Thursday, 31 March 2005

Worth a knighthood

Many English people feel that to call yourself Dr X unless your doctorate is in divinity or medicine is barely permissible, though in certain other countries if you can read you are probably Dr X and if you can also write you may well be called Professor X.
However, no-one would regard "Dr" as pretentious in the case of the most successful living author in the English language, for he is actually a shy man who likes to be known as Dave. His books have made him a multi-millionaire even though the income from film rights and merchandising has so far been negligible.
The first was written 45 years ago and sold 14 million copies in 22 languages; it is about to be followed by a sequel: The House Plant Expert Book Two.
Meanwhile, total sales of all his books, which set out clearly how to be The Rose Expert, The Flowering Shrub Expert, and so on, amount to 48 million copies; it is very pleasant to think that Dr D G Hessayon's sensible, useful books have far outsold J K Rowlings' childish fantasies and Dan Brown's silly drivel. Long may they continue to do so.
Oh, and Dave's PhD was from Leeds University, in soil studies.

Tuesday, 29 March 2005

How to spiel Halma

I have noted elsewhere some examples of translations from French, Spanish and Italian. Here is a classic account of a noble struggle with German:
No-one seems to play the board game Halma any more, and if you look at the rules of the game and its variations you can see why. The late columnist Paul Jennings (inventor of the brilliant cod philosophy Resistentialism) once bought a second-hand set which had the rules in German, and with the help of a friend who didn’t know any more German than he did decided to work out how to play and then try to have a game.

The first paragraph of the rules was: An diesem Spiel können sich 2 bis 4 Personen beteiligen, von denen jede eine farbe wählt, und damit, wenn 2 Personen spielen, einen großen Hof mit 19 steinen, wenn 4 personen spielen kleinen Hof mit 13 steinen besezt.

This seemed to be pretty straightforward: At this Game 2 or 4 Persons can betake themselves and each of them wears a Colour and damn it, when 2 Persons play, a big house with 19 stones, when 4 Persons play, he besets a little House with 13 stones.

[Jennings took “damn it” to be an idiomatic way of saying that the real way to play this game is with 4 Persons. Of course, if you must you can play with 2 Persons, but, damn it, it’s a pretty poor show. His friend insisted that damit means with that or therewith, but this didn’t seem to make any more sense.]

Their translation of the next sentence was The Players now try so quickly as possible with their Stones to beset the House of the Against-man [Gegner] and he is the self-same Winner [Gewinner] who the first gelingt. Neither of them had any ideas about gelingt.

Anyway, they started to play, with 19 Stones (damn it), attempting to beset each others Houses and arguing about the way you could move – auch seitwarts oder rückwärts; they knew that seitwärts is sideways but what on earth is rückwärts?: forwards is vorwärts and you couldn’t want to move backwards, so they decided it must be the way a knight moves in chess, but this didn’t help because they couldn’t remember quite how this was.

They then had to wrestle with such complications as der Gegner muss natürlich wiederum danach trachten, diesen Stein womöglich in dem eigenen Hof des Spielers einzuschliessen, the obvious meaning of which being that the Against-man must naturally again after that treat, this Stone how possibly in the own House of the Player to shut in.

But it was all too difficult and the game petered out; they thought that perhaps the rules they had worked out would work all right with 4 Persons, but that would mean that they had to find 2 other Persons whose knowledge of German was exactly the same as theirs.

Monday, 28 March 2005

Easter Egg Hunt

They were sugar-coated eggs. We had wedged this one in a tree and the badgers got most of the others; perhaps we shouldn't have hidden them the night before.

Sunday, 27 March 2005

More about Easter

The erudite Grumio reminds us that, in addition to chocolate and rabbits, this is also a time when Hot Cross Buns are much in our thoughts. A recent poll has revealed that there is widespread ignorance about the significance of the Easter festival, so here are some notes on its third important feature.

Although they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. Their origins lie in the pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. During early missionary efforts, the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross. In the years that followed, many customs, traditions, superstitions, and claims of healing and protection from evil were associated with the buns. In the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was banned, but the popularity of Hot Cross buns continued.

So much for what goes on in England (and, for all I know, the Solomon Islands, the USA and other former colonies and protectorates). It has to be said that chocolate eggs, bunnies and buns are nothing to get excited about and can hardly sustain our interest (or, indeed, satisfy our appetites) for a whole weekend, and in other countries they do rather better.

In Russia, for example, the traditional Easter foods are a nut and fruit filled yeast cake called kulich and an accompanying sweet cheese spread called paskha. The recipes for these are involved and time-consuming: the classic kulich was begun several days before Easter; it contained candied fruit, almonds, and raisins, and was always baked in a special kind of tall cylindrical pan. When the cake was done, it was decorated with white frosting drizzled down the sides. On the side, spelled out in pieces of candied fruit, were the letters XB, representing the Cyrillic letters for Christos voskres - "Christ is risen."

Next to the cake was the paskha, carefully moulded in a triangular shape and also inscribed with the letters "XB". Creating this delight took hours: it meant weighing down "pot cheese" with a heavy board to drain the moisture and then pressing it though a sieve before the other ingredients - nuts and fruits, vanilla flavouring and sugar - were added.

It all sounds like hard work, but much more fun than dreary buns and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.

Saturday, 26 March 2005

Paschal ambiguity

The Soho philosopher and wit Grumio who writes all too rarely online was for once only half right when, in a comment on yesterday’s post about Easter, he suggested that the festival is in the main a celebration through chocolate, for there are bunnies too, not always in chocolate versions. I have never seen a chocolate crucifix but no doubt they are available; as the talented Rebecca Front reminded us in The Guardian today, the holiday weekend is actually a curious juxtaposition of chocolate and crucifixion.

If you are looking for a piece of clipart on the theme of Easter, you will find that Microsoft© Office© XP© offers a choice of around 150, most of which feature eggs or bunnies or both. However, there are four with unashamedly Christian themes, and one which blithely features both decorated eggs and a singularly un-rugged cross which looks as if it might have been made out of slightly melted Dairy Milk©:

Friday, 25 March 2005

And We're Open 9 Thru Mid-Nite!

Today my local hypermarket has a magnificent display of Bargain Lo-Fat Gluten-Free Fair-Trade Organic Non-GM Free-Range Starch-Reduced EASTER EGGS in Biodegradable Packaging, with the sign:

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

The whole range, in ten chapters

When I was eleven years old a friend lent me a book. I remember that it had a red cover with a picture of a tree on it; I could not see the point of this at the time, but I suppose it stood for the Tree of Knowledge, or perhaps Forbidden Fruit, for although I forget what it was called the book should have been sub-titled The Complete Illustrated Guide to Orgies and Perversions.

I read it from cover to over with mounting amazement. I was not in the least shocked - I had a healthy degree of youthful prurience - but I was a rather squeamish little boy, and some of the illustrations made me turn the page over hastily.

My reaction was much like the way I felt years later when I first encountered a restaurant menu in French: I puzzled over unfamiliar words, doubted if I would be able to cope, and constantly wondered Would I really like this?

It seemed to me that I was being offered a range of choices. Nearly all them I rejected out of hand since they sounded painful, unhygienic, unkind, or unlikely to be any fun at all (like Wet and Messy Fetishism - known as WAM and celebrated, I discovered later, in a magazine called Splosh!). Then there was undinism (what’s the point?), and a lot of stuff about Sappho which rather took my fancy until I realised that such practices are only for members of a club to which I could never belong.

Other activities struck me as highly impractical, or too much like hard work: by the time one had set up a lot of heavy equipment and enlisted the services of three other people and a goat, one would, I felt, have become quite tired and gone off the idea. I was at that time subject to normal adolescent laziness, though it was not until much later that I fell prey to the chronic indolence which has caused my lifetime's achievements to have been fairly unremarkable.

To me at that time, considering all these possibilities was no more than vaguely interesting. Model trains were more my concern: Hornby summed me up, and it was not until several years later that one might have taken away the b. But I was happy to gain a smattering of knowledge in this sphere, for teenagers were very unsophisticated in those days and for a few years I was able to imply in conversation with my peers that I was experienced in these recondite matters by making an occasional allusion to some depraved practice which I knew about, at least in theory.

Anyway, at the age of eleven I made a choice which worked out well: when I was grown up, I decided, I would attempt only one activity in this whole area, that is to say having cuddles with nice ladies (a practice described merely en passant in Chapter One). And, you know, I’ve never regretted it.

Monday, 21 March 2005

Trilingual sign

A while ago I saw on a French train something which I coveted. Fortunately I had with me a penknife which, though useless to a Swiss soldier, did have a little screwdriver blade, so it was the work of only a few moments to unscrew the thing and put it in my rucksack. I had then, and have now, no feelings of guilt about this: firstly, no-one would really come to any harm because of my theft, and secondly the train was clearly nearing the end of its life and would soon be scrapped, so that I would be preserving something beautiful for the enjoyment of future generations.

I am not joking about this; my photo doesn’t do it justice. I really do think it is a lovely object: consider the subtle curves of its outline, the background colour, the way in which the edge colour is carried round the screw holes, and the clarity and elegance of the lettering and layout. Here is a utilitarian artefact created by someone who knew that function is not all, and put a great deal of care into designing the form this lump of enamelled metal would take.

Anyway, fifty-five years later it is still a cherished possession and I have it displayed in an appropriate place, not as a jokey sign but as something which is pleasant to look at.

Saturday, 19 March 2005

Not Very Interesting Facts

[Nos 194 and 195 in an occasional series]
What a veritable cockpit of serendipity is the internet! This morning, searching, for reasons which I won't go into, for more information about the Choctaw name Tallulah (or Talullah), I found myself in the E-Museum of Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN, and learned from their home page that today, 19th March, is the day the swallows return to the mission at San Juan Capistrano, CA.

I didn't know this, though The Inkspots charmed us all in the 1940s with the 1929 song ("That's the day I pray that you'll come back to me....").

Also, it seems that it was on this day in 1871 that chewing gum was invented. I didn't know that either.

Friday, 18 March 2005

A generous bequest

From the OED quotation files comes this snippet from a Will of 1710:
J. Addison Tatler, As an eternal Monument of my Affection and Friendship for him, I bequeath My Rat’s Testicles, and Whale’s Pizzle, To him and his Issue Male.

That makes two posts in a week which I have lifted from the OED, or rather from the bits of it one can scavenge from the internet. It’s too easy; I am going to have to ration myself, perhaps to just one quote a month.
I used to dream of owning its twenty gorgeous volumes but by the time I might have been able, by eschewing every other luxury for a year or two, to afford to buy it, I realised that it would be depressing, as the years went by, to know that thousands of words were being added in preparation for publishing supplements and additional volumes, all of which I would want to acquire as soon as they came out.

Now, of course, it is all on the internet, updated quarterly with over 1800 new or revised words, and a subscription to the online edition costs £195 a year plus VAT. This is less than a penny a page, or 54p a day for the whole thing, which is about one-eighth of what I used to spend on cigarettes until a year ago. And of course it is all (for example, the 2½ million quotations) searchable in every conceivable way: in a flash one could check, say, which words used by Jane Austen first came into the English language from French in the eighteenth century.

Those whose response to hearing of such wonders is "So what?" suffer from chronic dandruff, are probably cruel to animals and are unworthy of the privilege of being allowed to speak English.

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

There could be more snow…

…because it’s only March, but today has been an absolutely perfect day.
After breakfast I lit a cigarette and went to the open window to inspect the day. It certainly was one of the best and brightest.
'Jeeves,' I said.
'Sir?' said Jeeves. He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master's voice cheesed it courteously.
'You were absolutely right about the weather. It is a juicy morning.'
'Decidedly, sir.'
'Spring and all that.'
'Yes, sir.'
'In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.'
'So I have been informed, sir.'

'Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I'm going into the Park to do pastoral dances.'

'Very good, sir.'

[On TV in the nineties Stephen Fry had quite a good stab at the part but the definitive Jeeves was Arthur Treacher in Thank You Jeeves (1936). ]

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Hobbits and Daleks

Among the 20th century authors whose works I find mostly unreadable are two who inspire many people with a devotion and respect which are, to me, quite inexplicable. These are Agatha Christie, whose flat and contrived puzzles featuring dreary cardboard characters give me no interest at all in finding out who done it, and J R R Tolkien, whose books strike me as pretentious tosh (and the recent LOTR films, though spectacular and nice to look at, were all about two hours too long.

One thing these two authors have in common is a total lack of humour – there isn’t a glimmer of wit in any of their thousands of words. I have heard incidents and lines from their books recounted and hailed as amusing light relief to the murder mysteries of one and the sword-and-sorcery epics of the other, but none of these struck me as remotely funny.

But The Hobbit is quite entertaining in a cute sort of way and I was interested to learn the other day from the archives of the excellent Oxford English Dictionary newsletter that Tolkien “modestly” claimed not to have coined the word although he had been credited with its invention. He was being accurate as well as modest, for it was later discovered to be a long-forgotten word, quoted in a 19th century folklore journal, for fairy-folk or little people. The note on hobbit in the OED Online has not yet been updated to reflect this, so the old professor is still getting the credit.

The word Dalek was coined in 1963 by Terry Nation, the writer of the first series of of Dr Who, who named them after an encyclopaedia volume covering ‘dal to lek’. I see that in the new series which is about to appear on our screens these terrifying but rather engaging creatures have been re-designed to make them far more formidable than they were in their earlier incarnations: stairs will no longer be a barrier to them. Fiendish!

Sunday, 13 March 2005

Up with which

I was taken to task the other day for ending a sentence with a preposition. I long ago acquired the mellowness that comes with extreme age, and nowadays I extend an almost saintly suffering-gladly tolerance even to constipated semi-literate fatheads like this task-taker, so I smiled kindly, wished him a plague of boils and moved on. But the fool has done me a service by reminding me of an old story which I can repeat here and thus have something to write about on a rather dull Sunday morning which found me devoid of a subject.

The story tells how a sentence ending with seven prepositions came to be spoken:
Mother has gone downstairs to find a book for the bedtime story and comes up with a volume about Australia. The child simply cannot understand how she has made such a preposterous choice: “Mother, what on earth did you bring a book to read out of about Down Under up for?

Friday, 11 March 2005

Malicious joy

There was a brief item in the Channel 4 News last night about the strikes which are causing chaos in France. It featured the remarks of a lively Frenchwoman who wasn’t pleased about the situation and said so with great vigour, adding that the IOC must be mad to consider holding the Olympic Games in a country where this sort of thing happened.

I wasn’t paying much attention to this until I heard the newsreader, the admirable Samira Ahmed, say that the promoters of London 2012 were reacting to these events with Schadenfreude.

This word is not particularly rare in English – it crops up less often than Zeitgeist, say, though perhaps more often than Weltschmertz – but hearing it used casually and unpretentiously in the news happily confirmed the impression I have had for some time that the evening Channel 4 bulletin stands out among others by assuming that its viewers have rather more than basic literacy.

Sunday, 6 March 2005

The big chill

Writing last month about some cold weather we were having, I was wrong to be so dismissive about its severity and duration. The freeze and snowfall did actually continue for several more days; if the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees and it had all gone on for another four months then we could have held our heads up with pride and no longer been laughed at by people who have really cold winters.

Still, we did suffer some inconveniences. For my birthday treat my wife booked us a couple of days at a secluded spot in the country; we feared there could be travel difficulties and we might be cut off for weeks, with bales of fodder being dropped to us from helicopters.

This didn’t quite happen, but we did find ourselves on a train that couldn’t move at all. Fortunately it was warm and comfortable and we were able to get out from time to time to stretch our legs and visit a nearby pub, so we had little cause for complaint.

Also, we had prepared for this situation by bringing with us some books, including two new ones – David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (a history of Hollywood) and Angela Huth’s Well-Remembered Friends (an anthology of eulogies on celebrated lives) – as well as the board and pieces for playing Laskers, that marvellous game invented by Emanuel Lasker, philosopher, mathematician and world chess champion from 1894 to 1921.

So it turned out a very happy weekend.

Thursday, 3 March 2005

How to post (or mail) a letter

Easy, you say: if you’re American, drop it into a mailbox; if British, into a pillar box (whence, confusingly, their mail is collected by the US Postal Service and our post by Royal Mail).

Ah, but supposing the box is a quarter of a mile away, it’s snowing and icy outside, and you have your slippers on?

Faced with this challenge, I seriously considered following the procedure used by P G Wodehouse: he would, when in England, simply toss his letters out of the window, his belief being that most passers-by are decent people and, finding a stamped and addressed envelope on the pavement (or, when he was over there, the sidewalk), would naturally pop it into the nearest pillar (or mail) box. His faith never once, in several decades, proved unfounded.

I’m not sure that my faith in humanity is as profound as PGW’s and I wondered whether it would be safer to wait outside my gate until I could accost someone with an honest face who was walking past in the right direction, but it occurred to me that this might mean a long cold wait, and I would still have to put some shoes on.

Happily, I then realised that the items I had to post were not in any way urgent: it would matter not one iota, jot, or even tittle if none of them reached the addressees for a week or two. So they remain on the hall table awaiting a balmy day with light southerly breezes; thank God I don’t live in the Yukon.