Monday, 27 December 2004

Richter 9

As I write this the death toll is already in the tens of thousands. And maybe a million homeless.

I think I will post no more until the New Year.

Sunday, 26 December 2004

The man with no name

I chose my fifty films from those I would like to see again but of course in later viewings one is sometimes disappointed. Bearing this in mind, I excluded all the great classics of the early cinema and some later films which I knew would have dated by now.

But a more recent film got in because I remembered it as being exciting. The first of two hundred spaghetti Westerns, Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Kurosawa’s splendid Yojimbo.

Seeing it on TV the other day, I found it boring and silly, with the Italian cast dubbed by rotten actors speaking poorly translated dialogue. Clint Eastwood did much better things later, both as actor and director.

Anyway, out it comes, and to replace it I chose The Way Ahead, Carol Reed’s memorable wartime semi-documentary, written by Peter Ustinov and originally intended as a training film.

[By the way, the character played by Eastwood in AFOD is actually referred to as Joe, and by different names in later films]

Friday, 24 December 2004

A Gladsome Yuletide to One and All

“It's always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in - I refer, of course, to money.”
Tom Lehrer

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

But, all the same, here's a wish:
A prayer when dry: Tipsy as a charm. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 December 2004

But it was the way they said it…

Everyone knows a few of the classic lines from films – “Frankly, my dear…”, “Infamy! Infamy!..”, “Fasten your seatbelts…”, and most of the things Groucho said. There are certain rich veins: things said to Bogart (as well as by him), Alastair Sim's horrified yelps (e.g. "..and boys! Remember Nicky, the nark!") and, curiously, Brief Encounter which, besides the one below, has "Can I help? I'm a doctor" and the husband's remark as Celia Johnson comes out of her reverie: "I don't know where you've been, my dear, but thank you for coming back to me".

Here are a few that I treasure; some are in the popular collections of movie quotes, but most are not.

  • Alastair Sim to Trevor Howard, who had called him a flat-footed copper: “The police force does not have a monopoly of fallen arches, Doctor Barnes” (Green for Danger)
  • Lionel Barrymore to Greta Garbo when she had agreed to give up her relationship with his son: “Gawd bless yew, Marguerite Goad-i-ay!” (Camille)
  • Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart: “Human nature is what we are put on this earth to rise above, Mr Allnutt” (The African Queen)
  • Alfonso Bedoya to Humphrey Bogart, after being accused of not being a real policeman: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!” (Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
  • Joyce Cary as the woman in charge of the refreshment room, bridling at a flirtatious remark: “I don’t know to what you’re referrin’, I'm sure…” (Brief Encounter)
  • Orson Welles to Joseph Cotton: “Sure, we’re speaking, Jed. You’re fired.” (Citizen Kane)
  • Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” (A Touch of Evil)
  • Fortunio Bonanova as the music master trying to teach Kane’s wife to sing: “Impossible! Impossible!” (Citizen Kane, again)
  • Robert Newton calling his dog to be drowned: “Gammeeryeaough!”, possibly meaning “Come ‘ere you!” (Oliver Twist)
  • Moore Marriott, after a train runs over his watch: “It’s stopped!” (Oh Mr Porter)
  • Fred MacMurray, confessing on tape: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" (Double Indemnity)
  • One soldier to another: “You essence of stench!(subtitle in a Kurosawa film)
  • French soldier to King Arthur’s knights: “Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of silly persons!” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
  • Jean Gabin to Michèle Morgan, as he lies dying in the street: “Embrasse-moi! Vite, on est pressé!” (Quai des Brumes)

Monday, 20 December 2004

If you’re called Arthur Wilkins I've no interest in you

If there is a defect in my character – and this is a matter much disputed between those who hotly maintain that there are none and those who with equal vehemence declare that there are several, citing in particular my excessive modesty, the gentleness of my nature which makes me easily cowed by stronger personalities and silenced by vociferous opposition, and, most of all, my predilection, probably stemming from exposure at too early an age to the works of Henry James, for the composing of sentences which, though perfectly coherent and of lapidary grace, develop such inordinate length and complexity that people reading them sometimes give up in the middle, believing that life is passing them by and that they would be well advised to go away and do something else – then it is my perverted romanticism or baseless xenophilia, call it what you will, which causes me to take a disproportionate interest in (or sometimes, even, feel unjustifiably attracted towards) people with exotic names.

This is a defect of no great consequence. I have never come to any harm through seeking closer relationships with people called, say, Chintaman Rambocus or Tarsilla Castelnuovo-Tedesco, nor did it prevent me twenty years ago from making a very sound move by marrying someone called Anne. So it is not disabling, though it is undoubtedly a misguided impulse.

I have been watching on TV an extremely silly spy series called Spooks. There are several women in the cast, including two who are both quite attractive though neither of them to such an extent as to fill me with uncontrollable lust. One of them, called Nicola Walker, is pretty in a conventional way; the other is not really pretty at all but has a vaguely sinister charm, with a slight lisp and cold, hooded eyes; her name, as I would have expected, is Olga Sosnovska. No need to ask which one I kept my eyes on.

The lunacy of my exotic-name fixation was brought home to me when, after the last episode, I examined the cast list more closely and found that I had got it quite wrong: it is the boringly pretty one whose name is Olga Sosnovska.

Saturday, 18 December 2004

Musical Family

The last of the Goossens family has died at the age of 105: Sidonie Goossens was a harpist of world renown for more than half a century.

This musical family, which came to England from Belgium in the nineteenth century, included three Eugenes—grandfather, father and brother to Sidonie. Another brother, Leon, was a famous oboist; here he is playing the Tarantella from Scarlatti’s Concerto No 1.
It is absolutely not true that he gave rise to the phrase ….wouldn’t say oboe to a Goossens.

Thursday, 16 December 2004

You don’t have to be pregnant

People have been rather sniffy about it, but I think the offer by the hotel group Travelodge, silly PR gimmick though it may be, is not altogether without merit. They will give a free night’s accommodation over the Christmas season to any couple named Mary and Joseph, “…to make amends for the failure of the Bethlehem hotel industry”.

Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Sixty years at the movies

I started to make a list of films that I have enjoyed with the intention of putting it into my profile, but I discovered that my Blogger template not only insisted on calling them Favorite Films, but limited the list to six hundred characters. This would restrict the number of films to be included to about twenty-five, and as during some decades I went to the pictures up to three times a week this would have meant leaving out many essential ones.

Anyway, for the moment I have selected fifty and put them on a separate page. They are listed HERE.

Each title has a link to a review, mostly from The New York Times, IMDb or the invaluable .

Sunday, 12 December 2004

God can harm your moral health

It has been my observation that strong religious beliefs do not make anyone more virtuous; few of the really good people I have known have been particularly devout, and few of the pious ones have been notably good. There is, as statisticians would say, zero correlation. Or, to put it another way, as a force for the moral improvement of mankind the Bible simply doesn’t work.

Further, I have long suspected that there is actually a negative correlation (i.e., the more godly, the less pure in heart), and an article in The Sunday Times by Andrew Sullivan, from which I quote below, suggests that there might be some evidence for this.
What is certain is that in the United States of America the god-fearing parts where "traditional values" are upheld are not those parts where traditional values are healthiest.


  • The states with the highest divorce rates are AL, AR, AZ, FL, GA, MS, NC, OK, SC, and TX. All voted for Bush in the recent election.
  • The states with the lowest divorce rates are CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI and VT. All voted for Kerry.
  • The Bible Belt divorce rate is about 50% higher than the national average.
  • There is no measurable difference in divorce rates between those who are “born again” and those who are not.
  • In Texas, where the religious right and its rhetoric against teen-age sex is strong, teen births as a percentage of all births are 16.1%, while in liberal, secular Massachusetts they are less than half, 7.4%.
  • In America, where the religious right ferociously condemn abortion, there are 21 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44; liberal Holland has 6.4%, less than a third of this.
  • The leading members of the forces of social conservatism in America are hardly exemplars of the values they purport to espouse: Rush Limbaugh has had three divorces and an addiction to painkillers, Bill Reilly has just settled a sex harassment suit that indicated a highly active adulterous sex life, and Bob Barr, the congressman who wrote the Defense of Marriage Act, has had three wives.

The article was entitled: Where the Bible bashers are sinful and the liberals pure. This is perhaps a crude generalisation, as is the suggestion that Republicans are vociferous about sin but commit more than their share, while Democrats don’t talk about it so much but commit rather less. America is more complicated than that: as Sullivan points out, Bill Clinton was a product of a Republican state while Bush was for more than half his life a dissolute wastrel from a Democrat-state family.
Of course, all this is fairly incomprehensible from a UK standpoint. As the most secular nation of the western world, we do not expect, or even want, our leaders to be publicly devout. Religious zeal is regarded as bad form and our Prime Minister’s sanctimony is an electoral handicap (as are his wife’s dotty superstitions).

Friday, 10 December 2004

Not Very Interesting Facts

[No 162 in an occasional series]
“The best things in life are free” is an anagram of “Nail-biting refreshes the feet”.

Wednesday, 8 December 2004

Keeping our spirits up

Following the piece I wrote last week about Struwwelhitler, a friend has emailed to remind me of other jokes about the Nazis that were going round in the 1940s, most of which were either very feeble or excessively optimistic: we never actually did Hang Out the Washing On the Siegfried Line.

On TV in the seventies Private Pike repeated one of the childish wartime chants (“…Hitler’s barmy, so’s his army...”) in the presence of a captured U-boat commander, who angrily demanded to know his name so that retribution could be exacted after the war (“Don’t tell him, Pike!”).

Perhaps the most effective slander on the Nazi leaders was the one that was said to have been based on confidential information supplied by Unity Mitford, who knew them well; it went to the tune of Colonel Bogey:
Hitler…..has only got one ball
Goering…..has two, but rather small
Himmler…..has something simmler
And poor old Goebbels has noebbels at all.

Monday, 6 December 2004

No they don’t, and never did

If you put warm beer plus English into Google you get nearly ten thousand results. If you add John Major you still get a couple of hundred and I imagine that quite a few of the ten thousand stem from these.

In this way is a misconception perpetuated by a fatuous idiot’s misquotation.

Saturday, 4 December 2004

Shock-headed Führer

I wrote recently about a Victorian children’s book called Struwwelpeter. In 1941 Robert and Philip Spence wrote and illustrated a version of it called Struwwelhitler. Not only does it cleverly adapt Dr Hoffman’s stories to a twentieth-century wartime setting, but the style of both the verse and the drawings mimics the original very closely; the booklet is a little masterpiece of parody. It was published by The Daily Sketch to raise money for the War Relief Fund which provided comforts to the armed forces and to air raid victims, and the authors took no fees or royalties.

The Story of the Inky Boys has become the Story of the Nazi Boys, and the black-a-moor has become a little bolshevik boy. Stalin is the giant and dips them into red ink. I would guess that the booklet was written after his pact with Hitler but before Operation Barbarossa when the Russians became our allies, for although he plays the good giant who teaches the Nazi boys a lesson he's not presented as the cuddly old Joe which he later became. It was a confusing time.

The booklet has a special resonance for me in that it inspired the only really successful investment I have ever made in my whole life: I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in Malvern in 2001 and after having a colour photocopy made I sold it on eBay for three times the price I paid. When first published exactly half a century earlier it cost the same as my hardback Struwwelpeter had cost five years before that: 1/6d (7½p).
A slight shadow was cast over my satisfaction when later I saw that booksellers were offering other copies of the booklet for sale at five times the price for which I had let mine go.

Thursday, 2 December 2004

The ultimate question

Even the most eminent philosophers may be unaware that some complex questions have simple answers. There is an old and, sadly, apocryphal story told by a cabby: 'Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, "Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about, then?" And, do you know, HE COULDN’T TELL ME!'

The answer is, of course: You do the Hokey-Cokey and you turn around, and that’s……

There is also the story about Larry La Prise, who wrote it. When he died in 2002 his family had great difficulty with the funeral: they put his left leg in the coffin, and it was all downhill from there…