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)