One consequence of writing is the need for a regular overhaul of my shoulders and neck by a physiotherapist. I am fortunate to live within an easy radius of the Crystal Palace Sports Injury Clinic who have some of the best and most rigorous physios (they were personally taught muscle relaxing techniques by Torquemada). Today’s reliever of pain was an Australian. Rob. He’s a top bloke, real cobber material. But as soon as I heard his opening words I knew I was in trouble.
‘So looking forward to Wednesday?’
All cheery and bright. Optimistic. Confident. And I knew inevitably it would end in disappointment.
It was the same with the Irish dentist, the French waitress and the Italian vendor of footwear.
There are many benefits to living in such a multi national, multi cultural pot pourri that is London but there are downsides. I mean, how likely are you to be comfortable if, when giving blood your sanguination extraction facilitator has an east European accent, a deathly pale skin, a widow’s peak and is orthodontically designed to mimic the Alps? You’d be a touch nervous without any real reason, wouldn’t you?
My Irish dentist was full of good cheer but convinced that I must be capable of coping with even a minor level of discomfort. ‘That’s nothing’, he’d say, sounding like Ian Paisley chastising an errant puppy. His disappointment, expressed in a brogue that became more impenetrable with each plea for anaesthetic stuck with me. If I hear that accent now, I quail and my teeth seek the shelter of my spleen.
Ordering a steak should be a joy for a committed carnivore such as myself but if the waitress (why it should have to be a woman, I know not) is clearly French I know it isn’t on. Whatever I order, however I want it done, whatever sauce I might ask to accompany it, whether it is with or without frites and haricot vert, I know the disappointment I will hear in her voice. Stupid Ros-boeufs, she says subliminally, while plastering her face with the sort of smile that De Gaulle must have worn when he said ‘Non’ to Harold Wilson*.
I venture to replace my worn brogues and chose a discreet cobbling establishment. I ask to see something from the window and the man, it has to be a man, lets his shoulders slump so far that they nestle in his trouser pockets. ‘Does sir think so?’ he says in an Italian accent. In that instant we both know ‘sir’ is a footwear ignoramus and with those feet and, especially those socks, it is highly unlikely ‘sir’ will want ‘those shoes’. And whatever ‘sir’ suggests will just increase the depression.
I hate to stereotype but there’s something in these accents that brings back these memories and ensures inevitable disaster. They bring on immediate sweats. It’s like I’ve triggered a burst of national disappointment. I’ve reminded them of another national stereotype – the English tooth coward, the overcooked food moron, the disrespecter of quality footwear. And I rarely order porridge when I’m out in case the purveyor is Scottish – the look on their face would be the same if you asked Alex Salmond to sing ‘The sun has got his hat on’ at George Osborne’s birthday party.
On Wednesday England and Australia begin the first of five test matches for the oldest trophy in sport, the Ashes. Australia are red hot favourites. My timing, or that of my shoulders and tennis elbow, sucks. You see, worse than a disappointed Irishman, a disgusted Frenchwoman and a disbelieving Italian, it’s that ghastly, horrible beast, the smug, disarming Australian that confronted me this morning. Oh cruel world.
* I realise this is perhaps an obscure allusion. In 1967, Prime Minister Wilson asked that Britain be allowed to join the European Community – then the EEC. President De Gaulle of France was apparently delighted to say ‘Non’.