Saturday, 31 December 2005

Happy Nouvelle Année!

When terseness is called for the French can be extremely, well, terse; there are examples HERE and HERE. But they can also express themselves in a way which would sound ridiculously flowery and over the top in English, but doesn’t, somehow, in French.
Here is part of an email received this week from a French friend called Claire. She apologised for sending it out to 62 addresses ("Bon, je sais, les mails communs, c'est pas très cool"), but excused this on the grounds that she was about to leave for three weeks in Vietnam and hadn’t packed and, besides, she thought it wasn't so wrong to package her good wishes "pour vous qui avez un point commun: moi!". Claire also confessed that she hadn’t composed it herself, but had received it from a friend last year.
Anyway, we loved it:
Je vous souhaite à tous, et à tous ceux qui vous sont chers, des bonheurs qui tiennent dans la poche, comme des grands qui nécessitent un A380 (plein de petits, ça fait un tas d'A380...); je vous souhaite la santé qui vous permette de marcher, de chanter, de courir et de profiter; je vous souhaite la prospérité pour rendre la vie un peu plus simple; je vous souhaite des amis, des vrais, des qui tiennent chaud l'hiver et sont toujours là l'été; je vous souhaite une famille, qu'on vous l'ait donnée ou que vous l'ayez choisie; je vous souhaite des rêves, des projets, des espoirs, avec plein de concrétisations derrière, et puis des rêves qu'on ne réalise pas forcément mais qui restent dans un coin de la tête, longtemps; je vous souhaite de vivre, de ne pas perdre de temps, de prendre et de donner, parce qu'on peut quitter le jeu n'importe quand; je vous souhaite des bonnes nouvelles, des sourires et des fous rires; je vous souhaite d'avoir toujours "assez de musique dans votre coeur pour faire danser votre vie".
Prenez soin de vous et que la vie vous soit douce.
Bonne année 2006 et plein de bisous, à chacun d'entre vous.

[A380 is the 555-seat Airbus]

I append a version in Babelfish English. As a translation this is fairly pathetic, but it does have a certain mystic charm and will serve as my own New Year message to everyone:
Wish you with all, and all those which are expensive to you, of happinesses which hold in the pocket, as the large ones which requires A380 (full with small, that made a heap of A380...); I wish you the health which enables you to go, to sing, run and profit; I wish you prosperity to make the life a little simpler; I wish you friends, truths, which hold hot the winter and are the summer always there; I wish you a family, that it be given to you or that you chose it; I wish you dreams, projects, hopes, with full with concretizations behind, and then dreams which one does not carry out inevitably but which remains in a corner of the head, a long time; I wish you food, not to waste time, to take and give, because one can leave the play any time; I wish you good news, smiles and insane laughter; I wish you to have always "enough music in your heart to make dance your life". Take care of you and that the life is soft for you. Good year 2006 and full with kisses, with each one among you.

Wednesday, 28 December 2005


There is a website devoted to the "Spenser" novels by the American author Robert B. Parker. Spenser is described as "the most attractive and resourceful private investigator since Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe" but for Los Angeles read Boston.
The site was created by Mike Loux many years ago and has been carried on by Bob Ames since 1999. It is vast in scope and includes an Annotated Gumshoe section in which the devoted authors have attempted to locate the source of every allusion—and there are a huge number—in the books.
There was one which they were unable to identify and for ten years they have been inviting visitors to the site to provide them with the answer; the reference occurs in three of the books and is clearly the punch line of a joke—but what was the joke? I haven't read any of the books but when I came across the website I realised that I actually knew the joke and was very happy to end their search. This is it.

Monday, 26 December 2005

Following her around

I am in general much less than fascinated by the world of nature and not an avid reader of Country Diaries and the like, but my interest was held by a note in the Guardian about a project for tracking a 2m long female leatherback turtle by means of a satellite device. I do hope she gets safely back to Dingle, Co Kerry, after her current migration to some tropical coast where she will lay eighty eggs every ten days for two months.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

Season's Greetings

"Look, if it means having to wear this stupid hat then I say the hell with Christmas."

And grandfathers don't have much choice either.
I do possess a rather spectacular false nose which I was urged to wear but I didn't because it made me look rather silly.

And forget the reindeer: it's a sign of the times that nowadays Father Christmas has to be preceded by three heavies.

Thursday, 22 December 2005

Ho ho ho, indeed

This crook was conned into dressing himself up like this, which took up time he would otherwise have spent sending out scam emails.
[419 Eater]

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Naming the relatives

I often reflect on the richness of our language compared with others, and enjoy irritating those who do not have it as their mother tongue by going on about it. Not only do we have vast numbers of synonyms which aren't really synonyms at all because they have subtly different connotations, but we have many words (nice, home...) the precise meanings of which simply cannot be conveyed in some world languages.

But the sociologist and columnist Anne Karpf, in an essay entitled "What do you call your step-grandson's ex?" reminds us that some languages of less than world stature are, in one field at least, ahead of us:
[People] talk of the nuclear or minimal family...but our sphere of connectivity has widened rather than contracted with the increase in divorce and second marriage. Even if the bonds are mainly dutiful (the guilt-tripping great-aunt, the first cousin's sulky teenage daughter) or even negative, in some sense they're how we position ourselves in the world.
The trouble is that, compared with other cultures, we lack the words to describe them. [The Sudanese have] eight different terms for "cousin" depending on how you're related. Nor will plain old "uncle" do. Instead, they distinguish linguistically between the father's brother and the mother's brother...
... Latin has a word for living with a mother's brother (which translates clumsily as avunculocality), and another for living with a father's sister (amitalocality). In India your husband's brother's wife is charmingly called your co-sister...
...To my mind the most serious absence is a word describing the relationship between two sets of in-laws... Here Yiddish comes into its own with mekhuteneste... It's no accident that the cultures that have a term for your son or daughter's in-laws (the Greeks call them symbetheros, in Spanish consuegros) are those that recognise this as a significant relationship extending beyond an annually shared sherry trifle.
So when I next complain about the length of my Christmas shopping list I shall remind myself that it expresses bonds and affinities without which I would be the poorer (although, at this time of year, obviously also the richer). Yiddish, naturally, has a word for it, one that expresses both affection and resigned irritation. Mishpokhe means family, including the most remote kin.

Anna McColl, in a piece on the Random House website covers similar ground in more detail, saying that English is notoriously poor in kinship terms:
...In English, the sex of nearer kinfolk is important: mother/father; sister/brother; aunt/uncle. In Malay, however, the age is the primary distinction; there are different terms for elder (brother/sister/cousin) and younger (brother/sister/cousin), but there's just one generic word for a sibling or cousin. Likewise, until the nineteenth century Hungarian had terms for older sibling or younger sibling but no word for 'brother' or 'sister'... ...Latin had separate terms for 'father's brother', 'father's sister', 'mother's brother', and 'mother's sister', but modern Romance languages have reduced this to two terms for 'aunt' and 'uncle'. In Njamal, an Australian Aboriginal language, a man can use the same term for 'father's father' and 'daughter's son's wife's sister', the important distinction being that both are two generations away. Some Native American languages have different words for 'sister (of a man)' and 'sister (of a woman)'

[And in Japanese, men's speech is different from young women's speech, while in Greek, the sister of the father of Carlos is the translation of what they called their production of "Charlie's Aunt". However, I'm not at all sure that these footnotes are relevant to this topic. Or to anything, really]

Monday, 19 December 2005

Who the hell are Betty and Fred?

Christmas cards are such a lovely way of renewing old friendships!

Sunday, 18 December 2005

Goodwill to all men, for four weeks only

At this time of year, if you repel chuggers they may hit you with: "But it's Christmas!"

From an essay by Nicholas Fearn in The Guardian...the plight of the poor and needy is no worse at Christmas than at any other time...There is something profoundly mistaken in our acceptance that morality can take the form of a holiday. After all, the real holiday here is the 11 months of the year when it is more or less acceptable to look after number one, yet no-one talks of an extended "season of selfishness"...
...If there is such a thing as a season of goodwill that begins officially on a certain day, ushered in by a wave of televised celebrity appeals for charity, there must of necessity be another day, some time between Christmas Day and New Year, when all this comes to an official end. We wait in vain for newsreaders to announce the relaxation of festive requirements and a return to our default stinginess...
...Christmas is not the only manifestation of our irrational observance of "seasons": for example, you shouldn't make someone cry on their birthday; you should be especially kind to your partner on Valentine's Day; annoying people is fine on April Fools' Day, as is terrorising them at Halloween...
...The Season of Goodwill does more than merely highlight the lack of fellow feeling that is the norm throughout the rest of the year, it also works to make it permissible. The question of how much we should give to those less fortunate than ourselves does not have an easy answer, but as to whether we should make December a special time of giving, the answer is certainly "no".

Friday, 16 December 2005

419 Eater

Last February I posted a note about the now famous website of a man who works hard—and has a lot of fun—in wasting the time of the crooks who are still making millions from internet scams. It is extraordinary that there are so many people with money who are stupid and greedy enough to believe that the widow of a Nigerian cabinet minister only needs a bit of help from them to get hold of her $120 million inheritance and that she will let them keep 20% of it for their trouble.

I had another look at the website the other day and it is still going strong. The scam-baiter who publishes it has stopped using his skill to con money from the con-men because although they richly deserve to be cheated there are legal risks even if you are giving the money to charity. He has developed a variety of approaches by email and telephone which give the scammers hope that their appeal is going to be successful and then leads them on to make expensive phone calls and compose long emails before they realise—or he tells them—that they have been fooled.

In a recent example, the scambaiter didn’t really want to be bothered with one scammer so he just replied to the first email by telling him that he was a liar. However this scammer wasn’t put off and returned with further lies, which has led to a very lengthy and enjoyable correspondence. The scammer was persuaded to have himself tattooed and to send a photograph with the promise of a large grant from a fictional charitable foundation.
This all began early in October and in mid-November he was still making every effort to carry out the increasingly difficult tasks being set him.

The account of all this is illustrated with the photos sent in by the scammer, in which he looks a harmless lad, but do not feel sorry for him. The scammers browbeat others into having their photos used; they themselves are evil and sometimes violent men. One particularly despicable trick they pull is to appeal for funds to aid victims of some major disaster.

When they spend time responding to spoofs that means that they are distracted from other attempts to rob gullible people, so tricking them is a praiseworthy activity. However, this salutary website warns that it can be a dangerous game and calls for great care to avoid getting into a nasty situation.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005


I used to think this was a silly word, but after glancing through some current glossy supplements I realise that is a necessary one as it accurately describes a modern phenomenon. The parallelism of food and sex, of course, has always been obvious, but nowadays they have become comparable also in the sense that the depiction of both is a major source of obscene material for the media and the internet.

This was not always the case; food writing often used to be of literary as well as practical value, but since Elizabeth David's day illustration has taken over, as if a full-page colour picture of an avocado is interesting or informative.

And the accompanying text is always profoundly depressing. Last weekend one food supplement alone featured the gratuitous information that stripper Dita Von Teese likes asparagus and lobster after she's done her show at the Café de Paris (and did you know that nipple covers are known as pasties in the trade?), that pomegranates are the latest thrilling wonderfood from Beverly Hills to Brighton, that sheeps' lungs, boiled and inflated, are a big thing with the Uyghurs of Kashgar (Xinjiang) and that one supermarket this Christmas is offering a Four-Bird Roast—a deboned goose stuffed with deboned turkey, guinea fowl and the breasts from two ducks. A snip at £200, as it serves fifteen and is a doddle to carve.

Those who can't afford this, as they have already joined with a friend to pool their Pensioner's Winter Heating Allowances and share a £400 bottle of the Glenlivet Cellar Collection 1972, can make their own multi-bird roast by following the recipe given in the same supplement by some double-barrelled fool: you start with a goose stuffed into a turkey then, he says re-assuringly, you don't need all the smaller birds to be different: you can use, say, three pheasants and five pigeons.

All that is crude and vulgar pornography.

There was once a Persian imam who ordered his cooks to stuff an olive inside a lark, that inside a chicken, that inside a peacock, that inside a sheep, and finally that inside a camel.. The whole was rubbed with rare herbs and spices by sloe-eyed virgins and then cooked for five days on a cedar-wood fire while classical dastgâh music was played by two hundred musicians.Then the imam fed the flesh to his dogs and ate the olive.

Now that was style.

Monday, 12 December 2005

I meant "generous"

I mentioned some time ago that comments on anything written in Other Men's Flowers are welcome, especially those that consist entirely of fulsome praise, but I have now discovered that this was the wrong word to use.
According to The Guardian stylebook, the word means "cloying, excessive, disgusting by excess..., so fulsome praise should not be used in a complimentary sense". The OED gives six obsolete meanings and only one which is not: "Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like", and a modern Collins dictionary has "Excessive or insincere, esp in an offensive or distasteful way".
That is not at all what I had in mind.

I noticed that on the same page in the stylebook is the entry for fuck. This merely covers a rather piffling aspect by advising "Do not describe this as a good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon word, because, first, there is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon word (they spoke Old English) and, more important, its first recorded use dates from 1278".
Elsewhere in the stylebook, under swearwords, there is a typically laid-back piece recommending caution, while noting that The Guardian is more liberal in this matter than any other newspaper, and that asterisks are a cop-out and should not be used.
I am rather proud that I contributed part of one of the entries in this stylebook (not an entry referring to the above).

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Paper chase

Sunday newspapers nowadays are substantial affairs, and only a very devoted reader (or an extremely idle person) can make more than a token effort to read a high proportion of their content.
We take two, and the following is a typical load, weighing 4½ lb, that comes through our letterbox with a thump:
Two main sections (broadsheet, totalling 62 pages)
Two sports sections (broadsheet, totalling 46 pages)
Two travel sections (tabloid, totalling 56 pages)
Two review sections (broadsheet, totalling 36 pages)
Music Monthly (glossy tabloid, 86 pages)
Two business sections (broadsheet, totalling 26 pages)
Comic (tabloid, 12 pages)
Two colour supplements (glossy tabloids, totalling 230 pages)
Money (1 broadsheet, 1 tabloid, totalling 30 pages)
Home (tabloid, 48 pages)
Driving (tabloid, 32 pages)
Books, films, theatre, TV (tabloid, 88 pages)
Appointments (broadsheet, 14 pages)
Style (glossy tabloid, 100 pages)
…and another 40 or so pages of advertising supplements

For me, the Sunday task is lightened somewhat by the fact that I have no interest at all in sport, jobs, property, gardening, mortgages, cars, pop music, fashion or the funnies, so that of the 906 pages listed above about 400 can go straight into the recycling box without even being unfolded. And of course much of the text of the remaining sections need not be read as it is of little interest, being written only to fill the spaces between the advertisements.
Even so, it is usually Wednesday or Thursday before the chore is finished. This leaves little time to get to grips with our daily paper, the Saturday edition of which has also now become a pile of print almost as monstrous.The only weeks I can really keep up with the newspapers are those when I go to London: the train takes an hour and forty minutes each way.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Stand by for combat

Last Tuesday I spent half an hour in the Strangers Gallery of the House of Commons behind the new glass screen which has been fitted to discourage the throwing into the chamber of paper darts, toilet rolls, bombs, etc., and listened to some less than thrilling replies to questions about about the new quangos being set up to reduce the number and cost of quangos (or something like that).
I had to be in the Palace of Westminster on that day for a reason quite unconnected with parliament, and of course everyone is telling me that I was unlucky not to have been there yesterday when the new Leader of the Opposition faced the PM for the first time.
I must say that I am unable to share the feeling of happy anticipation (among the media) about the prospect of exciting exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time now that (they say) TB’s new opponent is fractionally less dreary than any of those he has had in recent years. This may well be true, though hardly likely to fill us with a resolve not to miss anything these two repellent characters may say to each other.
We may well merely feel, as we did at the time of the Al Fayed/Hamilton legal battle, that it's such a pity that they can’t both lose.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

The height of sybaritism

Our house is comfortable enough, but outstandingly so in only one respect. We have a luxury, particularly valuable during cold spells, which is rarely to be found, I imagine, even in the homes of the most privileged: by chance rather than by design, a loo roll holder is mounted immediately over a radiator, so that the paper that comes off it is warm.

Sunday, 4 December 2005

Must 'ave civil words, Bill

"Civil words!" cried the girl, whose passion was frightful to see. "Civil words, you villain! Yes, you deserve 'em from me. I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this!" pointing to Oliver. "I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since. Don't you know it? Speak out! Don't you know it?"

Fagin was right, of course, we must have them. English is rich in civil words for uncivil things: there is a list here of “minced oaths” (words or phrases used to avoid swearing: Blimey!). There are also lists of phrases in other sub-groups, including: Popular Fallacies, Biblical, Shakespeare, Misheard Song Lyrics and Made in the USA (e.g. Full as an Alabama tick). You can look up euphemisms generally in a Phrase Dictionary which provides an A-Z index. All these riches and many more are to be found in The Phrase Finder, one of those websites where you drop in for a quick browse and then realise after a bit that it’s 3am.

Friday, 2 December 2005

A fondly remembered name

You can tell just by looking at the photo that here is a boring, conceited, talentless prat, can’t you?
His name is Nicholas Parsons. He hasn’t been on television for a while and I was surprised, though not wildly excited, to see that he is still around; in an interview for one of the colour supplements the other day he revealed that he is having 35 of his suits sold on eBay for charity and “with my name on them they go for more”. He takes the Tube sometimes and “I’m not self-conscious, even when people start nudging each other and talking about me”. I suppose he imagines they’re saying “Look! There’s Nicholas Parsons, the famous actor and star of radio and TV!”, whereas of course they’re actually saying “Look! There’s that boring, conceited, talentless prat who used to be on the telly”.
But thanks to the Two Ronnies, his name will not be forgotten. They claimed to have found one of his admirers, and the joint opening announcement of one of their shows was:

Good evening, it’s great to be back again, isn’t it?

Yes indeed, and in a packed programme tonight I interview a lady who likes Nicholas Parsons…

…and I interview a parson who likes knickerless ladies…

Wednesday, 30 November 2005

My career in opera

The longest singing career ever was probably that of Danshi Toyotaki of Hyogo, Japan, who sang in Musume Gidayu for 91 years from the age of seven. A friend of mine was still singing in public in his ninetieth year, but he’s not a contender because he didn’t have lessons and start singing seriously until his seventies. Several of the great prima donnas of the past, and some tenors or baritones, carried on, in most cases with declining greatness, for many decades; I have not searched the internet to find out who sang on the longest, but I expect some knowledgeable friend will tell me. However, when it comes to the record for the shortest career ever on the operatic stage, then if you count abortive attempts there is no doubt that I am the holder.

I have been a keen bath singer since early childhood and have once or twice sung publicly in a jokey sort of way (and I don’t mean karaoke), not being too inhibited by the lack of anything in the nature of a voice. It might be said of me, as Bernard Miles said of one of his characters, that I have a belly-full of music but a bad road out.

So I was immensely flattered when I was invited to take part in a performance of Tosca in a country house venue in Sussex. It was no small scale production: there were distinguished internationally known singers as the soprano Tosca and the bass-baritone Scarpia. The husband of the soprano was directing, and as friends of mine the two of them thought I might like to fill in as they were a bit short in the chorus department.

I had some misgivings but took it very seriously from the start. The soprano tested me with a few scales and gave me some hints about what to do with my diaphragm, how to breathe and so on, and then told me that I would probably be all right. One problem was that I can’t really read music, and I went to the trouble of driving down to Dorset for some practice with my niece who is a musician so that I could get most of the notes more or less right from memory.

[The picture is not of this production, which was in modern dress; we were to be dressed as Mafia hoods.]

Then rehearsals began. The director was very kind and helpful to me, as were my colleagues in the chorus, talented amateurs or semi-professionals, but I became increasingly unhappy. In my mature years I am no longer much afraid of making a fool of myself because life has already done it, but I began to realise that I was just not going to be any good, even in an undemanding chorus role.

So I went to my friends and said I am very sorry, but I just can’t do it. If they had been angry and complained about me leaving them one short in the chorus at the last minute I wouldn’t have blamed them, but the final embarrassment was that they were terribly nice: no, not at all, quite understand, don’t worry about it.

And so ended my career, a week or two before it was to begin. My wife and I went to see the performance, of course, and very good it was. But I never liked Tosca much, and now I can’t even bear to listen to it, or for that matter anything else by Puccini.

Monday, 28 November 2005

They sang every Sunday night

Like many of the posts in Other Men's Flowers, this one is of little interest to Americans or anyone born after the Reichstag was set on fire.

With Christmas approaching, it is time to put an end to the obsession with modern sleaze which characterises this blog and to return to a simpler and less sophisticated era.

Many organisations now defunct sprang up in the 1930s. There was one which at its peak in 1939 had five million adherents in the UK. The exact number may never be known, for its secrets were guarded with extraordinary rigour; it had its own passwords and codes, and signs by which its members might recognise one another.
It even had its own anthem:
We are the Ovaltineys, little girls and boys,
Make your request we'll not refuse you,
We are there just to amuse you,
Would you like a song or story?
Will you share our joys?
At work and play we’re more than keen,
No merrier children can be seen
Because we all drink Ovaltine,
We're happy girls and boys.

You can hear the tune—and many others of the same period and in the same genre—played HERE, or a whole 1937 Radio Luxembourg broadcast HERE. How innocent were our pleasures!

I was a keen member, and in another popular organisation for young people which flourished at the same time (not based in the UK) I might well have reached the rank of Gefolgschaftsführer, or even Hauptgefolgschaftsführer. As it was, I was merely a Silver Star Member. To reach this height you had to enlist three more members, a sort of pyramid selling operation. All you got for this effort was the rather pathetic badge which you could swank about with, but I remember the honour fondly as my first taste of the privileges of rank. And, come to think of it, the last.

[The way in which children nowadays are brainwashed by advertising into influencing their parents’ purchasing habits is crude and ineffective compared with this scheme, perhaps one of the most brilliant marketing ideas ever. It was intended to promote the sale of a malted milk drink (containing barley and malt extract, dried skimmed milk, sugar, whey powder, glucose syrup, vegetable fat, full cream milk powder, fat reduced cocoa, caseinates, egg powder, emulsifier, stabilisers, flavouring and vitamins), which was invented in 1904 by a Swiss chemist: it succeeded to the extent that ten million jars used to be sold in the UK every year. It was withdrawn here in 2001 but apparently is still in demand in S.E. Asia.]

Saturday, 26 November 2005

A brilliant idea

Imagine waking up long before sunrise, walking for more than two hours to the nearest river or borehole and then carrying a bucket full of water on your head all the way home.
Now imagine you are a woman or a young child and it is your responsibility to carry this heavy bucket of water every day of your life
This is a reality for millions of women and children around the world who do not have access to fresh water on tap. What quality of life could you expect from one bucket of water for your whole family? How could you wash, drink, clean, cook or even grow vegetables? How much time and energy does it take to provide your family with this most basic human requirement?
A very simple invention has been improving the quality of many such lives for the past twelve years.

You can read about it HERE.

[I found this mentioned in the admirable blog of a designer and writer in Brighton called Jonathan Baldwin. Apart from this and chat about graphic design, he reproduces there the whole script of Four Candles and a marvellous photo of Norman Stanley Fletcher.]

Thursday, 24 November 2005

Manners maketh man

(William of Wykeham: motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Not really relevant but I couldn’t think of another title)

I was hurrying along a crowded London pavement when I collided with a man going in the opposite direction. It was 90% my fault because of my carelessness and 10% his because of his width and swagger.

It felt like walking into a concrete block. He was a head shorter and many pounds heavier than I: shaven head, earring, tattoos, biceps stretching the sleeves of his T-shirt.

He looked up at me with little piggy eyes in a totally expressionless face, and for a second or two I considered my options: humbly express my profound regret, or run like hell. Neither seemed hopeful: he did not look like a man who would be likely to accept an apology gracefully, and even on his short bandy legs he could probably run faster than me.

But before I could do anything at all, he said: "Sorry, mate".

Makes you feel warm all over, doesn’t it? And ashamed of stereotyping.

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The Plains of Abraham

This is a continuation of the previous post, in which I promised to write something of interest to people wanting a change from shovelling snow and eating maple syrup. For a start, here is a picture of the British landing from their boats before the battle of Quebec, on September 17th, 1759. The leaders on both sides, Wolfe and Montcalm, were killed. (There was another Battle of Quebec in December 1775, when the British and Canadian garrison drove off an American attack and ended the threat to the British control of Canada.) But Canadians know all this, of course; that is not what this post is about.

In the English county of Kent there is a small town called Westerham (town square shown below). Winston Churchill and I used to live not far from there, though not in the same house or even in the same direction.
It was the birthplace of General Wolfe, so naturally local pubs, tea-rooms and, for all I know, public conveniences, proudly bear his name.
On the outskirts of the town there is a large house, converted some years ago into a very good restaurant. It was run by a large and fierce francophone Egyptian called Zarb. I like to think that it was not from chauvinism or to thumb his nose at the locals but only in a spirit of fair play that he called it Le Marquis de Montcalm.

Sunday, 20 November 2005

Above the 49th

Reading with enjoyment the other day of the arrest and indictment of Conrad Black, it occurred to me that Other Men's Flowers has paid insufficient attention to Canada. I frequently post items of interest to Americans, noting some of their quaint orthographical habits or discussing their major historical figures such as Hattie McDaniel and Curly Joe DeRita, but I have never dealt in depth with that great country which Americans from Albuquerque to the Bronx fondly refer to as The Friendly Giant to the North.
I do not know why this should be so, since there has been much in my life which relates to this former—now, alas, no longer—Dominion:
1. My wife was for some years a Canadian citizen and has relatives who live there, except in the winter when it gets cold and they go to Phoenix AZ.
2. I have been there on two occasions, one of them extending to more than a week (not counting several touchdowns in Vancouver en route to somewhere else),
3. I possess a splendidly bound two-volume history of the CPR which I have every intention of reading one of these days, and
4. I am one of the very few non-Québécois who know why they put sweetcorn in Shepherds’ Pie and call it Pâté chinois.
Not only all that, but I have read up on the Yukon, and used to be able to recite the whole of the poem that begins:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew;
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

Anyway, let me now make up for my neglect by passing on some information of interest only to Canadians, hoping that it will bring a moment or two of happiness into their drab, miserable lives. No, on second thoughts, let them wait; I’ll do it in the next post.

Friday, 18 November 2005

Delphiniums, eschscholtzia and blogs

Gardening and keeping a blog are similar pursuits in several ways: admirable, solitary, not too expensive, absorbing and providing salutary exercise, the first for the body and the second for the mind. I have nothing more to say about this, except that I know I should do more of the former but that this is ruled out partly by my extreme physical laziness and total lack of interest in things horticultural, and partly by my good fortune in having a wife who is a brilliant gardener and needs exactly this kind of relaxing occupation after long days teaching mathematics.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Domo arigato gozaimashita

We all know how to say thank you in Japanese (though remember if you’re in Okinawa it’s Nihwee-deebiru). And if someone says it to you it's a good idea to come back with a fast Doitashi mashite.
There can never be enough posts featuring polite usages (to set against the large number featuring obscene invective), and in August last year I wrote some notes on ta ever so in a piece thus titled.
This was a fairly uninteresting post and I was surprised and pleased to find last week that after a lapse of some 14 months it actually had a visitor. Someone had evidently put ta ever so into a search engine without putting it in quotes to link it as a phrase, so of course up came 12,400,000 search results.
The search engine was Yahoo Japan, and it had brought up my 2004 post at No 1. I like to think that this gave the Japanese searcher all the information that he needed so that he didn’t have to read through the other 12,399,999 websites.

(One of the sites that came up was, probably because –ta is a Japanese verb ending. Entrancingly, this site invites you to Explore the fun side of the Japanese language… This sounds a bit like suggesting you might like to Investigate the comedy aspects of Margaret Thatcher.)

Monday, 14 November 2005

Properly attributed quote

Tom Lehrer’s Russian mathematician explaining how to reach the top in that field:
Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise!
But be sure always to call it, please, research.

I wrote the other day about my sins as a blogger including my shameless but harmless plagiarism, and cited J K Galbraith as someone from whose writings I like to lift bits. Coincidentally, a day or two later I came across something he wrote which I had missed so I am happy to slip it in here and as a nice change give due credit.
He was writing about the Reaganite idea that if you make the rich richer then the poor will also benefit.
Trickle-down theory: the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."
—John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, 13 November 2005

Remembrance Sunday

I have just been watching the TV replay of the ceremony in Whitehall and I am sorry now that I used the title Lest We Forget for a post deploring the wearing of poppies weeks in advance.
In the cold bright sunshine thousands of men and women (and some children representing their parents and grandparents) from dozens of organisations marched past the Cenotaph after the top people had done the wreath-laying. As a member of the Suez Veterans Association (albeit with a lapsed subscription) I could have been among them, as could my sister who served as a radio operator in the WAAF. Like most of the others there today, we have a particular reason for remembrance—a brother whose bomber went down over France in 1940.
Today's ceremony, for all its complexity and length, was not in any way excessive. It was beautiful and very moving.

Saturday, 12 November 2005

Adeste laetis animis

Our school song was a rousing number but the lyrics were in Latin, which meant that few of us ever had much idea of what it was about. It was called Carmen, but this did not mean that we bawled it from the ramparts of Seville or that we ever had much contact with sloe-eyed castanet-wielding beauties of easy virtue, more's the pity. No, Carmen is simply Latin for Song.

It would have been pleasant to record that the school motto was Motto, but it wasn’t, it was Vincit Qui Patitur, which had little resonance for me because I didn’t do much suffering or conquering while I was there. A better one for some of my contemporaries might have been the motto of my primary school, Amor Omnia Vincit, though you could get expelled for that.

The references to Deus in Carmen were fairly perfunctory. The school had been founded by a High Church prelate—a bit of a show-off, apparently, who used to travel to Canterbury with a retinue of 800 horsemen—but four hundred years later it had become a rather godless establishment, and the only man of the cloth on the staff when I was there (Holy Joe, though I expect he had another name) was of no account, and his colleagues disliked the sanctimonious old fool as much as we did.

It is to this background, and the fact that I moved on later to a university college founded by a notorious free-thinker, that I attribute my lack of enthusiasm for the Church as a career, though at one time I might have accepted a bishopric, if only because I rather fancied myself in the hat.

We led a monastic life; to lust after there was only the headmaster’s elderly secretary, called, delightfully, Miss Bird; later she acquired an assistant, a not uncomely younger woman. I wonder whether these two were conscious of the miasma of testosterone in which they had to spend their working days, and of the roles (not passive ones, I might say) which were assigned to them in our adolescent fantasies.

These mawkish reminiscences were inspired by an Old Boys Reunion Lunch which I and a contemporary went to yesterday. We were rather heartened by the fact that although we were among the oldest there we didn't really look it, and that the number of old acquaintances who after a lapse of several decades actually remembered one or both of us was substantial, as was the number of those whom one or both of us remembered. And when it came to singing Carmen we were able to belt out all three verses and the chorus without using the crib sheets to which many others had to resort.

Thursday, 10 November 2005


Ever since, at the age of eight, I was one of the finalists in the contest for the annual Lucy Beamish Prize for Good Behaviour in Class, I have striven (strived?) to Do the Right Thing. In fact, I am known for it; people often point to me and say, “Now there goes a man who always strives to Do the Right Thing”.
So I was mortified* to realise that when I write on the internet I fall a long way short of the highest ethical standards; clearly, nowadays the Lucy Beamish award panel wouldn’t even allow me to be nominated.
I have recently come across several proposals for a Code of Ethics which bloggers are recommended to observe; an example is at Apart from being rather po-faced, they all seem to me to confuse ethics with etiquette or advice on literary style, but whichever way you look at it I have been ignoring most of their recommendations with gusto. Worse, if taken to task for this my attitude would be one of defiance rather than exculpation.

“Ethical bloggers treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”
What, all of them? Including those who merit total contempt? Most celebrities, say, or Bush, or Blair?

“Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”
I have never attempted the former injunction and consistently flout the latter.

“Always make your meaning clear and do not write confusingly.”
Well, there’s no pleasure in writing if you follow these guidelines. A bit of obfuscation is fun.

“Write only what you believe to be true.”
This would rule out anything in the nature of satire or irony.

“Never add to or amend items you have already published.”
Why ever not?

“Never plagiarise. Always give full credit to your sources”
Wicked to plagiarise if you make money out of it, I suppose. But otherwise, what’s the harm? If I don’t credit J. K. Galbraith with some bon mot that I have lifted from his writings, does it diminish his reputation?

“If you allow comments, reply to them courteously. Never ban a person, or delete a comment from your blog, merely because you disagree with the person, or feel the comment is too aggressive.”
This is fatuous; most comments do not call for a response and some deserve to be deleted. If you write a letter to a newspaper, can you complain if the editor doesn’t publish it or reply to it? At least if you comment on a blog your remarks, however pointless, silly or perverse, will have a brief currency before the author sees them and consigns them to oblivion. Anyway, Other Men's Flowers is not a public space, it’s mine. Others are permitted ex gratia to contribute but I’ll ban or delete whomsoever I damn well choose.

Explain your weblog’s mission.”
No need, mine is obvious: to give wide currency to secondhand jokes, hoary anecdotes and scurrilous rumours, and to attack with cheap jibes the credulous, the pretentious, the bigoted, the humourless and other undesirables. And anyone else I don’t much like.

“Expose unethical practices of other bloggers.”
Do us a favour, guv’nor, I ain’t no grass.

I suppose one should try to observe an ethical code if one aims to have one’s blog esteemed for its fairness, integrity and objectivity; this has never been my ambition.
The hell with Lucy Beamish.

However, although I am quite happy to evoke any amount of obloquy, prison sentences and heavy fines are another matter and I try to keep more or less on the right side of the law. There are some interesting notes on legal issues for bloggers
HERE, though these relate to US law; no doubt there are some more relevant to ours to be found elsewhere.

*I see that one definition of mortified is to become necrotic or gangrenous: this is not what I mean here.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005


As I write I am watching Tony Blair perspiring gently and writhing under the polite and gentle questioning of cuddly old Jon Snow, alternating between defiance, petulance and something close to tears of frustration at the inability of parliament to see that he is the only person in the government who knows what must be done to assure our security.
Once before, Blair asked us to trust in his judgement, and enough did so to enable him to take the country trotting along into disaster behind George W Bush.
"It is better to be right and lose than to be wrong and win" he said several times after the result of the vote was announced. This is a typically meaningless remark: in 2003, he was wrong, and won; today, he was wrong, and lost. We have learned something in the last four years; clearly, he hasn't.

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Thinking ahead

I suppose Anne and I would place ourselves as middle class, though in terms of antecedents we are a totally disparate pair. Anyway, we hardly ever hunt, shoot or fish; in none of our pursuits do we attempt to ape the upper classes. There is, however, one practice confined largely to the aristocracy, or at least to the well-heeled, which we do follow: laying down wine for our future enjoyment and that of our heirs.
Often, we buy some as much as two or three weeks before we intend to drink it. This year we looking even further ahead and have ordered a few bottles for Christmas; some of them are described as suitable for drinking as late as 2009, but of course none will survive into 2006.
A munificent government will shortly be sending me £200 as a Winter Heating Allowance, so in keeping with the spirit of this gift we have chosen mostly warming reds: there is nothing like a bottle of something described as "dark, rich and brambly; deep purple layered with spicy blueberry and chocolate Shiraz" for keeping out the chill.
Other than on special occasions—religious festivals, family celebrations, weekends and so on—we have made a real effort in recent years to cut down our wine drinking. We have two techniques, recommended by my doctor, to help us with this: one is to buy rather expensive wine so that we can't afford to drink much of it, and the other is to buy really cheap plonk which is so nasty that we don't want to drink much of it.

Sunday, 6 November 2005

Time for a decision

For weeks now the press has been unable to make up its mind about Tony Blair's position. Some papers say one thing, some another; some change their stance from day to day; worst of all, some take one view on one page and a different view on another page of the same issue.
Of course we do not want unanimity from our newspapers, but it would be nice to see some kind of consistency in their handling of this matter. Our language is rich in synonyms, but if we eschew fancy or obscure words only four choices remain, or really only three, because embattled isn't quite right.
Journalists must stop pussy-footing around with the alternatives and decide: is Blair besieged, beset, or beleaguered?

Friday, 4 November 2005

The simplest explanation

Tectonic plates, global warming and so on are difficult concepts for the layman to grasp, and many look to religion or philosophy rather than science to explain why appalling things happen to innocent people. Methodological reductionism (Occam's Razor), a principle often argued over, giving rise to acrimony or even fisticuffs in playground and pub, suggests that the simplest theory is always the right one, and perhaps the best non-technical answer to the question Why earthquakes? was given by, of all people, Winston Churchill’s son Randolph.
During the second world war Evelyn Waugh and Lord Birkenhead were holed up with him in what used to be Yugoslavia. They soon tired of his noisy drunkenness, so to keep him quiet they each bet him £10 that he could not read the Bible in a fortnight. He accepted the bet, and after some days could be heard saying from time to time in tones of awed admiration: "God, isn't God a shit?"

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

Foeniculum vulgare

We acquired a rather spectacular fennel bulb, the size of a melon, and wanted a new way to cook it; we don’t much like them raw and we usually do the smear-with-butter-cover-with-clingfilm-shove-it-in-the-microwave thing. A web search among thousands of fennel recipes eventually produced the simple idea of slicing it and grilling it with olive oil. With a couple of duck legs in plum sauce, this slipped down very pleasantly.
All that is not very interesting, but we had found the recipe in a newsletter from the site of Community Farms Outreach (CSO), a splendidly worthy non-profit outfit supporting farmland preservation, hunger relief, and education.
I read through several of their pages carelessly under the impression that they were based in the UK (not noticing the funny way they spelt “honourable”); this chap with his turnip looked tremendously British, somehow. Then I came to a list of their sponsors, one of which is the Massachusetts Vitamins Litigations Settlement Fund. Even without the name of the state, I would have guessed immediately that this is an American organisation.

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Lest we forget

Never mind about Christmas beginning in August, we are now seeing on TV a rash of poppies on lapels. Presumably everyone is running scared because of the vituperation heaped upon an unfortunate presenter who was caught last year not wearing one actually on—or very near—Remembrance Day, the rotten swine. Only ten days to go.

Noam Chomsky—the greatest intellectual?

To answer that question sensibly, it seems to me, you would need to ask another intellectual of similar calibre, and intellectuals being what they are his answer would probably be No, I am. Emma Brockes is a bright young journalist and did not attempt to answer it after she had interviewed Chomsky for The Guardian; it was a very silly question anyway, posed by Prospect magazine and answered with appropriate idiocy (yes to Noam, which is fair enough, but Christopher Hitchens at no 5, for God's sake?).

Brockes made the point that "Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's, he just states it more forcefully". Certainly, a mighty intellect hardly manifested itself in the interview, but then how could it have done? The most perceptive and persistent of interviewers cannot be expected to evoke with a few questions anything as intangible as intellectual brilliance. People with first class minds often come across as being clever, and stupid with it.

This is not a discussion to which I can make any useful contribution, but two things strike me about Chomsky: the first is that it is difficult not to feel some affection for a man who believes that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes and who voices the increasingly widespread disgust with the Bush administration; the second is that while a public figure with a great brain may well be without vanity as far as his appearance is concerned one is bound to wonder why Chomsky, generally well-shaven, has allowed—or possibly even encouraged—some spectacular white hairs (just visible in this photograph) to sprout, not from his nostrils as is normal with old men, but from the ridge of the lower part of his nose. This is reckless self-indulgence.

My idea of a cerebral giant who looks as he should is the great John Kenneth Galbraith. I published a photo of him on his 96th birthday last October and it is pleasant to hear a year later that he is still fizzing mentally, though sadly not in the best of health.

Sunday, 30 October 2005

Eggs? Coming in tomorrow

We all resent the huge power of the supermarket chains and deplore the effect they are having on our towns, and we all get in the car and go to them for most of our shopping. Happily, within two or three miles of where we live there is an excellent butcher, an excellent greengrocer and a real baker who actually bakes. Fishing boats go to sea from here so we're all right for fish, though much of what is landed passes through quickly on its way elsewhere, and much of what our fishmongers sell comes in from far away.

Napoleon’s jibe might have been accurate in his day. We are now a nation of huge, efficient, rapacious shopkeepers and an ever-reducing number of small shops, some of which are very valuable and some less so. Here are examples of one of each, in reverse order:

Every day on the way to my office I used to walk past something we called The Silly Shop, because that was what it was, and half a dozen times I went inside. The owner had no idea how to buy or sell anything. He began it as a sort of grocery, but he never had what you wanted: “Baked beans? Sorry sir, just sold the last can”. Later he added a fruit and vegetables corner offering some wrinkled parsnips and a couple of dusty lettuces. Then, with increasing desperation, he branched out, and every week or so it was fascinating to see what his latest idea was; sometimes it filled the shop, at others it left it half empty or still had unsold items from the previous one. He tried everything: videocassettes of films you had never heard of, then “Hardboard Cut to Size”, then piles of very old second-hand books with titles like The Wee Laird of Inversnecky, Vol 4, then date-expired cakes, then “Book Your Holidays Here” and, finally, junk. In the two years of its existence, it never contained anything that anyone would want to buy.

At the other end of the scale of usefulness and marketing skill there is this shop. Kept by a genial Irishman, it has the dimensions of a good-sized bathroom but somehow fits in stocks of 795 items and has never failed to provide anything we asked for. Long may it prosper, partly because it deserves to and partly because it is 300 yards from our house.

Friday, 28 October 2005

Not as harmless as you might think

I wrote last year of the irritating way in which the fine old English tradition of letting off fireworks on November 5th to celebrate the torture and disembowelment of some misguided and incompetent seventeenth-century terrorists is nowadays overshadowed by the Halloween tomfoolery.
Recently, however, I have realised that Halloween is not merely a silly custom but represents a real threat to our way of life and, indeed, to our very souls. This warning is given in an excellent website set up by the Landover Baptist Church, of Freehold, Iowa (“Where the worthwhile worship. Guaranteeing Salvation since 1612”).
There are links to many pages of helpful guidance such as “How to Crash Satan’s Birthday Party and Ruin Halloween”, “Trick or Tract”, "10 Halloween Tips for Holyweeners” and “Will Jesus Sling Little Children Into Hell For Celebrating Halloween?”
Other pages on the site give more general information and advice on Christian matters, including “Do You Have Demons in Your Colon?” and “How to Organize a Book-Burning”. There are also some attractive offers like “Win A Vacation With President Bush! An exclusive offer for Republican friends of Jesus Christ!
We all have friends who are less God-fearing than we would like them to be. Encourage them to browse on this website and after half an hour they will be shaking with terror. Or something.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

A picture to chill the blood

Tony Blair arrives at a house in Dulwich.
This is the stuff of nightmares: use it to threaten unruly children.

Wogs down under

It seems that we and the Australians, as much as we and the Americans, are two nations divided by a common language.
Wog is, to us, an impermissibly offensive term of abuse for blacks and Asians. Not so, apparently, in Australia, where it can be used harmlessly as simply a term for anyone from a foreign land. It can also refer to a minor ailment, so that employees calling in sick can legitimately offer the excuse that they are “in bed with a wog”.
Discovering this impelled me to some research. My subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary Online has expired so I cannot check whether it has properly recorded these usages; it probably has. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1983 edition) has it in the addenda as “a contemptuous name for a foreigner, esp. one from a Middle Eastern country”, while my Concise OD (1981) has this and also, as a separate entry “(Austral. sl.) Infectious illness”.
The great Partridge, thorough as always, gives all the possible derivations and several additional meanings (including "Australian nursery term for a very young child, from English dialect pollywog, a tadpole"), and confirms that “ten million Australians regard the wog loosely as a heavy cold with aches and pains…”
The reference to nursery term for very young child drove me on to look up sprog, of which this is one of the meanings. Oddly enough, this also involves the Ranidae as "it may be a reversal of frogspawn". Then, on the same page, my eye caught spug, and I learnt with interest that this is a……
That’s quite enough idle browsing…stop it NOW.

Monday, 24 October 2005

An old trick

There comes a point in life when one has ceased to acquire major new skills, and but still have some which need to be perfected: getting out of bed without falling over, for example (or indeed doing anything without falling over).
Many of the skills which I have retained are of very little practical value to me now. Will I ever again need to stand properly to attention? I could, if necessary, because I remember very clearly the instructions for doing it, which I never saw written down but only heard bawled: Headup-chinin-chestout-stomachin-heelstogether-feetatanangleof45degrees-thumbsinlinewiththeseamsofthetrousers-standperfectlySTIW! It’s probably done differently nowadays.
Something else I could still do if asked was rarely called for even at the time. It was called Rest On Your Arms Reversed, and it went like this:
On the appropriate commands, you sloped arms, then presented them (more fun doing it with a sword, but that's another story).

You are now in this position, only in a different sort of uniform (unless you were in the Royal Scots Fusiliers) and without the bayonet, for reasons which will become clear. (Also, the position of his right foot isn't quite correct: it should have been crashed down at a slight angle so that its heel was tucked into the the instep of the left.)

Then comes the tricky bit: on the command Rest...etc., you rotated the rifle forwards through 180 degrees (first moving it away from you to avoid giving yourself a nasty knock with the butt) until the muzzle rested on the toe of your left boot. Then, slowly, one at a time, you made a big circle with each arm, following the hand with your eyes until they (your hands, that is) were clasped over the end of the butt with your elbows still sticking out. Finally, in one quick move, you dropped your elbows and bowed your head.
How you got back from this position I have quite forgotten. But given a hint or two about that, and a short Lee-Enfield, I would love to play a ceremonial role, if called upon to do so, at the funeral of some Head of State, for that is the kind of occasion when this manoevre is—or used to be—carried out. A misty autumn day with a slight drizzle, the Dead March in Saul, the black-draped coffin on the gun carriage....... Great!

Saturday, 22 October 2005

On a higher plane

It seems that my posts have once again been getting rather trivial and uninformative; there have been fresh demands that I should exercise more rigour in pursuing the principal objective of Other Men's Flowers, which is of course the provision of intellectual sustenance for serious readers. "It don't stretch me like what it used to" complains a Harvard Professor of Applied Linguistics.
To help me to introduce a more challenging note a friend has sent me some children’s poems:

I saw a little girl I hate
And kicked her with my toes
She turned and smiled
Then punched me on the nose

Today I saw a little worm
Wriggling on his belly
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
And see what’s on the telly

To amuse
On warm summer nights
Do wiwis
From spectacular heights

Thursday, 20 October 2005

The Monstrous Regiment

This is a an abbreviation of the title of a misogynist 16th century tract by John Knox : The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

My own view, based on a lifetime’s observation, is that many women are really quite nice when you get to know them. And their achievements, considering the handicap under which they labour, have sometimes been most laudable; their contribution to literature, for example, cannot altogether be ignored.

I have fond memories of many happy hours spent cuddled up with (for example, wildly at random): Iris, Maeve, Joanna, Vera, Charlotte and Anne (not both at once), Ruth, various Margarets, Virginia, Antonia and many others including, in earlier years, a couple of Phyllises (Bottome and Bentley). I was never attracted to Jilly, Danielle or Barbara and thought Anita a bit depressing and Agatha and Dorothy unreadable, but this was not because of their gender. Never for a moment have I given credence to the theory that the incomparable Jane was actually a man (Arthur, according to some accounts).

In that field, then, there are many names to conjure with; in music, on the other hand, there are few. Dame Ethyl Smyth certainly had a conjurable moniker, but although she was apparently very big in Germany there cannot be many music lovers in whose experience her six operas have figured largely. (This is not to say that she was an uninteresting character: love affairs with Mrs Pankhurst, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the wife of Queen Victoria’s private secretary, the wife of Brahms’ friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and Virginia Woolf; hunted, became mountaineer and bicyclist, had notorious rows with Adrian Boult and conducted the first performance of her own Suffragette Hymn with a toothbrush in Holloway prison. Even apart from her music, it was what you might call a full life.)

In the roll call of famous women composers, that seems to be about it, or so I believed until recently. Some friends who know about music pointed out gently that I should have been aware of (at least) Lily Boulanger, Judith Weir, Nicola LeFanu, and Elizabeth Lutyens, and I was duly ashamed.

On the other hand, I cannot feel that my ignorance of the music of the twelfth-century mystic and saint Hildegard von Bingen was particularly heinous.

In my defence, I suppose it depends on what you mean by famous: it must mean widely known, and not just among experts. Most lettered but not necessarily literary people could put surnames to many of the female authors I list above, which to my mind makes them famous. You couldn't say the same of Lily, Elizabeth, Judith and Nicola, let alone the blessed Hildegard: you'd have be quite a serious music-lover to have heard of them.

Then, the other day I tuned in by chance to a very agreeable piano trio that was unfamiliar to me; I thought it sounded a bit Schubertian or possibly Mendelssohnish. I wasn’t far out: it turned out to be by FANNY Mendelssohn. She was Felix’s sister; he was supportive (though their father wasn't) but she lived in his shadow and 'one can only speculate that had Fanny’s life not been short a number of other important compositions might well have been left to posterity. It may even be that recordings such as this will lead to the revival of other pieces by her that are currently held in the archives of the Prussian State Library'.

I took these comments from the sleeve note of the CD referred to, which I hope someone will give me for Christmas. It also has on it a piano trio by Clara Schumann, about whom I had also been shamefully ignorant. A reviewer wrote: 'I'm sure no-one would have been happier to find two such engaging performances side by side than the two ladies themselves'.

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Another gullible idiot

It is sad to hear that a cabinet minister has declared himself to be a “true convert” to homeopathy. Apparently his baby son’s eczema and asthma went away after he was given a homeopathic remedy and tight restrictions on the sort of food the child could eat.

The Lancet recently announced that homeopathy was no better than a placebo—as serious research has been indicating for years—but of course with a baby there is no placebo effect. It would be interesting to know, though, how it was established that the improvement in the child’s condition was due to the remedy and not to the careful diet.
And the minister was Peter Hain, not a man noted for his keen analytical mind and sound judgement.

It was also reported that an increasing number of doctors are now recommending their patients to try homeopathic nostrums, though as usual with such news items no actual figures are given; happily my own GP is not among their number. Medical training is long, expensive and arduous; it would be a pity if many of those who undergo it end up profoundly superstitious and giving credence to the preposterous notions that seemed to make sense to Samuel Hahnemann two hundred years ago because he was justifiably distressed about bloodletting, leeching, purging, and other medical procedures of his day that did far more harm than good.

Unlike seventeenth-century medicines and procedures, homeopathic remedies rarely do much harm in themselves, mainly because they contain infinitesimally small amounts of active ingredients, but it does sometimes happen that seriously ill people are persuaded to take them and refuse medical treatment which could actually have cured them or even saved their lives. And millions of people spend their money on Hahnemann's useless magic potions.

Sunday, 16 October 2005

Brainwashing: How it’s done

The least attractive blogs are those that consist almost entirely of links to sites that the author thinks interesting. I try to avoid this by plagiarising worthwhile items (sometimes, shamelessly, without crediting the source) and adding my own gloss.
Here’s a case where it’s best just to put in a link and then shut up.
We all sympathise with—and share—the incomprehension of the parents of a suicide bomber who cannot understand how their son has come to commit an act which seems to them utterly foreign to his nature. A lucid and convincing essay in The Guardian by Kathleen Taylor attempts an explanation.

Friday, 14 October 2005

How can I get down to Sidcup in these shoes?

The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by a committee of Norwegians, once went to Henry Kissinger. This caused Tom Lehrer to retire, saying that on that day satire had died. Some thought the choice was not altogether inappropriate, given that Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite.

The good news today is that the Swedish Nobel Prize committee has now given Harold Pinter the prize for literature to world-wide acclaim except from the yahoos of the American right, with the bilious Christopher Hitchens predictably ranting about the “degradation of the Nobel racket”.

Perhaps Nobel would not have disapproved of this choice—he was also an unconventional playwright: his only play, Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts, was printed when he was dying, and the whole stock except three copies was destroyed immediately after his death, being regarded as scandalous and blasphemous. The first surviving edition (bilingual Swedish-Esperanto) was published in Sweden in 2003. (Wikipedia)

I saw The Caretaker twice. The first time was in 1960 on the third night of the original production at the Arts Theatre Club in London (free tickets: I was reviewing it at a penny a line for a chain of provincial newspapers). The second was thirty-one years later at the Comedy Theatre. In both productions the tramp Davies was played by the late Donald Pleasence (seen here in 1991).

I would like to have seen some of the other UK productions of this marvellous play in which the part was taken by Leonard Rossiter, Jonathon Pryce, Warren Mitchell, Terence Rigby and Michael Gambon. Or even the 1993 production in Bucharest(“Îngrijitorul”), though I have no idea at all whether Stefan Sileanu was any good. There have been eighty major and innumerable minor productions.

Here is Pleasence in New York in 1961, with a young Pinter in the background.


Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Isn’t that Donald and Melania Trump over there?

I went to Valencia on business a few times in the sixties and don’t remember much about it except that you could eat paella in a sort of tent café on the beach.
It's different now: a cultural renaissance for the town is under way. The biggest opera house in Europe has just opened there (they already have a €400 million City of Arts and Sciences complex) and all this strikes me as a very good reason for going again. But they say it’s going to be “a magnet for up-market tourists”—a depressing thought—and certainly it will be best to get there well before the arrival of the “millionaire crowd expected when Valencia hosts the America’s Cup in 2007”.

Monday, 10 October 2005

A cool word

One of the pleasures of getting older is hearing the next generation still using quaint out-of-date slang like cool, with it and so on, thus showing themselves to be just as old-fashioned now as they once told us we were.
It is pleasant to find them occasionally using words which they believe to be modern but which we know to be around a hundred years old. Here’s one, its use and origin comprehensively explained in the OED:
def, a.
Excellent, outstanding; fashionable, ‘cool’.
slang (orig. U.S., esp. in African-American usage).
Forms: 19- def, def', irreg. deaf. [Prob. alteration of DEATH n., originating in the non-standard Jamaican English pronunciation and spelling def, and the use of the word (in both forms) as a general intensifier (see quot. 1907).
Cf. DEATH a.2 The form in quot. 1979 is often interpreted as being a use of DEF a., and is in fact spelt def in many later transcriptions of the song, including that in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992). However, in the original published lyrics, the word is spelt death, although the pronunciation on the recording itself is indistinct. This song, one of the most celebrated and influential hip-hop records and one of the first to enjoy international commercial success, may in part account for the enduring use of def within the genre and the strength of its association with hip-hop culture.An alternative derivation def' in quot. 1982.]
[1907 W. JEKYLL Jamaican Song & Story lxviii. 171 ‘I never do him one def ting,’ a single thing. ‘Def’ is emphatic, but is not a ‘swear-word’. 1979 G. O'BRIEN et al. Rapper's Delight (song, perf. ‘Sugarhill Gang’), Someone get a fly girl, gonna get some spank and drive off in a death O.J.] 1981 W. SAFIRE in N.Y. Times Mag. 18 Jan. 6/3 Deaf [sic] a mispronunciation of ‘death’ is the current superlative. (In topsyturvytalk, death is the liveliest and baad-baaader-baaadest is the equivalent of good-better-best.) 1982 in S. Hager Hip Hop (1984) 89 A sureshot party presentation... Thurs. January 21... ‘Aanother def' bet’. 1986 Village Voice (N.Y.) 4 Nov. 24/2 ‘It's Yours’ T LA Rock and Jazzy Jay (Partytime, 1984) Here's the first def jam that made the others possible. 1992 Buffalo (N.Y.) News 23 Aug. G1/2 No self-respecting teen-ager in Buffalo who wants to be def listens to the bubble-gum music on classic hits radio. 1996 V. WALTERS Rude Girls xiii. 277 Yeah, that's a def idea. 1999 Y (S. Afr.) June 75/2 Premier's ‘New York State Of Mind Pt II’ is def, the bombest joint.

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Clear instructions

Bush is alleged to have told a former Palestinian Foreign minister that he had received a message directly from God: George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan, and then a later one: George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.
“And I did”, added George.
It’s generally accepted, of course, that someone who speaks to God is a pious person, but that people to whom God speaks are often dangerous lunatics.

Friday, 7 October 2005

Hyperbole rules

We are accustomed to the inappropriate use of powerful words, and we recognise that nowadays when there is talk of someone being crucified by the press it usually means merely that there have been some unfavourable comments about him in the papers.
There was a shameful example in my local paper this week: “CARNAGE!” shrieked the two-inch headline on the front page. Even the best dictionaries are often deficient in covering figurative usage, and we all knew at once that the story was not about great slaughter, esp. of human beings because the illustrations featured a nice-looking chap smiling gently and a crane lying on its side. Happily no-one had been hurt, but a fisherman’s hut was completely destroyed.

P.S. 5th November: Five teenagers were killed here this week in a smash with a stolen car. The local paper gave it the front page and ten other pages and may have regretted that they'd already wasted the appropriate headline.

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

One of the Ronnies

Ronnie Barker, a brilliant comedy writer and performer, has died aged 76.
His finest parts were the recidivist Norman Stanley Fletcher and the lecherous shopkeeper Arkwright, but it was in his partnership with another Ronnie that he was most loved, with fifteen million viewers tuning in to twelve TV series based on mildly smutty corn and sketches involving surreal behaviour, tongue-twisters, cross-dressing and elaborate word-play.
The papers had ready their reminders of lines from these shows. One of my favourites I have not seen quoted: The All-Ireland Tree-Felling Contest has been won by tree fellas from Dublin.

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

A name I remembered

I have only once, and briefly, been a political activist. This was in 1959, when I worked for a few weeks on behalf of the Labour candidate in the Croydon North constituency. Not an ardent supporter of the party, I did so mainly because I rather admired the candidate.

I didn’t knock on any doors because I was too shy and wouldn’t have known what to say to people; I just pottered about stuffing envelopes and looking keen. The real activists were very nice to me and let me go to the count as a scrutineer, wearing a red rosette.

The candidate was in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and I asked him about this at one of the public meetings. He replied in a rather non-committal way and I guess that as it was not Labour policy at the time (or ever) he didn’t get much help from the party. Anyway, he didn’t get in, and has never been non-committal about it since.

His name was—and is—Walter Wolfgang, and I was delighted to see him in the news last week when he shouted something appropriate at Jack Straw and was violently ejected from the Labour party conference. It was very good to see him still hale, still on the right side and expressing sound views cogently and with courage.

I hope he has been enjoying life during the forty-six years since I last saw him.

Saturday, 1 October 2005

Le Roi des Eplucheurs

I have been told that in recent weeks I have been failing to maintain those high standards of political or philosophical debate and rigorous analysis of current affairs for which Other Men's Flowers has become a byword wherever top name academics and intellectuals forgather.
There may be something in this, for in my last few posts I have been dealing with some rather frivolous matters of no great consequence; I must now turn to more serious issues which concern us all.
I have always liked peeling vegetables. Not only is this best done while sitting down and watching TV (not the case with, say, playing squash), but is often a source of both sensual and aesthetic pleasure, which is also unlike playing squash. The gorgeous rich colour of a sweet potato that shows itself when the dirty calloused skin comes off, the smoothness of the dark green peel sliding away from a courgette to reveal the pale delicate flesh beneath, perhaps with a darker stripe where the pressure has been too light or the stroke went crooked, the soft hiss when you do a quick zip along the length of a carrot….
Ah, these are delights to savour! But, with peeling vegetables as with any kind of physical task, both the pleasure to be had from it and its effectiveness depend greatly on the implements used.

I have known quite experienced peelers who make life difficult for themselves by using the fixed-blade kind of tool (rather like those people who use anything other than a Waiter’s Friend for opening bottles of wine).
My own device is a real beauty, with a soft rubber handle fitting snugly in the palm and, of course, a blade that swivels; I have titled this post in its honour.

I hope this brief note dispels the canard that OMF is concerned only with trivialities of little interest to the thinking man.

Thursday, 29 September 2005

Nothing to add

It's not surprising that very few of the posts on this blog attract any comments. The explanation could be that its most constant readers are diffident about expressing fulsome praise, or are merely stunned into admiring silence by the forceful arguments and undeniably accurate analyses it contains, or the general percipience of its content. My own view, however, is that after their biweekly perusal of the latest posts these readers simply have no time to spare to set out their own viewpoints, most of them being fully occupied by such things as chairing multinationals, running major law practices, fulfilling their ministerial responsibilities or studying for their doctorates.

However, there are exceptions, and it is interesting to note that it is the posts dealing with the least interesting topics that seem to attract the most comments. For example, a boring and facetious item I posted about an opinion poll attracted some 2,000 words of comment: after a brief and relevant comment from an old friend, two other ladies joined in with lengthy dissertations on feminist issues. I felt impelled to insert some hot news about gastro-oesophageal reflux before drawing the stimulating discussion to a close.

I suppose all this happened because the word sex had cropped up in the original post; similarly, a rather feeble post in which Jehovah was mentioned inspired a bit of tedious chat. Yet what I thought was a fascinating piece - lavishly illustrated - about the theatre in North Korea evoked no comments at all.

So you really can’t tell. Perhaps there are keywords other than the two I have mentioned which are bound to provoke a reaction from readers; I might try a few.

Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Keeping up appearances

If that's the effect you're after, I suppose it's easy enough to get a hairdresser to come and walk about on your head every morning, but how on earth do you maintain a 24-hour stubble?

Since writing the above I have been told that modern shaving technology enables you to shave your stubble to any length from nothing upwards in one-millimetre steps, though why anyone should find this necessary remains a mystery.

Sunday, 25 September 2005

Dropping a hint

A woman whom I had believed to be an ardent reader of OMF has just sent me this:
"I had my own blog for a while but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking."

Friday, 23 September 2005

Wrapping it up

Here’s a book jacket with all the understated charm and elegance of those they used to put round dime novels. Michael Moore’s polemic was written in a similar hectic style and contains clumsy insults, violent accusations and much heavy-handed satire.
By and large the rancour is justified and the conclusions are accurate.

Wednesday, 21 September 2005

It’s the rich what gets the pleasure…

The internet – particularly the blogosphere – provides great opportunities for sociological study. One can compare and contrast the aspirations, tastes and viewpoints of people from either end of every kind of spectrum – social, political, geographical - simply by reading what they write about themselves.
Take Top People, for example: what does Hugh Massingham-Bohun in Gloucestershire have in common with Edward Cabot Ames III in Massachusetts, apart from the possession of a great deal of money?

And what do either of them have in common with a Non-Top Person like, say, Luke Riemenschneider in Arkansas, who has rather less? Nothing much, I suppose, except for the desire to tell the world about their lives in the mistaken belief that the world will find them of interest.

Actually, unlike most blogs I find these three are not particularly boring since they all describe, honestly as far as one can tell, lives as different from mine as any life could possibly be; I am not envious of any of them, though they all have some attractive aspects….