A gate-crasher at the party of life

July 20, 2006

A gate-crasher at the party of life

I was born in London during a brief interlude in the blitz, of uncertain parentage and given the two most nondescript first names around at the time. My main occupation during the war, apart form pestering adults with my questions (for which I was invariably told ‘hold your tongue’, was spotting doodlebugs flying over my foster mother’s garden. When one, by design or accident I don’t know, flattened our house (leaving, ironically, the milk bottles on the doorstep intact,) I was dispatched to a radical boarding school in Scotland where I managed to poison the headmaster’s daughter and be knocked out by the son of Scotland’s most famous poet. I was then adopted by a middle aged spinster who ran a small nursery school in a provincial city in England which time and the main railway line had passed by and which figured on maps only thanks to its splendid cathedral. At the age of six I wrote a ‘racy’ story (when I should have been multiplying 5 by 7 in my primary class) that spread rapidly throughout the teaching profession of East Anglia, wrapped furtively in brown paper as it made copious use of a four-letter word (‘Gosh’. My subsequent literary efforts were never able to match this success. At that time I was very ambitious- I saw myself scoring a century for England in the morning and fielding Prime Minister’s Question time in the afternoon. I saw my first banana when I was 6, my first black man at about 12 and my first pregnant woman the year after Other than that, I lived a fairly sheltered life. My primary school career was summed up by one of my teachers: “Tom looks like an angel but he’s really a little devil.” Actually, my ‘guardian’, although steadfastly denying the existence of a god, did believe firmly in the devil who was to be found in alcohol, tobacco, jazz, long hair, tight trousers and, most of all, jazz. Later on I excelled at passing exams in subjects I understood nothing of, avoiding sports and playing the bassoon badly. While engaging in this last occupation I managed to determine the result of a parliamentary election. The prospective Conservative candidate, who had been forced to listen to the unusual noises I made on the bassoon at a school concert, made a speech in which he, unwisely, praised my playing but criticised my hair style. Naturally, he was roundly condemned by the assembled parents and lost the election. While most lads of the time were into drain pipe trousers, ducks’ arse haircuts or skiffle, I dabbled in primitive Christianity and Expressionist art, fortunately without becoming addicted to either. Inclining academically towards subjects like English and History in which accuracy was not of prime importance (how I would have loved sociology if it had been invented!) I was pushed by my teachers into applying for Cambridge, I attended an interview with the a Senior tutor who looked at my Latin paper and merely commented ‘ You don’t know much Latin, do you?’ Naturally, I was awarded a scholarship to read Ancient History. Just before entering Cambridge I had spoken to a girl for the first time but this activity was then suspended during the three years at university, much of which I spent investigating the origins of the hurdy-gurdy and being arrested for playing bagpipes in contravention of college regulations. My moment of glory involved the loan by the BBC of a tape recorder (a recent and little known invention for imprisoning sounds on stretches of brown plastic tape) to record peasants playing hurdy gurdies in France. I will never forget the thrill when, standing in a long queue for the ferry at Dover, I heard the customs officer announce ‘Will Mr Tom May of the BBC please come to the front of the line’. The second year I also devoted myself seriously to the study of monasticism and mediaeval mystics and, although my discussion of the problem of how many angels could dance on a pin head drew widespread praise, I nearly failed the exams. The final year I hardly opened a history book and never attended lectures, just missing a First Class Honours. Cambridge did, however, teach me two important lessons. One was that whatever you believe to be right today you will know to be wrong tomorrow. The other was how to make toast. Neither of which was particularly good preparation for being thrust into the workplace. Not having any idea what I ‘wanted to be’ , I discovered that the French Government was prepared to give a modest amount of money to students willing to converse in English with the school pupils of that country and to my astonishment received on 30 August 1962 a letter signed personally by General de Gaullle (I made that bit up, by the way) requiring me to be at my post in Toulouse on 1 September. So I spent three carefree years in France, devoting myself single mindedly to the pursuit of a compliant female and living the last few days of each month on old bread crusts, pain d’epice and cocoa and. Even though in my final year I was given a class of 99 girls and one boy to ‘teach’ it was not until the final week of my three years that my efforts were crowned with anything resembling success. At which point , overcome by emotion (surprise mostly) I offered to marry the young lady . How I wished afterwards that I’d left one week earlier! As I had acquired a succession of worn out motorcycles (one of which I abandoned in Andorra, another was incorporated into the foundations of the new university at Nice) I had managed to acquire a thorough knowledge of the country lanes of southern France as well as an exhaustive French vocabulary on the subject of malfunctioning parts of engines. As I also drove without a licence or insurance, I gained a first hand acquaintance of the workings of several French police forces. Now, however, the stern world of work beckoned in earnest. I realised that my juvenile ambitions were a little beyond my reach, my work experience amounting to: one day as a postman (it took me so long to climb up the hills that I ended up pushing most of the Christmas cards down the drain); three weeks helping a bunch of wanton Birmingham gypsies pick hops and a month selling nails and combine harvesters. In which job I had my usefulness summed up by the manager when I boasted I had just sold my first pressure cooker. ‘You didn’t sell it, he said’ she bought it.’ In spite of these obstacles, I managed to enter the back door of a prestigious organization working in foreign relations, thanks to the interviewer being a member of my former college and intrigued by the fact that I had devoted my time at Cambridge to restoring an unplayable eighteenth century hurdy-gurdy. As my only experience of anything approaching work was of ‘teaching’ English I naturally opted for the most menial position in the other part of the organisation, the administrative branch, one step above the tea lady. After a year I had proved so incompetent at this that I was transferred to teaching English. During my two year assignment teaching a random assortment of foreign students in London, including a class of 25 Zambian secretaries and one of 12 Russian spies, my incompetence shone through so stunningly that I was promoted to project leader in the Overseas Service, a career which took me to Algeria, Colombia, Scotland (the hardship posting) and Malaysia., and during which my incompetence propelled me inexorably up the ladder. Possibly the zenith of my career was writing a series of textbooks for students who needed English for their studies. This series achieved the remarkable feat of putting teachers and students on the same footing in that neither had any idea what on earth the book was about. After an initial splash this splendid series quickly sank into oblivion. On the strength of it I was appointed to the job of world-wide consultant , jetting to different parts of the globe to help project leaders solve their problems. Meanwhile, the project team of which I was leader in London proved rather short lived owing to the suicide of the only other member. In all three ‘overseas’ postings I loved the place and hated the job, which I would have been able to perform satisfactorily if it had not involved dealing with other people. Outside work most of my energies were eaten up in the effort to become a dutiful husband and responsible father, though I also managed to build up a ramshackle collection of worthless ethnic musical instruments, none of which I was able to play. I renewed my connection with the BBC and had a talk on Tuareg music aired on the Third programme (I knew as much about their music as the average Tuareg did of the Third Programme). Somehow, my own musical performances never quite took off. The problem was not so much that I didn’t know how to play any instrument (though that was also true) but rather that I had no sense of pitch, timing or rhythm. Those weaknesses apart, I coped pretty well in my various appearances In one as an angel where I had to play one note on a harp. All went well until i had to leave the stage. I had been informed moments before the performance that angels did not wear glasses and that was probably the reason why me and my harp fell in most unangelic manner off the platform. In another I had to play a hurdy-gurdy with most strings missing in a motley folk group, none of the members of which had the slightest idea what we were supposed to be playing and where we were supported in the billing by some slickly professional Scottish musicians. My embarrassment was complete when I played a range of flutes with an Andean band and was interviewed live in Spanish on Colombian television. It was hard to decide which was worse, my linguistic or my musical skills. The only instrument in which I felt at all confident, the jews harp, was not one with a vast or particularly sought after repertoire. Music did, however, continue to play an important part in my life- my tastes (which range from Wagner to Soca) can be described at best as eclectic and, less flatteringly, as demonstrating an inability to make up my mind what I did like or to distinguish between the good and the awful. I was also a keen photographer and as my assemblage of photographic gear grew more elaborate and costly so the quality of the pictures I took declined. Whilst in London I resurrected my love of motorcycles and found, to my delight, that the Japanese now built machines that did not break down every other kilometre or spill oil all over the dress of the young lady you were trying to impress (not that there were any at this time of my life). I gradually worked up to a 750cc four cylinder Honda with full touring fairing. Since I was as competent on a motorcycle as I was on a pogo stick I came to believe firmly that even if there was not a god there was something up there keeping me on the machine when my trajectory and the laws of gravity would have had otherwise. Eventually mid life set in in earnest and things began to unravel, coincidentally or not about the time of my first visit to Bangkok. By then I was imbued with a mixture of ill-digested Marxist theology and oriental ethics, my reading consisting of South American ideologues whose prose was so complicated as to be totally unintelligible and Zen masters whose riddles were so simple as to be equally unintelligible. I had less contact with my adolescent children than I did with men from Mars. I managed to turn a dutiful wife into a spitting cobra. And the organization I had worked for for so long finally awoke to the depths of my uselessness and offloaded me to an unsuspecting government department. There I was to reign in splendour for 13 years as head of the foreign language training department, my two main achievements being first to spend all the money I was given and second to secure the appointment of a successor who was everything that I was not- competent, efficient, academic, a linguist, confident, outgoing and attractive. Oh, there was one other distinction, advising the US intelligence community on how to understand what gobbledygook-speaking foreigners were saying. Thus I can claim a small part in ensuring that the response of the CIA and other bodies to subsequent events was no less calamitous than would have been expected. Outside work things were not entirely uneventful as I experienced the death of two parent substitutes, arrest on a charge of receiving stolen property and the break-up of two marriages and three relationships, as well as of my collection of musical instruments. This latter came about when I got so fed up with people I hardly knew coming into the house and asking silly questions about them (actually I was fed up with people full stop) that I started a market stall selling nose flutes and one string guitars. Soon, of course, I found that to make it worth selling things I had to buy others so gradually I established what became the most popular and least lucrative stall on Greenwich market and my hobby had become a compulsive obsession. About the same time my ever hopeless passion for photography came to an end. For a while I had found that the only thing I wanted to take pictures of were torn posters, everything else seemed irritatingly pretty or plain uninteresting. So ridding myself of all my cameras was an act of liberation that I remain proud of to this day. There seemed to be hidden messages and symbols everywhere- one was on a sign in Heathrow which read ‘Make sure you are facing the direction in which you wish to travel. ’ For a while I wondered what this meant until one day I happened to be wandering through Chiang Mai on one of my frequent overseas business trips and it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted nothing more than the chance to wander along the back streets of exotic towns. Simultaneously, it also dawned on me that I could make this possible by taking early retirement and, as my love of Thailand seemed about the only stable thing in my life, I was soon to make this happen. My considerable experience of working with teachers, academics, diplomats, spies, petty bureaucrats, market traders, collectors, the British and foreigners, had left me with a profound distaste for all of them, Thais being about the only exception as they rarely took themselves seriously. My last day in Greenwich market I put up a little sign saying’ Closing Down, everything must go’ and to my amazement an insignificant little man shuffled in and bought everything in the shop. So I arrived with a single suitcase to make a new life in Thailand with the promise of an occasional consultancy for the Thai Government. About the same time the economies of South East Asia decided to take a nose dive and I simultaneously lost my job and discovered that to live quite comfortably I no longer needed one. Not having anything else to do, I cast around for something I could take photographs of in the woods where I enjoyed cycling. I soon realised that birds were beyond my reach, other animals absent and plants of no interest. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that many insects would stay still long enough for me to point a camera at them and even more pleasant to find that digital cameras did all the hard work for you including telling you the photo you were about to take was a waste of time. By then I had expanded my range of incompetences by publishing a course in Thai, a language in which I was notably lacking in proficiency, and a website on insects, of which I knew nothing and about which I was incapable of making any significant observations. My out of focus and badly composed photographs of unidentified creepie crawlies have proved much in demand amongst connoisseurs of that art. Not content with not knowing one local language I set about attempting those of the Thai hill tribes, thereby increasing further the range of tongues in which I am embarrassingly unfluent. Tiring of the music of birds and insects I have sought out and recorded local indigenous music of which I understand nothing and appreciate less.

Expanding my range of incompetences has more than filled my retirement though it hasn’t really told me who or I want to be, though I’m definitely on the right track. My hope is that I’ll be able to slip past St Peter unnoticed and check out both places before finding a little corner somewhere on my own.

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