London: A foreigner’s dictionary

By M.J. Akbar

THE following is a guide to key words in the English language, in the unlikely event that you have to go for some work in London and need to stop over in Alcudia, Mallorca, on your way back for some harder work like staying out with friends till four in the morning at El Castita in Porto Pollento:

Glum: A state of never-mind. As glum as an Englishman on the morning after the night before. Pervasive mood, consequently, at breakfast table.

Breakfast: Food, price always included in room rates, therefore notionally free and psychologically essential in the tourist trade. Eaten in a large room where the long face, a metaphor in English, is made physically visible particularly by those who have come on holiday with their extended families.

Food (Morning): Anything that does not have to be cooked, as distinct from being warmed up on the assembly line. For example, eggs. A mass manufacture of standard shape, size and colour produced in farm factories. Bread: Once an organic substance, now sliced into anaemic patterns sweetened in a desperate effort to improve acceptability.

Dinner: Cooked, and, therefore, paid for. These days, always some part Indian in spirit if not actuality. Also known as India’s revenge for the Raj, especially when spiced to disguise the quality of cooking.

Englishwoman: The best thing about an Englishman. But even the best is not sufficient to make an Englishman smile in the morning. Compensates by smiling for two over orange juice, and not necessarily in the husband’s direction.

Smile: That burst of radiance that envelops the face of every Spanish waiter and waitress the moment the English tourists have finished breakfast.

Youth: A decibel level.

Sea (English): The source and sustenance of the Spanish economy. As in: One look at the English sea and you immediately book a holiday in Spain.

Sea (Spanish): A calm body of water fringed by exotic hills out of Hollywood movies and covered by a blue sky out of Paradise. Beside a meagre strip of sand heavily populated by a succession of bodies in search of some colour other than the pale, ashen white that these Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon tribes from the northern fringes of the civilized world were unfortunate enough to be born with. Hordes of these northern people come south to Spain and Italy in the desperate hope that if they leave their grey, wet, blustery, gloomy homeland every six months, take off all their clothes and burn themselves in the sun, they will begin to look as glamorous as those brown people who have, through history, populated the nerve-centre of civilization.

Some of these worshippers of the sun tend to exhibit familiar symptoms of ecstasy, and remove all their clothes while in that strange mood of immobile trance that affects them under the sun. The sun, a wanton and cruel deity, is not necessarily respectful of such devotion, and is known to laugh at midday as white skin burns to lobster red instead of maturing into tender brown.

Nudity: Too often, an exercise in irrelevance. As has been noted before, what is the point if there is no point?

Rain (English): An English sea in the sky. Plus, it drips.

Room Service: A mysterious reality in Spanish hotels with all the characteristics of an apparition or ghost in an English castle. Everyone knows that it is there, but no one has seen it.

Religion: Everyone has seen it, but no one knows where it is. This is official. On Wednesday, September 5, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (real name), Archbishop of Westminster, confirmed this while assessing the state of religion in modern Britain at a gathering of a hundred select priests in Leeds. He intoned, “Christianity as a background to people’s lives and moral decisions and to the government and to the social life of Britain has almost been vanquished.”

This was also evidence that syntax was in serious trouble in the Church. “There is an indifference to Christian values and to the Church among many young people,” said Father Murphy-O’Connor, who is old enough to be a Cardinal. Christianity, he explained, going into details, has been defeated by alcohol, drugs and recreational sex (as opposed to procreational sex advised by the Roman Catholic Church and no sex at all as advised by the Puritans). The youth of Great Britain responded, separately and collectively, in conversation and on television, by giving the Cardinal a huge raspberry before returning to the recreational variety.

Holidays: The prevalent form of religion.

Weather (British): The reason for modern holidays.

Weather (British, archaic): The reason of the British Empire. The secret power that drove generations of Britons to farflung corners of the known and unknown (unknown to Britain, that is, but known to everyone else) world. Research at a brilliantly convivial dinner party has confirmed that if the English had better weather, they would have stayed at home. Why would they want to conquer India except for the sunshine?

Since there were no holiday packages available in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British had no option except to declare war, win and settle down in sunshine country. Look at Australia. They first sent prisoners and then, when they received reports of sunshine, the rest followed.

As the poet of the British Empire has noted, mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Why did the English never want to conquer France or Germany or, God forbid, Russia? Who would want to rule nations with the same, or worse, weather? Makes no sense. The English are not Germans. Or not nearly enough.

Money is not as important as sunshine.

Money: Something that you change at the counter of the first available official crook, often gurgling thanks. Waiting for a better rate is so stupid that I am appalled I even thought of it.

Taxi-driver: Someone who knows what to do with your money. If the taxi driver is sour, you get milked. If he is friendly, you get soaked.

Peseta: A low currency in a high economy. Higher than the lira, but lower than the rupee. It sounds good to learn that there are twice as many pesetas to the dollar than rupees, but don’t overdo the celebrations.

Conversation: A discussion on cricket.

Cricket: A rich man’s game without money. Therefore, open to corruption. Once an Englishman’s honour, now a vehicle for upwardly mobile Asians. Also, an expression of Australian nationalism, with special emphasis on grinding to dust descendants of those who ruled a well-advertised empire. In Britain, a game undergoing radical emotional surgery while in the process of being handed over to Asian immigrants. By 2007 there is likely to be, by law, only one token white in the English cricket team. The best of white talent is shifting to football.

Football: A poor man’s game with money. Becoming, consequently, more respectable by the day. Once a definition of working class grit, now a vehicle for upwardly mobile Africans and South Americans. By 2007 even football could change colour. At the moment, however, it is on a pinnacle, with England having scored their greatest victory since the Second World War. Coincidentally, both these victories were against Germany. In 1945 also, Germany lost 5-1 to Churchill!

The author is Editor of the Asian Age, and is a regular columnist for Dawn’s Leader Page.///