Wednesday, 30 June 2004

You couldn't make it up

News item today:
Singapore Airlines has equipped its new aircraft with special cupboards big enough to take a corpse in case any passengers die en route.

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

...Rough-hew them how we will.

Nothing illustrates better the remark about Britain and America being two nations divided by a common language than our respective words for posterior, gluteus maximus, rear, backside, etc, etc.

Everyone knows that the Englishman's bum is the American's hobo, and the American's butt is the Englishman's barrel for collecting rainwater or storing Malmsey. Also, I am told that behind is so closely associated in America with butts that it is rarely used to denote the position of one thing relative to another and they have to say "Get thee in back of me, Satan". Englishmen have no such problem; we happily use the word in both senses and it is hard to imagine a context in which this could cause misunderstanding.

But when we come to ass/arse the position is more complicated. Americans have only the first word and pronounce it the same whether it is the animal or the other thing. We used to have the two words meaning different things which were pronounced and spelt differently. This meant that one could call someone a silly ass (short "a") which was a very mild and respectable way of telling him he was foolish. But inconsistency and confusion crept in long ago; in the fifties one of our serious newspapers noted on one page that the cricket authorities had been accused of assing about with the selection for the next Test match while on another page in the same issue Britain was said to have kicked the debtor nations up the arse.

My own feeling is that Englishmen of taste and refinement prefer the longer word, but, sadly, American influence has meant that it is now falling out of use.

I yield to no-one in my admiration for the way Americans have enriched the English tongue, and I used to spend a lot of time writing pastiches of Hemingway or Runyon, as in the first post on this blog (not that any American ever spoke like Runyon's characters, more's the pity). But in the particular matter we have been discussing here there is no doubt that they have impoverished our common language.

Here is the proof:

The last couplet of Chaucer's The Miller's Tale provides a perfect end to the story, combining as it does a terse summary of the final situation and a pious wish which we may all share.
In a modern translation by an Englishman it goes:
Now Nicholas is branded on the bum
And God take all of us to Kingdom come.

And see what a modern American translation has done with it:
And Nicholas is branded on the butt.
This tale is done, and God save all the rout!


Monday, 28 June 2004

No holds bard

Shakespeare's great, isn't he? I mean, there he was, taking the mickey out of My luve's like a red, red, rose a century and a half before it was written, in a sonnet that begins:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red...

and ends:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare-quoters are terrible bores, of course, present company not excepted, but there's no doubt that he does have a line for every occasion. What better way of ending your retirement speech, for example, than:
Forever, and forever, farewell, [fellow Board members]
If we do meet again, why, we will smile;
If not, why then this parting was well made.

And if your boss has a literary bent he could reply:
Forever, and forever, farewell, [Wilkinson]
If we do meet again, why, we will smile indeed;
If not, it's true this parting was well made.

When Shakespeare is in his historically obscure mood he is easy to parody, and Beyond the Fringe caught beautifully the confusion that arises when you don't know whether he's talking about places or chaps:
Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.
Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route.
And Scroop, do you to Westmorland, where shall bold York
Enrouted now for Lancaster, with forces of our uncle Rutland
Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk's host....

and so on, and on.

Then there are his totally unfunny comic plebeians:
Is't all botched up, then, Master Puke?
Aye, and marry is, good Master Snot.

Rowan Atkinson (long before he developed his silly Mr Bean act) demonstrated a line from the same parody. He comes on stage in tights, codpiece and a huge Tudor hat, run through with a sword; the point sticks out behind and the handle end pokes out of his midriff and swings gently up and down. Striding to the footlights, he throws out one arm and declaims:
Now is th'unfriendly steel
'Twixt gut and bladder interpos'd...

Saturday, 26 June 2004

Aw, shucks, fellas

Many blogs provide links to other blogs or websites that the author likes, often described as Favourites or even Favorites. There are so many lists of this kind to be seen that I don't see much point in cluttering up my blog with another one.

However, in the last few months I have encountered a number of individuals and organisations who have demonstrated outstanding good taste and sound critical judgement when expressing their opinion of Other Men's Flowers on their websites, in comments or by email. So I feel impelled to give some recognition to this fine body of men and women by quoting extracts from their perceptive remarks (omitting the most embarrassingly fulsome) and providing links to their own oeuvres, one or two of which are really quite creditable; this is the least I can do for them.

I am devoting a page to this, which I thought of naming Panegyrics or possibly Encomia, but in the end I settled for the simple dignity of What They Say.

Friday, 25 June 2004

Chacun à son Google

These are the numbers of search results you get, in millions, if you put these names into Google:

6.9 Shakespeare
3.5 Hitler
3.3 Buddha
3.1 Churchill
3.0 Beethoven
3.0 Caesar
2.7 George Bush
2.5 Beckham
2.4 Tony Blair
2.3 Elvis
1.3 Stalin
... whereas "Jesus" gives 23.4 and "fish" gives 31.1.

(Caesar includes the salad, and Elvis includes Costello, and if you make it "Winston Churchill" you only get 761,000, and.... oh, the hell with it, who cares?)

I cannot make an interesting comment on the significance of these figures because they are totally uninteresting and not significant at all.

Thursday, 24 June 2004


This is how they write "aluminium" in North America. An American friend was asking me about this curious misspelling and it seems she had never heard the story of how it came about.

The word is an eponym, of course. A Staffordshire iron-founder named Joshua Aluminium invented in 1844 a process for extracting the metal from bauxite, and it was named after him. (Oddly enough, "bauxite" is also eponymous: a Canadian fur-trader called Jean-Emile Baux was the first man to discover the medicinal uses of the ore, and Baux poultices are still widely used in rural Alberta.)

Joshua patented his invention and during the rest of the nineteenth century he and his sons grew extremely rich from the proceeds; Joshua himself was knighted in 1887. By 1914 his grandson, also called Joshua, owned many thousands of acres in Staffordshire and was elevated to the peerage as the first Viscount Aluminium.

As a captain in the Staffordshire Yeomanry he fought at Mons and suffered serious injury, having half his face blown away by a shell. However, he recovered and emigrated to Canada in 1924 after selling his estate.

Later that year two distinguished members of the Edmonton Golf Club were discussing some of the new players and one of them remarked "Of course, Aluminium's only got one eye...". This was overheard by the club steward who totally misunderstood the context and repeated the comment to his wife, a young teacher at Edmonton High. She thought it meant that the usual spelling of "aluminium" was wrong. and from then on taught all her pupils to leave out the second "i". The new spelling soon caught on in Canada and, like all new Canadian ideas, was quickly taken up throughout the United States.

This is just one of the many fascinating tales which are told and re-told wherever metallurgists foregather. In a later post I shall tell the story of the Sheffield chemist Arthur Stainless, whose new type of steel revolutionised the cutlery trade in the 1890s.

More on aluminium

Wednesday, 23 June 2004

Cheap and precise

Some years ago a very rich and generous Chinese friend gave me a Rolex; he was from Hong Kong, but this was no fake. After a couple of months I sold it, partly because I didn't like walking around with that much money on my wrist, but mainly because although its case may have been carved from a solid block of gold by enormously skilled craftsmen, it didn't keep very good time.

I had taken it to a Rolex dealer who explained that the Swiss Chronometer standard for automatic watches stipulated a variation of not more than 4 or 5 seconds a day (this means that you would have to put it right at least once a month). When I told him that my digital watch was more accurate than that and had cost around one-hundredth as much as the Rolex was worth he smiled gently and said something about such watches lasting a few years at best, while a Rolex is for your descendants.

I refrained from telling him that I hoped my descendants would be leading such high-powered lives that they would need really accurate watches, and that my cheap digital one, besides keeping excellent time, could calculate the cube root of pi or play a selection of Alma Cogan's greatest hits while I was diving to 20 fathoms.

The digital watch was thrown away years ago (and no doubt someone is still wearing my Rolex and being late for appointments), but I was reminded of all this when I went to buy a steel measuring tape the other day. I am always doing this because I lose them, so I didn't get a nice chromium one for £3.50. Instead, I went to a shop which is a sort of down-market version of Woolworth's, and bought a 3m one and a 5m one for 99p the pair. They've got attractive yellow plastic casings, and I bet they are dead accurate.

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Irregular verbs

We've got a lot of these in English, but they don't seem to have put foreigners off learning the language. The ones most of them probably won't get to learn are those which have the sole purpose of enabling one Englishman to feel superior to another:
I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool
I am Oxford, you are Cambridge, he is London School of Economics
I like boys, you are a scoutmaster, he is in prison

Anybody know any others?

Sunday, 20 June 2004


The playwright Alan Bennett, in a rare interview some years ago, revealed that he carries a small notebook in which he writes down remarks that people make which he might be able to use, like:

"I see the President of Romania's mother is dead - there's always trouble for somebody."

A headline: "Rumple-suited pragmatist is Quebec's new leader."

On a shop front: "It's Floggo time at Trouserama"

"They came to fit a new coat-hook in the toilet last week - they were four days doing it - I'm ashamed to be British sometimes."

And one gloriously dotty quote which he is surely saving for the title of his autobiography: "That fool of a tortoise is out again." mis2

Saturday, 19 June 2004

No more cheap sneers...

Enough of this pseudo-intellectual posturing, these pretentious literary musings! Away with those vicious jibes and that snide criticism! Cut out the feeble wisecracks, stop showing cynical disrespect for ordinary decent folks!

These things I have vowed, for it is time I showed myself in my true colours, as a simple and kindly old homebody and family man. So.....
Here's a nice picture of my wife Anne:

And one of our cat Misty:

And here am I, busy planning new acts of unsolicited benevolence:

And get a load of that delphinium!

Friday, 18 June 2004


Few of my regular readers will be unaware that the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, is perhaps the oldest Rabbinical treatise of Kabalistic philosophy which is still extant.

Yetzirah is also the pen-name of a nice lady who used to write for The Weblog Review, a site (now defunct) which will examine your blog and tell you what their experts think of it. I asked them for an opinion on Other Men's Flowers and two reviews of it appeared on their site.

Modesty forbids me to quote here what Yetzirah wrote; "I loved it, every minute" gives you the flavour. And she gave me the highest possible rating.
Another reviewer described my blog in less warm but still quite pleasing terms. After comments along the lines of "...eloquent ...interesting ...laugh out loud witty" he gave it a very low mark indeed. He had taken it rather seriously and decided he didn't like it much because "contrived comments suggested fraud" (Fraud? Really? You can go to prison for that) and "the vast majority of posts are off topic and trivially nondescript"; I liked that last bit: it's EXACTLY what I aim for in all my writing.

Thursday, 17 June 2004

From a great height

I have knocked about the world a bit and I cannot understand why it is that until today I had never heard of what is clearly an admirable organisation called Toilette du Monde.

Discretion is clearly their watchword (and quite right too), for they do not seem to have a website, but through Google I found that they took a serious interest in the Ecological Sanitation Workshop held in Stockholm in 2002; the report on this is a thumping good read, with such items as "Discussion on whether men can/should sit or stand..." and a note that "In Afghanistan they....are not aware of the nutritional value of urine...".

But, fascinating as all this is, it is not the sort of thing which normally engages my attention, and I have been looking into it only because a report in my newspaper today says that Toilette du Monde have installed a toilet at 3,167 metres on Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest mountain, and there is a photo showing a modest but not unattractive structure.

There are many questions I should like to ask about this, not least: Is it free? Imagine climbing all that way and then finding you hadn't got the appropriate coin....

Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Take me to your elfin grot...

Nothing is easier to parody than poetic romanticism, whether it's Housman's pessimistic kind:
What? Still alive at twenty-two?
A fine upstanding chap like you?

...or Whitman's slightly soppy kind:
I'd rather sit beneath small stars
Than with rough men who drink in bars

But the most-parodied poem must be Masefield's Sea Fever; even I had a go once with a piece of youthful scatology:
I must go down to the loo again
For the loo I feel disposed
And all I ask is a stout door
And a lock to keep it closed...

and so on, getting pretty tasteless towards the end; at least I had the sense not to call it WC Fever.

But the best version - unfortunately I forget who wrote it—is one which, like all good parodies, springs from affection for the original and apes its spirit as well as its rhythm and metre:
I must go back to a vest again
To a winter vest, with sleeves
And all I ask is an honest shop
Where the shop-men are not thieves
And a fair price, and a free choice
And a full stretch for dining
And a smooth touch on the bare chest
And a smooth inner lining.

[Yes, I know the original omits the word "go" in the first line.]

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Boo-hoo like Beckham

Bad sight of the week is the misery of little Romeo Beckham "being comforted by his mother". What, exactly, is making him sob so pitifully? At the age of 21 months, a 2-1 loss to France wouldn't have had that much impact, I would have thought.

Perhaps the answer is in an article by a psychiatrist, who explains that in top level sport failing to achieve the very best possible result can constitute a major trauma and may lead to mental breakdown and suicidal tendencies. If Romeo saw his parents traumatised and suicidal it's not surprising he's a bit upset, particularly as he would not understand why they're carrying on like that.

Poor loves. They should learn to react more like Tim Henman, who's had more experience than most in not quite making it. It's true he always looks pretty glum, but you very rarely see him sobbing uncontrollably, though I suppose this may be because expressing emotion is something else not quite within his range.

Monday, 14 June 2004

Verbal economy

As anyone who has read Victorian novels, newspapers or the Punch of the period will know, writers in those days rarely used one word where they could use fifty. Not so in France; the following exchange is perfect in its simple elegance.

In 1840 François d'Orléans, Prince de Joinville, third son of Louis-Philippe, sent his card to Rachel, the famous actress, who was then the lover of Alfred De Musset. On it he wrote:

Où? Quand? Combien?

and received the reply, written on the same card:

Chez toi. Ce soir. Pour rien.

[For another example of Francophone pith, see HERE.]

Sunday, 13 June 2004

Maybe if they squeeze up a bit...

Next Friday, 18th June 2004, will be a significant day in the history of both the Isle of Wight and the People's Republic of China.

A few years ago it was announced that the population of China, which had been increasing annually by 20 million, had reached 1.25 billion. On hearing it, the social historian Alan Coren remembered that he had been told as a child that all the Chinese, then numbering 400 million, could stand on the Isle of Wight, and, being also something of an arithmetician, immediately set out to find out whether this was still the case.

It is a known fact that the Isle of Wight covers 147 square miles, or 455,347,200 square yards. With certain assumptions, it was not difficult to establish empirically that three Chinese could stand within a square yard, so therefore the Isle of Wight can accommodate 1,366,041,200 of them.

Hence, at the time of the announcement the 1.25 billion would have had room to spare and could even, like Hancock's mother's gravy, have moved about a bit.

But for how long after that?

20 million per annum is 54,795 per day, so (taking account of the two intervening leap years) Coren worked out that the last day on which the population of China will be able to get on to the Isle of Wight (ferry services permitting) will be next Friday.

On Saturday, 54,795 Chinese will have to stand somewhere else.

Friday, 11 June 2004

Our Great and Respected Leader: Part 1

A few days ago BBC4 showed a film nearly three hours long about two little girls training for the Mass Games in Pyongyang, the greatest choreographed spectacle in the world, featuring 80,000 child gymnasts. These take place whenever there is an excuse such as the Leader’s birthday or the anniversary of some event in the history of The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.

This is a peg on which I can hang a boast. Not a really Great Boast (like, say, At the wedding: “Yes, charming couple, I’ve slept with both of them”), but not a bad one, which I have been making at intervals for years, whenever I can get someone to listen.

North Korea is usually referred to as a “secret and little understood country”, or “a closed and repressive society”. So it is, and I’VE BEEN THERE, four times: once alone, once with a colleague, once in a small group and once with a thousand people from 86 different countries. It’s true that it this was quite a while ago, but no-one much has been there since, and not much has changed, so my experience is still worth relating.
But this is too good a boast to be used up all at once.

continued in Part 2...

Wednesday, 9 June 2004

If he doesn't fall over first

I can’t resist giving another airing to this very old (and true) story about a meeting in Europe a few years ago. The matter under discussion concerned economic difficulties in northern France, and one of the French delegates announced confidently: “Le problème sera résolu par la sagesse normande”.

Many of those present had no idea why the English delegates dissolved into helpless laughter when the translation came through their headphones: “The problem will be solved by Norman Wisdom”.

Monday, 7 June 2004

...But I know it when I see it

At the spring exhibition of a local art group the other day I heard that some artists had cancelled their memberships because they felt that some of the paintings being hung were of such a low standard - "not art", in fact. Artists are an intolerant lot.

But certainly - as at any art exhibition - among the many pictures on the walls which demonstrated substantial talent there were a few ugly and unskilled daubs.

I spoke to the painter of several of the former kind and we tried to work out how one could define art, or at least recognise it. We agreed that it was unlikely that we could find an answer since greater experts have spent a lifetime trying to do so, and failed.

Afterwards it occurred to me that the answer is really much the same as the one given by A.E.Housman when asked for a definition of poetry. He replied that he could no more define poetry than a terrier could define a rat, but that he thought that both he and the terrier recognised the object by the symptoms it provoked in them.

Friday, 4 June 2004

George II meets John Paul II

It was heart-rending to watch a man with such a tenuous grasp on reality struggling to express himself in a language he barely speaks.

The Pope doesn't look too well either.

Thursday, 3 June 2004

Loud noises at a wedding

One of the reasons why my academic achievements are unimpressive (though not altogether without distinction - how many people have failed the same degree twice?) is that my school library contained bound volumes of Punch, going back to its beginnings in 1841 (it was that sort of library).

In the later part of our schooldays we had what were officially Private Study Periods but which we all called free periods, and for three years I spent mine mostly not studying what I was supposed to, but working through these tomes.

The early years of Thackeray and Tenniel didn’t excite me much, nor did the heavy Edwardian humour, but after about 1920 almost every page had something to make me laugh. Much later, of course, the magazine sadly declined, and it is good to know that Mohammed Al Fayed’s period of ownership (1992-6) cost him £16 million.

It always kept the subtitle The London Charivari, which it acquired at the beginning because there was a popular Paris magazine called Le Charivari. I assumed the word just meant "miscellany", and was going to include it in the note describing this blog, but in fact it has a more precise meaning: A serenade of rough music, made with kettles, pans, tea-trays, etc., used in France in derision of incongruous marriages.

Wednesday, 2 June 2004

How's that, again?

Our local (Labour) MP is able and hardworking; I was not surprised to receive from him, in response to an email I had sent, both a lengthy phone call and a carefully written letter.

But I had suggested to him that since Bush's policies present the greatest danger to the world today then the Labour Party should dispense with a leader who has aligned us so closely with them; I do not quite know what to make of his reply that "I certainly do not support George Bush and neither does the Labour Party nor the Prime Minister" (my italics).

I wonder if George Dubya knows this.

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

And what about The Chastity Belt?

I wrote in a recent post (May 23rd) that I didn’t seem to have any readers in the Bible Belt. This produced a friendly email from a distinguished academic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who said, "Yes you have, you’ve got me". I told him that I didn’t think Louisiana was in the Bible Belt, and he explained that the northern part of the state is Baptist/Fundamentalist, culturally indistinguishable from East Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, etc, but the southern part of the state has a quite distinctive culture, heavily Catholic, and in some ways socially progressive. This explains why Louisiana might not be included in some definitions of the Bible Belt.

So that put me straight on the Bible Belt, and I turned to the online encyclopaedias to find out about other belts. They gave fairly straightforward definitions:

The Rust Belt: Declining heavy industry in northern states, like the opening sequence of The Full Monty (they mean the American musical version, but change “states” to “counties” and the British film fits).

The Corn Belt: Agricultural area in northern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas).

The Cotton Belt: Former agricultural region where cotton was the main cash crop throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century: the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, W Tennessee, E Arkansas, Louisiana, E Texas, and S Oklahoma, etc.

And there was one I hadn't heard of:

The Borscht Belt: Upstate New York. This appears to be just a snide comment on the culinary style of the resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains.

My friend in Louisiana tells me that certain places (eg, Arkansas) have come to be known as The Buckle of The Bible Belt. Could Roxbury, NY, be The Sour Cream Dollop of The Borscht Belt?