What’s in a name?

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1640 words.

He never really understood why his parents had named him Manfred. They were not German, and had no connections with that country. They had not even been there, and knew little about it. When he was old enough to know it was very unusual name, at least in a West London suburb, he asked his father why. He told him, “Ask your mother.” So Manfred did. “I always liked the sound of it.” She smiled as she answered, and gave no further explanation.

He hated his name, and considered that parents should give more serious consideration to naming their children. After all, he was stuck with it for ever now, unless he changed it when he was older. But that was such a nuisance. He would probably have to change all his exam certificates later on, and probably his driving licence, and so many other documents he didn’t even know about at that young age. And even though he didn’t care too much for girls at primary school, it seemed unlikely to him that anyone would ever want to marry someone called Manfred. Unless they lived in Germany, of course.

Worse still, the other boys shortened it. They called him Manny. Some of the girls called him Freddy, which seemed even more horrible to him, though they insisted that it was affectionate. It became a constant source of irritation as he got older. At secondary school, nobody seemed to be able to pronounce it. They always said it as Man-Fred, as if there were two names, instead of one. When he tried to correct them, he realised that he had made a terrible mistake. Instead of saying it properly, they exaggerated their mispronunciation, lengthening the gap until it became Man—Fred. Then they would all burst out laughing at his obvious frustration.

Like anything at school, it didn’t last too long, and those boys soon found a fresh victim to tease. They went back to plain Manny, which he accepted with relief. Even the teachers drove him mad though. Despite his surname being Thompson, they would always ask him, “Are your family German then?” They acted like they were showing genuine interest of course, but he had to explain the same thing over and over, until he was sick of saying it. Whenever a new member of staff arrived, he dreaded the eventual explanation. He thought the teachers must be really stupid. Couldn’t they tell? After all, his name was Thompson.

Once he moved to secondary school, it got much worse. The same thing all over again, but with a lot more boys and extra teachers to deal with. Then one day, an older boy threw something in that he had never encountered before. Riley was a fifth year, so nearly five years older than Manfred. He came up to him in the playground one day, pushing his palm into the younger boy’s chest, to stop him walking. “What’s this Manny about then kid?” His tone was less than friendly, and he was backed up by his small clique of hangers-on too. “You a Jew then?” Riley continued. Manfred didn’t think he knew any Jews, and although he knew it was a religion, he didn’t know anything about it really. “No, I’m C of E actually.” Manfred considered this a polite reply in the circumstances. Although his family didn’t attend church, they had mentioned that they were Church of England now and again, particularly when it came to filling in forms. Riley grinned at his pals. “Don’t lie to me, you’re a bloody Jew Boy, a Yid. Go on admit it.”

Manfred was a good six inches shorter than the older boy. He was also carrying some weight, and didn’t see too well without his glasses. He took no chances, and decided to turn and run back into the safety of the school. Behind him, he heard the group of older boys chanting “Jew-boy, Jew-boy”, but he made it safely up to his class. Manfred decided to ignore the name-calling, and immersed himself in his studies. He liked languages, and excelled in both French and German. He had to do German in an after school club though, as they only allowed one language on the syllabus. The others expected him to do well in German of course, but he ignored their jibes. To try to get fitter, he joined a local tennis club in Isleworth. He had to start as a beginner, but soon developed a real talent for the game. A new racket for his birthday replaced the old one that Dad had given him, and before too long he had trimmed down nicely.

By the time it came to exams, he was hardly recognisable as the old Manfred. Filled-out, muscular, and fully grown, he no longer attracted the attention of other boys wanting to tease him. The results were some of the best the school had ever seen. As well as the languages, he got top grades in History and English, and had the choice of two universities. He chose the one that was far away from home, in the north-east. He would live in for the first year, and study modern languages. Then his old granny died. He hadn’t seen her for years, as she had been living in a care home in Somerset. Mum told him that he had been left almost £10,000 in her will. “That’s enough to get a nice little car.” Manfred told her he didn’t need a car. Instead, he had laser eye surgery during the summer break. The glasses that had sat on his face for most of his life would no longer be needed. He felt a great sense of freedom. The rest he put away in a small savings account. That would pay for a trip to Germany the following Spring.

Manfred arrived at university armed with a new-found confidence, an athletic build, and some of the best exam results in the whole country. He settled in quickly, and tried out for the tennis club there as soon as he could. The coach had to admit that he was the best under-21 player he had seen for many years. Of course, there were the same old questions. But this time he was ready with different answers. Hours of studying German had made him more than proficient in the language. On top of that, he had studied the geography and customs of the country, pored over maps, and researched specific areas. When the questions came, he was ready for them.

She looked across the table in the cafeteria. Her hair was braided, and her longs legs wrapped in thick blue tights under the too-short skirt. “Manfred. That’s German isn’t it? Are your family from Germany?”
He smiled at the girl. “Originally, yes. My grandfather escaped from the old East Germany before the wall came down. He used an escape tunnel, and managed to get all the way to England, before settling in West London, close to where my parents live now. It was in the papers at the time, but of course I don’t remember it. He was from East Berlin, and had to escape the secret police because he was a dissident novelist and protester. Naturally, he changed his surname later, to avoid being hunted down.” Too easy. Her eyes were wide open, and she had stopped slurping her drink through the bendy straw.

“Wow. That’s a coincidence because I went to Berlin last summer. What part was he from?” There was no hint of interrogation in her question, just interest. Manfred’s reply was slick, devoid of hesitation. “Pankow, in the north-east of the city. He lived in Krugerstrasse, near where the Holiday Inn is situated now.” Manfred knew his location to be completely accurate, even though he had never been to that country, let alone the city. “I loved it there, it’s a cool place.” Her accent was refined, probably from one of the nicer parts of the Home Counties. “I’m Ellie, by the way. We should meet for a drink sometime.” He nodded. “Sounds good. Put your number in here.” He proffered his mobile phone, and she entered her name and number like a speed typist.

As he walked away to go to his next class, he could hear her using her phone. “Hey, it’s me. I’ve just been chatting to that Manfred guy. You know, the fit one, the tennis guy. Yeh, that’s him. He’s German you know. Like his grandpa was a spy or something. Escaped from some spy thing in Berlin. Yeh, I’m going to meet him for a drink soon. He’s really cool.

On the stairwell leading to the lecture hall, he felt someone touch his arm. He turned to see a stocky, large-breasted girl gazing up at him. Her long hair was as black as ink, and her eyes were the darkest brown he had ever seen. “You’re Manny, right? He nodded, and gave his best friendly grin. “Hi, I’m Rachel. I heard your name, and well I sort-of presumed you would be Jewish, like me.” He nodded, then felt he should elaborate. “Well my family were German Jews way back. I was told that they escaped from Berlin to avoid being sent to the camps. But we don’t go to synagogue or anything.” The girl gazed into his face, slowly shaking her head. “Oh no! What a coincidence. My own family were from Germany too. And they escaped before 1939. We should meet for coffee or something, see what else we have in common.”
“Put your number in here, Rachel.” He handed over his phone, giving her his best interested look.

As he ran up the remaining stairs, he smiled to himself.

Seemed like Manfred was turning out to be a pretty good name after all.

Sites I follow

I do follow quite a few sites. At one time, it was over 100, but it is now down to just 86. So why did I decide to drop over 14 sites from my followed list? The answer is simple. They just stopped posting.

I sit and wonder what their reasons are. Lack of ideas, disillusioned with blogging, or just don’t have the time? Maybe they just didn’t get much from it, or it was not what they expected. Who knows? The world of blogging is a strange world to inhabit. Some people are ‘chasing’ followers, others selling books, or Internet services. Over the years, you learn to tell the difference, and to be choosy with the blogs that you follow.

But even applying some rules and experience, it is not an exact science. Blogs just vanish overnight, with not a word, or a reason why. Is it only me, or do you also think that they owe their devoted followers just a small word of explanation? Just one line, explaining why they have stopped blogging, or why they are having a (very long) break.

So this evening, I un-followed some blogs. Those that had not posted anything for over a year, and some who didn’t even bother to acknowledge my last comment. I am genuinely sorry to see them go. After all, if they did not have merit, I would not have followed them in the first place. Maybe they expected too much. Perhaps their book sales did not happen, or their return followers were not to their liking.

New bloggers, a word of advice. If you follow a blog, do your best to follow it. That involves commenting on posts, or at least leaving an occasional like. Then when you get followers, treat them with a little respect. They take their time to read, follow, like, and comment on your blogs. If you decide to stop blogging, which is of course your right, at least have the decency to tell them.

Vaping v Smoking: My conclusions

I have been asked to write an update about using electronic smoking products, as opposed to smoking ‘real’ cigarettes. So, Madelyn, this is for you. (And anyone else who is remotely interested.)

In 2012, Julie and I both gave up smoking. That’s not strictly true, as we actually gave up smoking real cigarettes, and switched to the electronic alternatives instead. Less chemicals, no carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. Few (if any) cancerous by-products, and absolutely no odour on our clothes, or in our house. Our main reason was financial, we make no secret of that. The cost of tobacco cigarettes was getting out of proportion, and exceeding our ability to justify spending such a large part of our income on them.

After a couple of years, we switched from the electronic cigarette ‘lookalikes’ to vaping machines that use separate fluid. The main reason for this was because the smaller batteries were unreliable, and there was a lack of choice in the range of flavours. However, this also brought an unexpected reduction in costs too, making it even cheaper to keep away from ‘real’ smoking.

So just how much do we save? Is it worth switching to vaping, purely in monetary terms? To show just how much you could save, (and without going on about the additional health benefits) I will give an example of one typical year. Of course, you have to allow for the setup costs of buying the vaping devices. But once they are out of the way, daily costs are minimal, compared to the equivalent for cigarettes. Here is one year, broken down purely in financial terms. I am allowing for two of us using vaping devices here. If you are one person, you can halve these figures.

Conventional cigarettes. (UK prices for Marlboro Red/ Lucky Strike.)

Approx £9 per packet. ($11.27 US) This is the lowest estimate, at current prices.

Me. Ten packets weekly.
Julie, Six packets weekly.
Weekly cost. £129 ($161.62 US)
Annual cost. £6,708 ($8,404 US)

Vaping. Prices based on buying online, from Amazon, and other online retailers.

Kangertech Evod Mega devices X 6 units (Three each, so we have spare batteries)

Cost £19-£26 each, depending on retailer. Say £22 ($27.50 US) each for the sake of this post.
Total. £132 ($165.37 US)
Fluid to fill devices at around £1.50 a bottle.
Me. Three bottles weekly.
Julie. two bottles weekly.
Weekly cost. £7.50 ($9.40 US)
Annual cost. £390 ($488.51 US)
Replacement heating coils for vaping devices.
We use around four each week, between us. They cost £1.20 ($1.50 US) each.
Weekly cost. £4.80 ($6 US)
Annual cost. £249.60 ($312.65 US)

Total cost for vaping in one year, for two people. £804.97 ($1009 US)
Divide by two for one user. £403 ($505 US)
Second and subsequent years. Remove the initial cost of vaping devices by deducting the £132, and annual costs come down to an average of £673 ($843 US) for two people. So, the saving is easy to work out.

First year saving. £5,903 ($7,394 US) For two people
Second and subsequent years savings. £6,035 ($7,560 US) for two people.

I think that the sums are right, but feel free to tell me if I have made an error. Even if I am out by a little, you can see that the cost differences are immense. If nothing else, you will have a great deal more money in your pocket. You may still have to face being addicted to nicotine, but you will not be inhaling hundreds of other poisonous cocktails present in the normal cigarette smoke. You will also have something to hold, something to put into your mouth, and a device that fulfills the secondary desires of most smokers, as well as the primary one. That of inhaling nicotine in vapour.

For my wife and I, it has been a success story. We have not had a cigarette since September, 2012, and see no reason why we would ever go back to them. It is not, ‘Not Smoking’, I make no claim for that. But it is without doubt safer smoking, and incredibly cheaper too.
There are hundreds of devices available, in many styles and sizes. I only mention the brand we chose for cost estimation purposes.

Five today!

DSCF1529
This photo is a couple of years old. But he hasn’t changed much since, and it is one of my favourites.

Ollie was born on the 12th of February, 2012. Not long after that, I moved here for good from London, and we took him in full time. I have spent every day with him since, and established an unbreakable bond with our dog. He has always been a joy to have; well-behaved, good company, and popular with guests and neighbours too. He has never chewed anything he wasn’t supposed to, never stolen any food he wasn’t allowed to eat, and the only time he has had any ‘accidents’ inside the house has been when he was ill.

He has endured four eye operations, two tail operations, and endless bouts of treatment for ear infections and skin problems. He has been in an animal hospital, and made numerous trips to the Vet. But he never once complained. He didn’t snap, whine, or refuse to get out of the car. He trusts us completely, and even if he is left with friends or neighbours for a few hours he is no trouble, as he is confident that we will soon return.

Of course, he has also been the star of this blog, and more popular than the blog writer, certainly. His antics are always received with delight, and much joy is expressed at any photos of him as they appear. He is the heart and soul of beetleypete, without doubt.

As he is now thirty-five in equivalent human years, I tried to tell him that he should be acting a little more grown up. Perhaps he should be doing less sniffing around, and not bothering to run around the house with a stuffed lion clamped in his jaws. But he is having none of that, and is determined to carry on being the same old Ollie, even at the grand age of five.

He will get some extra treats today, and no doubt more fuss too. There will be some birthday presents of even more stuffed toys, and something very tasty to supplement his dinner tonight. He even got a birthday card, with a photo of two Shar-Pei dogs on it!
In every way imaginable, he is a ‘Good Boy’, and the best dog I have ever had.

Happy Birthday, Ollie.

Random questions: Part two

A while ago, I posted about some of those questions that cause frustration in life. Parking in supermarkets, littering, driving in the middle lane, that sort of thing. I mentioned that there might be more questions to come, and here they are.

Why don’t some dog owners clean up after their dog?

As a responsible dog owner myself, I always clean up after Ollie. I make sure to take out a reasonable supply of poo bags, and keep a good eye out for when he has done whatever he is going to do. The bags are cheap, picking up the stuff is easy and hygienic, and there are lots of bins placed around to deposit the bags into. Yet a huge percentage of other dog owners never bother. They don’t even carry the bags in the first place, and have adopted an attitude of complete indifference to the dog poo that they leave in their wake. They make it bad for everyone, as all dog owners get the blame, even the conscientious ones. It is most annoying.

Why do people who didn’t vote complain so much about the result?

This is a long-term problem, but is also very topical, given the recent results in our Referendum, and the US election. You must have met them yourself. Bleating on about this or that result, whether or not we should have stayed in or out of the EU, or what the local Council is doing with the rates they collect. I always ask them, “So how did you vote?” I often get the reply, “Oh I didn’t bother to vote. They are all the same, these politicians.” Then why do they whine? Get off of the sofa, and cast your vote. You still may not win, but you just might make a difference.

Why are people rude to shop staff?

Most people who work in shops and supermarkets these days would sooner not have to do that job. The hours are awful, the pay is very low, and the working conditions are often poor. Gone are the days of owners running their own businesses, in most cases. Shop staff these days are little more than corporate cannon fodder, treated as disposable as the carrier bags that they used to give away.
So why do people moan at these unfortunates? Why do they complain to some harassed housewife on £7 an hour about the waiting times at a checkout, or because their size 18 top was too tight? Just leave them alone, and direct your spite at the people really in charge.
Be nice, for once in your life.

Why do fit and well people park in spaces for the Disabled?

(This has a sub-question too. Why do people use disabled permits when they do not have the disabled person with them?) I know that driving around looking for a space can seem to be a pain at times. But in the grand scheme of things, it is hardly comparable to trying to survive in Aleppo is it? So why do you just swoop into a parking spot clearly marked for disabled users? What level of selfishness and disregard for decency is required to make you behave in this way? What makes you so important that you cannot bear to walk an extra ten yards to make your purchase? Disabled permits are not that easy to get, believe me. If they get one, you can be sure that they almost certainly need it. So have some respect for that, and while you are at it, have some self-respect too. Just stop doing it!

What happened to good manners?

At what stage did it become acceptable to not offer a seat on public transport to someone elderly, a pregnant woman, or someone carrying a baby? When was it ever OK to barge onto a bus before people who had been patiently queuing for ages? Why do you shout into your mobile phones in public places, and tell everyone around you what you are talking about? And when was it ever acceptable to scoff down some repulsive take-away food whilst sitting next to me on a bus? Did you never hear about holding open doors for the person following behind you either? How about saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ in shops? Where did that go? Perhaps lessons in manners and general good behaviour should be taught in schools these days. We used to just ‘know’. Maybe because our parents brought us up properly.

More random questions will undoubtedly follow.

Just been watching…(30)

Train To Busan (2016)
(Original Korean language, English subtitles.)

****Spoilers avoided****

As some of you may recall, I am lucky enough to be on the Amazon review panel, and I can choose from lists of free items, in exchange for a fair review. These range from books to lawn mowers, domestic electrical goods to pet food, but rarely include films on DVD. Fortunately, this film appeared on my list this month, so I was more than happy to get a free copy.

This is a highly-acclaimed Korean horror film about an outbreak of zombies in that country, caused by a leak from a bio-chemical plant. The film begins with the usual scene setting and introduction to some of the characters. A busy dad has to get his young daughter to see his estranged wife in the town of Busan. A college baseball team has to get there too, as well as an assortment of others who all have their reasons. They are going to catch the train, hence the title.

Not long after setting off from the station, it appears that something bad is happening in the capital, Seoul. Riots, violence, and widespread chaos have gripped the city, and our train passengers seem to be the lucky ones, having escaped the horrors there. But one infected woman managed to get on the train too, and that is when the problems begin…

OK, we have seen it all before. ‘The Night of The Living Dead’, ‘Day of The Dead’, ’28 Days Later’, and the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’. Zombies have been done to death (literally) as a genre, haven’t they? Well, maybe not. This Asian take on the subject provides some familiar zombie tropes, but also breaks some of the rules too. Most importantly, the potential victims are stuck on a speeding train. Their only escape from the ever-increasing zombie horde is to keep moving between carriages. This provides some real tension at times, and the claustrophobic setting adds to the terror, in a very satisfying fashion.

And the passengers do not have any weapons. Other than a few baseball bats, courtesy of the college team, they have to defend themselves with their hands, or whatever they can find. So no guns, no axes or knives, not even a handy shovel. We can forget the usual ‘exploding heads’, and long-distance gunshots, as well as the metal implements used to skewer the marauding zombies, or cleave off their heads. And these Korean zombies do not feast on the innards of their victims. They are content to bite and infect, and then move on to the next one.

When the action comes, it is satisfyingly thick and fast, and feels real too. Anyone who has ever been on a long train journey can well-imagine how they might feel, faced with a bunch of fellow passengers who suddenly go crazy. There is some good use of aerial shots, conjuring up visions of fast-running zombie hordes, with nail-biting anticipation thrown in.

But still you are thinking, “I have seen this all before”, and perhaps stifling a yawn?

The film then throws in something fresh. We actually care about the survivors. Their characters are sufficiently developed to make us root for some, and to dislike others of course. Just when you think, “This is going to happen because that girl is nice”, (or something like that) it doesn’t happen at all. Instead, what happens is what you might least expect. At times, this film can bring a real lump to your throat, and has potential to be a tear-jerker too. A ‘Zombie Tear-Jerker’? Hard to believe, I know.

With a cast of Korean actors who most of us will never recognise, the film takes away one of the major flaws of any western film in the genre. We cannot speculate that this person will survive, because of who they are. No square-jawed Hollywood hero that you know will save the day. No demure young starlet who you are convinced will never be sacrificed to a zombie. For me, this is the film’s greatest strength, and goes a long way into making it one of the best zombie films I have seen.

Here’s the official trailer.

Significant Songs (131)

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron could be best described as being all things to all people. He was a writer, a poet, a political commentator, and an excellent musician too. His music is variously described as Jazz, Soul, Rap, Funk, or as just plain poetry to sounds. His importance in the music scene of the 1970s cannot be exaggerated, as he brought a mixture of genres that highlighted some of the most important causes of the period.

He continued to record into the 1990s, and despite some terms in prison, remained a significant influence in a certain genre, appreciated by many. These days, his work is rarely heard, and perhaps little-known, as he sadly died in 2011, aged just 62.

However, the fusion of poetry, rap, and music in this featured song has even more contemporary relevance than it did in 1971, when I first heard it, and was amazed by its prescience.

Listen, and weep.