Friday, 28 January 2005

Doing good

Good is often done for selfish reasons – to massage an ego, to ease a conscience, or in the expectation of reward in the next world. But this doesn’t really matter; it is surely better to do good with the worst of motives than to do harm with the best of intentions. So it is odd that do-gooder is used as a term of contempt, as is Guardian reader or muesli eater, as if there is something despicable about these activities; it is a pity that do-gooding seems to have become associated with pretension or sanctimony or hypocrisy, or other Tony Blair-like qualities.

It is wise therefore, if one is impelled to a noble action, or even a vaguely well-meaning one, just to do it and then shut up about it. The opportunities, of course, are limitless, but for anyone seeking ideas for ways of making the world a better place there is a helpful blog called So What Can I Do? This offers a huge number of suggestions, constantly being added to: some of them, if followed by everyone, would change society for the better, while others would merely give a small pleasure to someone or be of some tiny ecological benefit to the world. It would be a sad person indeed who could not find something here which they would like to do, and if the only motive is to get a nice warm glow of self-satisfaction then it’s still worth while.

The website was started and is being developed by a distinguished American academic called Karama Neal. Though many of the references relate to the United States, the principles behind them apply everywhere.

Karama is an alumnus of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania (as are four Nobel Prize winners). Swarthmore is a good representative of America’s liberal arts colleges, which have no exact equivalent in Britain. It was a nineteenth-century Quaker foundation and has an endowment of $1 billion, enabling it to admit academically qualified students without regard to their ability to pay.

These colleges are mostly ancient (by American standards) institutions but are intellectually and educationally advanced. Though small in number when compared to America’s large public universities, liberal arts college graduates are represented disproportionately among leaders in the arts, education, science and medicine, public service and business. A 1998 study found that even though only 3 percent of American college graduates were educated at residential liberal arts colleges, alumni of these colleges accounted for:
8% of Forbes magazine’s listing of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs in 1998
8% of former Peace Corps volunteers
19% of U.S. presidents
23% percent of Pulitzer Prize winners in drama, 19% of the winners in history, 18% in poetry, 8% in biography, and 6% in fiction from 1960 to 1998
9% of all Fulbright scholarship recipients and 24% of all Mellon fellowships in the humanities

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Taxidriver, Mosul, January 2005

Crisis Pictures publish daily images of humanitarian emergencies worldwide that would not otherwise reach a broad audience. They select images that communicate the individual humanity behind overwhelming events, with the aim of promoting discussion and reflection based on individual conscience. They take no political stand, have no affiliations or commercial restraints, and do not print written content beyond limited identifying captions.

Monday, 24 January 2005

Dipping them in their Earl Grey

Molly Jong-Fast, Erica Jong’s daughter, has revealed horrifying details of Sophie Dahl’s early life with her (Sophie’s) mother, Tessa Dahl. It was, apparently, “impossibly glamorous”: her house was filled with “dried flowers, British cookies, chanting Indian monks, incense and famous people”.

Now hold on there, never mind about the Indian monks: many American youngsters have to put up with raucous chanting while they are trying to do their homework. But British cookies? How impossibly glamorous can you get? Constantly jostled by all these famous people wandering about stuffing themselves with Garibaldis, Bath Olivers, Oval Maries, Ginger Nuts, Rich Teas, Chocolate Digestives and Custard Creams, no wonder the poor child finished up as a supermodel: with a background as exotic as that there was no way she could ever have followed an ordinary career.

Saturday, 22 January 2005

Northern lights

There are many websites offering pretty if slightly boring pictures of auroras and a few with gloating details of the Aurora’s aborted round-the-world luxury cruise.

But actually there is no reason for schadenfreude, since the passengers really did rather well out of it and it’s not surprising that few of them complained.

They will get their money back with a credit of 25% on top, and have had eleven days of what P G Wodehouse called excellent browsing and sluicing (16,626 bottles of wine, 1,246 bottles of spirits, 9,800 cocktails…).

But it wasn't all fun: the downside was that when they weren’t boozing or looking at the view of the Isle of Wight they were subjected to “a full programme of events” including entertainment from Jimmy Tarbuck, Paul Daniels and Elaine Paige, excursions to Portsmouth and “personal briefings by the managing director David Dingle, who climbed aboard twice every day to relay the latest news”.

Tuesday, 18 January 2005

Our Great and Respected Leader: Part 4

…continued from Part 3
I read the other day that North Korean state television is showing a five-part series entitled Let's Trim our Hair in Accordance with the Socialist Lifestyle, exhorting badly coiffured men to opt for one of several officially sanctioned haircuts.

I do not seem to have any appropriate photographs to illustrate this news item so here is a totally irrelevant picture recalling a visit to the circus in Pyongyang.

Sunday, 16 January 2005

In a range of glamorous fashion shades…

It is a common enough error to confuse compliment (an expression of praise) with complement (that which completes). The marketing men of my local supermarket chain at least made the correct choice when they came up with the promotional line for one of their own brand products:
…embossed toilet tissue to complement your home…
but there can be few people who are sick with worry about the incompleteness of their home equipped with a non-embossed kind.
Still, I suppose all the possible approaches involving cute puppies, or talk about softness and strength, have been done to death, and plain honest statements like it wipes your bottom somehow lack punch. I would pity the clever, erudite writers who devote their lives to trying to persuade the public to buy one brand of bogroll rather than another, were it not for the fact that at the top of their profession they may earn more than brain surgeons or airline pilots.

Friday, 14 January 2005

Harry again

One of my American correspondents finds it deeply shocking that Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a party. I do not think this is the right word, for it suggests surprise, and there is nothing surprising about it. Born into that family, it was quite likely that he would turn out to be an arrogant, ignorant, stupid young man, and had already given some indication that indeed he is just that.

No-one seems to have pointed out that his elder brother, the heir to the throne, was also at the party and was perhaps the only one there who might have had the authority – and the nerve - to say Get that kit off, you prat; but evidently he didn’t, and this may not be surprising either.

I blame the parents, you know. And the grandparents. The stupidity they could have done nothing about, but the arrogance and ignorance must have come from his upbringing.
Later: It now emerges that William actually went with Harry to collect their costumes, so he is evidently just as ignorant. These clowns were educated at our expense—can we have our money back please?

Thursday, 13 January 2005

An ill wind

We spent New Year’s Eve with some friends who gave us at dinner (among much else) a gorgeous, delicate soup made from Jerusalem artichokes and cream.

I cannot resist quoting from another entry in The Oxford Companion to Food.

The Jerusalem artichoke does not come from Jerusalem and has nothing to do with the globe artichoke. It is a tuber, a N. American relative of the sunflower, itself native to Peru. It was brought back to Europe, first to France, where in 1613 members of a Brazilian tribe, the Topinambous, who had been brought back by a expedition, aroused much interest, so the tuber is called Topinambour by the French. "Jerusalem" is probably a corruption of girasole, the Italian name for the sunflower.

Apparently at first it had an enthusiastic reception in Europe but soon palled. In 1621 the writer John Goodyer noted that: …which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented…...

That we noticed no such effect can only be ascribed to the culinary skill of our French hostess. The tubers are popular in France but less so in England, where only rather up-market retailers stock them, and they are almost ignored in their native USA.

I have asked our local (middle-market) superstore if they will get some in but I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, 11 January 2005

No infangentheof for Bill Clinton

Among the many hairy old institutions we have here in England, few are hairier or older than our most ancient military honour, the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

A Royal Charter of 1155 established the original ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings), which maintained ships that could be called upon by the Crown in times of strife - there was no navy in those days. In return, the members of the Cinque Ports had the right to:
"soc and sac, tol and team, bloowit and fledwit, pillory, tumbril, infangentheof, outfangentheof, mundbryce waives and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan".

This meant that the sailors from these ports could do what they wanted, including wrecking, grounding and plundering other ships. For many years they got away with what amounted to open piracy around the Kent and Sussex coast; they were a sort of legit mafia.

The title of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was held by Henry d' Essex in 1155, then by a succession of famous or totally obscure people such as Walerland Teutonicus, Hugh de Bigod, Hamo de Crevequer, the 1st Duke of Wellington, W H Smith (the bookseller), Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Since the latter's death in 2002 the position has remained vacant. Joe Trussler, the speaker of the Cinque Ports, Mayor of Sandwich and clearly a major league dingbat, asked the Queen and the Prime Minister to consider appointing Bill Clinton, because “his appointment would improve relations with the USA and he likes playing golf”.

However, it has been decided that the new Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports will be Admiral the Lord Boyce, GCB, OBE, who will be installed in office at a session of the Grand Court of Shepway, to be held in Dover on Tuesday 12 April, 2005.

The position, like so many other things in Britain today, has no significance whatsoever other than ceremonial, and we may have every confidence that Lord Boyce will carry out his non-existent duties splendidly. Hello sailor!

Sunday, 9 January 2005

Many Happy Returns to a vicious killer

Today is the 88th birthday of the veteran actor Herbert Lom, born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru in Prague. I never thought his comic turn in the Pink Panther films was very funny but he has graced many fine, good, mediocre and awful movies with brilliant portrayals of silken villainy. It was nice to see him on TV the other day still working, this time as a sinister character who turns out to be OK really.

I do not think anyone other than me has ever remarked that in earlier days Lom bore a striking facial resemblance to the young Brigitte Bardot (though this is not apparent in these particular photos).

Perhaps it had something to do with the pout, the shape of the nose and the curve of the eyebrows. The hair, of course, was quite different, so it is unlikely that there was ever any confusion. Fifty years on, he has worn rather better than she has.
[Later: Herbert Lom's family have stated that his birthday is actually 11th September and not the date above. Just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet.]

Saturday, 8 January 2005

The Family Phasianidae

Included in this family of birds is the grouse species, among its subspecies being Lagopus lagopus scoticus, the red grouse of Britain, and Lagopus lagopus lagopus, the willow grouse, known in North America as the willow ptarmigan.

This piece of information might have made the next in my series of Not Very Interesting Facts, but is actually from another entry in the mighty Oxford Companion to Food. I have already noted one of the editor’s occasional tongue-in-cheek comments which enliven this immensely serious work, and under GROUSE there is another example:
Grouse, plump and chicken-like, are chiefly ground-dwelling birds. However, at least in Britain, ‘sport’ requires that they be not shot on the ground. Thus grouse-shooting calls for beaters, whose task is to advance through the terrain where the grouse lurk, beating the heather or bushes, and making a commotion sufficient to frighten the birds into the air, where they present a legitimate target for the shooting party. The subspecies of the human race which is the chief predator of the grouse used to be readily recognizable, whether male or female, by its raiment of heathery tweed; but in the course of the 20th century increasing numbers of foreign predators came on the scene, often of a different and less appropriate coloration, yet still to be identified by the tell-tale guns which all carry.

This entry also quotes from an 1855 Eliza Acton recipe for roasting grouse, recommending that during the roasting “a buttered toast should be introduced under the bird in the dripping pan….” Nowadays, of course ,we do not refer to a toast but always a piece of toast, but the French have as an irritating Anglicism un toast.

Thursday, 6 January 2005

Star-Spangled Hastings

Very few Americans know that nearly two hundred years ago their flag flew proudly and defiantly over part of the small seaside town of Hastings in the county of East Sussex in England.

Nowadays Hastings is known for its battle (which actually did not take place there at all), as a small fishing port, as the place where John Logie Baird did much of the work that led to the development of television (or would have done if Marconi had not invented a much better system), for its winos and druggies and for its thriving artistic community which has nurtured the talents, if that is the right word, of many deservedly little-known figures such as Goswell Frand and Godfrey Horsecroft.

The present Victorian town centre was once part of the sea: it was the Saxon and Norman harbour of the rich and important Cinque Port and town of Hastings. The great storms of the thirteenth century changed the coastline dramatically, destroying the harbour and the prosperity of the town. Over the following five hundred years the harbour was gradually transformed into land. This lay empty until 1800, when enterprising merchants built warehouses, rope walks and dwellings on the former waste beach, which they occupied until 1835.
At some time during that period, the Corporation of Hastings attempted to take control of the area. The inhabitants rioted and raised the flag of the United States of America as a symbol of their independence, and thus the area became known as THE AMERICA GROUND.

Sadly, this Declaration of Independence was not as successful as the better-known one. The Government claimed the site as it had once been sea and therefore belonged to the Crown, and in 1835 it was cleared and lay empty until it was leased and then developed from 1850 as The Crown Estate (now three streets, mostly of shops, in the centre of the town).

It would not do to make too much of this transatlantic link, and it is not even known whether any contemporary American ever heard about their flag being raised in Hastings. But on the site there is a mural (occasionally floodlit) commemorating the events of those years, and a plaque was unveiled in 2001 by a very junior US Vice-Consul, with celebrations featuring schoolboys re-enacting it all, the Town Crier proclaiming something or other and, inexplicably, bungee jumping in the town centre.

[Whether the contemporary US flag featured in the mural is quite correct is not clear; it should have had 24 stars. It was about that time (1831) that it was first called “Old Glory”.
The full story of The America Ground is
HERE but switch your sound off before going to this site so as to avoid hearing one of those awful MIDI files beeping “Yankee Doodle"]

P.S. I shall be pleased to welcome personally any Americans who come to Hastings with their wives and daughters to visit the site of The America Ground, and to accept an invitation from them to dinner at either of the town’s excellent restaurants, during which I can tell them more about the town and about myself.

Goswell Frand

Saturday, 1 January 2005

A Dictionary of Slang

What riches are here!

The sub-title of the 1400-page reference book originally compiled by the great Eric Partridge, published in 1937 and now in an eighth edition scrupulously edited by Paul Beale is “…and Unconventional English, Colloquialisms and Catch Phrases, Fossilised Jokes and Puns, General Nicknames, Vulgarisms and such Americanisms as have been naturalised”.

Then there are the appendices, which include Australian surfing slang, Army slang in the South African War, Railwaymen’s slang and nicknames, Clergymen’s diction in the Church of England, Spanglish, Canadian adolescents’ slang 1946 and around ninety other recondite and fascinating topics.

The details under these headings could provide material for weekly posts throughout 2005, but for the moment I will just mention one thing that has struck me while glancing idly at random entries in the body of the dictionary: some of the words or phrases which sound as if they mean something improper are in fact quite innocent, while some respectable-sounding ones would seldom be used in polite society. Examples of the former are toss in the alley (to die), null-groper (a street-sweeper) and prick-louse (a tailor). And of the latter nugging-dress, number nip, and nurtle (buy the book and look them up; they are all on the same page).

Beach volleyball in Athens

Actually, an informant reporting from Athens (a senior retired MoD mandarin, now a sports administrator of international repute) told me that “the ladies in the photo are not genuine participants in beach volleyball, but a distraction to take spectators' minds off the dullness of the action. The organisers are so aware of this that they play rock music between points and bring on the dancing girls for each (frequent) time-out. The female athletes were nothing much to write home about, but one enterprising press photographer had set up a tripod near ground level at the end of the playing area so that he could guarantee close-ups of bikini-clad bottoms, which appeared next day in the Greek equivalent of the Daily Sport.”

Hey there, Pierre de Coubertin!