The Last Muscadel

In South Africa there is a very sweet wine, a dessert varietal really, called “muscadel”.  It is cheap, delicious and quite intoxicating.  Because it’s cheap, muscadel is a firm favorite among the Tramp ‘N Hobo Set (we call them “street people” nowadays), and because of that, muscadel (pronounced muska-dell) is rather looked down upon by the upper- and middle classes, much as Everclear is regarded in the U.S.

I have spoken of my schooldays at a boys’ boarding school, and mentioned a couple of my friends in passing, but I need to go into some detail here.  In our “house” and in my year/grade level, there were four boys who joined together in a quartet of utter deplorables for pretty much most of our last five years at St. John’s.

Tony Fanshawe was a Cockney from London and, despite his father’s exalted position as president of a major bank, “Fansh” was a person for whom the term “wide boy” was coined:  if there was mischief, devilment and sometimes outright criminality involved, Fansh was inevitably in the center of it.  He smoked cigarettes and weed, drank like a fish, and (illegally, because of age), rode British motorcycles (Triumph and BSA, called “Beezers”) which were sometimes borrowed or just stolen from his older brother Nigel.  Because they were British bikes, they were constantly breaking down which meant that Fansh always had black oil and grease on his hands or under his fingernails.  (This was cause for great concern when we went out to eat over weekends and school holidays, because Fansh loved eating fries with his unwashed fingers — I think you get the picture.)  He was also the funniest human being on the planet, whether telling stories or jokes, or simply displaying a razor-sharp and irreverent wit.  One of his comments caused our class photograph to be ruined because while most of the seventy-odd boys in the picture had solemn looks on their faces, the boys standing above, around and behind Fansh were howling with laughter at one of his little sotto voce  remarks.  (He got caned for that, and incidentally, he was the only boy who ever came close to my record of beatings.)  He was, surprisingly, a brilliant middle-distance runner and outstanding (field-)hockey goalkeeper, but also a miserable student, which meant that his time at St. John’s was lamentably curtailed when it was suggested to his parents that his only chance of passing twelfth-grade final exams (“Matric”) would be through a cram school, so Fansh never graduated from St. John’s College (doubtless to the immense relief of the teaching faculty).

Ross Arrington Murchison was, as his name suggests, a Southern boy from Rocky Mount, NC whose presence at St. John’s was a result of his father’s position as Minerals Attache at the U.S. Embassy.  (In most countries, that would be a nothing job;  in mineral-rich South Africa… you get the picture.)  The third of four sons, “Zonk” was, like all the Murchison men, immensely tall, some 6’5″, but a terrible sportsman because he was almost as wide as he was tall.  He was, however, an absolute killer at table tennis, and in all the countless matches he and I played against each other, I only managed to beat him once.  Zonk was a taciturn boy, but a Rebel through and through, and it was from him that I learned all about the War Of Northern Aggression [eyecross].  Like Fansh, Zonk was a serious smoker and drinker — “Damn, if I’d known about the quality of y’all’s weed, I’d have gotten here years ago” — and on more than one occasion the four of us emptied his long-suffering father’s liquor cabinet, simply because their townhouse was a stone’s throw from school grounds. (Because he had four teenage sons, Old Man Murchison could never figure out who had drunk all his Scotch, brandy and vodka.)  Zonc never really got into serious trouble at school, although had he ever been caught stoned or drunk — how we all escaped being busted for that is a mystery for the ages — the penalties would have been severe.  For his Matric, Zonk got a “gentleman’s C” (actually, a C for each of the six courses, including Afrikaans, which he’d only become familiar with upon arriving in South Africa.  He was also, by the way, completely fluent in French and Thai because of his father’s earlier postings to S.E. Asia.)

Michael Bentley resembled nothing as much as the Beetle Bailey cartoon character, so his nickname was
“Beedle” (which he hated, so to us he was simply “Mygall”):  lazy, idle, a shirker of immense creativity, Mike was most often found on his back, and was so skinny that, as Zonk once put it, when lying down his hips appeared higher than his head.  Despite that, Mike was a good sportsman, a good cricketer, an outstanding soccer player (he was nearly invited to join Manchester United’s youth squad as a young boy, but was beaten out by classmate Martin Cohen, who eventually made it to the club’s senior side) and a keen swimmer.  Like the other two above, Mike was a smoker and probably, the most heroic drinker of us all.  His most common transgression was breaking school bounds (AWOL, as we know it) and, it should be said, generally with me as his accomplice.  I’d known Mike since grade school before we both made the move to St. John’s, and we’d been friends pretty much as long as either of us could remember.  Mike actually failed his Matric, but it didn’t hurt him, as you will see later.

And then the fourth of this group of bad boys:  Your Humble Narrator’s nickname was “Poke” (go ahead, guess the reason), and I think you know all about me.  Alone among the group, I never smoked cigs or weed, but made up for it in beer consumption, rebellion against school rules, and insolence bordering on aggression towards most of the teachers and indeed any form of authority figure at the school.  I was caned more than the other three combined, and whether suffering in detention, “hard labor” or similar, my time at St. John’s could best be described as “career criminal”.  I was nearly expelled for having my girlfriend visit me in my study (I’ve told that story before), but only the expectation of a First Class Matric result spared me on that, and several other occasions.

So that was us. We were inveterate pranksters, jokers, ruffians and, it must be said, excellent card players, even if we somehow managed to turn the game of bridge into a contact sport.  Zonk was an absolute mechanic —  he’d shuffle the deck a few times and cut the four aces out as though by magic — to the point where he wasn’t ever allowed to shuffle the deck unless he was playing against someone outside the group and there was money involved.  But whether at cards, table tennis, swimming, sinning or carousing, we were as close as brothers while we were together at boarding school.

I’d christened us the “Four Musketeers”, but when the head of our boarding house heard that, he sniffed and said, “Four Musketeers?  More like the Four Muscadels.”  Needless to say, we jumped on that appellation with pride, and thereafter we were forever referred to by that name — even by the teachers.

After we graduated high school, we more or less went our separate ways, as so often happens:  the military draft, university, jobs, wives and careers pulled us all in separate directions;  but even then, if there was any chance we could get together at a party, a dinner or (OMG) a wedding reception, we would.  When we did, we soon discovered that nothing had changed:  we were exactly the same juvenile delinquents as we’d been at school, only with higher alcohol tolerances.

Fansh decided soon after high school that he wanted to go back to London, and sold both his bikes.  On his way to drop off the second, he was killed instantly when some asshole ran a red light and slammed into him.  His funeral was the largest I’d ever seen for someone of that age, both then and since.  He was twenty years old when he died.

Zonk stayed in South Africa and went into business with his brothers after failing miserably at his engineering studies at university.  Their company was in software design (started, it should be said, during the 1970s) and his financial fortunes rose and fell as so often happens to entrepreneurs.  He married a girl of outstanding beauty, a professional stage dancer, but they divorced after a few years.  Zonk died in his late forties from a massive and completely unexpected heart attack, although I have no doubt that his horrendous booze consumption had a hand in his demise.

Mygall was, as I’ve said, very lazy.  As my Dad always said, though, “If you want something done efficiently, give the job to a lazy man”, and as Mike was always being told by his parents to watch his kid sisters swimming, he came up with a way whereby he could get out of that task so he could play snooker with the rest of us at his parents’ house.  Here in the U.S., you may know it as the “Swim Sweater” (it’s a polyester vest sewn over a thick rubber tube which cannot be removed by the child) but all over the rest of the world it’s simply called the Bentley Belt.  That gave him a comfortable living for many years, during which time Mike got married (to one of my ex-girlfriends — I told you he was lazy), and his life took the usual twists and turns and ups and downs as he made his way in the world.  (There was some tragedy — actually, a considerable amount — but that’s not relevant to this post.)

Mike and I had drifted a long way apart as we’d had a serious falling-out — no details, they’re unimportant now after so long a time — and we’d lost complete touch with each other.  Then, at the urging of New Wife (who had known him as part of our group when she and I were dating in high school), we got in touch with each other again and found, to our immense joy, that Time had definitely healed all old wounds.  Mike had had a heart attack, survived and, to my absolute astonishment, had dropped his sixty-a-day smoking habit as well as his bottle-a-day drinking one — only to take up motorcycling (FFS) as a hobby.  As I am unlikely ever to go back to South Africa, we made plans for him to come out to Dallas next year so he could go on a motorcycle trip through the Rockies with Doc Russia and Mr. Free Market (who have been planning just such a trip), with me driving the Support Vehicle.

I should have known better.

Yesterday morning I was woken up at 3am by a phone call from another of my friends in South Africa, who told me that Mike had just died of a pulmonary embolism.  He was sixty-seven.

I can truthfully say that between the ages of 13 and 19, the best times of my life were spent in the company of this man, Michael Bentley, my closest friend.

R.I.P.  Mike.

So here I am, The Last Muscadel.  As a heartless youth, I’d always kidded the other three about their bad habits.  Gawd knows I had enough of my own, but they shared those with me and added booze, cigarettes, weed and motorcycles.  And yes, all my taunts have, dreadfully, come to pass.

But I feel neither satisfaction nor vindication.   Just tears and sadness.

Bird Time

Because Mr. Free Market is a Foul Evil BastardTM, he decided to send me a few scenic pics from his current sooper-seekrit location in Scottishland.  Here’s the general milieu (note the complete absence of freezing rain, for the first time ever in this event I’m told):

(Note that Mr. FM is not wearing a face condom, despite Scottish law.)

Then it’s off to the “boxes”:


Note the careful arranging of reloads in pairs, ready for the old Load & Slaughter routine in his Beretta O/U (gawd help us, but the man has such terrible taste in shotguns).

The group shot down several hundred grouse and partridge, but here’s a pic of one brace, taken by Mr. FM with a single barrel.

When I say “taken”, I mean “shot”, of course, not clubbed out of the sky with his shotgun (which would be poor form, of course).

I am so jealous I could spit.

Purple Patches

It’s taken me nearly three years to write this.

When Former Drummer Knob and I set up the band that would carry us all the way through our 20s, he brought along a rhythm guitarist named Don (“Donat”, with a silent T) and a chubby, red-haired buddy named Kevin (“Sharks”) who spoke with a strong Detroit/Midwestern accent despite having been born in suburban New York.  I was probably the worst musician of the four of us — but whereas they’d been poking around playing in garages, I’d already had two professional gigs (in trios playing “dinner-dance” music), and was only just starting to dip my toes into rock ‘n roll bass guitar.

Kevin was easily the best musician of us all at that point, but even though I could see him fitting well into our nascent band, there was a slight wrinkle in my plans in that he was already playing in another band, and had only agreed to come to our first jam session as a favor to Donat.

That all changed after about three hours of jamming:  we had so much fun, and fitted together so well that there was absolutely no chance that Kevin could stay with the other band — at least, that’s what I insisted — and after a couple days’ reflection, he finally agreed, and thus was born the Pussyfoot Show Band.  (It was the Seventies, shuddup, and we changed it later to “Atlantic” anyway.)

We were somewhat under the gun to build a repertoire because some other guys (twin brothers) had lent us amplifiers and other gear (Knob and I were the only ones who had all the gear we needed to perform).  The condition of the loan was that we had to play at the twins’ twenty-first birthday, an event taking place in only a month or so’s time from that first jam session.  So we sat down, and each band member had to contribute twenty songs — eighty being the number I estimated we’d need to play for five or six hours without repeating any — and oi vey!  you have no idea what poured out of that little exercise.  Fortunately, there were about thirty songs which everyone liked and wanted to play, so we set to it, practicing twice a week and hampered only by Donat being a filthy perfectionist and my poor playing, we managed to play the gig to fulfill the agreement with the twins.  We had a great deal of fun, and along the way, I discovered how much I enjoyed playing with Kevin’s lead guitar (a metallic blue ’64 Fender Strat, btw).  We took off, and stayed together pretty much for the whole of the next decade.

Here’s the thing.  Over the following years, I would play with quite a few lead guitarists, whether jamming, or filling in at gigs, or full-time with other bands when we were on hiatus (don’t ask;  think “Army draft” and you’ll get the picture).  And a few guitarists were better than Kevin;  but Kevin was my favorite guitarist.  At worst, his lead solos were note-perfect, which was most of the time, and he could copy any solo ever played, by people like Clapton, Hendrix and Jimmy Page, to name but some — but every so often Kevin would play like a man possessed, and his solos were the equal of any guitarist in the world, period.  At those times, I would stare across the stage at him in astonishment, and at the end of the song say, “Where the hell did that come from?” and he would just shrug, shuffle his feet and look embarrassed.  I called them his “purple patches” because his playing at those times was, quite simply, majestic.

But as much as I enjoyed Kevin’s playing, I enjoyed his company more.  We became the best of friends, and even though we were together several times a week (gigs, practices, club dates, whatever), most Sundays would find us at  my place, sitting in the living room, drinking red wine, eating French bread and European cheeses, reading the Sunday newspapers, talking about everything under the sun and (of course) listening to music.  When Sunday evening came round, we’d head off to an all-night bookstore together and buy a few books before going to our separate homes.

Kevin was, simply speaking, a nice guy, the nicest guy you could meet — and that, sadly, was often the cause of his downfall, because he was always at the mercy of others.  His inherent goodness made him an easy target for people who were only too keen to take advantage of him, and did.  Despite being permanently short of cash, he would lend money to anyone who asked — and then either Knob or I would have to bail him out, taking his share from the next gig’s income in repayment, when the original borrower(s) stiffed him.

He was not an attractive or handsome man:  he was plump, had the redhead’s fishbelly-white skin and freckles, and his eyes protruded rather alarmingly out from under bushy-ginger eyebrows.  Most women were especially cruel to him, as women tend to be, so when he found a girl who said she loved him, he fell like a ton of bricks, and of course I was the best man at his wedding (and he, much later, was best man at my first).

Unfortunately his new wife, a decade his junior, proved to be a pestilence.  She was pregnant when they got married, and used that excuse to stay at home and not go to work.  Keven’s meager income was barely enough to cover rent and food for his new family, but that didn’t stop her from buying new clothes, makeup and shoes every week.  We in the band watched aghast as he became this harried, perpetually-worried man, at times barely able to make gigs — oh, and by the way, New Wifey was intensely jealous of his relationship with the band, and with me especially, so my closest friend essentially disappeared from my life outside the band.

Well, I eventually emigrated to the U.S. and set about building my new life.  Kevin and I drifted apart, as people do when separated by such a wide gulf.  Email, when it arrived, proved to be a lifesaver and we picked up the threads a little, until I heard that he was coming back to the U.S. and bringing his family with him.  Unfortunately, I was living in Chicago at the time, and he was headed for downstate New York (where his job was), so we only ever got together once, when I was on a business trip to New York and we met up for dinner.

Nothing had changed for him, except that he and Wifey had had another child, a daughter who was now in her early teens.  His son was in high school, and then went to Brown to study to be an actuarian.  But Wifey was still fucking him over — he admitted that she’d had an online affair with some guy in Cleveland or something — and to make ends meet (she still refusing to work), he’d had to take a second job as a security guard at Giants Stadium.  (The only bonus to this was that he could attend rock concerts for free.)  Needless to say, he wasn’t playing in a band anymore — Wifey saw to that — so all he did was play guitar at home, composing songs that nobody would ever hear.

You have to understand that hearing about all this shit happening to my old friend was like a scourging of my soul, and talking about it with all the other ex-members of our band just caused us all to wince because there was nothing we could do about it.  In the game of life, one of the Nice Guys had become tagged with the Loser label.  All I could hope was that he would at some point have enough and ditch his family, horrible though that sounds.  (I should mention in passing that his daughter, a truly stunning beauty, had in her mid-teens joined the tattoo-‘n-piercing set, aided and abetted by her tramp of a mother.)

Anyway, the situation resolved itself.  Wifey left Kevin and went back to South Africa, taking both kids with her and leaving him with a boatload of credit-card debt that she’d thoughtfully accrued in the months while plotting her escape.  So once again, he had no money and now, no family.

Just to add to all this:  his son, the reason for Kevin’s getting married in the first place, wasn’t his.  I don’t know if he knew this, but I would be surprised if he didn’t, because the resemblance was totally to the other guy and not Kevin himself.  Kevin being Kevin, it made absolutely no difference to him and he loved the kid as his own;  but now that too was over.  He never saw his kids again.

Well, Kevin settled into life as a bachelor, moving in with his elderly mother in (I think) Pennsylvania.  He met a nice girl who lived in Wisconsin (online thing, of course), and was all set to start all over again when, at age 60, his kidneys failed.  This required weekly dialysis while he waited for a transplant donor, but while he was stricken, his mood never fell into the abyss (mine wouldn’t have), and he re-discovered Catholicism, his childhood religion.  He was living on disability by now, and even when his mother passed away, she left him with some money which made him, for the first time in his life, somewhat financially secure.  He was able, finally, to do what he’d always wanted to do:  compose and play music.

In October 2017, a little after his 64th birthday, my friend Kevin died of a massive and completely-unexpected heart attack.  There were no warning signs, no family history of heart trouble, and none of his many medical examinations had ever shown any heart issues.  Nevertheless, it gave out, and that was that.

And the world became a much darker, and far less kind and joyful a place with his essential goodness and wonderful talent snatched away from it.

I can’t write any more.  Sorry, Kev, that it took so long for me to do this for you.

Your dearest friend always,

Welcome Back To The Working Classes

I’m happy to announce that New Wife, having passed all the stupid bureaucratic bullshit  federal requirements that enable her to work, has recently starting doing so at one of the local (and very new) private schools here in Plano.  She’s not teaching, however — “twenty years of that is enough” — and instead is doing the admin stuff as the school starts to open.

After running a boarding house at her alma mater  high school for eight years before I dragged her kicking and screaming across the Atlantic to marry me, she’s well qualified.  (Think:  no-nonsense attitude, kinda like mine.)

Details to follow, but please join me in wishing her well.

Kettle Woes

New Wife is a tea drinker.  Actually, to call her a “tea drinker” is akin to saying that her husband rather enjoys shooting guns, except that she drinks tea more often than I shoot a gun.  Hell, she almost drinks more cups of tea than the number of bullets I send downrange in a typical session.

As I’ve mentioned before, she drinks Yorkshire Gold tea, which is my fault because I turned her onto it when we were together in Britishland all those years ago, and she prefers it over all others.  Fortunately, the teabags are fine — unlike my children, she’s not a teapot fetishist, thank goodness — so we just buy the bags in bulk and all goes well.

Except for the kettle.  We use a cheap ($25) electric kettle with an auto cutoff switch rather than a stovetop-with-whistle type simply because it’s more convenient, in that when we go on a car trip, we take both kettle and teabags with us (plus my small Keurig, but that’s a story for another time).

(Aside:  I should divulge, en passant, that I make the tea in our house simply because I’ve been making tea since I was seven years old — I used to make it for my mother every day because she too was a guzzler rather than a sipper, and I enjoyed spoiling my Mom, just as I enjoy spoiling New Wife — and I make tea better than anyone I know, including Daughter and New Wife, whether using bags in a cup, or loose tea in a pot.  I also make it when guests come over, even if they know little or nothing about tea.)

Recently, however, the kettle started to misbehave:  not switching on consistently, leaking a tiny bit, not switching off automatically at the boil, and so on.  So off I went to Amazon to order a new kettle, which is where the problems started.  Here’s the executive summary.

All kettles, whether electric or stovetop, are made in China nowadays.  All are crap (probably for the aforesaid reason) in that they are quick to rust, break early and often, don’t work as advertised, and so on. Even the so-called “Japanese” kettles are made in China, and suck.  Ditto Le Creuselt, the snobby Frog brand, which is now made in China, and for $75, I would expect them to last forever and never break — except that according to the consumer comments, they’re as bad as the rest of them.  When you consider that a kettle has only ONE JOB — boiling water — this is obviously a matter of concern.

Well, I wasn’t going to be put about like this, so I decided to buy a high-quality stovetop kettle, made somewhere other than China.  Of course, the first place I looked (Williams-Sonoma) did indeed have a quality kettle not made in China, except that it costs $400, no doubt because it’s made in England[pause to recover from the fainting spell]

Never mind kettle, what was needed was Ketel One.

However, a glass of gin and a moment’s reflection provided me with the solution.

I have had the current (faulty) kettle now for just on two years.  Given the number of cups of tea that New Wife imbibes on a daily basis, an approximate calculation revealed that this El Cheapo kettle has boiled water around four thousand times — and is only now starting to show signs of age/use?  I’ve had guns that didn’t last that long, and they’re made of stainless steel and everything.

So I went back to Amazon and bought another kettle just like it (down to the color even), noting that the price ($25) was about the same as the first one I bought back then.

Yeah, it’s made in China, but they’re all made in China so there you go.  I should point out that if there were a kettle of comparable standard made in the U.S., I probably would have spent double the amount — and if we in America cannot make a simple and reliable electric kettle carrying a retail price of $50 because of greedy unions, burdensome government regulations, high operating costs, etc., then we deserve to have the Commies make all our stuff.

Let’s just hope the fucking thing doesn’t break on Day 3.  New Wife will be severely pissed at having to do without her Yorkshire Gold while I go and find something else (not made in China, FFS) to replace it.

Good Friday

And to all my Christian Readers:  have a Happy Easter, and may all your eggs be tasty (I think  that’s a traditional greeting).

It’s not often we get Easter and Pesach  on the same weekend because of that calendar thing, but here we are.

My best wishes to all of you.

Update:  from Former Bandmate Knob: