Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I give you Jim Harman, the man who seems to know everything and will tell you about it all at great length. But be quick, he us off to Australia very, very soon

I mentioned an Italian restaurant called La Pappardella in my last entry, and that’s where I first bumped into Jim Harman. La Pappardella is on the Old Brompton Road, in Earls Court, London, and if you are ever nearby and fancy eating Italian, I can recommend it. It is not part of a chain, and because it is not a chain, you get value for your money, e.g if you like chicken salad, as I do, you don’t get just three or four small cubes of chicken as you do in the bloody fake-Italian chains which you have to hunt down amid the mounds of shredded cos lettuce, but three or four generous pieces of freshly grilled chicken breast. I’m no skinflint, but I do like value for my money. Also the staff and everything about it, including the noise, are Italian.

La Pappardella has a small narrow terrace outside on the street, about five feet wide, with about four tables, and that’s where we smokers sit and dine. I go there on a Sunday when I work only one shift, and I am usually there from about 7.30 till 10, except in the warmer weather when Luigi, the manager, slides open the restaurant glass front to allow in fresh air (as in the ‘fresh air’ you get from a reasonably busy, semi-residential street with traffic passing all day and all night) and has politely and firmly made it clear that when those doors are open, he doesn’t like me sitting outside smoking cigars. Punters smoking cigarettes are fine, but not those who like a cigar, however modest that cigar might be. Oh, well.

I should, by the way, yet again point out that I am most certainly no rich putz with money to burn on cigars, but that I get my La Paz Wilde Cigarros from a shop in Amsterdam which sells boxes of 20 for €14 (i.e. around £12.50/$16.50), though just five of them will set you back £13 here in Britain (which is why I get them when I travel abroad to see my sister or my aunt). To put that figure in perspective, anyone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, and many smoke a damn sight more than that, will be blowing at least £70 a week or more. My modest box of 20 usually lasts me about a month. Just saying.

I was at La Pappardella one night about a year ago when Jim Harman turned up. He had recently returned to Britain from Australia to sell his flat just down the road from La Pappardella, before leaving Old Blighty for good and settling Down Under. I don’t know how we started talking but we did, and he seemed an affable, interesting guy. The terrace and its diners are shielded from the pavement by a long, four-foot high piece of plate glass, and Jim stands on the pavement side of the glass, with his bottle of lager, cup of espresso and glass of brandy on a terrace table, leaning over the glass to reach it. In all the time I have known him, I have known him, I have never seen him sit down.

Anyway, we got chatting and in our first chat he told me the long and very involved story about how he had gone to his dentist a few days earlier to have some slight work done to his teeth, but how the whole episode had ended with him in intensive care at the Kensington & Chelsea hospital on the Fulham Road because the dentist had accidentally injected him with undiluted something or other and had more or less burned out his sinuses. I do seem to remember that he said ‘bleach’, but surely to goodness injecting a patient with bleach, however dilute, is not standard dental practice, so it must have been something else. Who knows.

He was, he said, at death’s door for 48 hours and was later told by his consultant, he said, that only some fluke or other had saved his life. All this had apparently taken place over the previous weekend. I must admit I was a little dubious about it all, as he didn’t seem much the worse for wear and was knocking back the lagers and beers with gusto, not least smoking his ciggies, which, he said, the doctors had strictly forbidden, but as this was all part of a little light conversation, I gave him the benefit of doubt. And, anyway, it was an entertaining enough story.

There was even a sequel to it, which I got to hear the following Sunday: during the week he had been getting very bad headaches and sinus pain but nothing would help. Finally, noticing something ‘plastic like’ peeping from one of his nostrils, he had pulled at it, then pulled at it a little more, then a little more still until finally a load of gunge emerged. Once that was clear he felt a lot better. This was somehow the remnants of the ‘bleach’ or whatever the silly dentist had - undiluted - injected him with. I was again a little sceptical as yet again he didn’t in any way seem under the weather, but, hey, what the hell. Who knows? And did I care?

Jim would turn up at La Pappardella at around 9pm, and it wasn’t just on Sundays that he turned up. Sometimes, after ending my Monday or Tuesday double shift at 10pm, I, too, am in the habit of washing up there for a glass of wine and a smoke. And so in further conversations - I suppose I should more strictly call them recitations - I heard many more sories, how, for example, he had, while working on the telecommunications side of things for an oil company in Nigeria, witnessed rebel fighting and how a dishonest female correspondent for British TV gave a live broadcast of the action, describing the bullets flying all around her, while actually she was standing two miles away on the other side of a valley well away from the fighting and in now danger whatsoever.

On another occasion he told me how to deal with corruption in Nigeria and how he regularly outwitted various Nigerian cops looking for a bribe. There were several other stories - for several years, it seems, he was down and out in Salazar’s Portugal, could tell you a thing or two about the country, and did - but, to be frank, the details of which you always got many now elude me.

It was gradually and only later, once over the months I had heard several anecdotes several times and began getting a little peeved that for Jim ‘conversation’ means ‘listen to what I have to say on that topic’ - whatever the topic - that I began to find him just a little less interesting. Brexit is a favourite, but he has knowledge of and an opinion on pretty much everything you might care to raise and he is more than happy to share all with you. He is one of those people who talks so seamlessly and at length that there is no hope of getting a word in edgeways. Sadly, thought perhaps not unexpectedly, he is less interested - or to be fair, seems to be less interested - to hear what you might have to say.

Most recently I heard all about some Michelin-starred Italian chef who had been a big noise in London finally jacking it all in and returning to Italy where he now runs a successful restaurant on the outskirts of Rome. It is on an archaeological site, so is not permanent, but consists of a tent in which he serves only British food. Knowing how much Italians like their food, and knowing just how unlike Italian food British food is, I told him I found that hard to believe, but no, he said, it was true.

Then there was the tale of the son who took over the family’ very successful vineyard and ran it into the ground because he wanted to use his new ideas. I never knew this, but vineyards keep barrels of ‘reserve’ wine from good years which they then mix with wine from less good years to keep up the overall quality. It seems this fool, the son, that is, not Jim, thought the practice was all stuff and nonsense and refused to keep ‘reserve’ wine. End of vineyard, it seems. Or something. Once again, I got a little lost in the telling and am hazy on details.

Jim is 77 years old, but could pass for younger. He has a slight Australian edge to his accent, but is Suffolk born and bred. Come November 2, I shall never see him again, because that is when he is flying out to Australia and leaving Britain forever (and where he will apparently spend the next few months building a small domestic solar electricity generating plant for the property he owns out there. Again, I got full details but became a little confused rather quickly. It seems he will, through some quirk in Australian law actually be able to make money by not selling his power to the local Australian power company. Or something).

After what I gather was a lucrative career working first in telecoms and later for British Aerospace in electronics he appears to be not short of a penny and owns his flat in Earls Court as well as land and property in Australia. The other night, once I had decided to mention Jim in this blog (although I didn’t tell him), I pressed him for a brief rundown of his life history so I could try to get the details right. As it turned out, it that rundown wasn’t at all brief, though briefer than it might have been as I, keen to get the details for this blog entry, was rather ruthless in interrupting him and urging him to stick to the point. Going off at tangent is something Jim is very good at.

This is what I have pieced together from what he told me and had previously mentioned over the past year or so. He was born into a large Suffolk farming family of hard drinkers and fighters. His brothers were always getting into fights in the local pub, usually to protect him (or something). He left school and worked on a trawler, though for just one trip: he fell overboard and as fishermen regard that as an ill omen, no one would take him on as crew after that.

He then worked in a factory, although I can’t remember what kind, before (if I remember correctly) his foreman told him he was too bright for that kind of work and should get himself an education. So this he did, studying whatever you have to study to work for - I think - the telecommunications arm of what was then the GPO (General Post Office - this will have been in the 1950s, when life was still in black and white, policeman were the friendly sort who would give you a kindly clip ’round the ear to keep you on the straight and narrow, all women were virgins until they married and when they married all took to going to bed in hair curlers, and life was apparently better in every way).

While working there he was headhunted to work for British Aerospace (or something) and after working there, one thing led to another and he was again headhunted, this time to work for the Ministry of Defence who apparently needed someone with his background to work on some of their missiles system. Or something. I did at the time try to pin him down on dates as it was all getting a bit confusing, but apart from ‘it was in the 1990s’ (which is plausible enough, I suppose) still couldn’t get a proper timeline out of it all. And how all this ties in with Nigeria and Portugal (‘that was in the 1970s’) I can’t really work out.

But there you have him: Jim who knows pretty much everything about everything and furthermore has an opinion on pretty much everything and will pass on his knowledge at no cost but at great length. If you do want further details of him and his life, please don’t rely on my account which, as you can, see, is pretty sketchy, but get your skates on and take yourself down to La Pappardella at 253 Old Brompton Rd, Earls Court, London SW5 9HP where you can catch him on almost any night from between 9pm and midnight. But make it snappy as he’s off to Australia on November 7.

And if you want a really long chat, get him started on Brexit.

LATER Re-reading this with a view to correcting literals and making it more readable, it strikes me that you might feel I am being rather unfriendly to a man who has done me no wrong. So let me get it straight: I have nothing against Jim and don’t dislike him. It’s just I do - did, I supposed, unless I bump into him again tomorrow - increasingly get a tad irritated by the one-sided notion he has of conversation. Oh, and being lectured on Brexit.

No comments:

Post a Comment