Saturday, 30 October 2004

Every picture tells a story

The most disappointing present I ever had was given to me for Christmas when I was eleven. Gift-wrapped in thick brown paper tied with string, it had promising heft and solidity: a chemistry set with a real Bunsen burner, perhaps; certainly not anything boring to wear. But it turned out to be a Holy Bible, from a pious aunt.

It had a dozen or so full-page coloured illustrations, and these implanted in my mind a totally mistaken idea of what the people of the Middle East were like in biblical times. Not until years later did I realise that they were actually not a bit like the rather wet characters in the pictures, hanging around carrying out godly activities like praying or watching sheep. Nor did I notice at the time, for I dipped into the text only very lightly, that many of the things they got up to in those days were very ungodly indeed. I was not then familiar with a bawdy Sunday School song which would have corrected my misapprehension. I mean, of course, a bawdy song about Sunday Schools, not a song which they sing at bawdy… oh, never mind. Anyway, its refrain was:
…Bring your toffee apples and sit down upon the floor
And you’ll hear some Bible stories that you’ve never heard before…..

Had the internet been available to me in those days, I could have got a much more accurate picture of what really went on in the Holy Land by studying this website. Launched in 2001, it was conceived and created by the Reverend Brendan Powell Smith (his priestly status** is unclear: the matter is discussed under faq on the website), and what it contains must surely be the most comprehensive and attractive set of Bible pictures ever published; there are hundreds of colourful and detailed illustrations of quotations from the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, with 431 covering stories in Exodus alone! Not surprisingly, it has had over two million hits since it was launched in 2001.

The Eighth Plague (Locusts): Exodus 10, 12-15
A very useful feature is that, in view of the adult nature of many Bible stories, every chapter and indeed every story is rated according to its content: N for nudity, S for sexual content, V for violence and C for cursing; of course, a substantial proportion are rated with three or four of these letters.
Parts of the website have been published in book form and would make ideal Christmas presents for eleven-year-olds.

**A note on the back of the books says "Though it remains unclear why Smith has been chosen to illustrate the Bible... most scholars and theologians agree it is of little use to question such matters". As The Rocky Mountain News (Colorado) commented in October 2003: Amen to that....

Thanks to martin g for the link.

Friday, 29 October 2004

Treason and plot

In a few days it will be time once again to burn someone in effigy, and we each have our own idea about who it should be, now that we have generally forgotten that 5th November was originally an anti-Catholic festival and we can let Guy Fawkes rest in pieces (he was cut into several after the usual torture).

We have been letting off fireworks on this night ever since 1605 to celebrate the failure of his plot to blow up Parliament, but nowadays some Englishmen wonder whether we are celebrating Fawkes' failure or honouring his attempt to do away with the government.

Anyway, at this time of year we nowadays, sadly, involve ourselves in Halloween, the commercialised version of which (£100m a year) we imported from the USA around ten years ago (they will spend $3.12bn this year). The worst element is Trick or Treat which can be very nasty extortion; in contrast, Penny for the Guy was irritating but harmless.

It seems that the huge demand for the paraphernalia is not so much from children but from 20-something singles who believe that fangs are sexy. In the States powerful groups of witches have complained that the whole Halloween business traduces their creed, and are threatening to take legal action. No such problem here, where there exists only one smallish coven, led by a man called Michael Howard, and its curses are entirely without effect.

P.S. Trick-or-treating is certainly an American import, but Halloween originated in England when the poor would beg for food on All Souls' Day and beggars would receive special treats in exchange for prayers for the dead. In time, children began "begging" for treats on Mischief Night.

One has to be very careful about condemning anything as a reprehensible American custom. If one criticises, for example, one of their grammatical usages or peculiar words, it is bound to turn out that it was very common in England five hundred years ago, that Milton used it all the time, and that we had merely forgotten it.

(Germans associate witches and devils with Walpurgisnacht, April 30th, but Walpurgis was an ENGLISH nun, so there .

Wednesday, 27 October 2004

Lies, damned lies, and websites

Many websites are full of inaccurate information. Whether this is because of the authors' laziness, carelessness or ignorance, the regrettable result is that it is impossible to determine which sites are trustworthy and which are not.

However, it is refreshing and heartening to find that there are some sites about which there can be no doubt whatsoever: they consist entirely of falsehoods, having been set up with deceit as their sole purpose. I list below examples of four such misleading sources, three British and one American, which have cast aside all restraints of decency and honour and flagrantly pretend to be something which they are not. I include links to them and brief quotations from their often offensive distortions of the truth.

Be prepared
Official advice
“In an effort to worry the public and convince them to vote for us again next year, and because George Bush asked us to, this website includes the common sense advice found in our Preparing for Emergencies booklet, and information on what the government is doing to protect the country as a whole. (Hint: we're praying really, really hard.)………..”

Information on the Security Services
MI5 exposes itself
“The past decade has seen an enormous shift in the direction of global politics that has in turn caused a radical reassessment of MI5's goals and operational behaviour. This reassessment is now complete, and we've decided to carry on doing things exactly the same way as we did before.
We hope that these pages will give you some insight into the vigorous work done by MI5 to keep Britain in its rightful place as the seventeenth most powerful nation on Earth…….”

The story of aluminium (or aluminum)
“A Staffordshire iron-founder named Joshua Aluminium invented in 1844 a process for extracting the metal from bauxite, and it was named after him…….”

The Onion
The daddy of all unreliable newspapers
“BAGHDAD—After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday, but said America can be proud of finishing a very strong second…..."

Monday, 18 October 2004

Very faint praise indeed

A Tory life peer died recently, full of years, and there was a four-column piece about his achievements which, however, noted that:
X will be best remembered for his chairmanship of the Conservative parliamentary finance committee (1979-92)…..

Obituary writers can be very cruel without meaning to be.

Friday, 15 October 2004

Ninety-six today

Happy Birthday John Kenneth Galbraith, former advisor to Presidents F D Roosevelt and J F Kennedy, and the most widely read economist in the world.

He needs a stair lift and is hard of hearing, but is otherwise in fighting form and the new book he is working on is going well.

A journalist who visited him the other day was presented with a car bumper sticker with a picture of George Bush and the slogan ‘Some things were never meant to be recycled’.
See also HERE and HERE.

Thursday, 14 October 2004

Check up on it

…or check it out. Americans use more prepositions than we do; our own consumption is increasing but we still sometimes just check something. And we wash where they wash up. Or rather, when we wash up we mean what they call doing the dishes.

The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food deals at some length with this chore in an entry, not intended to be taken very seriously, which appears between the entries for Washington Clams and Wasps (the latter is included in this book about food because Australian Aborigines eat their larvae and the Japanese of Nagano eat their pupae).
It goes as follows:
Washing up has in most cultures been seen as an activity which is not an intrinsic part of preparing, cooking, and consuming food. Nor has it been highly regarded, although the truth is that it is a skilled business calling for a natural aptitude, a discriminating attitude to the various means available, and considerable practice. However, the idea that it is somehow separate from the meal is the greater and more pervasive error.

A better way of regarding it is as the climax of the whole cycle (gathering, preparation, cooking, eating) and as a piece of ritual which should have engaged the attention of anthropologists and the like to a much greater extent than the questions which have tended to preoccupy them such as whether food is boiled or roasted. The purification of the utensils has to be the final, culminating stage of any meal, the stage which in effect sets the scene for the next meal and permits life’s processes to continue.

It follows from this that the choice of person to do the washing up is no light matter, and that the person or persons chosen should be viewed as having a privilege. Whether they use traditional techniques or harness modern machinery to help them is immaterial; the responsibility has been given to them, and the honour of praise for a job well done awaits them.

The sight of a washer-up standing, dominant, at the sink while the other celebrants of the meal, typically, loll in chairs recalls irresistibly the similar scenes enacted so often in places of worship – the priest standing before the altar, the congregation seated, the timeless ritual unfolding for the thousandth time but charged with as much significance as on the first. As the utensils begin to emerge in pristine purity, as the dancing mop-head and caressing linen cancel out any recollections of the grosser aspects of appetite and eating, even the proudest shoppers and cooks, exalted by witnessing the true climax of the meal, must acknowledge the precedence of these acts of completion.

I guess the author, Alan Davidson, after twenty years of work writing the book, felt as he neared the end that he could relax and include this tongue-in-cheek item.

Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Wild Cards

The excellent Réseau Voltaire has produced a deck (“pack” to the English) of cards featuring The 52 Most Dangerous American Dignitaries, giving brief but telling CVs and photos of the whole bunch, from Ace of Spades Donald Rumsfeld down to Two of Hearts Gary Bauer, an executive director of the Christian Coalition. Someone called George W Bush is King of Diamonds, and the Joker is former CIA agent Osama Bin Laden.

The deck was available in English or French, but are currently sold out.

No rewards are currently being offered.

Sunday, 10 October 2004

L'esprit de l’escalier*

The French call it staircase wit: the flashing rejoinder that would have had everyone reeling with admiration if you had thought of it sooner, before you left the party and descended the stairs. In my case they were never very flashing and usually came to me even later, say in the taxi halfway home.

But on just one occasion a good one entered my head in time and not too late.

It was at a meeting of international sports officials. In the coffee break a group were discussing the relative merits of various sports, all of them, of course, asserting that the one which they were there to represent was the finest, most important and most worthwhile. A very senior person involved in boxing said that his sport had three thousand years of history behind it and was called the Noble Art, but he was nastily put down by the swimming man who said that noble was a funny way of describing an activity consisting essentially of punching a man with the object of mashing his brain to a jelly. Calm was restored when an Eminent Horsy Lady pointed out coolly that actually equestrianism was the oldest sport of all and therefore had status above all others, so there.

Lurking on the fringe of the group as befitted my junior position, it came to me that I could make a memorable contribution to this rather fatuous debate.

“Yes, ma’am”, I said, craning forward, “but antiquity does not always confer prestige. I mean, it doesn’t with professions, does it?”

It would be nice to relate that this sally was followed by a puzzled pause and then, as the point sank in, laughter and possibly even a round of applause.

But it was not to be, and I shall never know whether the EHL would have appreciated my observation, for as I started to speak some idiot gave forth, loudly and confidently, with a remark of utter banality and pointlessness, and nobody heard what I said.

I never again had an opportunity, or indeed a thought, as good as that.

*Pedant’s Corner: If you think I’ve got the phrase wrong you will find that Verlaine wrote it this way and not d'escalier. I looked it up and apparently either is OK.

Friday, 8 October 2004

Not on your Nellie

A consumer and marketing analysis company called CACI has developed a means of predicting the likely age of someone with a particular first name (UK only). Thus, if you are a Percy or a Horace, you fall into a group with an average age of 75.

Some names are recurring after a fall from fashion: a third of all Emilys are aged over 60, but more than 40% are under 25; many Claras are in their 80s but there are quite a few under 25.

Tracey began to appear about 45 years ago and remained popular for a decade, and Darren was popular for about the same length of time.

Sadly, it seems that Sissie, Bessie and Nellie are hardly ever chosen nowadays, though the latter might have a renaissance if the Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado stays well-known for a while. Just one celebrity, even a C-list one, can have a huge effect on a name’s popularity: Selina suddenly became popular 25 years ago when a woman called Selina Scott achieved modest fame as an announcer.

Footnote about Nellie/Nelly:
The one I remember is the great Nellie Lutcher; I guess that puts me in the same age group as the Percys and Horaces.

The title of this post means not on your life. It was originally not on your Nellie Duff; via rhyming slang duff=puff, then puff=breath, and life and breath are inseparable, as we may gather from Acts, 17,25: He giveth to all, life and breath. Got that? Oh, and puff may be the origin of poof, via powder-puff.

For this supremely useless information I am indebted to Eric Partridge’s marvellous Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Its eighth edition, 1984, has 1400 pages, with treasures on every one. I look forward to writing a post about it soon.

P.S. Perhaps the name was originally made famous by a schooner named Nellie Duff which sank in 1895, but the OED cannot find the phrase not on your nellie in print earlier than 1941..

Tuesday, 5 October 2004

As I was saying to Tom Cruise...

Here’s a picture, taken in Seoul in 1988, of me at a sporting event, explaining some of the finer points of the game to a lady spectator. I won’t say who she was (still is, for that matter), because one thing I really cannot bear is name-dropping.

When Denis Healey was Foreign Secretary he was once taken to task by a fellow MP, who said “Denis, you really are a terrible old name-dropper”. He replied, apologetically, “Yes, I know, that’s exactly what the Queen Mother said to me the other day”.

The neatest dropping I ever heard was done by an elderly Italian lady who had moved in distinguished society all her life. She was telling us at dinner about her love of horses and how when she was eight a family friend gave her as a birthday present her first pair of jodhpurs.

Then it just sort of slipped out that the family friend happened to be the Maharajah of Jodhpur.

Friday, 1 October 2004

A cliché gone mad

This was the title of a piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian last month (except that their subs are not permitted to put an accent in cliché and they eschew the capital "T" in the name of the paper. Ya-boo to their stylebook, even though my daughter-in-law is quoted in it).

The piece was about the phrase political correctness gone mad, which apparently has appeared at least 631 times in British national newspapers since 1993:

Since the concept of PC is mainly rightwing doublespeak anyway, you can make some reliable predictions about those instances where it is held to have gone mad. First, the level of outrage will be out of all proportion with the allegedly mad policy, which will either be perfectly sensible or, at worst, a bit oversensitive to other people's feelings—hardly a war crime. Second, the story will be more complex than it appears. Third, the "slippery slope" argument may be used, with some furious everyman complaining that, now you're no longer allowed to hurl racist abuse in the street, it can only be a matter of time before they ban breathing.

All in all, it's time for a moratorium on 'political correctness gone mad'. Perhaps we should ban it.