An interesting phrase isn’t it, and I bet if I googled it,  it’d tell me the origin before I’d finished typing the 5 words, but I prefer to spend the next 5 years doughtily, and yes, vainly, guessing what it might be. I am not exactly an expert at saying the wrong thing, but I have done so once or twice to great effect. Nearly 40 years ago, in 1976, I was  in a Cumbrian pub with a couple I’d known a few years, where I very much liked the guy, but didn’t really care for his partner, all 3 of us being about 25 years old. Kenny was relaxed, extremely long-haired and independent-minded, and Ginnie had a funny kind of barbed if camouflaged sullenness and critical side to her. They were opposing personalities in fact, and I’ve lost count of the number of couples I’ve met like that, as if the male likes to be regularly criticised and harassed albeit in muted form, and the woman enviously likes his dilatory, carefree side, but also believes it needs constant taming and curbing. Theirs was an immature, symbiotic and childish relationship in short, but let us say it obviously kept their show on the road.

One thing worth pointing out is that though hairy Kenny was surpassingly laid back, he was actually a hard working and infinitely shrewd community worker. Meaning outward appearances can be only partially revealing, at best. Ginnie had a conventional job as a secretary, and it would have been impossible to think of her as being anything but conventional. We happened to be discussing last night’s TV, and there had been a very funny if offbeat drama starring Donald Pleasence (1919-1995), that actor of massive talent and versatility, creepy and disturbing in one film or play, bland yet stonily impossible the next. Kenny and Ginnie hadn’t seen the play, so I was carefully outlining the surreal sequence of events, and trying to communicate the extraordinarily funny fact that Pleasence’s character had outrageously grotesque protruding teeth, which added a special and hectic  piquancy to the drama.

I was going on at great length about these hilarious teeth, when I looked at Ginnie and noticed as did everyone the first time they met her, that she herself had protruding and ferretish front teeth. Remarkably, and it has never happened since, I had had a cloddish fit of amnesia where I had started guffawing at buck teeth to one who had the same affliction. Two things to comment, at this pivotal point. Have you ever tried to rewrite and edit on the spot, what you’ve just said, as I did, and come out with the lame and lunatic second draft, that the teeth weren’t that funny at all, and it was the non-dental aspects of Pleasence’s character that really won the day?  The second reflection is that those prominent fangs of hers might just have made her the sullen and hypercritical bat she often was…though of course you as well as I know there are plenty of unfortunate Harold Hare/ Bugs Bunny folk around, who are kind and friendly and a pleasure to be with, despite their sorry handicap.

My best friend Willy Barber often erred more radically than that, though let us say one reason why he was my best friend, was that he had a natural comic sense and a spontaneous turn of phrase and artlessly vacant facial expression, all of which made him exceptionally funny. He had tight very curly hair, a slightly oversized nose, and was like a good-looking version of the US comedian Gene Wilder, with a little of Harpo Marx thrown in for good measure (Discuss. Why are so many really funny male comedians equipped with extremely curly hair? Is it a linked gene…as in the case of Wilder?). Willy Barber, who left Cumbria in 1970 aged 20 and has lived in London ever since, endured a troubled love life all the way to his late 30s, the apple of his eye, his  wife Rose, deserting him for a man who wore spectacles with, most ironically, vividly rose-coloured frames. After her, he got involved with a Filppino woman Augusta, who had severe mental health problems, meaning she was borderline schizophrenic. Worse still, he got her pregnant and the child ended up being brought up by her elderly Filippino parents, who happened to be living in London too. While Willy and the half-mad woman were living together, they shared a house with Augusta’s closest friend in London, who was a Syrian cosmetician of all things. The Syrian woman Nada was mid-30s like Willy and Augusta, and unfortunately she had had a serious car accident back in Damascus which had led to her having her right leg amputated in 1980. Thus she always wore a wooden leg which was visible below her skirt and she limped significantly wherever she walked. Nada was an extremely disputatious and argumentative beautician, so much so that according to Willy she barely noticed that her best friend was schizophrenic. She didn’t care for Willy and his flippancy at all, and let him know it, and as her politics and religious beliefs were a strange and conflicting hotch-potch of severe conformism and anchorless egotism, Willy did not love Nada either, and often got into prolonged debates with her.

One day in the summer of 1985 the pair of them were arguing about Christianity, which atheist Willy had almost nil knowledge of nor opinions about, but which Nada believed was responsible for the ubiquitous British racism, Willy Barber’s included. Stunned by the accusation, Willy insisted he was no racist, not least because he had a Filippino partner, Augusta. Nada refused to relent from her critique, and the argument bounced endlessly back and forwards. Nada at first was seated on a chair and was fiddling angrily with her wooden leg, as the debate grew ever warmer. Something Willy said then riled her to such a profound degree, that she stood up, as if to attack him with a beautician’s fists as well as her words. Willy stepped back from the table in moderate alarm, and then shot back at the amputee with absolutely nil forethought, apropos her powers of argument and subtle dialectic:

“But you haven’t got a leg to stand on!

There were a whole 2 seconds where Nada couldn’t believe her beautician’s ears and suddenly realised there were even worse things than racism, namely inconceivable human callousness combined therewith. It took Willy Barber another second to realise his hideous mistake and he started to babble and beseech and apologise at the speed of light. But Nada was enraged and  she hummocked off to tell the awful tale to Augusta who just at that minute happened to be talking to herself, or rather communing in Tagalog with one of the several clamorous voices inside her perpetually tormented head.

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