Monday 16 September 2019

Trawling the memory banks

By David Medcalf

I used to know the Chinese word for turnip.

I don't particularly like turnips. I don't grow turnips. I have no expertise in the preparation and cooking of turnips. Yet for a brief while I carried this totally unnecessary piece of linguistic baggage around in my head.

A working trip to the People's Republic in 2007 prompted some advance research into the relevant vocabulary. I arrived primed ready to greet the good people of Changzhou with a cheery 'nay-how' (hello). And I was all geared up to respond to acts of kindness or good service with a humble 'shay-shay' (thank you).

These two elementary phrases have stayed with me, much to the giggling amusement of the oriental staff in the Our Town discount shop. The other more transient acquisition was made on the hoof.

It was during a visit to one of Changzhou's restaurants on the banks of the Yangtze Kiang River that I contracted the turnip. The printed menu was utterly incomprehensible but I noticed the locals were tucking with obvious relish into a casserole.

So, with much ill-mannered pointing and craven shay-shaying, the Irishman ordered a helping of whatever it was they were having. It was evident that duck was the principal ingredient of the casserole but I quizzed the waitress as best I could about the accompanying vegetable in my bowl. And that was how I came to learn the word for turnip in the Chinese language as spoken in the Jiangsu province.

For a while after returning to Europe, I took to lobbing my exotic root vegetable into casual conversation. But the excuses for doing so were exceedingly limited. The little piece of imported learning soon withered and died. Now all I can say is that I used to know the Chinese word for turnip.

Such a claim is as relevant to everyday life as boasting of past prowess at limbo dancing or of failing to put money on Shergar to win the 1981 Irish Derby or of having once been able to distinguishing between integration and differentiation. Yes, there really was a time in my teenage years when I could integrate and differentiate to beat the band. Our school maths teacher made these procedures fun. One of the challenges he set to the class was working out the quickest way to cross a ploughed field from corner to corner. Walking across the furrows was direct but slow going. Following the smooth un-ploughed section around the edge of the field allowed more rapid progress the long way round. The ideal route had to be a combination of the two and it was possible to calculate the best balance between furrows and edge using differentiation - or was it integration?

The distinction has permanently slipped my mind, never to be restored.

Thoughts of things once known which can no longer be retrieved from the memory banks were stirred by the recent retirement of John (once Johnny) Giles as a TV soccer analyst.

He was a member of the Leeds United team which lit up the game in the late 1960s under the eccentric management of the late Don Revie. I would plague my father to be allowed stay up late on Saturday nights to watch 'Match of the Day' and admire the precision football of those men in the white strip.

The names of these far off players were absorbed by the star struck boy who was me and I always assumed that those names were absorbed for good. The roll call of a 1960s soccer side was much less complicated than is the line-up of a modern Premier League outfit which has a squad of infinite depth.

Revie generally named the same eleven each week - but now I find that I would be lucky to score six or seven out of eleven. There was Giles, of course, with his sleeves pulled down over his hands, pinging passes around Elland Road with radar like precision. His midfield accomplice was the fiery Scot Billy Bremner. Gary someone-or-other was in goal, behind Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton, with the wily Eddie Gray providing crosses from the left wing for Joe Jordan to nod home.

The rest is blank. That's six and a half out of eleven, barely a pass mark. The others have receded from my grasp and I am damned if I will resort to the internet to restore them.

Wexford People

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