Friday, June 30, 2006

World Cup Fever

The satellite dishes of the world are currently trained on images of grown men running like hounds and kicking like mules. Sometimes they boot a leather ball; sometimes they boot each other; but never do they boot the referee. He’s clearly the most hated man on the pitch, so why does he always escape injury? Could it be that footballers, not being the smartest humans, don’t realise how vulnerable the ref is when his back is turned? Whatever the reason, it’s high time that one of these whistling busybodies caught a hot one in the seat of the pants.

Football, it seems, is a game of high and contrasting emotions. Players who grimace like gargoyles will later hug each other in rapture. Spectators who shake their fists in fury will later erupt in delirious ecstasy. At the end of the game one sees tearful virgins, sitting in the crowd with painted faces, seeking comfort in the arms of their chaperone. The coach of a losing team must sit before the nation’s press, with the face of a condemned man, making excuses for the failure of his players. And all, supposedly, in the cause of recreation.

I have only ever played football once. Smacker Ramrod (the circus vet) asked me to make up the numbers in an old boys’ reunion match against a rival public school. There were a few raised eyebrows from the opposition at my inclusion as goalkeeper, along with inevitable satirical remarks about whether King Kong would be playing right-back. But their smirks turned to frowns after the game started and I proceeded to catch all their shots with consummate ease. The other players in our side were clearly outclassed, never getting near the opposing goal, but as long as I was behind them the score stayed zero-zero.

In their frustration, our opponents tried a new tactic. Instead of shooting with their feet, they began to lob high balls into the goalmouth for their tallest players to strike with their heads, like cobras. This was obviously bad sportsmanship and against the spirit of game, which is called “football” rather than “headball”. But the referee brushed aside my complaints, while the “headers” became increasingly difficult to block at such close range. I then received some advice from my team mates: “Use your fists!” they said. So the next time a high ball appeared in front of me, I jumped into the air and punched the opposing centre-forward on the chin. The blow was a clean one and knocked the man as cold as a stoat.

I was immediately surrounded by irate members of the opposing team, who swore furiously without daring to lay a finger on me. I tried vainly to explain that I had been acting under instruction and looked to my team mates for moral support, but they only shook their heads in disappointment. Eventually, the referee broke through the huddle and took me to one side.

“Mr Referee,” I declared, “I am willing to apologize if I broke the rules, but this business of heading the ball is an underhand tactic which should be purged from the sport!”

“Broke the blooming rules!” exclaimed the referee. “You’ll be lucky if you’re not charged with assault!” He then removed a red card from his breast pocket and waved it in front of my nose. “Off!” he shouted, pointing towards the touchline.

It was beneath my dignity to argue with him, but I made a final statement for the record: “Your punishment for a first offence is harsh, Mr Referee – and especially so for a misdemeanour done in ignorance rather than malice.”

The referee awarded a penalty kick to our opponents. As an additional forfeit, he refused to allow a replacement goalkeeper until after the kick had been taken. The ball was passed into an empty net and the score remained one-zero until the final whistle.

After the game, I apologized to the opposing centre-forward, who having speedily been revived with a bucket of cold water appeared none the worse for his experience. He accepted my apology graciously and encouraged me to pursue a career as a professional goalkeeper.

“We’d never have got the ball past you!” he exclaimed. “You’d be the best goalie in the country if you learned how to deal with crosses. You’ve got to punch the ball instead of the player.”

“Thank you, my dear fellow, it’s most kind of you to say so,” I replied. “But I shall never play this vulgar sport again. The crosses I could bear, but the referee I could not. A man who exerts his authority by whistling and pointing is too much like a dog trainer for my liking. Moreover, a game played between congenial acquaintances requires no umpire. From now on I shall stick to backgammon.”

I gave the man my goalkeeper’s shirt as a souvenir and departed with Smacker for the circus.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Visit from a luvvie

I’m not one to name-drop, but living near a safari camp means that famous humans often arrive on your doorstep. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with Lord Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames, elder brother of the revered nature guru. We had met once before after he saw me perform in the circus, and when I turned up at the camp he greeted me like a long lost friend.

“Bananas, luvvie, how are you my dear boy? I heard a rumour that you’d retired to the jungle but I never believed it. I thought you must have signed on with the Brazzaville rep. How’s life outside the ring?”

As a friend and patron of the British film industry, I felt duty-bound to engage the ennobled thespian in the style of conversation to which he was accustomed. So I clasped both his hands and responded warmly to his salutation.

“Dickie, old darling, how wonderful to see you! I’m strictly a jungle ape these days, but I do try and keep up with events in show business. Got any projects in the pipeline?”

“Funny you should ask, because I’ve just received a script from Disney,” replied the peerless peer. “They’ve offered me the lead in a sequel to Mary Poppins called Uncle Poppins. I go around the English countryside on a magical tricycle, curing sick fauns and saving lambs from the slaughterhouse. They think it’ll be a smash.”

“Glad to see you’re not getting typecast,” I remarked. “It sounds like a worthy addition to the acting portfolio, Dickie, but what about directing? How about another epic like Gandhi?”

“Bananas, luvvie, if you knew what I went through in making that movie you wouldn’t mention it. The weather was sweltering, the food gave me the runs and Ben Kingsley was always nagging me about nude scenes.”

“Nude scenes in Gandhi?” I replied in some bafflement. “You mean bathing in the Ganges and so forth?”

“No, he’d read somewhere that the Mahatma used to sleep naked with young women to test his powers of self-restraint. So he’d set his heart on getting starkers with Mirabehn, played by Geraldine James. I said: ‘Ben, luvvie, we simply can’t have that sort of thing in a family film. It’s not essential to the plot and the Indians might kick us out of the country if they got to hear of it. Forget about the nudity in this one and I’ll recommend you to Jean-Jacques Annaud, who’s a master of the tasteful bum-shot.’ Funny thing was that in spite of his disappointment his performance afterwards was superb. An actor is always more relaxed when he knows he won’t be taking his briefs off.”

This revealing anecdote inspired me to suck my teeth in admiration. “I always knew you deserved the credit for the Oscar he got,” I said. “You know, I bet you could make a classic little film right here with your camcorder. Have you met Bonzo, the resident chimpanzee? He’d just love to star in a Dickie Attenborough production.”

Dickie pretended to pooh-pooh my suggestion by chortling and standing on one leg, but I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that I’d awakened the artistic impulse in him. After sharing a late-morning pot of tea, we parted company – he drove away with his tour party to observe the wildlife, while I returned to the jungle.

A couple of days later, I returned to see how Dickie was getting on. On arriving, I was delighted to observe that the great man had taken my advice to heart. Wearing his director’s beret, he was pointing his camcorder at Bonzo, who was fiendishly attired in a striped blazer and straw boater. While a nearby portable stereo played Memories Are Made of This, the gifted chimp performed a beautifully choreographed dance routine, using a bamboo stick as his cane. As the music came to an end, Bonzo removed his hat and took a bow.

“Wonderful!” gasped Dickie. “Bonzo, luvvie, that was marvellous beyond words! I’m going to show this tape to everyone when I get back to England!”

But Bonzo had no interest in winning the admiration of unknown humans living thousands of miles away. The vain little chimp wanted the tape for himself, so he could watch his own performance repeatedly in a fever of unbridled narcissism. He scampered over to get his hands on the camcorder, but the ageing thespian was having none of it.

“Out of the question, dear boy!” spluttered Dickie, hugging the device to his body. “Not even Larry Olivier got to see the rushes before the director!”

At this moment, I thought it best to intervene to prevent an unpleasant altercation. Taking the chimp by the arm, I gently escorted him off the set while trying to explain that a copy of the tape would be mailed to him later. Bonzo had little option but to accept my assurances, but before departing he showed his resentment by giving Dickie a sullen glare and snapping the bamboo stick in two.

When I returned, I saw Dickie reviewing Bonzo’s act on the camcorder’s monitor.
“A most remarkable talent,” he mused, “and temperamental too! My brother David often says that chimps are our closest relatives, but I never quite believed it until now. I wonder what he’ll make of this footage.”

“Are you sure you ought to show it to him, Dickie?” I asked. “The most he’s ever achieved with chimps is getting them to break a few nuts. You wouldn’t want to provoke any sibling jealously, would you?”

“Bananas, my dear chap, that’s a very good point you make,” said Dickie grinning mischievously. “Now that you mention it, I’ll certainly have to show it to him!”

Friday, June 16, 2006

The finer points of tourism

Tourism is probably one of the most civilising pastimes of the naked ape. The infamous Mediterranean resorts, said to be infested with drunken revellers and licentious beach bums, are surely an aberration from the norm. Every recreation, however genteel, has a vulgarised version practised by the uncultured rabble. Alongside the poet, there is the vandal who sprays graffiti; alongside the musician, there is the rap singer who chants obscenities; and alongside the travelling cognoscente, there is the shaven-headed brute in search of sunshine for his tattooed torso.

I was fortunate enough to visit many parts of the world when I was in the circus. Being a gorilla is a huge advantage, as the locals don’t expect you to speak their language or take an interest in their culture. The French, of course, are notoriously touchy about tourists speaking to them in English or asking for chutney with their salad; but all I had to say was “ooh-la-la” or “soixante-neuf” to have them eating out of the palm of my hand. It’s important not to overdo it, though. To act as if you have mastered the intricacies of a foreign culture in a few days is pretentious in the extreme – and more than a little irritating for your travelling companions. The decorous visitor must steer a middle course between behaving as if one is at home and going native.

Smacker Ramrod, the circus vet, was an excellent tourist. Having survived the food at an English boarding school, he resolved to eat anything offered to him while abroad. He would go along to a barbecue in Hong Kong, devour the fried meat put on his plate, and nonchalantly wash it down with rice wine after discovering it was snake. He never minded being tricked into eating something weird and always reacted with the perfect deadpan expression after being told what it was. Allowing foreigners to laugh at your expense, he explained, was the British way. Another habit of his was to treat the prostitutes he met like the finest ladies in the land. “It’s a little late in the evening for two exquisite virgins to be out on the streets unescorted,” he once said to a pair of call girls in Melbourne. They laughed so much that they ended up offering him half-price for a threesome with lesbian acts.

Smacker certainly wasn’t a sex tourist, I should stress. He was as happy chatting up prostitutes in Soho as in Bangkok. A man should never travel thousands of miles purely for sex, for such is the road to perdition and damnation. For women, the issues are more complex. There is much to be said for the scorned matron repairing to a sun-drenched Elysium, where she can writhe beneath the loins of a lustful gigolo without damage to her reputation. It pleases my soul to contemplate a world in which countless
Shirley Valentines are having their flesh kneaded by an army of swarthy Pedros. If we can’t appreciate each other’s comforts and delights, we are no better than the hyena.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Gorillas in the clergy

I hear that the followers of Jesus are deeply divided on whether to allow gays into the clergy. Strangely enough, it is Pope Benny Ratzinger who is most strongly opposed to the idea. It seems that Catholics take a perverse delight in excluding the very people who might enjoy dressing up in frocks and declaiming theatrically in Latin. As they have also banned people who have normal sex, it doesn’t really leave a big pool of potential recruits for the holy orders. By my reckoning, the choice is between paedophiles and people too ugly to mate. The paedophiles currently seem to have the upper hand.

I have long advocated opening up the priesthood to gorillas. I took an aptitude test when I was a young ape and the clergy came second only to the circus. Obviously, you have to be able to perform in public (as most gorillas can), but there’s something else of vital importance: a priest has got to be good at scaring people. The fallen woman in the confessional box won’t truly repent of her sins if her pastor is a wishy-washy character who wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose. Nor would the pious folk who go to Mass every week have any confidence in his ability to protect them against evil spirits. A priest must be the kind of fellow who’ll head-butt the Devil with nothing more than a crucifix between his teeth and a bible in his back pocket. In my estimation, that’s either a crazy-eyed dude who’s into flagellation or a gorilla. The meek may inherit the Earth, but they’ve got no place in the Roman Catholic clergy.

This is not to say that I would actually accept ordination into the Catholic hierarchy. The clothes and the Latin might be attractive, but the avenues for artistic expression are far greater in the Protestant camp. Many of these modern sects have taken variety entertainment to new heights, encouraging their ministers to write their own comic monologues and lead the faithful in festivals of song and dance. No aspiring young performer could ask for a better audience than the congregations at these services. The only thing I’d worry about, as an artist, is whether it was my act or the spirit of the Lord that was making them smile. Having a receptive audience is all very well, but there’s not much kudos in getting laughs from a bunch of cheesy goofs who would think Cliff Richard was funny.

The best Protestant sects are the ones that encourage speaking in tongues. Only the ignorant deride this practice as talking gibberish, because it’s obvious that the words are full of meaning, even if the humans uttering them have no idea what it is. I have a deep respect for people who can babble away with grins on their faces without fearing the ridicule of the faithless mob. Anyone who lives next door to a parrot colony knows there’s nothing like a good chatter to lighten the soul and bring one closer to heaven. It’s essential, of course, that the ministers of these churches are well-tutored in the Earthly languages to avoid embarrassing themselves in remote regions of the globe. To assume that someone speaking Swahili is conversing in tongues would be the kind of faux pas that gives religion a bad name.

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