Monday, 12 August 2013

Under pressure. Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how I never felt any pressure at exam time.  I had the useful if unspectacular facility of doing well in academic tests.
     But this post is supposed to be about a different kind of pressure, that in physical confrontations.  I shall draw a veil over my Army boxing record, one win and two losses - in both of which I was flagrantly robbed of the verdict.  I distinctly remember my face repeatedly landing full-blooded blows on my opponent's left glove.  To my surprise, none of them counted in my favour.
     Two fights at primary school stick out in my memory.  One I would certainly have lost if it had continued; the other I definitely won.  But lately I have come to realize that the attitude I took into each encounter, the state of mind I experienced, was far more important than the outcome.  It's probable that this has become clear through my deepening understanding of the martial art mindset as I continue to practise and study tai chi chuan.
     The first was with Ronnie J.  He wasn't exactly a bully, certainly not vicious in the Flashman mould.  He was bigger than most of the class, about half a head taller than me.  I think now that his harassment of others, and it was little more than that, was his way of being noticed.  Maybe it was a way of compensating for his lack of scholastic achievement, to put it kindly.
     He had been at me all day, pushing me around, making snide remarks about my performance in the 11-plus exam.  I was the only one in our year to get a place at the Grammar School. As we left at the end of the day, he gave me one final shove that almost sent me sprawling out of the door onto the pavement.  I remember clearly the anger I felt.  It truly was a "red mist" moment.  I turned and went for him with no sense of fear, just a desire to get in a few punches at his smirking face.  I remember I had to strike upwards to get at him.
     I remember too the look of surprise, almost hurt, on his face.  It was like, "What did I do?  Why are you having a go at me?" To defend himself from the onslaught of this furious dwarf, he stuck out a fist, using his longer reach, and caught me full on the nose.  It started spouting blood - as noses tend to do when they meet a fist - but that didn't stop me.  By that time, some mothers waiting for their children to appear had seen the fracas and ran over to haul us apart.
     In the second encounter ( I believe it was only a week or so after the first) I was surprised that I felt no anger at all.  I was heading home from school when I heard a shout behind me, "Hey, you - Wells!"
     I turned.  It was Richard W.  This one did have a reputation as a bully, so my brother informed me later.  I hardly knew him.  He wasn't in my class, I'm sure.  He started shouting but I couldn't make out what he was saying.  There was no reasoning with him.  He seemed angry about something but I didn't know what. He pushed me, I pushed him off, then he started with his fists.
     This one was as long as the other was short.  It didn't have the Cinemascope effect of the classic rough-and-tumble between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in "The Quiet Man", which ranged up hill and down dale over a good acreage of the West of Ireland.  But it seemed to last for a good ten minutes, first on the path across The Meadows, then out onto the road, a quiet cul-de-sac, past the home of the twins, Nita and Nesta, where the hollyhocks bloomed, back and forth across the street, past Gerald Bowering's house. Then we turned up the rough track which led to three identical houses, in one of which the fearsome figure of Alec the gardener held sway like Mr Macgregor in "Peter Rabbit".  A crowd of homegoing kids followed the action.
    That's where I finally got the upper hand.  He was getting hurt and I wasn't.  He turned away.  I landed another couple of punches on his back, just to show I could keep going if he was up for it.
     He wasn't.  I ignored him and went home.  He never bothered me again.  I still don't know what the fight was about.  Perhaps he thought he could "do a Ronnie" on me.
     Was that the start of my "cool" approach to confrontation - and to life in general?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Under pressure - in exams, in fights

Every year I watch with amazement the television coverage of schoolchildren squealing with delight and hugging each other as they discover the results of their A Level exams - or whatever they call them now. Somehow the cameras never catch the poor souls weeping in the corner or putting their heads down the toilet.  The old-school cynic in me might suspect that almost everyone passes, getting lucky in the multiple choice world of modern education.  The media cynic in me might suspect that the presence of TV cameras could have something to do with it.  (I'll be sitting my Grumpy Old Man Finals soon.)

     When I were a lad, such displays of emotion were never seen.  A well-hidden inner glow of success, maybe, or a carefree "What the hell, I'm going to be a mechanic, anyway" was about all you would get.  So it would seem that "coolness" about success was endemic then.  Or maybe the others hid their elation or despair better than kids do today.  I can honestly say that I just accepted the fact that I was reasonably gifted academically.  Later it became clear to me that I was particularly good at passing exams, and that was probably because I never fretted over the results, never felt any pressure.

     Boys who did well at exams, the swots, could become targets for bullies.  Looking back, perhaps I should be grateful to John K, who came out top of the class, every year, every month it seemed, whenever there was an academic test of any kind in almost any subject.  My main claim to fame was that I was always coming second to him - except for one year.

     The odd thing is that John knocked around with, and seemed to outsiders to be part of, the JPS gang. The stories that went around about some of the indignities he suffered at their hands could bring tears to your eyes, tears of imaginative empathy rather than sympathy with his plight.  Our laughter was as cruel in its way as the homo-erotic bullying itself.  On one occasion it was rumoured that a coat of shellac was applied to parts of his person.  It was bragged of, to much merriment, as "adding lustre to his cluster".

     The one year when JK did not do well, in fact I don't believe he gained top marks in even one subject, was, sadly, our final year at school, when almost everyone was pushing for university entrance grades.  Had the bullying had an effect (other years had not suffered) or had his own or his parents' expectations pushed him too hard?  In that year, I came out top dog, getting top marks in the school in two subjects, while nobody else managed more than one.

     The school mag records that he came back next year and did as well as he had habitually done, gaining a scholarship.  Good for him.  You'll have to look back through this blog to see how my Uni career came off the rails, or rather didn't get off the starting blocks, to mix a metaphor.  (I went to a Grammar School, as you can tell.)

    Time has caught up with me, as it usually does of a Sunday evening, so both my readers will have to wait till next week for the "fights" part of this post.  One I won and one I lost, but the attitude I took into each encounter is more important than either result.

     Coolness rules, OK.                                


Sunday, 28 July 2013

"Cool" or passionate. Part Two: cancer strikes

Cancer strikes . . . or in my case, sort of wanders in

The last post finished:
     When I was diagnosed with mouth cancer four years later, my reaction was similarly unpredictable. "Cancer, eh?  Never had that before."

     Almost everybody finds it hard to believe that a diagnosis of tongue and neck cancer in 2002 did NOT have me climbing the walls with fear, worry, anger or frustration.  Reporters from the local evening paper (twice) and a Scottish national (the Sunday Post) questioned me on it when a national campaign was promoting awareness of this particular form of cancer.  Each time I got almost a full page of publicity for my tai chi chuan class.  I was especially pleased to see that I was sharing the page with the legendary Lorraine Kelly, even though her column was unconnected.

     The odds of surviving oral cancer are not much better than evens, unless it's diagnosed early.  That's what the campaign was about and that's why I probably owe my life to my dentist at the time, Christine Lumsden. Incidentally, she was and probably still is a dead ringer for the actress Lynn Redgrave, still best known for the film Georgy Girl (1966).

    Christine first noticed white spots on my tongue in 2001 and referred me to Aberdeen's Maxillo-facial Unit.  A biopsy showed negative.  When a year later, similar signs appeared, she could have been forgiven for thinking, that's been checked, no need to refer again.  But she did check it out, thank goodness, and years later I'm still smiling - as well as chewing, kissing, gargling and singing, though my voice is now more Leonard Cohen than Frank Sinatra.  I blame the surgeon who cut my throat as well as my tongue.   You see, although I was into surgery within two weeks of diagnosis, by then the cancer had spread to lymph nodes in my neck.  Thank you again, Mr Rennie and the much maligned NHS.

     In the newspaper articles, I gave a lot of credit for my "coolness" to the Chinese martial art of tai chi chuan, which I've practised for over 25 years.  TCC  teaches you, even in non-physical confrontations, to relax and yield to an attack.  Yielding doesn't mean giving in.  In the simplest terms, you accept the situation and then deal with it.  Struggling against a stronger force is useless; you have to deal with it in a way which will nullify it.  That may mean bringing yourself and the threat into a position or a situation where you, the weaker, may have the advantage.  I never "fought" cancer; I dealt with it, relaxed, composed and strangely unafraid.

     On the other hand, has TCC only further developed my "cool" characteristic?  Thinking back, it seems I've always had this kind of outlook on life.

Continued next week in 

Under pressure - in exams, in fights



Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is it better to be "cool" or passionate?

Before I start debating the temperature of our personalities, it may be a good idea to include an apology.

The man of the title, Kyril Bonfiglioli, was the subject of the first nine posts of this blog, from 31st March till 20th May this year.  That's where you'll have to go to read my memories of his exploits and escapades, the scandalous and scurrilous, comic and dangerous.

     I am reminded of him now because Bonfig, my late friend and one-time colleague, cult novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower was, conveniently for this post, a perfect example of the passionate personality.  He was a man of extremes and contradictions, of quick temper and generous nature.  I know he was an outstanding teacher; I believe he could have been a dangerous enemy.  He both embarrassed and inspired me, not usually at the same time.  He loved and lost, had friends of brilliance in the worlds of art, literature and film-making, and in two of those fields shone as brightly as any.  He knew millionaires and men of power, gangsters and politicians, yet ended his days, to all intents, penniless in a tumbledown cottage in Ireland.

     And whom do I pick for the antithesis of this edgy, discomfiting, uplifting, mercurial character? Why, none other than myself - totally without ambition, wed to my first wife for 45 years till widowed, talented to "somewhat" standard in far too many fields but too laid-back (read "lazy") to concentrate on one and forego the joy of the others.

     Take my attitude to illness.  I had never ruffled the sheets of a hospital bed between an emergency appendectomy (1955) and a double coronary bypass (1999), so I could not claim to be inured to the anxieties of illness and the understandable fear of "going under the knife".  Yet I accepted the heart problem and its surgical solution with little more than slight anxiety and a mild irritation.  ("This shouldn't be happening to me; I'm a tai chi teacher!")   It may be hard to believe but I assure you it was so.

     It was at a tai chi class that the problem first arose.  Unusually, I had given way to anger in a confrontation with the hall manager.  I said to my wife, "Could you start the class off.  I'm not feeling good.  I'll go and sit down for a while."  Ten minutes later I came back and announced to the class, "Sorry about that.  I think I may be having a heart attack.  Could somebody drive me to A & E?"  Younger son Stewart, when he heard about it, thought that was "really cool".

     When I was diagnosed with mouth cancer four years later, my reaction was similarly unpredictable. "Cancer, eh?  Never had that before."

(to be continued - next Sunday, 28th July)

This post is getting too long.  And it's late.  I've tried to be consistent and post every Sunday, just like D C Thomson. (Scottish joke - Sunday Post.  Sorry.  It won't happen again.)  Now it's 11.30 on Tuesday.  I'll blog no more tonight.

Monday, 20 May 2013

You may call them coincidences

The Bonfiglioli ABC (continued)

It may be a good idea to start with an apology.

The man of the title, Kyril Bonfiglioli, was the subject of the first nine posts of this blog, from 31st March till 20th May 2013.  This is the last of those. You'll need to track back through those posts to read the rest of my memories of his exploits and escapades, the scandalous and scurrilous, the comic and dangerous.

C:  Correlations.   Conclusion.


Knowing more about Bonfigs life after he left Aberdeen, I have been intrigued by certain correlations in our lives, some commonplace, others more unusual, some in which I found a strange comfort.  Only one was neither commonplace nor comforting. 

     Our family homes each took a direct hit from the Luftwaffe; we both survived. Each married a Margaret.  Each fathered two boys in our first marriages.  We both loved words and loved to play with them, though I would hesitate to try to sneak on to his podium.  He taught me to fence with foil and sabre; now I teach Chinese sabre exercises to my students in tai chi chuan.

     Only once in our time together did I see Bonfig in a vulnerable moment.  I suppose the hurt was still fresh in his mind.  He told me his first wife Elizabeth had died in her sleep; he woke to find her dead beside him.  More than once - no, many times more than once - in my 45 years of marriage, I lay quiet in bed, listening for my wifes breathing. 

     Fifty years after Bonfigs Elizabeth died, my first wife Margaret died beside me.


       Kyril Bonfiglioli (29/5/1929 - 3/3/1985)

  Margaret Bonfiglioli's book, The Mortdecai ABC, has rounded out the articles and mini-biographies about Bonfig that I found on Google and Wikipedia.  Most of the conflicting hronology and the misinterpretations have been resolved, though not all.  

     The granite city and the schoolie sergeants get their rightful mention; the barrack square coat-of-arms gets its correct colours and tinctures (I was going to say 'proper' but he would quibble at that); and his theatrical telling of long and dirty jokes links an Aberdeen Sergeants Mess with an Oxford drawing-room.

     Quibble?  Did I say 'quibble'?  Bonfig didn't do 'quibble'.  He'd more likely haunt me, with an ethereal light-sabre in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.

     Clearly, Kyril Bonfigliolis short time in Aberdeen was as colourful and quirky as any of his adventures even some of the fictional - yet to come.  Things happened around him or he made them happen.  This was no quiet backwater of his life.  The preparation for his success, as novelist, humorist and storyteller, had begun.  

     I'm not one for regrets but if I had met him again later in life, I would have been able to fence with him, both physically and verbally, to better effect than I could manage as a 19 yr old.  I still count myself fortunate to have known him.

What am I going to write next?

     I've told all I can about Bonfig and I've received a few kind comments from his family and some people who knew him or love his books. Some well-known figures have admired his work,too, Stephen Fry, Miles Kington, Susan Hill, Craig Brown (not the former manager of Aberdeen FC, the other one) - where are you?
     My 'page view' figures tell me I've had 48 readers in Indonesia today, 16 in Russia and only one in the UK.  Would you trust these statistics?  I shall continue to believe that Stephen Fry et al are holidaying in Indonesia at this moment.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Arrogance, haute cuisine and appropriate dress

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued)

C: Career, university

Around Bonfig, life was sometimes scary, at times embarrassing, at others inspiring, but never less than edgy.  His influence in my life (a few months) ranks with that of Mr H C Todd, English master at Slough Grammar (five years or more) and of Arthur Mees Childrens Encyclopaedia (1940 to date).  

My friends from school, Brian Pearson (L) and
Peter Leech,in their first year at Oxford.
     When he told me hed got into Balliol on the strength of a thesis on heraldry, I resolved that that was the college I would go to.  I had good A level results, best in the school, and a County Exhibition to defray the cost. (Were there student grants in those days?  I can’t remember.) 
     Many of my schoolmates, who had opted for Uni first and National Service second, had already completed two years at Wadham and other colleges of that rank One, I found out recently had gone to Balliol.  By 1954, when I applied, Balliol had had so many applications that year that I had to sit another exam.  Eventually a letter, complimentary but crushing, told me that the standard was extremely high that year and I had not got a place.
     With the arrogant stupidity of youth, I decided if I couldnt go to Balliol, I wouldnt go to any other college.  Daft, or what?

     Bonfig had that sort of effect, on me and I believe on many others. Now and again, I still catch myself wondering what, in some situation or other, he would have thought or said or done. 
     Even now.    

     Im seventy bloody eight years old, for Petes sake!

     Exceptional food and expensive clothes are lovingly and wittily described in Bonfiglioli's novels. He lingers over them like no other thriller writer I've read - and he gets away with it.  Yet these necessities of life (leaving aside the adjectives) are but two of the contradictions which not only abounded in Bonfig's life but almost defined it. 

     In his novels, Charlie Mortdecai dines on caviar ('the real Grosrybrest, ; Jock . . . spurns Beluga and Ocietrova') or partridge breasts in jelly, casserole of pheasant or 'a medium-sized hen lobster, split and broiled with a great deal of butter'.  The author's tastes were much more prosaic.  His wife   (and who would know better?) writes, 'Despite the elaborate references to food in the books, Bon liked quite humble dishes and had developed a repertoire of hearty, tasty food to encourage his Balliol friends round.'

     Only once did Bonfig and I eat out together.  It was in a basement cafe just off Union Street, Aberdeen's main thoroughfare.  The meal was plain to the point of ugliness, a fried fillet of haddock on an ungarnished plate, served with bread and butter and a cup of tea.  Bonfig tried to talk it up, extolling the virtue of simplicity and the Aberdonians' empathy with the sea and its creatures.  Was he having me on?  I'm still not sure.

     On the subject of dress, Charlie Mortdecai assumes the status of arbiter of correctness for the occasion. Contrast that with Bonfig's all-too-obvious relief at the limitations of Army dress codes.  When my friend of the mountains, Irene, invited me to partner her at her sister's wedding reception, Bonfig's enthusiastic support and advice was almost comparable to that of best man for groom.                                

     'Ah, you'll need to wear your No 1 Dress uniform.  That's the great thing about the army: the correct dress is prescribed for every occasion.  You can't go wrong.'

     He was right, of course.  No 1 Dress is a smart, very dark blue suit, with  contrasting piping in your regimental colours, brass buttons a-shine and a natty peaked cap.

     I looked great in it.  Must track down that picture.

Next week:  Correlations.  Conclusion.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Vicarious sex and heraldry

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued)

C:  Concupiscence.   Coat-of-arms.    


To a 19 year old virgin (please don't snigger; it was the early 1950s) Bonfig's explicit revelations of sexual adventure were a world away from my experience, a little uncomfortable but exciting.  I had only recently left an all-boys school and my weekend activity tended to be healthy and outdoor, mostly climbing in the Grampian Mountains.  Even a midnight bivouac at 3,000 feet near the summit of Braeriach, snuggled under a groundsheet with Irene and a half-bottle of rum, failed to stir what I later came to recognize as a healthy response.  I must have been at that time much younger than my years.

     Bonfig's lurid tales, much relished in the telling, included his greenstick seduction by the family housemaid, his cuckolding of a fellow NCO and a brief affair with the wife of a well-known poet.  

     My reaction may have appeared calm and non-committal but only because I really didnt know how to react.  My affectation of coolness drove him to tease me with yet more erotic tales.


Bonfig and I left our mark on the Bridge of Don Barracks. 

     Did you know, sir, he said one day to the Company Commander, that your coat-of-arms above the square is painted in the wrong heraldic colours?

     How do you know? said Major Brown.  Are you an expert on heraldry?

     As a matter of fact, I am, sir.

     In that case, youd better get hold of some paint, fix up some scaffolding and paint the damned thing right!’    

     Only later did Bonfig plead vertigo and volunteer me for the job.  So it was that Sgt Ginger Ross and I did the jobbing painter work under Bonfig’s ground-level supervision (no matter how odd that may sound), changing lions’ tongues from sanguine to gules and carefully lettering the motto scroll.  I hope subsequent painters followed the colours we laid in so painstakingly. 

     I realize now that Bonfig’s description of a terrified Karli in All the Tea in China (for me, his best novel) ‘clinging limpet-like to any rope or spar above twenty feet’, may well have been based on a very personal fear.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Not the old gypsy joke

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued}

B: Bangs, loud.  Balls, crystal.  Brighton?

Balls, crystal.

     Picture this, if you please.  It's summertime, 1954 - fairs and fetes and suchlike jollies.  The Gordon Highlanders have thrown open their barracks to the public at an Open Day.  Children are clambering over armoured scout cars and trying to fire anti-tank guns, while their parents are firing missiles at coconuts.  Sergeant-majors are practising the unfamiliar skills of interacting socially and speaking softly.

     In one corner of the playing field a small tent has been set up and and a sign announces the presence of  'Count Bonfiglioli, the Bosnian Seer - sees all, knows all, reveals your future.'   Later I come to wonder whether this may have been his first tongue-in-cheek use of the title.

     In the dim interior sits Bonfig, apparently communing with a crystal ball.  Now where did he find that? He is wearing a lurid silk dressing gown and totally inappropriate sandals, a travesty of a turban and a layer of brown make-up whose origin I do not question,

     I stand outside, away from the entrance, casually close to where he sits at the back of the tent.  I'm trying, you see, not to look like a fortune-teller's minder.  This is probably where I need to assure the more timid reader that I was never the template for Jock Strapp, the solicitous thug always at the shoulder of the Hon Charlie Mortdecai, Bonfig's fictional hero and alter ego,  On the other hand, we did know one or two Gordon Highlanders who could have filled the bill.

     As people approach our tent who look as if they may be considering a consultation with the mystic Count, I mumble to him in an odd mixture of A level French, O level Spanish and some scruffy Italian* (did I mention I have a Prada or two in my mother's line?) and I'm telling him a few salient facts with which he can astound the credulous client.  I tell you now, it's not easy to mumble in Italian.

     Inside the tent a few minutes later she's wondering (it's always a woman), 'How does he know that I have a little fair-haired girl and an older boy?  I left them with my husband at the coconut-shy.'

     As Bonfig said later, 'Just tell them one thing that they think you couldn't possibly know and they'll believe anything else you tell them.  Anyone can do it.'  (Mr Derren Brown would be proud of him.)  From outside the tent, I could hear the tremor in their voices and sense the shaking of their hands as Bonfig held them.  He would have enjoyed that.

    I hope we did no harm.

* This is not to be taken as a reference to any person, living or dead, of that time or since.


     Reading the chronology list in Margaret Bonfiglioli's excellent compendium, 'The Mortdecai ABC', whose format I have so blatantly half-inched, I wondered whence the bald entry, '1954:  In Brighton Barracks', had revealed itself.  Could it have been the deciphering of Bonfig's tired and emotional handwriting or some Sassenach gremlin in the Spellchecker?  In 1954 Bonfig was most certainly at the Bridge of Don Barracks - known to every native Aberdonian as Brig o' Don.

Brighton?  Brig**on?   Brig o' Don!

Next letter in the Bonfiglioli ABC  

C:  Concupiscence.  Coat-of-Arms.  Career, university.  Contradictions.  Correlations.  


Sunday, 21 April 2013

At the Cutting Edge

The Bonfiglioli ABC  (continued)

B: Bangs, loud.   Balls, crystal.   Brighton?

Bangs, loud.

     Sergeant Don Fisher, the Depot's physical training instructor, taught fencing with foil and sabre to the four of us in the Gordons' fencing team - yes, even Bonfig.  Bonfig's expert knowledge of classical swordsmanship, including the Old French or Italian nomenclature, was a perfect complement to Sgt Fisher's athletic, competition-based teaching.

     For a masterly fusion of both, read the opening of Bonfig's All the Tea in China, where Mortdecai's ancestor, taking ship to China, also has to take on the bullying second mate.  It's cutlasses for two on the main-deck.

              " . . .rushed in with a great smash at my head, which I met with the high St       George's guard . . .next attack was a slow, clumsy molinello, commencing with a       feint at my side under the sword arm, another at my head which carried no conviction at all and finishing with a slice at my breast.  

     I performed a salto in dietro - the elegant leap backwards - at the latest possible moment and he missed by a foot; then I pretended to stumble and, as he rushed in to destroy me, dropped into the long Italian lunge, knuckles on the deck.  He ran straight into it and, instantly, the front of his (canvas) frock was a terrifying mess of blood."

   It was unfortunate that what should have been a felicitous co-operation between these two accomplished teachers, Fisher and Bonfig, developed a sharp competitive edge.  This led to at least two tit-for-tat practical jokes, one of which could have been extremely dangerous.
 The first was down to the PTI.  Bonfig's Sunday morning sleep-ins were legendary.  They also happened on weekdays when he could get away with it, that is, whenever I was taking the first class

    of the day. As Education Sergeants, not counted as real soldiers, we were not obliged to "get on parade" every morning. Our attendance might well have called into question the reputation and resolve of the whole British Army.

     The Fish decided to wake my snoozing colleague with a bang one Sunday.  He climbed onto the roof and dropped a thunderflash down Bonfig's chimney.  A thunderflash is a training aid designed to provide "donner und blitzen" moments for troops supposedly under fire.  Thrown in open fields, they're safe enough, unless they land in your back pocket, in which case you qualify for an immediate stretcher-ride back to base - face down.  They are not meant to be used in enclosed spaces.

     This chimney was an enclosed space.  It led straight down to a cast-iron cylindrical stove (not lit since this was summertime) with a trap-door at the foot for removing the ashes.

     Came a thunderous explosion that rattled every window in the building.  After a few seconds came out a dazed and temporarily deafened Bonfig, soot-encrusted and vowing vengeance.  We found later that the trap-door had been blown off its hinges and flung across the room, making a mighty gash in the wall a couple of feet above his bed.  Had he been sitting up, it might have taken his head off.

     The following Sunday, footsteps appeared, stencilled in white paint, left foot only, leading from the doorstep of the PTI's married quarters (that's house in civilianspeak) all the way to the gymnasium, finishing at the door with the legend "Hopalong Cassidy was here."  The Bonfig had struck back.

Next week: Balls, crystal

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Missiles, various

The Bonfiglioli ABC (continued)

A: Arms, skill at

On bookjackets and elsewhere, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Author of After You With the Pistol and Don't Point That Thing at Me, was wont to describe himself as "a fair shot with most weapons."   Not true.  Or rather, not true enough.
     How many people do you know, outside of circuses and Wild West shows, who could pick up a hunting knife (mine) and hurl this unfamiliar and unspecialized missile at a half-open door (also mine) and hit it edge-on (note that, edge-on) from across a 14 foot room (yes, mine) with minimal hefting and zero preparation?
     'What,' I asked, as I wrestled the knife out of my wounded door, 'am I supposed to say to the Quartermaster when he inspects the billets?'
     I should have worried!   His wife's book, The Mortdecai ABC, tells, very matter-of-factly, of many knife-marks in their kitchen door in Oxford.  "I stood against the door and he threw.  He was a handy thrower and liked to be trusted to aim without hurt."
     Another story in Margaret's book has him pistol-shooting a sixpence from between a friend's finger and thumb.  A sixpence, youngsters, was about the size of today's 5p piece.  (Sorry, it was a Frenchman, not a friend, who was holding the coin.  It may or may not have made a difference.)
     Undoubtedly the man had skill but even more important was his supreme confidence in his own ability.
     One evening we were practising on the indoor rifle range.  The rifles used there were of 0.22 inch calibre.  They may have looked no more than one step up from fairground pellet guns but they could be extremely accurate.  Under Bonfig's meticulous coaching, I lit a Swan Vesta at 25 yards range and with the second shot I put it out.  Nowadays I couldn't even see a match at half that distance.
     Sometimes when I tell this story, and you may guess it has had many a telling, I am heard to add ". . . without breaking the match."  Now and in print I cannot swear that the match survived both shots but the essential elements are true - lit with the first shot, blown out or possibly broken, with the second.  Yet never before or since have I been much good with targets less than barn door size.
     That was the measure of the man's inspirational effect and coaching skill.
     A couple of years ago, a Christopher Fowler wrote an otherwise glowing piece in The Independent  about Bonfig and his novels.  I didn't find it on the net till much later but Margaret tells me this sentence brought a sharp response from her at the time.  He wrote:  "Other seeming biographical information about Bonfiglioli - that he was an expert swordsman, a good shot and a teetotaller, for example - is entirely wrong."
     These eyewitness accounts from Margaret and myself quite clearly show that it was Mr Fowler who was entirely wrong.  I even have the knife still, tarnished, battered and missing its brass finger-guard, broken off in my first clumsy attempts to emulate the master's accuracy.
     As to Bonfig's swordsmanship, you'll have to wait for my next post on 21st April.
     On the question of drink,  no one, least of all Bonfig, would ever have suggested that he was teetotal.  He could hardly claim that, then die of cirrhosis, could he?  Perhaps Mr Fowler, hurrying towards an approaching deadline, failed to read carefully the typical Bonfiglioli avowal, beloved of blurb-writers, that he was "abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking." 

Next letter in The Bonfiglioli ABC:

B: Bangs, loud.   Balls, crystal.   Brighton?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

'Fish out of water' meets Speedy Gonzales

The Bonfiglioli ABC (continued)

A: Aberdeen.   Arms, skill at.

     He was Cyril at school, it seems, and Bon almost everywhere else, but Bonfig was the version he chose in Aberdeen.  Until we were both replaced by a Major Walker (of whom I recall only an enormous moustache and his noisy and prodigious intake of the smoke of Capstan Full Strength), Bonfig and I taught the three Rs, map-reading and current affairs to farm-fresh recruits from Aberdeenshire and failed Teddy boys from the tenements and terraces of the city.
     The classroom was often enlivened and sometimes embarrassed by the incursion of a few non-commissioned officers (corporals, sergeants and the like), anxious to qualify for another rung up the promotion ladder before their final pension entitlement was totted up.  Being older and fundamentally hairier (as Bonfig himself might have put it), they presented the awkward problem of a separate group within the class.  So often we had to tread a nervous tightrope, a wary balance between correcting their gaffes and maintaining respect for their rank and seniority.

     For a while those classes also benefited from the more delicate presence of two members of the Women's Royal Army Corps, one of whom became my wife a few years later.

     I guess that most of the Education Sergeants at that time would have been somewhat at odds with the usual denizens of the clubland of the Sergeants' Mess.  We were much younger, with little experience of military life or even of the wider world, and necessarily of a higher academic achievement.  As an 18 year old school-leaver, I wore the fish-out-of-water label for all to see.  Bonfig's extra years of maturity, marriage and previous military service eased him much more comfortably into that milieu.

     He threw himself into Mess life with gusto, never more so than when he would hold an audience's rapt attention with a long, involved and brilliantly acted pornographic comic story (dirty joke, to those without the handicap of a grammar school education).  I can see him now, leaning against the mantelpiece brandishing an antique pistol, his dark Mediterranean looks and black moustache effortlessly portraying the famous Mexican bandido Speedy Gonzales, the fastest man with a woman in all Mexico.  ('Senor, take-a your beeg hand off-a my arse!')

     Many years later, I worked for a magazine in Aberdeen and once wrote an article about my time at the Gordon Barracks, which of course included stories of Bonfig.  It brought a letter from a reader in Jersey, enclosing the death notice and obituary of 'Count Kyril Medici Bonfiglioli'.  I was already aware of his early death at 56 but not of this exalted status.  Later it became apparent that the main purpose of the title was to delay payment of his newspaper bill.  To raise any doubt as to its authenticity would clearly be churlish.
(to be continued)