Which?

oxfam BLOG

 

The Oxfam secondhand bookshop in London’s Portobello Road is one of my favourite haunts. It has a great stock of books on a variety of topics and the people who work there are very friendly.

Recently, I entered the shop ad headed towards the ‘History’ shelves. Near them, there was a male customer speaking with a female shop assistant. They were standing next to a cardboard box filled with dictionaries.

“Which of these dictionaries do you reccommend?” the customer asked, “the Collins or the Oxford?”

“It’s a a matter of taste. Both are good.”

“But which do you prefer?” asked the customer.

“I prefer Oxford.”

“But why?”

“I have always used Oxford. I like its approach to spelling. I used it a lot when I used to work in a publishing house,” responded the lady, edging away to escape her persistent questioner. He turned to me.

“Which do you prefer?” he asked me.

“Oxford.”

“And why do prefer that?”

“No good reason, ” I replied,”it was the first dictionary we were given at school. Maybe, that’s something to do with my preference.”

“And which authors do you think are good?” he asked me, adding, “I have just given away my television.”

I could not reccommend the books I have written, as that would be immodest and likely to prolong this conversation.

“Thomas Love Peacock,” was the first author’s name that entered my head.

“And?”

“You could also try John Buchan. You know the chap who wrote the Thirty-Nine Steps,” I suggested.

“Never heard of him.”

“Balzac is also good in translation,” I added.

“Hmm. What about this one?” the customer asked me, holding a novel by George Orwell.

“He’s also good.”

At that point, I was ‘saved by the bell’. My fellow customer’s mobile ‘phone began ringing at a very high volume. It sounded as if a fire alarm had gone off. He rushed out of the shop.

I went to the cash desk to pay for my latest purchase. When I had finished, my new acquaintance came back into the shop, and said to me:

“Sorry about that. You are real gent. It was nice talking with you.”

I left the shop and will probably not visit again for a long time as viral considerations are forcing it to close indefinitely.

An awkward moment

Signs_500

 

About 20 years ago, we drove to Loket, a small town in the western part of the Czech Republic, a part of the country that was once known as ‘Sudetenland’. It was home to a large German speaking minority, which was expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of WW2.

We stayed in a small but cosy hotel with a fine restaurant. One evening, there was a couple of German tourists sitting at the table next to ours. Their pet Alsatian dog, Harry, was sitting under the table at their feet. We greeted them as they seemed quite jolly. We struck up conversation with them and soon we were clinking each other’s wine glasses.

They told us that they hardly ever travelled out of Europe because they did not want to leave Harry on his own. However, they said to us:

“Once, we visited Kenya”

“To see wild animals?” we asked.

They laughed, and then replied:

“The only wild animals we saw were Africans.”

This unsettled us a bit as did Harry who was, by now, licking our ankles with great interest. Somehow, the conversation drifted around to the Jews of Germany. At that time, the German Jewish community, such as it was, was under the leadership of Ignatz Bubis (1927-1999). One of the couple said:

“Whenever Bubis sneezes, Germany must pay the Jews one million Deutschmarks.”

Detecting a move towards further anti-semitic remarks, my wife said:

“By the way, we are Jewish.”

This brought the conversation to a swift end and also led to the couple failing to meet us for coffee and cakes on the next day, as we had planned earlier in the evening.

In a way, it was good that my wife had stemmed the possible flow of anti-semitism, but I was a bit disappointed. I would have been fascinated to discover how deeply they felt about the Jewish people in Germany so long after the end of WW2.

We never discovered the names of this German couple, but privately we christened them ‘Adolf’ and ‘Eva’. 

A couple of years later, we revisited Loket and stayed at the same hotel. As we parked outside the hotel, we saw a couple packing suitcases into the back of thier vehicle. Accompanying them, there was an Alsation dog. Yes, you have guessed right. It was Adolf and (und?) Eva packing up to return to Germany. We greeted each other politely, but not warmly.

I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.

Saved by a coffin

Old people

Before I began studying at Highgate School (in North London) in 1965, joining the Combined Cadet Force (‘CCF’) was compulsory. The CCF was military training for teenagers, who were dressed in full military uniforms. The school was well-equipped for CCF training, having an assault course, a shooting range, a fully-equipped armory, and several members of staff who had been, or still were, high ranking military officials. 

Fortunately for me, joining the CCF became voluntary just after I joined the school. The CCF trained on Tuesday afternoons. Those, incuding me, who had opted out of the CCF, had to do something worthy instead of military training.

For a while I was enrolled in ‘Digweed’, a squad of pupils who helped with gardening in the school’s numerous properties. I was assigned to the garden of one of the boarding houses. I could not tell a wanted plant from a weed, and was therefore quite useless. We used to be given cups of tea halfway through the afternoon. It was tea with milk, which I detested in those days. So, my only useful contribution to Digweed was watering plants with the contents of my tea cup.

After a spell of Digweed, I was asked to visit a home for elderly people every Tuesday afternoon. My task was to chat with them. People who know me now will not believe how shy I was when I became a visitor to the home, but I was. The elderly folk living at the home used to sit in high backed chairs arranged around the walls of a large room. I was supposed to talk with them. I tried, but almost all of them were too far gone to respond. These Tuesday afternoon visits were dreary and depressing, as well as being pointless.

There was one old lady, who was very chatty and friendly. However, she was not present every time that I visited. She told me that whenever she could, she would run away from the home, but would always be found and brought back.

One Tuesday, I rang the doorbell of the home. One of the staff opened the front door, but prevented me from entering. Behind her, I saw a coffin resting on a trolley in the hallway. “Best you don’t come in today,” the staff member whispered to me. I know it sounds wrong, but I was really pleased that the coffin had spared me yet another afternoon of misery with those poor distressed gentlefolk.

Liverpool

When I was doing experimental work in a physiology laboratory in London during the early 1970s, a new technician joined us. She was a lovely young girl from Liverpool. The job suited her perfectly and she was a great worker, full of cheer.

After two weeks, she announced that she was leaving us and returning to Liverpool. When asked why, she said: “I love working with you all, but nobody talks to each other on the bus. Back home in Liverpool everyone chats on the bus.”

Several decades later, I visited the lovely city of Liverpool. As soon as I was able, I took several rides on the city’s buses. On not one of these journeys did any of my fellow passengers chat to me nor to anyone else. I was so disappointed: I had been looking forward to speaking with the loquacious Liverpudlians, whom our technician had missed when she spent two weeks working with us in London.

Such is life

red and white sale illustration

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

When we were trying to sell a house in Kent many years ago, the estate agent put a “sold” sign outside it when, in reality, someone had made an offer, but only an offer without much commitment. I removed the “sold” part of the sign to reveal the “for sale” part of the sign that was hidden underneath it. Then, I rang the agent, told him off for being premature about advertising our house as being sold. Also, I told him what I had done about it. He replied cheekily: “Good man”, without making any apology. This same agent had told us days after we put our house sale in his hands: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll sell it, okay. Now, you can just go out and spend the money right now.”

The agent’s somewhat infuriating, unapologetic answer regarding his sign was typical of people living in that part of Kent. If, for example, someone caused a problem, such as, for example, scratching your car or blocking you into a parking place, and then you alerted the miscreant to the problem, he (usually) or she would not apologise, but instead say cheekily: “Oh yeah?”

There are two other nonchalant responses that continue to infuriate me after complaining about something or having pointed out a serious problem. These are: “These things happen” and “such is life”.