12. Burgess: great at making you look bad


I wrote about Anthony Burgess and a visit to his archive in Manchester in The Diplomat’s Fiancé, my previous blog. I’m more fan than expert, drawn as much to his characterful cigar stubs as unfinished manuscripts, so I’ll leave it to the pros to shed more light on his amazing work via the link below. Yet Burgess’s relevance to me in my new guise as The Word Diver seems increasingly obvious – the well-travelled novelist was a fantastic scholar and exponent of languages. In this latest podcast from the International Anthony Burgess Foundation you can learn why Russian was a more suitable language for him to employ when inventing the timeless slang of A Clockwork Orange (‘groodies’ is arguably a much better word for ‘breasts’ than…‘breasts’, for example) as well as hearing some of the music and song he wrote for a stage version of the notorious and much-misunderstood novel. Whether of a literary bent or not, every expat should learn from Burgess’s love of language. While teaching English in Malaya he was fascinated by obscure local dialects. These years on, you won’t be surprised to learn that ‘progress’ sees most Brits in Hong Kong knowing only a pittance of words in (the almost universally spoken) Cantonese.

Since I moved out to the island, where English is less widely practised, I have tried to add the numbers 1-10 and a few more words to my repertoire. It’s still a pathetic showing but, rather than scold me (as they should) the firm-but-fair, all-female staff at my long-distance local in Hong Kong have taken it upon themselves to give me some informal lessons. My iPhone feels like more than the sum of its parts now that it contains some expert tuition from my old allies behind the bar on its voice recorder. I will wait for a more impressive example to come along before relating it back to them, but feel I can share this, my first exclusively Cantonese conversation with you, kind reader.

The Scene: Palm-fringed residential block, a sun-dappled Saturday, 11am

The players: Tired-looking expat carrying a plastic bag of kitchen waste; a weather-beaten woman in a big hat straw hat pushing a handcart, collecting rubbish

Weather-beaten woman: Jou san (morning)

Life-beaten expat: Jou san

Weather-beaten woman: Lapsap? (rubbish)

Life-beaten expat: Lapsap

Weather-beaten woman: M’goi (thank you)

Life-beaten expat: M’goi

Between Burgess and the bar staff I think I might be in for a kicking…

11. Want to know where you stand?

adjust your stool

Are you someone of ‘good standing’, according to the UK government? Have a look at this list of acceptable occupations and see if you are able to countersign a friend’s passport application. Authors/editors: don’t even think about it…


Countersignatories must work in (or be retired from) a recognised profession or be ‘a person of good standing in their community’, eg:

  • accountant
  • airline pilot
  • articled clerk of a limited company
  • assurance agent of recognised company
  • bank/building society official
  • barrister
  • chairman/director of limited company
  • chiropodist
  • commissioner of oaths
  • councillor (local or county)
  • civil servant (permanent), but not someone who works for Her Majesty’s Passport Office
  • dentist
  • director/manager of a VAT-registered charity
  • director/manager/personnel officer of a VAT-registered company
  • engineer (with professional qualifications)
  • financial services intermediary (eg a stockbroker or insurance broker)
  • fire service official
  • funeral director
  • insurance agent (full time) of a recognised company
  • journalist
  • Justice of the Peace
  • legal secretary (fellow or associate member of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs)
  • licensee of public house
  • local government officer
  • manager/personnel officer (of a limited company)
  • member, associate or fellow of a professional body
  • Member of Parliament
  • Merchant Navy officer
  • minister of a recognised religion (including Christian Science)
  • nurse (RGN and RMN)
  • officer of the armed services
  • optician
  • paralegal (certified paralegal, qualified paralegal or associate member of the Institute of Paralegals)
  • person with honours (an OBE or MBE, for example)
  • pharmacist
  • photographer (professional)
  • police officer
  • Post Office official
  • president/secretary of a recognised organisation
  • Salvation Army officer
  • social worker
  • solicitor
  • surveyor
  • teacher, lecturer
  • trade union officer
  • travel agent (qualified)
  • valuer or auctioneer (fellows and associate members of the incorporated society)
  • Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers

Why pilots and not divers? Good old-fashioned snobbery I suspect, which is a shame when you hear tales of heroic human decency taking place under water. I urge you to listen to the story of Italian police diver Antonio D’Amico who endured a harrowing time removing the bodies of migrants who drowned off the island of Lampedusa in October. His evident compassion and consummate professionalism is a moving combination. Find the radio programme he’s featured on here.

It’s worth remembering that while it’s nice to be important, plenty of worthy individuals exist outside the vouchsafing framework suggested by our betters. Who would you choose to trust, a paramedic or an MP? An editor or a…okay, fair point. What’s that? You still want to apply for that job as commissioner of oaths? Well, good luck – just don’t expect my written reference to mean too much.

10. Race to the ferry pier

My camo rust bucket will see off yours...

My camo rust bucket will see off yours…

Date: unspecified cold, clear December morning

Time: 8.27-8.42am

Course: quarter lap of island

Class: mixed transport class

Propellants: leg power, electric/small petrol engine, fear of missing ferry, attempting to cause rivals to miss ferry, variable smell of canine excrement, any available hill, slope etc.

Inspirations: Wacky Races, Senna v Prost, Battle Royale, Isle of Man TT, the life-affirming lifejacket lady (see below).

We do it for her...

We do it for her…

Final positions:

10. Trundling rubbish cart causes a stink on first corner

9. Triad escapee cycling with face obscured by DAB literature

8. Would-be hipster weighed down by giant headphones

7. Snake startled from the bushes

6. 100-year-old fisherman with bad attitude

5. Cops in toy patrol car divert electric motor to cook morning fish balls

4. Me

3. Stray dog

2. Businessman employs hidden engine in tuk-tuk; overtakes field while cackling

1. Teenage schoolgirl with super-new imported Japanese bicycle, riding serenely with eyes closed

Next meeting: same time tomorrow

NB: Novice racers should note that in keeping with their rebellious nature, islanders prefer to ride on the right-hand side of all circuits in current use – in contrast to the legally enforced left-hand driving you’ll find on ‘conformist’ Hong Kong.