Korea beat Spain.” Thus proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was a conspiracy. The Spaniard is, though, notorious for having to find someone else to blame for his own shortcomings. Even for something as apparently insignificant as the Eurovision Song Contest becomes a test of national identity and pride. When Spain doesn’t win it is a combination of the conspiracy between the Nordic countries and the fact that the rest of Europe “doesn’t appreciate our culture.” It is never because the song is crap. And so the idea of “walking” in cricket is totally alien. A phrase like, “That’s just not cricket” means nothing. Whereas, in the Saxon world, rules are generally made to be kept, in Spain they are made to be broken. If you can get away with it. Except, of course, if you’re Korean and you’re playing against Spain. There is no equivalent in the Spanish language for “fair play”. If they have to talk about it, they use the English and then they think it refers to how many fouls are committed by each team. Diving in the penalty area has recently crept in, but sluggishly. And how many times have we heard, “Foul by Hierro – but he had to do it.” Speaking of Hierro, the comment on his ignominious penalty in the last minute against Ireland was also a classic in its way. Camacho, the Spanish coach, said, “You can’t blow a penalty like that in the 90th minute!” There was no question here of whether or not it was a penalty, just that at that stage of the game you shouldn’t notice. I spoke recently to some of my chums of the cheat Maradona and his hand of God in Mexico. “If you can get away with it...” they suggested, and went on to lament, “This was Spain’s World Cup.” “But you couldn’t even beat Ireland,” you reply churlishly. Ignoring you, they continue, “Spain-Brazil, that was the final.” You decide not to mention that had they beaten South Korea, they would still have had to play Germany. And having done that, beat Brazil. How far away from the old spirit of cricket. You can see it now, the cheat Maradona shaking his head. “No, ref. Sorry. Not a goal at all. Handball. I’ll just send myself off.” Or Rivaldo. “No, ref, it didn’t hit my face. It was my left testicle. And the Turk didn’t really kick the ball at me at all.” Still, I believe “walking” is now a thing of the past in the modern game and I heard on the BBC World Service last summer that the Indians had been picking the seam off the ball. Not to mention the late South African captain, banned for life. Still, at least he was banned. If they had knighthoods in Argentina, the cheat Maradona would doubtless now be Sir Cheat Maradona. Still, I take some pleasure in the fact that he has turned into a fat git.


12 June 2010
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LAUGHING FISH (3)


            Many years ago, in a dingy suburb in the north of Madrid, you and James spent the long, winter week-ends playing pencil cricket. And it was more than a game. It was a ritual. From the preparing of the pencils and the picking of the teams, to the playing out of the match and the filling in of the scorecard. Whilst your wives sat with a couple of glasses of wine and failed to understand the intricacies of what was going on, you pored over crumpled sheets of paper and the thin flakes of pencil shavings. Literary Elevens, they were. You had Thomas Hardy and John Dos Passos to open. Malcolm Lowry at number three. You always tried to cheat for Lowry, help him to get into double figures, but he never did. Hemingway at four. William Faulkner a solid and dependable five. Dylan Thomas, erratic but flamboyant at six. D.H. Lawrence, for some obscure reason, keeping wicket, when not concentrating on the dark powers of his bowels, or the bowels of the opposing batsman. And then the bowlers. Ralph Emerson and Baldwin steaming in to open. Somerset Maugham a medium pace swinger of the ball. And, finally, Shelley, the spinner, who was only used in emergencies and if he could take time off from legislating the world. Lowry and Dylan Thomas sometimes bowled, but not altogether successfully. Dylan Thomas was once accused of chucking and made an unpleasant and rather childish scene. James’ team was filled with “big book” writers. Melville, Fielding, his captain – Cervantes, Walt Whitman, – maybe Balzac, except, being French, maybe not. Raymond Chandler was a cunning leg-spinner who gave Lowry, never one to have his mind totally on the game, all kinds of trouble. (The hip-flask of gin didn’t help matters.) And there was one memorable stand between Dos Passos and William Faulkner. Faulkner had got his fifty and Dos Passos was nearing his hundred when Wives stopped play.

            “That’s enough of that nonsense!” they said. “We’re bored.”

            Bored?

            “We want to do something.”

            “Do you want to play?” asked James foolishly and was rewarded with a clout.

            So it was out into the streets of Tetuán and having skilfully avoided passing any establishments where shopping might have been a possibility, if we except the underwear shop with its window display of big pants pinned brazenly to a cardboard screen, you found yourself in a small, dusty bar near the market, which meant that the Wives could look at bric-a-brac whilst you did some serious drinking and James complained that his stomach hurt. You knew it was partly sour grapes for having been soundly thrashed in the afternoon session and partly an incipient ulcer. Four whiskies later and talk returned to cricket – inevitably, because James was writing a long, lounging lizard of a book which somehow combined the history of the Labour Party with cricket and numerous, wordy footnotes and, perhaps, the occasional errant seagull, and if you weren’t laughing at Van Morrison’s lyrics you’d be talking about books.

            “Probably got myself run out in this Chapter,” he said.

            You knew the feeling. “Stumped?”

            “Just trying to sneak a quick single.”

            “The best run out I’ve ever seen,” you said, to nudge the subject a little further forwards in the ominous presence of a heavy silence, “was on Blue Peter.”

            James looked doubtful. “John Noakes? Chris Trace? Or that awful Val Singleton woman?” he asked.

            “Colin Bland,” you said. “He was being interviewed and they were asking him how he trained. He said he’d stand on the square leg boundary and have the ball knocked out to him, then he’d run in, pick the ball up with one hand, toss it into the other and throw it at the stumps, only one stump visible. And he’d hit it nine times out ten. He did it twice on Blue Peter.”

            “Is that where stumped comes from, do you suppose? You know, I’m stumped.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous! What’s being stumped got to do with not knowing what to do?”

            It was the Wives stopping play again.

            “I think it’s the expression on your face,” you suggested. “When you’re stumped, you’re left looking like a right pillock. As though you don’t know where to put yourself, which is often confused with the expression of someone who doesn’t know what to do.”

            “You don’t say,” said one of the Wives.

           “And it’s easier to say than I’m el-bee-doubleyou-ed,” said James.


1 June 2010
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LAUGHING FISH (2)


Machote leans his elbows onto the bar and nudges his small glass of brandy a little further towards the red, plastic box of serviettes. He looks at the serviettes with rheumy eyes as though trying to decide whether or not to take one.

“I thought cricket was knocking wooden balls through hoops,” he says.

“No,” you reply patiently. “That’s croquet.” It is surprising how many Spaniards think the same.

“Then it’s that game that’s like baseball,” he nods slowly, tentatively. He shifts his weight a little on the barstool and turns his unshaven face towards the sunlight streaming in through the finger-smudged glass doors. The air-conditioning unit groans and rattles above the window, dripping water into the street.

“Not as such,” you say. “Not really like baseball at all.”

Machote frowns at his glass, brandy yielding little pleasure these days. He sniffs and takes one of your cigarettes without asking. “I’m stopping smoking,” he says. He rubs a grimy hand over his chin. It is an unforgiving, red rash of raw skin.

“You’ve shaved off your beard,” you say.

He shakes his head and turns away now from the sunlight. “I lost it,” he says, “in a bet. I bet it against a glass of brandy and lost.” He tries to smile but his face is unable to produce the gesture. Maybe it’s not his face but something unrelenting, deeper inside. “I bet my beard that Spain would lose this morning,” he said. “And, of course, they didn’t.”

“You see, the difference between cricket and baseball…,” you begin, but Machote interrupts sadly.

“I don’t know how you play baseball either,” he says.

So, where to start? What to tell him?

“The game starts in the morning and goes on till half past six in the evening. They stop for lunch and tea. If it’s an International it lasts for five days.”

“That’s bollocks!” he says, reaching for another of your cigarettes, which he slips behind his ear for later. He looks up at the television. Japanese cartoons and a news flash flickering across the bottom of the screen. Artillery fire across the Cashmere border between India and Pakistan.

“They’re dangerous bastards,” grunts Beef Tea from further down the bar, flicking his newspaper, annoyed at being taken half way across the world and into a situation he doesn’t understand. And then, “Give me a beef tea.” Suddenly he stops, glances at the clock and rectifies quickly, “No time…., better make it a Nesquik.” A boiled sweet is placed strategically into the corner of one of his hollow cheeks.

And you wonder what he could possibly have to do that was so pressing.

 “Imagine football lasting for five days,” Machote grins into the brandy you are going to have to buy for him, “You’d die of boredom.”

“You sometimes do in cricket,” you admit.

“That game with hoops?” Beef Tea pipes up, uninvited, from behind you, top lip curled away from the scalding surface of his hot chocolate. He’d have been quicker having a luke-warm beef tea.

“That’s croquet,” Machote informs him knowledgably.

Beef Tea stands, or rather sits, corrected.

“Is it?” he says, more interested now in savouring his sweet, milky drink than entering into a discussion with the likes of Machote. Or, you fear, you. He begins to stir the hot chocolate rhythmically, his bony hand stiff, the movement made by the flexing of his wrist alone.

“Look,” you say to Machote, “Do you want me to tell you about cricket or not?”

Machote looks up at you as though seeing you for the first time. “Not really, no,” he says. “Fuck that!”

So you are left alone with your memories of Sobers, Kanhai, Gibbs, Hall, Hunte, Butcher and you think what wonderful names they had: Garfield, Rohan, Wesley, Lance, Conrad, Basil Fitzpatrick… No wonder that with a simple name like Paul you had been such a useless opening bat. Mind you, at that time, the English team had been made up of pretty common names, all things considered: Geoff Boycott, Kens Barrington and Higgs, Ted Dexter, Jim Parks, Fred Titmus. Maybe Paul was too posh for the times. Strange. It’s like the Colombians in bullfighting. They always have weird names too, names like Washington Rodríguez, Wellington López, Emerson Gutierrez, whereas the Spaniards are called José, Miguel or Julián. You think of sharing this with Machote, but only for a moment. He is smoking seriously, like someone who is not sure when they will get the chance to smoke again. Then suddenly he looks back towards you, takes the cigarette from his mouth and holds it between his thumb and his forefinger, the end cupped in his hand. He looks at you, his face sad and apologetic.

“So what do they use the hoops for?” he says. 


16 May 2010
Keywords: Laughing Fish (2)
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LAUGHING FISH (1)


I wrote this some time ago for a project about cricket that didn't make it off the ground. It seemed relevant following José Tomás's recent goring in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (More Laughing Fish from the same project are likely to follow)

 

You walk down to the bar at about six-thirty to get a good seat to watch the bullfight. It’s the beginning of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid, and the most important sequence of bullfights in the world. Every day for four weeks. When you were eleven years old, your Dad took you to Trent Bridge to see England against the West Indies. Gary (then still Garfield) Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs – Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, John Snow, Ken Higgs (with that silly movement of his bottom before he began his run up). Like today, Sunday 19th May, 2002, it was a sunny day. England were soundly beaten and you returned home chastened, to have nightmares about having to face Wes Hall. Nightmares are different now. They’re more like thinking you still look like Bob Dylan on the cover of The Times They Are A-Changiin’ when you really look like the cover of Time Out Of Mind. So, you look through the window of the bar, Palentino, and think that it’s a long way from Trent Bridge to Madrid, the smell of freshly cut grass to the smell of sand and cigars, the whites to the brilliant colours, the slow playing out of the day to an instant of black, storming power and adrenaline. And the dreams are different too…

“When you’re gored by a bull, it’s not like they tell you it is – a feeling of heat, like you’re burning, on fire. The pain is never the same when you’re gored. Each time is different. I remember, once, in Mexico: I was gored by a bull. Right between the legs. It hurt so much I thought the horn had gone all the way up into my stomach. My whole body was in pain at the same time. I thought it was the end. My eyes clouded over, I couldn’t see, and all I could think was that I wanted to die, just to make the pain stop. Sometimes, though, you don’t feel anything, It’s like nothing’s happened. You carry on fighting. You hear the crowd cheering and they sort of bear you up. Then, when they take you to the infirmary, there’s this fucking great hole in your leg, the blood sucking and bubbling out as your heart beats. But you’ve got to be prepared to let the bull kill you…..

“Of course, you’re frightened. Sometimes, when you wake up in the hotel room on the day of a big fight. And it suddenly comes back to you. You realise where you are and why you are there. And you just want to disappear. Come back to life the next day, when it’s all over. You lie in bed, looking through the window as the tops of the trees are blown in the wind, the undersides of the leaves shimmering almost silver, and you hear the birds singing. You can hear some kids out in the park playing football, their feet scuffing across the ground, the ball scudding and bouncing. That’s when you start to cling to life. When it’s all so simple. You want to see, to smell and to listen to everything… all at the same time. You cling to life because you know you might lose it in a few hours time. But you need to feel bad. It’s all part of it. It’s like a drug which changes your whole personality and leaves you silent for hours. You’re not hungry, you’re not thirsty. But your stomach’s empty and your mouth is dry….”

A quarter to seven and the bar is filling up. You look round, and they’re all there: Beef Tea, Machote, Father Christmas, Casto and then you look up at the television. The camera is focussing on the weather-vane at Las Ventas, the Madrid bullring. Instead of a cock it is a bull and you think that it would be good if that was where “cock and bull story” came from. 

 


11 May 2010
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England


England was good. No rain fell. Even London looked fine in the sun, blossom on the trees and the buses clean and shiny. I made friends in The Caxton with a BNP supporter, but he bought me drinks so I forgave him. 'Selling lots of books?' he asked one night. 'Sadly not,' I told him. Then back to Anerley with TP to listen to miserable songs and to think about what might have been, the whisky bottle as sternly present as the memories. One day I walked from Tower Hill to Holburn, read with MD, HH and GvdR, but MMB was sadly sick and didn't make it, which was a shame. Back in Spain now and it is surprisingly cold and wet. It won't last. But then, what does?


8 May 2010
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