Sunday, 29 August 2004

Elementary, again

When you come to the world of weblogs for the first time and look at a few dozen of them you will probably find to your horror that they are written by foul-mouthed illiterates, self-obsessed juveniles (of all ages), Jesus freaks, assorted bigots and swivel-eyed fruitcakes. You might then assume that all blogs are like this.

Not true: well, not quite. There are indeed millions of this kind but there are also thousands written by witty, erudite or thoughtful people - and some who are all three. com2 mis2

So, while you are clicking through the acres of tedious garbage you will sometimes come across shining treasures.

For example, last month I wrote the last of several pieces about aluminium (now there's a topic to stir the blood!), and put in a link to Tom Lehrer's song about the elements. I have now discovered a far better source for the song which also gives you Mike Stanfill's brilliant animation of it. This is a real joy and not to be missed.

Friday, 27 August 2004

Good News

Many Americans seem to believe that Fox News provides a balanced, impartial viewpoint, but its right-wing bias is apparent from the merest glance at the mouthings of its commentator Bill O’Neill, who claims to be an objective independent news analyst but is in reality a rabid francophobe Republican.

More than one US-based website says: If you want real news, go to the BBC or the Guardian in the UK. These two sites have both, happily, become very popular with Americans, millions of whom turn to them regularly for independent liberal voices.

In particular, it is pleasant to read of the worldwide success of the Guardian's website: Google News found that it was the world’s most popular news source for the six months to June this year. Last month more than 3.5 million people across the US visited the site, and just over 2 million in the UK.

In a recent online survey conducted by the Guardian, 89% of the 1,200 respondents answered "yes" to the question: "On balance do you trust editorial coverage on Guardian Unlimited?". This compares with the 25% (and 32% for CNN) who said in a recent Pew Research Center Survey that they can believe most or all of what they hear on Fox News Channel.

It is clear that the Guardian has earned an incredibly high degree of trust, and is becoming the global English language liberal voice.

Wednesday, 25 August 2004

Jehovah and all that

His Witnesses were at our door the other day, a rather sad blonde one in a chiffon dress, a jolly black girl with a nice white shirt, and a patient eleven-year-old. It had been some while since any JWs had called to have a go at me, and I have always found them quite agreeable (much pleasanter and more fun than sharp-suited Mormons with their silly nonsense about revelations on golden plates and the Lost Tribes of Israel), so I was happy to chat for a bit.

I have never taken the view that knocking on your door and trying to convert you to a daft religion is a gross invasion of privacy, for, after all, they mean well. I would never want to offend such kind, simple people by mocking their beliefs, however loopy these seem to me.

On this occasion I did venture to ask the question posed at the Monkey Trial by Clarence Darrow (or Spencer Tracy*): Who was Mrs Cain? At the trial Williams Jennings Bryant (or Fredric March) finally conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally, but my visitors were of sterner stuff and explained with great seriousness that that Adam and Eve had had daughters as well (though the Bible had omitted to mention it) and so on… it all sounded a pretty unsavoury business to me, but they seemed quite happy not to think too deeply about it, rather like Bryant at the trial, who said at one point, 'I do not think about things I don't think about.' (Darrow asked, 'Do you think about the things you do think about?' Bryant responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, 'Well, sometimes'.)

I tried to encourage my visitors a bit by telling them that if I decided to believe in a god then I might well choose theirs. It seems to me that the world we see is much more likely to have been created by the wrathful, vengeful, iniquity-smiting, pillar-of-salt-transforming Jehovah** rather than by any of the other popular ones. I mean, you’d know where you were with a horrid old monster like him, rather than any of those beings who purport to be loving and merciful but demand constant praise for anything good that happens while insisting that anything bad is our fault: All Things Bright and Beautiful, sure, but nothing is said about who made All Things Dark and Ugly, like earthquakes or piles or Margaret Thatcher.

However, they didn’t seem to take this as much of a compliment, so I ended on a conciliatory note by saying that I won’t hear a word against whatever gods there may be because they (he, she, it) have always been perfectly sweet to me.

The JWs said they had much enjoyed our chat, as indeed had I. We parted with expressions of mutual esteem and they promised to call again.

*By the way, the film was called Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer, 1960)

**I might also have told them that I am on their side when it comes to the lamentable replacement of 'Jehovah' (as in Guide Me O Thou Great….). When William Williams wrote it in 1745 he knew what he was writing, and when a Welsh male voice choir belts out Bread of ‘Eaven to the tune Cwm Rhondda there’s no nonsense about Redeemers.

Monday, 23 August 2004

....and only one limerick

Some years ago I worked as a part-time French to English technical translator in such fields as the gas industry. This was pretty boring but these are the easiest kind of translations to make because idioms don't come into it much and there is usually little doubt about which word to use: technical dictionaries (and there is one or more for even the most recondite specialities) are very precise. Once you get into the swing of it you can zip off several hundred words an hour: argent gagné for old rope.

But literary translation, the sort of thing Céline does, is quite a different matter. Last May I posted a French limerick (or maybe THE French limerick - no-one could find me another), and recently I spent a sleepless night trying to translate it, probably averaging about ten words an hour.
I got there in the end, around dawn, and was not displeased with the final version.

However, I shall not publish it because some of my readers might be devout (though I doubt it) and would be offended by its impiety. Anyone who really wants to see it can email me.

For another French limerick see HERE.

Saturday, 21 August 2004

El momento de la verdad

Dalmatians used to run along behind the carriage, to great decorative effect. This didn't require a great deal of intelligence, and it is true that they are not really very bright, but they have lovely natures and a fetching way of wrinkling their noses in a sort of smile and then giving a sneeze like a sort of laugh.

The original Laika was not a Dalmatian, but the word means "barker" so it wasn't a bad name for ours. She was liver-spotted, elegant and with all the sweetness and dimness typical of her breed: she was eager to do absolutely anything you wanted, but was quite incapable of working out what it was that you were asking.

Here, she has clearly given up wondering what on earth she is expected to do.

Thursday, 19 August 2004

Away, slight man

It was a moment of inattention on my part which would have caused a small biff if the other driver had not braked with commendable speed of reaction.

He wound his window down. ‘You silly so-and-so!’, he snarled (I paraphrase). Now, I thought, he will call me a such-and-such. Sure enough, ‘You stupid such-and-such!’, he added.

How sad that made me feel, as I gave him a friendly wave and drove on! Here was this poor fellow, heir to the language of Shakespeare and Milton, with every reason to engage in a thersitical exchange of views, and all that came to him in his hour of need were these tired old epithets, predictable, banal and with no power to make me feel ashamed or wounded or even insulted.

It isn’t that we lack the words, just that we seem to have forgotten how to use them. Playwrights in earlier centuries could fill up a whole scene just with two chaps being rude to each other, and a collection of Shakespeare’s insults (1992, Mainsail Press, Cambridge, and there are others) has 380 pages of them without even including my favourite: “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!”.

But such imprecations, though they still have a ring to them and a very clear meaning, are not really suitable for use today. What we need is a little booklet, costing, say, 95p, listing a few hundred telling remarks guaranteed to let your adversary know that he is being powerfully got at in some way, though perhaps not feeling absolutely sure just how.

I have it in mind to compose such a booklet; if any of my friends refuses to buy a copy I shall publicly denounce him as a porriginous old pilgarlic, and he can have that one for nothing.

None of the insults will be more than half a dozen words long, for brevity and simplicity are all in this context. Dr Johnson, who probably knew more words than anyone else living at that time, was once asked a very long and pointless question. He gave the perfect response: ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘you are a fool’.

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Wear My Hat

Other Men's Flowers has attracted some criticism for being frivolous and aimed almost entirely at the very young. I am told it lacks gravitas and offers practically nothing of interest to those nearing the end of long and useful lives spent mostly in the service of others.

HERE, then, is a little treat for all those good people who need to have their glasses changed twice a year and their feet done every month. It is a performance by a Mr Philip Collins, born in Chiswick in 1951 and, happily, still with us and getting about quite briskly.
( It may take a while to load unless you have broadband. Then click on WATCH THIS MOVIE. )

This interesting fragment of the old fellow’s work was brought to my attention by my friend Lynn, Queen of the Blog Rings.

Sunday, 15 August 2004

Ta ever so

The Shorter OED just describes it as an infantile word expressing thanks, first noted in print in 1772, but Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang explains rather laboriously that ta arises from “a young child’s difficulty with th and nks”.

But hang on a minute. A quick check of that excellent web page which tells you how to say “thank you” in 465 languages reveals that when Alabamu people wish to express gratitude informally they say “”. This can hardly have developed as a contraction of any of their proper words for thank you, which are kanobi, aliîmoolo, kanoomolo and kanopalammoolo. So is it just a coincidence that we have a common word, or did some English toddler living among the Alabamu introduce it to them?

For the benefit of younger readers I should note here that the Alabamu people live in the United States, to one of which they have given their name. My generation needs no reminding, as we have affectionate memories of Phil Harris:
Won’t ya come with me to Alabamu
Let’s go see mah dear old Mammu
She’s fryin’ eggs and broilin’ hammu
N’that’s what ah lahk ‘bout the South.

Incidentally, in the 465-language list, ta is also given as the Australian word for thank you, with no mention of informality or infants. I have no comment to make on this, except to say that Australians have an alternative: in Warlpiri, spoken by 3,000 Yendumu people in the centre of the country, you can say how grateful you are with a cheery wiyarrparlunpaju-yungu!

And I shall try to encourage my Californian friends, at least those who have time for such niceties, to use a local language, Karuk (or Karok) when they say thank you. Yo-twa! sounds very Californian to me.

You can also find 270 pleases, 800 hellos and similar pages for other phrases; even if you have never felt the need to say good morning in Azerbaijani (Sabahiniz xeyir), this website is worth a visit. No wonder it has had well over half a million hits.

Friday, 13 August 2004

A fountain troubled

(The Taming of the Shrew, v, ii.)
The nation-wide hilarity inspired by the Diana Memorial Fiasco – which began with the sight of the Queen’s hat at the opening ceremony – continues. The designer, one Kathryn Gustafson, who originally said “Children will paddle and play, chase and race sticks in the fountain's shallow water", now says that no-one should have taken this seriously, and “it was a mistake when it was opened to think that people should be able to walk or play in it". After three people – including a child – had to be taken to hospital when they slipped on the wet granite and hit their heads, she said they should not have been walking in the fountain in the first place.
There has yet been little discussion of the proposal that her fee should be forfeited and she is keeping a very low profile indeed, though there has yet been no watch on the ports or public appeal for news of her whereabouts. In her place, some youth described as “co-designer” was pushed onto TV today to say it was all down to people’s lack of reverence, and it would have been all right if children had only put their feet in and not paddled; in other words, dipping your feet in = reverence, while paddling = culpable lack of same. The poor fellow will not go far in his career, for he had the grace to look embarrassed while following his instructions to reel off this drivel.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has weighed in with a denunciation of the public’s mistreatment of the memorial, ordering everyone to regard it with more respect and sense of responsibility once the 7-ft barrier is removed.
All this is desperate stuff and will not alter the general perception that this has been a major cock-up and that the lovely Tessa, all those involved in the planning, and the members of the Memorial Committee who voted for this thing should be required to run round the watery channel one thousand times, reverently; a bit of sackcloth and a few ashes would not come amiss, either.

"The concept is based upon the qualities of the Princess that were the most loved and cherished... inclusiveness and accessibility." (Kathryn Gustafson)

Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Plan well ahead

Open-air performances usually encourage you to provide some of the facilities for yourself: you can bring your own chairs, tables, food, drink and, if you are that sort of person, candelabra and joss sticks. But there is one facility which you cannot bring with you, and at an open-air event my wife and I went to last week, which was marvellous in most ways, inadequate provision for it was made, to the extent that in the interval one of the performers had to queue-jump.

Lamentable, but not so serious as the situation at a major musical event some years ago when one of our great choirs was to perform an oratorio in one of our great cathedrals which at that time was undergoing extensive repairs. As recounted later by one of the choristers, the conductor at the final rehearsal addressed the choir and orchestra as follows:
“There are two hundred and fifty in the choir, ninety-five in the orchestra, and it is expected that there will be one thousand five hundred in the audience. In the crypt there are two ladies’ and one gentlemen’s lavatory. You have been warned.”

Tuesday, 10 August 2004

Cool of the evening

The weather was absolutely perfect last Saturday and we found a perfect way of ending the day.

Imagine, if you will, the ruins of an ancient abbey set in a secluded valley on the Kent/Sussex border. Against the backdrop of the three enormous gothic arches of the highest remaining wall, there is an open-air concert opera performance by four distinguished international singers. As the sun goes down in the cloudless sky, you listen to scenes, splendidly sung, from three great old warhorses - Un Ballo in Maschera, Carmen and La Traviata - while at the same time toying with a hint of smoked salmon, a few raspberries and a glass or two of a modest Loire white.

We probably wouldn’t have thought of driving thirty miles to this had it not been for the fact that the producer and one of the singers – the dramatic soprano Jenny Miller – are friends of ours; how fortunate we did, for the setting, the music and the balmy night combined to make a memorable occasion.

The concert began with a baritone aria which is Verdi at his melodramatic best. It is known, curtly, as Eri tu… but more properly as Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima, which illustrates the difficulty of translating Italian opera into something which doesn’t make you giggle: in English it becomes And wouldst thou thus have sullied a soul so pure? I ask you!

Saturday, 7 August 2004

Dear Sir, Our client Mr Arthur Cladgebind...

A little booklet just published called Safe Names (New Writers’ Association, £3.95) will be a boon not only to new writers but to all writers of fiction. The team of compilers (who remain anonymous, asserting that their own names are too humorous to mention), realised that for many authors thinking up names for their characters is a time-wasting chore, and have made up a list of over 15,000 possible names from which writers can choose as many as they need before starting a new novel. Every one is a perfect compromise between the real-sounding but forgettable and the memorable but ridiculous.

More importantly, every one is guaranteed not to belong to any living person. In today’s world, if an author gives a thoroughly nasty character the name of a real person, he or his publishers run a serious risk of that person demanding substantial damages. One can imagine an agent, in the middle of negotiating film rights, tetchily phoning the author: “Look here, old man, this coke-head character you’ve got who gets had up for bigamy in Chapter IV. You’ve called him George Crumshaw. Damn it, there must be hundreds of ‘em and some are sure to sue, can’t you make it Charlie Grapefeather or something?”

Obviously a great deal of research went into the compilation. It would have been no use just dreaming up unlikely names and hoping for the best, because some people’s names really do sound preposterous; I mean, you might think you’d be safe with Nora Barnacle, but James Joyce’s lover was actually called that.

Perhaps in a later edition there will be a section listing names of people who have agreed that, for a fee, characters in a novel who behave splendidly throughout may be named after them. Personally I wouldn’t ask for a fee if some young novelist wanted to use my name for his handsome, tough, brilliantly successful but somehow deeply lovable hero.

Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Quiet, please

"The world's smallest guitar, 20 times thinner than a human hair, has been built by scientists at Cornell University, carving it out of crystal silicon using nano-technology. It is 10 millionths of a metre long. The six-stringed instrument can be played by using the tip of an atomic force microscope, but any noise produced cannot be heard by the human ear. Professor Harold CRAIGHEAD, who supervised its construction, hopes to develop even smaller devices but admits it will be difficult."

No doubt, and of course we all wish him every success. Did he mean that his next project was to be a piccolo, or that it would be another guitar, only smaller? This news broke a while ago, so perhaps by now he has created a complete orchestra which nobody can hear.
Anyway, bully for him; he has already given us his name as a new word to describe someone whose life's achievements inspire the reaction: "So what?".