Monday, 29 March 2004

Staple diet

The increasing sophistication of our tastes in food and the development of such esoteric areas of research as molecular gastronomy sometimes distract us from the high place that simple and homely fare should hold in our affection.
To counterbalance the influence of the likes of Heston Blumenthal, I suggest a revival of interest in an easily prepared dish whose whole charm lies in its simplicity and adaptability. It can be eaten alone, but also provides a steady base for more interesting flavours, and can appear without being incongruous at any of the three meals.

English Toast
Take three or four slices (not too thin) of one day-old white loaf (other ages and colours will do). Taking care not to lose the centres of the slices, place each in turn into a 250-volt 5-amp toaster set at No. 3. Your toaster may be fitted with an automatic setting which will eject the toast when done; if not, you will have to judge by waiting for a wisp of blue smoke to rise (the toast should, by now, be a beautiful golden brown; if it is black, start again). While still hot, remove the crusts with a bread knife, halve, and stack in a special rack. Serve warm with butter. Variations can be introduced by adding such widely contrasting tastes as marmalade or plum and apple jam.

Saturday, 27 March 2004

More blessed to receive

For seventeen years I was involved as an official in the organisation of international meetings. I was, I need hardly say, quite immune to any kind of corruption, mainly because the gifts I was offered by foreign delegates when I went overseas were generally not worth paying excess baggage on, let alone being corrupted by. Too late, I realised that I could have rectified this situation by circulating some guidance notes:

Those wishing to offer gifts to senior officials are advised that the following will not be accepted or even acknowledged:
Large heavy books about your country, illustrated with pictures of national monuments and your leader.
Dolls, particularly large ones in glass cases
Anything of vaguely ethnic significance for standing on the mantelpiece
Unidentifiable comestibles in leaking containers
Silly plaques or pennants

In general, alcoholic drinks are undesirable gifts, particularly obscure ones from your own country, in menacing dark-coloured bottles with incomprehensible labels, because no-one would want to use up his duty-free allowance on such things. However, old brandies, rare single malts and fine claret for drinking on the spot are, broadly speaking, acceptable.
The ideal gift is small, light, of high intrinsic value and easily concealed from Customs. Examples are:
Watches (not Russian)
Banknotes (sterling or dollars, used, small denominations)
Top-of-the-range SLR cameras (with extra lenses)

Bear in mind that the fact that you have taken the trouble to carry a gift across the world does not necessarily mean that the recipient will think it of sufficient interest or value to take home with him.
You must understand that no gift offered will, in any way, influence the attitude of officials towards any delegate. However, it is inevitable that a delegate who simply deposits at the offices, with his card, something amusing by Cartier will stand a better chance of obtaining preferential treatment than one who, in person and with halitosis, presents a large mis-shaped wooden object of unknown purpose, and makes a long speech about it. There is no need to ask to see the official personally and to take up his time in this way; if appropriate, he will send a message of thanks at a later date, in all probability.

Thursday, 25 March 2004

Sphairistike, Gossima and Whiff-Whaff

The first one became Lawn Tennis and the other two became Ping Pong.

This last onomatopoeia is not merely a nick-name: the Swedes and the Chinese, the two best in the world at playing it, call it something that sounds like pingpong, and French enthusiasts, who take it very seriously indeed, are quite content to be known as pongistes. If an astute manufacturer had not registered the name Ping Pong, the English Table Tennis Association might still be called, as it was until the 1920s, the Ping Pong Association. To my mind, it is “table tennis” which is the slightly contemptuous diminutive, like “clock golf” or “penny football”.
It is a sport which takes up very little space, but this gives its enthusiasts no sense of inferiority; the theme song of a Table Tennis World Championships in Serbia was translated as: "Our balls may be tiny but our aspirations are enormous". Anyway, it is not a reduced version of the sport that uses larger equipment – they just have common ancestors.

Not a lot of people know that Fred Perry won the men’s singles title at the third World Table Tennis Championships in Budapest in 1929. Later, of course, advancing years slowed his reflexes, and he concentrated on a less demanding sport…

P.S. George from SF informs me that the first computer game was launched in the US under the name Pong, and the same game launched in the UK was rebranded Ping.

[The world governing body described in the entry for 24th May 2004 is The International Table Tennis Federation]

Sunday, 21 March 2004

Father's 'negative' stage

Dr Spock’s Advice To Children is less well known than his other works:

Between the ages of thirty and fifty, father often enters an awkward or “negative” stage. He shows it in a sturdy independence; a reluctance to keep himself occupied in the home with simple fireside tasks like French knitting or silver-polishing; a seeking after the company of young adults – usually of the opposite sex. He begins to practise deceit; he is difficult at mealtimes – pushing away his plate, complaining that the food is cold, or being messy; he comes home late from business and frequently refuses to undress himself before going to bed; he repeats undesirable words that he has heard outside the home.

What attitude should a child take? Scolding the thirty-to-fifty-year-old often makes him more aggressive. If father is of a really independent nature, he may even run away from home.

The child must ask himself: Is father getting enough to drink at home? Acute thirst often accompanies the “awkward” stage. See that there is always a bottle of squash about the house; it is advisable to keep it on a shelf that is on father’s eye-level, so that he need not bend down for it. Many fathers who do not drink enough at home form the habit of accepting drinks from strangers – and this can lead to tummy upsets, irritability and headaches.

Has father enough toys in the house? You may find that if you leave your electric railroad equipment laid out at bedtime (do see that the plugs and switches are of the “safe” kind!), father will enjoy two-train smashes, and may eventually graduate to simple shunting and point-changing. He will damage the equipment, of course, but insistence on his paying for new parts will help to develop a “money sense” in him. Then try leaving your floating toys in the bath, and leave a wiping cloth among them. Once he has exhausted the possibilities of submarines and divers attacking ducks and soap-rafts, father may even wipe away the “tide-mark” on the side of the bath, if he remembers to let the water out.

Encourage father to bring his friends home. You will find that, once he sees them against his family background, he will soon learn to discriminate. He will not ask the naughty ones a second time. Here, again, see that there is plenty to drink. Within reason, let them have a beano - soda-pop, lime juice, or even milk shakes are quite safe in moderation.

Leave all your building bricks on the lounge carpet so that father and his friends can all play together. You will find that eventually they will be fully occupied in building edifices that even children would find difficult.

Finally, ask mother to help you - she may have some other ideas on how to deal with father’s “awkward” stage.

Thursday, 18 March 2004

Warm beer

It is sad to see that Anthony Sampson, that perceptive chronicler of English ways, in his new book Who Runs This Place?, links warm beer and the English. This false connection stems from John Major's silly misquoting of Orwell, and, sadly, is now seen widely in print. Orwell did not write that the English have a taste for warm beer, and indeed we never did; our beer is, properly, cool on the tongue from the cellar, and thus full of flavour. Lesser breeds don't care much what their beer tastes like, so long as it's ice-cold.

What Orwell actually wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn was that when you come back to England from any foreign country " have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air....The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener...". Then he mentions "the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the early morning", which is the bit everyone remembers.

The piece, subtitled England Your England, evokes what Englishness was in 1941. Some of the characteristics he describes - the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, people with bad teeth and gentle manners, gloomy Sundays - have disappeared, but his conclusion, that there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation, remains, we may hope, as true today as it was then.

But warm beer is not part of Englishness, and only a prize fat-head like Major would imagine it was.

Monday, 15 March 2004


One of my happiest memories of New York is a sign saying “No expectoration in this elevator”, so I was pleased to come across the following in Fowler (the 1926 edition):
expectorate, -ation seem to be now the established American for spit-(ting). In British use they have as yet only the currency of medical terms & genteelisms. This difference of status, which it is to be hoped will not be diminished from our side at least, is an object-lesson on the vanity of genteelism. The mealy-mouthed American must be by this time harder put to it with expectorate than the mealy-mouthed Englishman with spit; his genteelism has outgrown its gentility & become itself the plain rude word for the rude thing; it must be discouraging to have to begin the search for decent obscurity all over again - with so promising a failure behind one, too.

Sunday, 14 March 2004

The Horsecroft controversy

Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst are only the latest in a long line of artists whose work has not been appreciated - or even understood - by the public.
There was a notable argument in the sixties about the work of the late Godfrey Horsecroft. By the time of his death in 2001, of course, he had become a respected conventional artist, but in those days he had attracted much opprobrium by his contempt for the art world and his refusal to conform in any way to its conventions. Some of the discussion was carried on in the correspondence pages of the now defunct magazine
Art-Horizons, from which these letters are reprinted by permission of the publishers:

Sir, I feel you should give me, as one of the modern artists pilloried in your columns recently, an opportunity to reply.
Of course there is a lunatic fringe to our profession. The lay public’s contempt for the man who produces pictures by riding a bicycle over dollops of paint, and sells them at a hundred guineas a time, is understandable. Personally, I must confess to a sneaking admiration for his acumen, if not for his artistic integrity, but I would not attempt to justify his methods. Cycling and painting are quite separate means of self-expression and their combination is both incongruous and indecorous.
It is unfortunate that this sort of thing leads many people to believe that any means of producing pictures which is not basically the same as that practised by, say, Rubens, is a fraud and a matter for contumely or mirth. It is doubly unfortunate for artists such as myself who, daring to use a medium both new and exciting, have been tarred with the same brush as the charlatans who seek only notoriety.
My own method of creating pictures – the attaching of large, irregularly shaped pieces of newspaper by means of special resins to sheets of anodised aluminium - is, I believe, a very real advance in the techniques of pictorial representation. My experiments with it have shown that it permits, in a way that no other medium does, the expression of psychiatric tones as opposed to mere visual ones.
My Paranoia Recumbent for example, a study in the chiaroscuro of the subconscious, would be completely meaningless in oils or watercolours, but in pieces of newspaper on aluminium it captures the very essence of the subject.
Alas, I am not one of those who profit by their originality. To maintain myself I have been forced to devote a large proportion of my time to menial and ill-paid work, the influence of which may in the long run destroy my very will to create.
But I do not despair. The vituperation and neglect I and the bulk of my fellow modern artists suffer was also the lot of Van Gogh. Now, every suburban villa has its view of Arles. In fifty years’ time, perhaps – who knows? - my own Nature Morte Schizoide will be as popular. In the meantime, we can only bow to the scorn of the multitude, and await the judgment of posterity.
Yours, etc
Godfrey Horsecroft
Dear Sir, Mr Horsecroft must be mad if he imagines that the public in fifty years time are going to take him to their hearts as they have Van Gogh.
His letter does not really tell us enough about his method to enable us to judge it properly. These pieces of newspaper that he sticks on to the aluminium, for example. Are they all from different papers or does he, as I suspect, use only the sports pages of the Daily Mirror? And is the aluminium completely covered or does some of it show through? Above all, is not the use of special resins merely an affectation when ordinary glue would serve just as well?
It would be unfair to call Mr Horsecroft a charlatan without a better acquaintance with his work, but I cannot help feeling that his motives in trying to foist it on the public are, to say the least, questionable.
Yours faithfully
Arthur N Ruttmold
Dear Sir, Godfrey Horsecroft has generously permitted me to reply on his behalf to the unkind letter from a Mr Ruttmold which you published last week.
Anyone who has sat at the feet of Mr Horsecroft for twelve years, as I have, knows he is not a man to use special resins where ordinary glue would do the job. Has Mr Ruttmold ever tried sticking pieces of newspaper on to aluminium? I can assure him that it is not so easy as it sounds.
As for the gibe about using only the sports pages of the Daily Mirror, Mr Ruttmold might be interested to know that in his latest work, Libido with Mandoline, Horsecroft has used pieces of no less than forty-one provincial weeklies as well as short extracts from all the national dailies. Besides disposing of Mr Ruttmold’s insinuations, this, I think, is a complete answer to the charge of superficiality so often levelled at Horsecroft’s work.
Yours faithfully
Fuchsia Burlap
Dear Sir, I see that a lot of people are writing about these pictures made of newspaper stuck on aluminium.
My husband brought one home that Mr Horsecroft had given him for decorating his house, and ever since then our friends have been saying how nice it is and asking where they could get one like it. It is called Autumn Neuroses and my husband says it is the best picture he has ever seen, though you can’t read what it says on some of the pieces of newspaper because the stuff they are stuck on with has come through and stained them a sort of brown colour.
Yours faithfully
A. E. Crimstance (Mrs)
The Editor writes:
No further space, unfortunately, can be allotted to the Horsecroft controversy, which has caused as much furore among art-lovers as the violent disagreements a few years back about Wilbert Longbottom’s ceramics.
Note: Mr Horsecroft has asked us to thank all our readers who sent him bundles of old newspapers and pieces of aluminium, and to say that he now has sufficient to last for several years.

Thursday, 11 March 2004


The other day I watched part of a low-budget hastily-cobbled-together TV programme about how the Industrial Revolution stimulated the development of military hardware (or possibly vice versa). There was a sequence in which a soldier in the Napoleonic wars stuck a loaf of bread on his bayonet, put his helmet on top and poked it out from behind a tree, so that a French sniper fired at it, was thus located, and shot dead: well done, that fellow with the bread!

The telly pundit who was presenting the programme waved his arms about a bit, gave a sly grin, and said “And that’s where we get the expression ‘to use one’s loaf’”!

“That’s interesting”, I thought, “I never knew that”!

Then I thought, “Hang on, that’s rubbish: ‘Use your loaf’ must be rhyming slang, loaf of bread, head…..oh, for God’s sake.”

So what was that about? Did the presenter really believe what he said, or was it a heavy-handed spoof? The sequence was irrelevant to the subject of the programme, so either way it was fatuous.

Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Pedants' corner (1)

Stressing the second syllable of kilometre, which almost everyone does nowadays, annoyed me mainly because I didn't know why people did it, so I was interested to read an American comment: "Although the pronunciation of kilometer with stress on the second syllable, (ki-LOM-eter), is often censured because it does not conform to the stress pattern in millimeter and centimeter (it originally came about by false analogy with barometer and thermometer), it continues to thrive in American English."

But I shall still say KILometre.

Also, it's interesting that we use the French "re" ending only with the units we got from them and not with, for example "barometer", thus making the Americans appear to be more consistent than we, though actually they are not.

Friday, 5 March 2004

Never Before In the History of Motion Pictures

In these turbulent times there is a great deal of comfort to be obtained by watching British films of the forties and fifties on afternoon TV. You know that nothing much will change from one film to the next: the actors playing policemen will be those who always play policemen, and although there will be glimpses of, for example, Thora Hird as a fresh-faced young girl, Alastair Sim will look exactly as he always did. Even the occasional surprise (John Mills as a murderous Nazi, Cottage To Let, 1941) only heightens the general sense of reassuring predictability. American epics of the period had much the same qualities and here is a contemporary review by J Lindsay Kerr of one of them:

A Mr Sol Leventritt, distantly aided by the writers of the Book of Genesis, is responsible for the script of Noah of Ararat. Naturally there is a cast of thousands of animals, but some impressive specimens of homo sapiens, arrayed in togas and nightdresses left over from Quo Vadis, have been provided to help them along.
Noah (Finlay Currie) never amounts to much, pottering about the ark with a bag of nails and an expression of Biblical gloom. But the poor fellow is having trouble with his step-daughter (Deborah Kerr) who prefers strolling on the boatdeck with shipmate Ham (Robert Taylor) to doing the chores for poppa. “Mind the whale,” says Mr Taylor, “remember cousin Jonah.” No wonder Miss Kerr looks startled.
The film is enlivened by the unexpected appearance of Miss Eartha Kitt as the wife of Shem, whose singing of Forty Days – And Forty Nights invests those simple words with a meaning never intended by Genesis 7:17.
Three hours of vulgar, extravagant boredom come to an end when Mr Taylor and his dewy-eyed love finally become man and wife, thanks to the arrival on the scene, several thousand years ahead of schedule, of the prophet Isaiah.