Rounders, chips and whisky

Poker jargon is so dense you wonder if you're listening to Albanian concrete poetry
  • @johnhenrywalsh
LEAF WITH me a-while through The Small Pleasures of Life, an unexpected best-seller in France last year by a floppy-fringed exquisite called Philippe Delerm, which is now available in translation over here. A precious little volume, about as substantial as The Little Book Of Calm, only more elaborately poetic, it offers 34 meditations on tiny joys: the first sip of beer, eating a croissant in the street, the smell of apples, inhaling an anti- cold remedy, pulling on a new autumnal jumper - you get the picture. Some of M Delerm's "plaisirs minuscules" are a little hard to empathise with (Getting your espadrilles wet? The noise of a dynamo?), but you must take your chapeau off to a clever idea.

As you read these two-page epiphanies, however, it is impossible not to imagine how different an English version of the book would be. Instead of Philippe's educated raptures about railway-station travelators and small-town mobile libraries, there would be a lot about wet dogs, conkers, linseed oil on your first cricket bat, the words "Cromarty, Forth, German Bight", Water Splash at Battersea Fun Fair, the front-loading brassieres of public schoolgirls (M Delerm doesn't mention sex at all) and, instead of his ruminative, oh-so-French "first sip of beer", the frictionless texture of your sixth pint of Dogbolter bitter at the aftermath of a London wedding.

Its a question of priorities. In the French version, our author scans his breakfast newspaper and finds "Wars, atrocities and natural disasters on the front page... somehow the violence of our times doesn't have the same impact when it tastes of chocolate spread, gooseberry jam and toast. Newspapers have a sedating effect". On this side of the Channel, the taste of bacon, eggs and marmalade, delicious though they are, come second to the taste of the British fourth estate, pace Roger Gale, in full scandalous cry.

I AM indebted to David Garrood of Farnham Common for introducing me to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, of which I wasn't previously aware but with which I feel I'm destined to become closely acquainted, if only for the waywardness of its tasting panel. We have heard much, over the summer, about the "pretentious" Master of Wine at Sotheby's and have become used to the way excitable connoisseurs like Ms Jilly Goolden identify the fugitive essence of Latvian dowager's handbag in premier cru clarets. It's nice to discover the malt whisky gang are right up there with the best of them, fairly writhing with polymorphous flavour-chasing.

Their most recent newsletter commends, for instance, the 1988 Highland Park in these words: "The mead nose gives a full creamy aroma, like Horlicks, which combined with a bubblegum note and a fair blast of peat, both of which increase when water is added, the latter becoming struck matches". Horlicks? Bubblegum? Matches? The same hybrid of the classy and the cornershop appears in their view of 1990 Clyn Elish, which is "freshly baked fairy cakes, lemon juice in cream, very light vanilla. With water it becomes more fragrant - scented soap, ladies' perfume, scented candles...". Notice the charmingly Edwardian fastidiousness of that "ladies' " perfume" - as if the tasters were wondering how the blazes a whiff of the mem-sahib had infiltrated this quintessentially masculine pastime.

My favourite, though, is their assessment of the '79 (and incidentally pounds 47 a bottle) Glen Garroch, a puzzling little number with "flavours you would not usually expect to find in malt whisky. Air freshener, raspberry- flavoured toffee and canvas. The flavour is of Love Hearts, fresh strawberries and a touch of chlorine.... Those of us who had endured them were reminded of caravan holidays in the West Highlands". What I detect here is the distinct aroma of a dozen well heeled, tweedy valetudinarians sitting around a table, staring fearfully into their cloudy lead-crystal glasses and free-associating into the wee small hours.

ANYONE WHO saw Twister, last year's summer blockbuster about a group of tornado-chasers, will remember how the arcana of meteorology and techno- weather drenched whole scenes in conversational exchanges that mean nothing at all to the non-specialist. Lately, films have displayed an irritating tendency to use baffling and obscure language. I don't mean art-house movies, or the street slang of modern gangster films; I mean mainstream Hollywood features, and their enraptured embracing of the jargon of science, business and the law.

More recently, from Tarantino's Jackie Brown there issued a flood of obscurantist verbiage about bail-bonding that left you mystified as to who owed what to whom. The rash of movies made from John Grisham's novels and stories - from The Client to The Gingerbread Man - similarly pulled the wool over audiences' eyes with the wiggy minutiae of legal jargon.

Once there was a fine old Hollywood tradition of having a token dimwit on hand to ask the Professor/consultant surgeon/forensic scientist to explain what he's talking about in layman's terms ("Are you telling me this creature lives on human brains, is impervious to bullets, but can be destroyed by a rare enzyme that exists in the sap of a single tree jealously guarded by a mad Puerto Rican horticulturalist living in Des Moines, Iowa? Well why didn't you say?"). Now we get the raw sewage of unexplicated professional patois passed off as everyday chat.

Once the movies liked things simple. Hitchcock coined the word "McGuffin" to mean the difficult scientist thingy (the microfilm, the secret formula, the urgent encryption) that kept the plot moving but didn't warrant an explanation. In The China Syndrome, TV journalists Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda discover that a nuclear reactor is dangerously unstable, but their attempts to expose it are scuppered by a scientist's inability to explain the danger in anything but boffin-speak. Jargon was once the enemy of clarity and entertainment; now it's the currency of the modern movie script.

A new high - or low - point of this tendency informs a new film called Rounders, which premiered at the London Film Festival on Friday, complete with personal appearances by its stars, Matt Damon and Famke Janssen. Despite the title, it's not about playground baseball, but poker. And so dense is its dialect that you can sit through lengthy dramatic interchanges wondering if you're listening to a translation of Albanian concrete poetry.

It's the only film I've seen where they give you a glossary of specialist terms, to consult in the dark: "There's a sign on your back" means you've been identified as a cheat. "Alligator blood" means you're a cool player under pressure. "Gimme thirty High Society" means $30,000 worth of the highest-denomination chips. "Georges" and "rabbits" are helpfully glossed as "rubes", meaning out-of-town players unfamiliar with the ways of sharks. A "mechanic" is a cheat, who probably "base-deals" off the bottom of the deck. "Broadway" is a royal straight. And so on. I'm sure it's all frightfully authentic but goodness, it's wearisome.

And just to complete the on-screen scenario of wilful bafflement, there's a performance of strangulated madness by John Malkovich, as a Russian mafioso shark supreme. The words he has to say are simple enough; but he utters them in a hilarious, mincing parody of Russian English, promiscuously inserting vowels where none has ever been. "Okay" becomes "e-au-ky-ay".

On starting to lose the initiative in a poker game, he snarls: "I am nyot syat-yis-fyied". On learning that Matt Damon is playing to keep his self-respect, he grates: "Rispyect is the yionly thying you will hyave in the myorning." Hollywood, eh? You give them the English language and they reduce it to a pyile of byollocks.