Kaycee’s Klasic Films – The Fabulous Baker Boys

Siobhan Kennedy-Clarke’s classic film reviews
Our fictitious reviewer Siobhan (KayCee) didn't have much of an education but she's passionate about films

baker 1

Michelle Pfeiffer is one of my favourite actresses and this is the film that showed me how good she is. Up to that point I thought she was just a pretty face (nothing wrong with a pretty face but you know) and because she became famous around the same time as Kim Basinger and Kim’s  funnier than she is I thought she was a bit dopey. Maybe that’s just me being bitchy and I suppose it must be hard for a beautiful young woman to be taken serious I wouldn’t know because I’m not that gorgeous myself haha before you say it.

Anyways the Baker Boys are real life brothers Beau Bridges and Jeff (phwoarr) Bridges and they’re a piano duo doing all this cheesy cabaret material in second rate clubs and their career is dying so they decide to try a different angle and get a singer.

Beau is married with kids and is the responsible one but Jeff is single and lives alone with his dog and he’s a charmer who has his way with as many women as he can find nothing wrong with that neither as long as he don’t hurt people and we don’t hear about any exes in the film so we don’t know but you kind of think so. Too handsome for his own good you know the type girls thinks he’s god’s gift to women but you’d still unwrap him in a hurry if he was a gift to you. He’s also a frustrated jazz player doing this with his brother to make a living but he hates it really.

They audition a load of no hopers including Susan Sarandon whose just doing a cameo and apparently she can really sing she does this operatic bit at the end of her song.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the last one and she’s late but she’s the best they’ve seen so they give her a go. Sure enough the punters like her so the club owners do too and it’s all going well. Then at Christmas/New Year they’re playing this fancy hotel out in the hills and they’re in rooms next door to one another and Jeff and Michelle start sneaking into the bathroom to sniff each other’s cologne or perfume and you can tell something’s going to happen then Beau has to go home because one of his kids is ill or something and Jeff and Michelle do a real sexy show and then get sexy in private.

baker 2
We’re going to do this one on the piano: Michelle bends the rules a bit

You think it’s going to end in tears but because she’s a bit unemotional (used to be an “escort”) and he’s so couldn’t-care-less it doesn’t really but they don’t get together either. The real emotional bit at the end is with the brothers cos they are very different and they don’t enjoy the life together but given their own space as they say they’re happy enough.

I don’t know who thinks these stories up I suppose the writer was watching some cabaret act one night and thought it must be a weird life and took it from there and of course if you throw a sex bomb in there you get explosions.

It’s a cool film quite funny some good lines and that romantic what do they call it tension I guess that keeps you thinking will they won’t they.

 

 

 

 

The English Pedant – What real means today

At last I know whatreal love feels like.It's unreal.Well it was last week. Now it's real again. I think.

There is a term in the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) world: false friends. It means words in another language which look so similar to one in your own language that you think they must mean the same.

Unfortunately this is often not true and using them can be spectacularly embarrassing. Take the English word embarrassed, for instance. There is a Spanish word embarazada. This is so obviously from the same source that the Spanish one has got to mean that feeling of wanting  to drop through a hole in the floor because something has happened that is too humiliating to bear. Right?

Wrong. Embarazada means pregnant. Somewhere back in the mists of time they probably both meant one or the other, or perhaps something else entirely, but they went their separate ways and are now poles apart. It is even hard to imagine a situation where being pregnant is merely embarrassing – it is too highly-charged for that.

Most welcome, certainly. Inconvenient, maybe. Utterly unwelcome, in certain cases. But merely embarrassing, no.

Learning a foreign language is complex enough without the target moving all the time, but that is happening more than ever.

The British tennis player Heather Watson did quite well at the Miami Open this year and when she finally headed for home after a fourth round defeat, she tweeted “Thanks Miami Open. It’s been real”. What is a foreign student to make of that one?

In this case the false friend is the same English word, which most people know: real. It means genuine, true – something like that. And yet in recent years it has taken on a life of its own. First we had the expression “Keep it real”, for which there is no universally agreed definition and which can therefore mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Perhaps the most likely common meaning is “Don’t be pretentious. Keep it (your behavior, your attitude, your message or whatever it is) down-to-earth”.

So that’s something for the English-speaking population to wrestle with, never mind the poor language-learner.

Then there was unreal, which started to mean strange, weird, hard to believe. And not only that, but any of those things in either a positive or a negative sense. So Heather could equally well have said the Miami tournament had been unreal for her.

Unless, that is, it now means something else altogether and it just hasn’t filtered through to the Pedant  yet.

Confessions of an Expat – Honeymoon in Chuspa

chuspa 3

We got married in a coastal town an hour’s drive from Caracas. It used to be quite a fancy resort, or so I’m told, but a massive landslide in 1999 had devastated the area and the heartbreakingly steady decline of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez had led to the Caribe end of La Guaira, with its beaches and surfers and Sheraton hotel, being cut down to size. Rather than bringing the whole country up to the standards of the nice parts, it seemed as if the idea was to make sure everybody lived the same way, and if the poor couldn’t be elevated, then the middle classes would have to lose the perks and comforts they had worked for.

The Sheraton now sat sadly abandoned and dilapidated in front of a yacht marina that had only recently welcomed the status-symbol gin palaces which to some people represent all that is wrong with the world and to the rest of us merely demonstrate that the owners have done well for themselves.

Our wedding festivities took place a couple of miles away in a hilltop hotel that had somehow hung onto its dignity, but the town was no longer a place for a honeymoon. My naïve rambles down to the beach called Los Cocos, a quiet, calm place just yards away from the surfing beach, were dismissed as crazy and potentially suicidal by my wife’s friends and family, who muttered to each other that the bad characters who had drifted down here from the capital had made it dangerous. It is hard for someone who grew up spending every possible hour at the beach to regard anything with sand and water as unsafe, with the obvious exception of sea conditions.

You didn’t hear gunshots in such places – that was restricted to grim, grimy urban areas. But that was what had happened to La Guaira, they told me.

chuspa
Good old days: Venezuela was once the jewel in the crown of South America

My wife, a born organizer, came up with the answer: a seaside village not too far away that had not been similarly affected. It is called Chuspa and although it wasn’t far away, it was a bit of a drive inland, because there wasn’t a coast road. We set off in a little Chevrolet and after a pleasant, flat section we were soon up in the hills where the banks along the roads were perilously soft as a result of the rainy seasons. Dark red earth caked the edges and spread over the whole surface in parts, so the sensation was one of sliding, trying to keep  the wheels in tracks helpfully made by earlier travellers.

Then we came to a bridge over a small river. The bridge was damaged and closed and improvised signs directed us down a slope to a place where the river could be driven through. I got out and walked down to the water to check the depth and try to gauge how solid the bed was. You see people do this sort of thing in films, but when it’s you and your wife’s precious car, not to mention your precious wife, there is no room for macho flippancy.

I tossed a stone in and watched it sink about 18 inches before coming to rest on some pebbles. We decide to give it a go. If I hadn’t been taking my turn to drive at that time anyway, it would have become my turn. Get into the water gently and keep moving, I told myself. If you rush and create waves they will swamp the engine and we’re done for.

Holding our breath, we ploughed quietly through, the river bed mercifully sound, and in half a minute we were back on muddy tarmac, Chuspa-side.  Half an hour later we were breezing down the hill to the village, where we had booked a posada, which means you have your own bedroom and bathroom but share the kitchen.

Chuspa looked as if it hadn’t been touched for 20 years. There was nothing new at all – cars, buildings, haircuts, nothing.

The beach was like something out of The Blue Lagoon and it was easy to imagine there had been no other visitors since the Second World War. But there were shops full of cans and bottles and there was fresh fish. In a back room like a motorbike repair shop, a fisherman cut us some fish steaks (barracuda, I think) using a sort of guillotine. You couldn’t cook it properly because the pans were all cheap and lightweight and the fish stuck to the surface, but it was edible.

chuspa 2
Half-hearted attempts were made to restore the hotel, but it came to symbolise the end of the good times

As we walked into the village and back the locals said hello, sitting outside on indoor furniture, watching the world go by and probably glad that we were providing new, temporary, moving scenery.

In the gift shop we bought dusty old new t-shirts saying I heart Chuspa and we sat on our balcony and drank cheap, half-decent red wine from Chile.

One village, one week, insulated from the 21st century and a country’s decline.

Ref! On England, Germany and the new dawn

The candid thoughts of Premier League referee Colin Preece, as recorded by our eavesdropping mole in the Duck and Peasant.

 Referee

Evening lads. Yes, of course, only one subject for us tonight: the glory that is England. As you say, Baz, it’s always good to beat the bloody Germans, and I’m sure we mean that in a non-xenophobic way. It’s not because they’re German, it’s because their team is called Germany and they have this irritating habit of doing well at football. But now and again we get ‘em, don’t we?

Yes, it did all look very predictable in the first half and the start of the second until we got going, but look at their side and look at ours. They had established stars like Ozil and Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. Your wife is quite right, Dave. Müller does have a face you want to slap and it is to an extent beside the point but at the same time he got it metaphorically slapped in the end.

So Hodgson picks a team that’s about right in my opinion, full of emerging talents. Funny how that makes last year’s emerging talents look like underachievers, though, isn’t it? Ross Barkley has now been upgraded to experienced international but he’s in danger of missing the boat. Dele Alli’s looking more like it. Yes, Dave, Adam Lallana is becoming the new James Milner because he’s Hodgson’s representative now, his trusted lieutenant. The old man likes him and knows he’ll give 100%, even if it’s not often going to light up the stadium.

We’ve spoken before about the Rooney conundrum, and it does seem unfair that we’re all slamming the door behind us and leaning on it so he can’t get back in when he’s fit again, but Hodgson will have him in the squad in the summer and unless the youngsters really perform, he’ll be getting picked for crucial games, won’t he?

Cheers, Gary, why don’t we all chip in for a bottle of that Spanish sparkling wine by way of celebration? Bobby’ll give you a discount I’m sure. It’s not really champagne, so we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves, but we can toast the future.

In a way it’s a complication as much as a blessing that both Kane and Vardy are credible candidates for the central striker role, but for me, Kane’s in the driving seat and if Vardy can be happy coming off the bench to win games, so much the better. Trouble is, managers who can’t make up their minds have a habit of playing the second choice guy out of position just so he’s there on the off chance, so on Saturday you had Danny Welbeck hanging around looking for scraps. He’s another of Hodgson’s prefects, always smartly turned out and never lets the head teacher down.

Yes, at the back it was a bit dodgy and the sooner John Stones gets back to being the messiah the better, cos poor old Gary Cahill is going to be a nearly kind of guy. He just hasn’t got the presence, the authority, that a man with his experience needs. Very nice guy apparently, but strikers across Europe are not waking up in the middle of the night screaming “Nein! Nein! Bloody Gary Cahill!” or however you swear in German.

Butland, yes, learned a lesson the hard way. What would you have done in his position, Dave? Come off sobbing at the first tweak or tried to run it off like he did? It’s a man’s game, even the women’s version.

 

 

Have faith, will travel – in Caracas

Santa Capilla
Santa Capilla, my oasis in a hot, noisy city

Finding a church to attend in a foreign country can be difficult, because for a start there may be a language barrier. When I married a Venezuelan woman and moved to her town on the coast, an hour’s drive from Caracas, I found it surprisingly short on places of worship, and the few there were were Roman Catholic.

As a Church of England sort of guy, even though I have sampled the styles and habits of other denominations, I have always found Catholicism strangely daunting. The thought of learning how they do things with the Spanish language issue complicating things further was more than I felt I could handle, so that was Sunday services temporarily abandoned.

But that didn’t mean staying out of churches altogether. I spent every weekday wandering around Caracas, teaching English as a Foreign Language to young adults in their offices. One of my hotspots was the Ministry of Finance, and there were two big churches and a cathedral in the area, so I made a point of spending time in those.

In many parts of the UK you can’t do that because the churches are locked when not in use to keep vandals and thieves out, but although Caracas is a violent city with a lot of gun crime, the churches are open.

My favourite was called Santa Capilla, which is on a traffic-choked street but reached, for me, up a quiet alley from a beautiful square, Plaza Bolivar. There, or in the other church or the cathedral, I would spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation, giving thanks and asking God for help, as you do.

The other good thing about all three buildings was that they are cool inside, especially Santa Capilla, where I would sit just off the central aisle near the back, with a breeze coming through like free air conditioning.

Refreshed in body and soul, I would then head off to impart the secrets of the English language to students who seemed to enjoy it more than most, because for them it was a break during the working day.

Caracas cathedral
The cathedral seen from Plaza Bolivar

Another area where I spent a fair bit of time was five or six metro stops away in a newer and much more salubrious part of the city.

But no churches. Not one. Just big, smart office blocks and hotels and a mall. I used to ask people if there was a church nearby until one day someone explained that everything there was new, and when areas are redeveloped, one thing they don’t include is places of worship. Because people don’t go to church so much anymore.

Bloke in the Kitchen. Kebabs with rice and salad

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Kebabs. What are they? I’ll tell you what they’re not: they are not difficult to make. Like most of the well-known international dishes, they are dead easy.

The world is not full of culinary geniuses. It’s full of people with a little knowledge, a little common sense and a willingness to have a go.

Shish kebabs are something you cook on thin wooden sticks or metal skewers. You can use pieces of meat, fish or vegetable.

They can also be something you can do with mince, just like meatballs or meatloaf, but in this case we’re using chicken mince.

kebabs 1
Chicken mince with a few herbs and spices, rolled up and skewered. Piece of cake

COWBOY TIP

You can work this sort of thing out for yourself. To cook something you need a source of extreme heat.

The most popular way to cook kebabs is on a barbecue, but you could also put them in the oven or even in a good, heavy frying pan or griddle pan.

If you’re using meat or something else that’s quite solid, you just cut it to size (two-cm cubes). You can marinate the meat in oil and some sort of spicy mixture – the choice is yours.

If you’re using mince, you have to consider how to make it stay on the skewers, which means adding something to bind it. Eggs and breadcrumbs are the favourites, but porridge oats will do the trick instead of the bread.

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What have we got here? Red onion, green and yellow peppers and meat. Mushrooms? If they’re not here, they are certainly an option

INGREDIENTS

Chicken mince

Onion (chopped)

Garlic (chopped)

Egg (beaten)

Coriander  seeds (1 tbsp, crushed)

Fresh chilli pepper (deseeded and finely chopped)

Fresh ginger root (half an inch, grated)

Cumin powder or seeds (1 tbsp, crushed)

Breadcrumbs or oats (half a cup)

The coriander and cumin add almost floral spice, while chillies and ginger give it a kick.

kebabs 3
Nice big prawns: just peel them, spear them and stick them on the barbecue

METHOD

Put the mince in a mixing bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients.

Mix well (with your hands is best). If you don’t like the feel of the mixture on your hands, you can put the ingredients in a large freezer bag and  squeeze it.

Let the mixture rest for an hour if you can, to allow the binders to do their stuff.

Then take half-handfuls, roll them into balls and then into breakfast sausage-size shapes.

Slide the skewers in so there is enough sticking out at either end to pick up easily.

Place on your heat source and give them 10 minutes or so, turning occasionally and making sure they don’t burn. A little bit of a singe is unavoidable and actually quite welcome, but burnt is never good.

When they look right, try one. It must be cooked in the middle.

Serve with rice studded with capers and raisins, plus  a bowl of sliced radishes in plain yoghurt, and a salad of tomatoes and cucumber or leaves of some sort, with a vinaigrette dressing (olive oil and balsamic vinegar).

 

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Pop Songs – songs about cars

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The key is in the title

It says a lot about the difference between the sexes that, of all the songs about motor vehicles, the vast majority are sung by men and even those that are voiced by women were written by men. As one of the few exceptions, this non-car lover finds the stereotype of the male who loves his four-wheeled mistress as much as his wife to be sad but justified.

One of the earliest examples in the rock’n’roll era is also one of the most entertaining, courtesy of the wit and libido of Chuck Berry. No Particular Place to Go tells of our hero being out for a drive with his girlfriend with one thing on his mind: finding a secluded spot where they can get down to some teenage hanky panky.

Trouble and frustration ensue when the admirably safety conscious stud can’t engage in anything other than a hand-contorting fumble because she’s wearing a seat belt and he can’t undo it, even though he is presumably free to move himself.

All the way home I held a grudge
But that safety belt it wouldn’t budge

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Being good latter-day Mods, the Merton Parkas may have been referring to scooters – but you can ruin a nice suit that way if it rains

The Beach Boys went through a car phase in tandem with the surfing one in response to the drag racing craze in the early 60s.

Those of us who are neither American nor interested in cars were baffled by the fact that these people were singing about their Little Deuce Coupe. Even when you know they’re talking about a car, the meaning is not immediately clear to most people, although Wikipedia provides an explanation: apparently it’s a 1932 Ford Coupe (coupe – missing an accent on the e – should be pronounced coopay, and means it has a soft top that can be taken down to let the sun in, while deuce is for the year) jazzed up as a “hot rod”. Well, whatever turns you on.

Less complicated – and more in keeping with the traditional pop song – was the same band’s Don’t Worry Baby, in which the narrator has bragged about his car and now has to put his money where his mouth is by racing. He’s nervous but his girlfriend tells him it will be all right because she loves him. That’s the beauty of life lived through pop music: you can come out with the most inane nonsense and it sounds good. In this case it also  reemphasises songwriter Brian Wilson’s highly unusual and unhip tendency to concede he wasn’t a big, tough young adult but an insecure teenager. The individual who wrote When I Grow Up to Be a Man  is scared and doesn’t mind admitting it.

But I can’t back down now
Because I’ve pushed the other guys too far

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I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, they said. Won’t you hop inside my car, they said. I’m calling the police, she said.

Wilson Pickett’s much-covered 60s track Mustang Sally makes liberal use of the double entendre, and particularly the link between riding in a car and, err, the other kind of riding that often involves lying down. If a song such as this even wants to be taken literally, it seems that our hero bought his girl a Ford Mustang and now would rather drive it than play pistons and cylinders with him.

All you wanna do is ride around Sally
Ride, Sally, ride

As all observers of male stereotypes know, sport cars have to be red because that is more phallic, and so it is that Prince gave us Little Red Corvette, although in a major break with tradition, he seems to be complaining that she only wants one thing from him and he’s shocked.

A body like yours
Ought to be in jail
Cos it’s on the verge of being obscene

But then apparently he sees the good side of this state of affairs and reverts to type:
Move over baby
Give me the keys
Cos I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine

cars 4
Baby you’re much too fast – hang on, what am I thinking? Okay, I’ve got 10 minutes, so let’s have a look under the hood

And so to the girls. Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac works on a  different level when he sings it rather than Natalie Cole. When he’s singing about her pink Cadillac it’s loaded with leering meaning, whereas when she sings about his, it’s just a car.

Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, co-written by Bob Neuwirth and recorded just three days before her death, seems to be innuendo-free and is a tale of envy. She wants a Merc because all her friends have Porsches.

This is in stark contrast to GTO, a big 1980s hit in the UK for Sinitta which is so obviously written by a man and so macho and suggestive that he must have been kidding. The words the writer puts into the mouth of the little pop songbird include:

He’s got a big red GTO
Everywhere we go the GTO must go
But I wonder if he’ll ever know
If he loves me
Or just his GTO

So, the eternal triangle has four legs and four wheels. Who’d have thought it?

 

Kaycee’s Klasic Films – Men in Black

Siobhan Kennedy-Clarke’s classic film reviews
Our fictitious reviewer Siobhan (KayCee) didn't have much of an education but she's passionate about films

 

MIB

Here’s another naturally funny guy Will Smith.

Time flies don’t it it dosen’t seem five years since Men in Black was out, but it was 1997 that’s nearly 20 years ago there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then hey that can sound sort of dirty if you say it wrong and think about it too much I guess its my filthy mind.

So Will Smith in MIB it starts off with Tommy Lee Jones alias sexy older man and his even older partner have been dealing with aliens too long and the partner has had enough so Tommy needs a new partner and the bosses interview all these young hotshots from the army and air force and stuff and their all dead serious but Will’s just a New York cop and he think these whiz kids are funny or pathetic.

They don’t know exactly what it is their applying for anyway Will is the favourite and he gets the job so he goes for a spin in TLJ’s car and Tommy tells him to put his seatbelt on and he’s not scared until he puts his foot down and he realizes it goes like a bat out of hell. That’s the start of him learning to respect TLJ and the job there’s a lot of films like that where somebody wants to do it his way all the time and has to be taught a lesson.

It’s a strange world he’s let himself in for as he soon finds out with aliens in all shapes and sizes one is out at this farm  in the countryside and he takes over the body of a farmer something like that only his skin doesn’t fit properly and Will doesn’t like the way the guy treats his wife and he flirts with her a bit and says she should get a life basically because she’s not a bad looking woman underneath and he says she should change the wallpaper even, “because… damn!” it’s funny the way he says it.

What they do is not kill the aliens unless they have no choice but they keep an eye on them because the public would be freaked out if they knew there were so many living among them. When there is an incident and people see what happened they make everyone look at this thing like a little torch it’s called a neuralyser and when it flashes it erases people’s memory of what just happened. The MIB just put on sunglasses when their going to do this to protect themselves I guess they must be pretty special sunglasses.

There’s got to be a girl in a flick like this for a love interest and the farmer’s wife isn’t that sort so well I never the woman working at the morgue is beautiful and she gets the job of keeping the guys simmering there’s a funny bit when a bad guy is under the table and she’s trying to tell Will that but he thinks she’s trying to seduce him in the most crude way, pointing at her bits but she’s not.

You know if you wanted to make this film and you were pitching it to a studio, trying to get them interested so they would give you the money, it might be a tough one I reckon except it was based on a comic book series. Sometimes you just have to be glad the right people got the right parts I saw somewhere that David Schwimmer Ross from Friends could of played the Will role but just imagine it wouldn’t of been half as good.

 

 

The English Pedant – why carnage is no fun

Look out for a new era of meaning of carnage, word fans. You and I might know it refers to the killing of a number of people and that it has something to do with flesh: carne means meat in Spanish and it exists in English in carnivore – a meat-eater – but Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton doesn’t. He thinks it means a bit of fast fun on four wheels.

“I love overtaking. I love carnage,” he said recently, yearning for his sport to become exciting like it used to be, rather than more or less a procession according to how fast your car is, with relatively little prospect of winning through being a better or more daring driver.

Obviously nobody – even Hamilton – wants to go back to the times when no Grand Prix season was complete without the shocking death of a famous driver. Yet that is what his use of the word suggests.

Carnage is one of those words that don’t see much action because they are connected with something that – mercifully – is not part of everyday life. It sees the light of day from time to time when eye-witnesses are searching for ways of describing a multi-vehicle road accident (known in the UK as a motorway pile-up) or a bomb blast in a crowded place. There was carnage in Paris last year when the terrorist attacks happened.

There is not carnage at a stag party, not even if everybody is “trashed”, “legless” or “paralytic”.

This is just the way language develops – through people getting it wrong and others copying them.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the new breed of language-influencers, by virtue of the fact that he is a popular and prominent person with unprecedented access to the eyes and ears of millions of people via television, radio and the internet.

A week or two after Hamilton’s overtaking/carnage remark, a BBC motor racing journalist – well educated and trained – was being interviewed ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and, grasping for something to say under the pressure of  a live interview, he threw in the c word in spite of himself. He was visibly aware that it wasn’t what he wanted to say, but out it slipped.

So here we are, possibly at the start of an episode of meaning-shift. It will be interesting to see if this becomes an epidemic.

Confessions of an expat – buskers and beggars

fire guy
This is Fire Guy. He is a professional street entertainer and he does it because he’s a showman, not because he’s desperate

Street entertainers and their poor relation, beggars, are a feature of cities all over the world. Glasgow, as we’ve seen, might just be the king of the busking cities because it is so pedestrianized, but wherever you go, there are down-and-outs and chancers doing what they can to get the money for a meal and a drink.

In Caracas, Venezuela, they have quite a traffic problem, with junctions jammed at all hours of the day and traffic lights that count down the seconds until it’s your turn to go.

For the entertainers, this shows that they’ve got , say, 25 seconds to impress you and accept your generous donation, but with engine noise and honking of horns, giving you a few bars of American Pie isn’t going to have much effect.

What does work is juggling, and perhaps the early exponents of this on the streets of the city just did it with ordinary juggling clubs, but now you’re more likely to find people doing it with burning sticks. It certainly grabs the attention, especially at twilight, and even if some exponents are not particularly good at it – you see them drop one occasionally – it is something most of us would never attempt, so it is tempting to give them a few of the almost-worthless local coins just for having the enterprise to do it.

At least it gives the observer something to enjoy, whereas with the humble beggar all we experience is pity, guilt and embarrassment.

For many of us, I think it’s not that we don’t want to give money to someone less fortunate. It’s just that we may not have the right amount of cash, or we are more than happy to give to charity but don’t like to be pressured. There is also the school of thought that if you give one day, you will be seen as a soft touch for the rest of your stay. And there are also those who say don’t give, they’ll only spend it on drugs (a terribly sweeping judgement in my opinion).

beggar
No fun. This is real life on the streets

Can one person give equally to everyone who asks him? In Vancouver once, in the middle of winter I gave money to a man who looked quite respectable and perhaps was new to the life. It was so cold in that area, down by the water, that you really did want to help him to get off the street into somewhere warm. I gave once but ran into him again on the way back from the restaurant, whereupon he tried his luck again. Then he recognized me, apologized and only sheepishly accepted my second instalment.

Holiday destinations don’t have the same tearjerking effect. During one short break in a small town on the Algarve in Portugal, to my shame I avoided eye contact with the local beggar for five days and on my last day, I actually altered my route to the beach to avoid him altogether. But guess what – he had changed his routine that very day too and there he was in the middle of the alley. The game was up and I handed him all my change.

The path to becoming a vagrant is a tragic one to behold, as I have done twice. First there was a quite well-known figure, a school dentist, who deteriorated from happy drinker to heavy drinker and on down the staircase to unemployed, unemployable and a life hanging around the bus terminus.

Then there was a man I didn’t know at all, in London, who just degenerated from apparent stability and normality to being dirty, unwashed and clearly sleeping rough.

Usually we meet them after the fall from grace and don’t know the story behind the smell. Such was the case with a middle-aged woman I befriended in a pleasant part of Caracas.

Plaza
Past glories: Plaza Bolivar, Caracas

Having caught the early bus into the city to go about my business teaching English, I often had half an hour to spare before my first class with employees at the Ministry of Finance. Ten minutes’ walk away was Plaza Bolivar, a partially shaded area of smooth stone benches around the edges with lawns and flower beds and a big statue of the national hero, Simon Bolivar, on a rearing horse.

A porridge vendor would cycle through, loudly proclaiming that what he was selling (they like it thin like a drink in those parts) was nice and hot.

A gardener would appear and lift up a grassy flap in the lawn, disappear below ground, and a fountain would stop or start at his instigation. Men would sit around, reading newspapers and chatting.

shanty
Village of the damned: a shanty town clinging to a hill outside Caracas

And there was this woman, always wearing the same drab dress and tatty sandals. She spoke no English and I spoke little Spanish, but she seemed to feel comfortable with me and would sit and mutter through her toothless mouth while I prepared my theme for the day. She didn’t ask for money, although she was apparently destitute, and eventually she would wander off.

She could have been a rich eccentric for all I know. Or perhaps she was just hanging on to some shred of self-respect.