Friday, 29 April 2005

Cutting the crap

The excitement generated in us by what comes through our letterbox has reached an all-time low this week. In addition to the usual junk mail, we have had messages from the candidates of the three main political parties, plus the Greens, though nothing yet from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party or from the Provisional Loonies known as the UKIP.
Only one item really captured our interest. Unlike all the others it was not adding to the waste matter on our premises but offering to remove some.

This seems us to raise a number of questions:

  • Calling cards? Such coyness! They might have chosen a snappier name, something like Turdaway Limited or, following the current trend in company names, why not Petpoo Solutions?
  • What exactly is the meaning of the asterisk against the price referring to the note in small type at the bottom: Conditions may apply? Does this mean the price varies according to the condition of the item, wet or dry?
  • Is the cost of £3.99 the total or per item, and
  • Is there any limit to people’s ingenuity in devising ways to make a living?

Thursday, 28 April 2005

The pithy French

I have already given an example of the economical way in which the French use their beautiful language, and from what I heard on the news yesterday they can be just as concise when they use ours.

The A380 Airbus was about to take off for the first time and an urbane Englishman whose name and role I didn’t catch gave a pessimistic view of its prospects, expressing himself beautifully, at length and with that polished confidence which is the hallmark of an expensive education.

The response from Noel Forgeard, Airbus’s chief executive, was admirably succinct:
"Thass complete boulsheet! "


Wednesday, 27 April 2005

Throdkins Throdkins Throdkins

Google, Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, MSN and Yahoo cannot find this word, so it is safe to assume that the internet has no references to it; there cannot be many real English words of which this is true.
It is not a silly made-up word, but is the correct name for a speciality of the Fylde, which is a rich green plain in North West England that runs from the coast across gently rolling unspoilt rural countryside toward the foothills of the Pennines. And THRODKINS? These are made of oatmeal and bacon and are served with syrup. So there.
Imagine! A perfectly good word that isn’t on the internet!
Or wasn’t. It is now, because I’ve just put it there, in two places, here and here.

[I am not the onlie begetter of the revived interest in throdkins because I read about them in an extract in The Guardian from a book by William Black called The Land That Thyme Forgot, in which he mentioned that they were unreferenced on the internet.]
[See HERE for an update on the throdkin situation]

Monday, 25 April 2005


Until recently I had seen this word only on the internet and never in print, Since it seemed to be usually associated with lists of fatuous questions and answers I guessed that it was not one that I would ever want to use, so for a long time I didn’t bother to look it up. When I did, I found to my astonishment that a meme is “A contagious information pattern that replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behaviour, causing them to propagate the pattern. (The word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else, or to otherwise expose someone else to it”.

Well, fine, that's clear enough; bully for Dawkins. It seems that “memes can comprise any piece of information that can possibly transfer between two minds—idea, thought, joke, song, dance, habit, even state of mood”. Wikipedia gives twenty-four example of types of meme, and anyone who is filled with excitement by the whole concept can consult Glenn Grant’s Memetic Lexicon for a more detailed account
Reading all this made me more than ever certain that it is unlikely that I shall ever want to use the word (after today, that is), but last week I had a charming email from a young Canadian (which is what prompted this post), noting that Other Men's Flowers had never featured any meme questions and listing some for me to answer. I was happy to oblige (for a small fee) since they were polite easy ones about desert island CDs and so on, and not the intrusive kind which attempt to delve deep into one’s psyche.
It then struck me that perhaps, since OMF is The Blog That Is All Things To All Men, I should join in this meme caper and post one from time to time. A “contagious information pattern” which often appears in teenage blogs is 100 Things About Me, and though I am not a teenager this seemed a simple one for me to start with.

However, I found there just aren’t that many Things About Me worth listing. After No. 14 I was really beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel, putting down Things like “Both my elbows are exactly the same size” and “I really like string”. Clearly, this meme was not going to be one that “replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behaviour”, and I would become a laughing stock wherever memeticists foregather.

So I gave up the idea. This will be my last word on memes; anyone saddened to hear this and seeking further enlightenment should turn to Metamagical Themas (NY, Basic Books, 1985) by the Pulitzer Prizewinner, Guggenheim Fellow and all-round Top Brain Douglas Hofstadter:

(You can tell, can't you?)

His book deals with memes and other cognate subjects less frivolously and with much more academic rigour than I can muster. Bully for him too.

Sunday, 24 April 2005

No sale

A friend of mine has told me that a girl he knows downloaded a photo of papal robes, and put them on eBay: Still Warm! Used (but immaculate) Papal Robe! Bids starting at ...$, etc.
It was up there for about two hours, and there were several bids before they pulled her offer and temporarily suspended her account.
What appalling bad taste! What crass insensitivity to the feelings of a young female member! How dare eBay act in this arbitrary way?

Farewell Sir John

The phrase "archetypal British [they mean English, surely?] gentleman" is being trotted out in many of the reports of the death at 97 of John Mills, and I guess that "decent" will appear more than it is usually seen in the obituaries.
Of course he was both these things, and it is pleasant to recall that when required he could also be a convincing swine. In the 1941 spy film Cottage To Let he was a murderous Nazi who would have killed Alastair Sim and a 16-year-old George Cole had they not managed to crush him to death by rolling a millstone on top of him.
Ah, they don't make 'em like that any more - neither films nor English gentlemen. the2

Saturday, 23 April 2005

Doing it badly (2)

My second example of a person who spent a lifetime doing something very badly and became much admired and even loved for it is Madame Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst soprano ever to fill Carnegie Hall.
These full accounts of her extraordinary career make fascinating and inspiring reading. I quote some extracts from them: “Few artists ever gave such unalloyed pleasure … She performed in public for 30-odd years and throughout them was immensely popular among her colleagues … Many of the world's most distinguished musicians - Enrico Caruso for one - regarded her with affection and respect … audiences laughed at her - laughed until the tears rolled down their cheeks, laughed until they stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths - but she was never dismayed.

No Jenkins recital was accompanied by less than three changes of costume. One of her favourite selections, Angel of Inspiration, brought her before the audience in tulle and tinsel, a rather pudgy apparition in sturdy golden wings, standing amid potted palms.

And her voice?
A dumpy coloratura soprano, her voice was not even mediocre, it was preposterous. She clucked and squawked, trumpeted and quavered. She couldn't carry a tune. Her sense of rhythm was uncertain. In the treacherous upper registers, her voice often vanished into thin air, leaving an audience with its ear cocked for notes with which she might just as well have never taxed her throat. One critic peevishly remarked ‘She sounds like a cuckoo in its cups’ ”.

Happily, she made some recordings, and HERE
you can get the flavour of her art from a couple of clips: Adèle’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus captures something of the horror of her voice, but it is The Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute that I defy anyone to listen to for more than a few seconds without breaking into uncontrollable sobs .

In 1944 Madame Jenkins took the big step. Forsaking the brocade atmosphere of fashionable hotel ballrooms, she braved Carnegie Hall, which was sold out weeks in advance. That concert was her last public appearance: the effort and excitement was too much at the age of 76, and she fell ill. But she was content. Her mission was fulfilled. On November 26th, just one month after this final triumph, the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins was stilled forever.

This comment by Daniel Dixon puts it well:
Without question, Madame Jenkins was a star. That she was touched with a gentle madness made no difference. For she had the unfathomable glint and glitter about her that, wherever encountered, divides the unique from the ordinary.
She became the comic symbol of the longing for grace and beauty that is in some way shared by everyone who is clumsy and shy and ill-favored. In the end, after all the laughter, Madame Jenkins was more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.

Thursday, 21 April 2005

Spectacle in St Peter's Basilica

Isn't this a gorgeous and awe-inspiring sight! Just imagine how impressed Jesus of Nazareth would have been!

Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Doing it badly (1)

If you want your talent to bring you long-lasting fame, and you are not actually talented in any way at all, then it is no use just being not much good at your chosen art—you must be supremely bad at it. Not just rather poor, but breathtakingly, hopelessly awful. Few reach these heights, and those that do sometimes come to be regarded by the public with an affection not always granted to their more gifted peers. I can think of two examples.

William McGonagall was the worst poet in the world; he is sometimes described as the best bad poet, though this seems much the same thing. He believed that his poetry was second only to Shakespeare’s; to explain the difference between the two it is only necessary to say that Shakespeare’s plays lacked rhyme while McGonagall’s poems did have rhyme but no trace of any other quality whatsoever.

The first two stanzas from his ode The Ancient Town of Leith are a wonderful example of his indifference to nearly everything – other than rhyme – that distinguishes poetry:

Ancient town of Leith, most wonderful to be seen,
With your many handsome buildings, and lovely links so green,
And the first buildings I may mention are the Courthouse and Town Hall,
Also Trinity House, and the Sailors' Home of Call.

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

On the other hand, this poem demonstrates that he was deeply concerned about something rarely found in poetry – close adherence to the facts. This is also shown in his best-known poem, about the Tay Bridge Train Disaster:
So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

Did William McGonagall realise just how dreadful his poems were? It seems unlikely; he vowed he was misunderstood and persecuted and always yearned to become Poet Laureate. On the death of Alfred Lord Tennyson he walked all the way to Balmoral Castle to ask Queen Victoria for the title, and was turned away at the gate. But who has heard of the man who got the job, Alfred Austin?

McGonagall died in 1902; his poetry is still in print today, not just in English but also in other languages including Russian, Japanese, Thai, Bulgarian, Romanian and Chinese. I should like to pay my own tribute:

The poems he wrote about a lot of things, mostly in Scotland, were really rather rotten
But we admire him now for his courage and persistence, and he will never be quite forgotten.

[My second subject is an American soprano, the great Mrs Florence Foster Jenkins.]

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Habemus Papam

I did say that the new pope cannot possibly alliterate as well as the late PPPPP, but some friends and I have been trying to work out how we can help with suggestions. Rottweiler Ratzinger, obviously, but is he rich? rheumatic? red? rumbustious? rude? rabid? romantic? Could he be a Rollicking Reactionary? Or a Rancorous Recidivist? We simply don't have enough information yet, but we're working on it. Pity he's not Romanian and that his first name isn't Ronnie or Ricky. We must get it right - we don't want to offend the faithful.
Oh, I don't know, though.....

Monday, 18 April 2005

Looking forward to a smoke

Well, at least Elton John didn’t sing an adaptation of one of his songs, and now the popefest has subsided for a few days as the Vatican moves off the front pages while 115 cardinals are locked up to elect a new pope. It is, oddly, a very lengthy and complicated procedure: after all, the final choice is believed to be an expression of the will of the Holy Spirit so however the business is done the outcome must be the right one. I mean, why put this bunch of poor old redsocks through such an ordeal? Why not just draw lots or have an internet poll?

Those who would like to take some kind of interest could contact the bookmaker William Hill, who currently puts God’s rottweiler, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at 7-2 favourite. Alternatively, they can visit the Pope-U-Lator, where they may guess who the successful candidate will be, the basis on which he will be selected, and by what name he will choose to be known. Many helpful suggestions are provided.

One thing is certain: whether you believe, as many people do, that the reign of JPII was a Good Thing or, as even more people do, that it was certainly not, it is clear that his successors will never acquire a title that trips off the tongue as his did. Once it was known that his will listed very few personal possessions, the final alliterative touch was added, and he became for all time The Popular Polish People's Pauper Pope.

Sunday, 17 April 2005

The Great Cham

This year is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary, which was to define our language for the next 150 years. An admirable anthology of selections from the dictionary was published a couple of years ago, and there is a new book about it just out.

After Shakespeare, Dr Johnson is the second most quoted person in the English language. Some 1,800 of his sayings are collected here, most of them expressive of his wit and erudition and not a few of them demonstrating a degree of misanthropy or at least curmudgeonliness.

There is one, however, which shows none of these characteristics and indeed suggests that, sharp tongue or no, he might have been a lovable old buffer. Unfortunately I cannot remember where I first heard it, and I have not found it listed anywhere, so it could well be apocryphal*:
He was at the height of his powers and his fame made him the most desirable guest imaginable; having him accept an invitation to dinner was an enormous honour. On one occasion the distinguished guests gathered with him round the table were excited at the prospect of hearing some new and sparkling aphorism fall from his lips. But he was not in a talkative mood and chomped his way grumpily through the meal, responding with grunts and monosyllables to all attempts to engage him in conversation.

This was very disappointing, but when the meal was over he appeared to be in a better humour. He wiped his face with his napkin (he was a messy eater), turned to his hostess and cleared his throat. Everyone leaned forward so as not to miss the wise or witty pronouncement which the great man was surely about to make….

A very fine pud, ma’am”, he said.

* Jack Lynch, the world's leading authority on Johnson, has kindly written to advise me that he's fairly sure that the story is indeed one of the "many hundreds" of apocryphal stories about the great man. Pity; but I shall go on repeating it.

Friday, 15 April 2005

Back on form

My two favourite sources of cool and unbiased comment on current affairs have been somewhat uninspired of late, but the two major events of last week (forget Rainier, nobody cares much) have brought out their best efforts.

Private Eye has a picture of Prince Charles saying to Camilla "We're married at last!", while the Queen just behind them says "...and to each other!", and The Onion has a detailed report under the headline Heaven Less Opulent Than Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope.

Thursday, 14 April 2005

Nuts and bolts

I was never any good with Meccano. I liked playing with it, but I was never any good. You were supposed to construct mobile cranes and complex mechanisms like gearboxes that moved and did things. Nothing I made ever did anything; I made forts and towers, and the nearest I got to anything that moved or did things was a sort of box on wheels which I would push about in a desultory manner.

This should have shown me that I was not born to be an engineer, but later at school I fell in with a rather louche crowd of boys whose small talk was of turbines and hovercraft and such things, and was seduced by the romance of it all. So it was that I found myself at eighteen starting a degree course in Mechanical Engineering.

It was on the very first day that I realised what a terrible mistake I had made. We were given a tour of the building (in Gower Street, Bloomsbury; the façade was later used as St Swithin’s Hospital in Doctor in the House) and after seeing the lecture rooms we were ushered into a vast hall full of gleaming machines, humming to themselves and smelling of oil. My fellow-students chattered with excitement; clearly, their lives had been but a preparation for this moment and they were full of joy at the prospect of getting to grips with a study of these marvels, some of which they could actually identify.

My reaction was different. A great gloom descended on me at the thought that I had committed myself to spending three or four years in the company of a lot of youths like the ones I had just met (and no girls), learning all about machines of various kinds, and then devoting the rest of my life to designing them, building them and generally doing whatever it is that mechanical engineers do.

I knew from that moment that I was very unlikely to succeed in this career, having absolutely no interest in or talent for engineering; a couple of unhappy years went by before the college authorities reached the same conclusion and recommended me strongly to consider a different path.

So the effect of Meccano on me had been unfortunate. However, in later years I realised what a pity it is that Meccano has been displaced in the affections of children by a pretty Scandinavian toy; when you made a model in Meccano you used a spanner and pulleys and angle girders and trunnions and worm gears, so that you learned what these things are for; clicking multicoloured plastic bricks together teaches you nothing.

With Outfit No 2, a child with a talent for things mechanical might build, say, a working model of a helve hammer, whatever that is:

On a much higher level you could make a gearbox with 56 wheels or even an elephant which walks along swinging its tail. (Well, some people could; I couldn't, and never wanted to.)

But today the young are never introduced to such wonders; perhaps this is one reason why engineering no longer evokes the ambition of the most brilliant students; if Brunel had been brought up on Lego he’d probably have taken up accountancy or media studies.

Tuesday, 12 April 2005

Films as history

"How much obligation lies on makers of historical films to keep to the historical record? How much fiction is permissible within the representation of fact? No cinematic description of the past, and certainly not one designed for a mass audience, could be expected to stay within the boundary of the known. The pace of fiction cannot be the pace of life. Complexities of chronology will need reduction. Buildings and landscapes that contained historical events have disappeared. Dialogue must be invented.
Characterisation may need to be simplified. But elaboration and modification are one thing: perversion of fact is another.”

In the film section of the Channel 4 website they have 15,000 film reviews, and a few, mostly written by historians, assessing some old favourites on the basis of their accuracy and giving them scores from 0 (truly terrible) to 10 (absolutely historically accurate):
El Cid (1961): 6
Witchfinder General (1968): 3
Citizen Kane (1941): 5
Cromwell (1970): 4
Waterloo (1970): 7
Charge of the Light Brigade (1969): 6
Zulu Dawn (1979): 5
Sink the Bismarck (1960): 8
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943): 9
U-571 (2000): 2
Saving Private Ryan (1998): 9
Scandal (1989): 7
Restoration (1995): 6

Sunday, 10 April 2005

Wedding of the week

What a trial it must have been for the media sycophants, cooped up in a small room watching the TV and trying to outdo each other with banal or asinine comments! Here is a selection:
“It's a unique love story…”
“They’ve been to hell and back…”
“It’s the first time he’s been married in a civil ceremony, of course…”
“People call them the Sexy Shands, you know…”
“Fergie’s not been invited, I’m afraid…”
“Here’s Princess Anne, not terribly happy, had to re-arrange the Gatcombe Horse Trials…”
“Pretty mean-spirited of the Queen not to be here…”
“Don’t think there’s been any booing yet…”
“We’ve all waited 34 years for this…”
“It’s really democratic, isn’t it?”
“Thank God nothing was thrown…”
“He’s had such a rotten life…”
“Just getting married – that’s what they wanted, I think…”

Saturday, 9 April 2005

If you want to get ahead…

Apparently, Karol Wojtyla had a “rumbustious send-off”, the like of which for a pontiff’s obsequies has not been seen since the Middle Ages. At least he wasn’t tipped onto the ground as Ayatollah Khomeini was.

The arrangement of the VIP enclosure for the Requiem Mass was interesting. In the front row were seated an assortment of monarchs, including 75-year-old Londoner Andrew Bertie who is the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, then the world’s presidents in alphabetical order of the French names of their countries (why?). Further back, others were seated by date-order of their country’s official recognition of the Vatican, which put Tony and Cherie well to the rear. But their lowly position may have been also because of Tony’s hatlessness. As the Guardian reported:
Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was in the front row, perhaps partly because he had a fancy hat. Elaborate headgear was important. Without it you were nothing... Queen Sofia of Spain was the winner of the women’s event with a spectacular ceremonial mantilla, the men’s category closely contested by ayatollahs in giant black turbans, Armenian bishops in pointed hoods, central Asian holy men in lambskin caps, Orthodox metropolitans wearing jewelled mitres topped with golden crosses and a bearded prelate in cream robes whose hat looked like a vanilla marshmallow. There were moments when the funeral came perilously close to resembling one of those inter-galactic councils in the Star Wars films…

Friday, 8 April 2005

A sea view

This week the newspapers told us much more than we wanted to know about a whole range of topics: we have been hammered with seven-page Pope Specials, eight-page Election Specials and whole-page obituaries for the Fairy-Tale Prince With a Moustache; we felt we needed some relaxation before we were hit with ten-page Pull-Out Colour Wedding Supplements at the weekend.

So we took a very brief holiday on an island off the south coast. We visited my extraordinary sister, who has just decided at 84 to retire – prematurely, in the view of her disciples – and then we spent a couple of days in a tiny seaside town at its eponymous small hotel, which has a well-deserved reputation for high standards of food and service.

At breakfast, after dealing summarily with the usual juice-yogurt-grapefruit-cereal business, we were presented with an embarrassment of riches. I rather fancied the Full English since it included black pudding, of which I am inordinately fond; on the other hand my fingerspitzengefühl told me that the kippers were of outstanding quality.

But the problem was solved for me in a flash: “Why don’t you” said the breakfast waitress, “have a kipper with a slice of black pudding?”
Now that’s what I call real thoughtfulness, and of course I accepted the suggestion with alacrity.

In all honesty, I cannot claim to have discovered a sensational new gastronomic pairing to rival ham and eggs, or rhubarb and custard, or sauerkraut and ice cream. But it was very nice, and I shall have it again.

Sunday, 3 April 2005


Or maybe Kurgistan, or Kirgiztan. But it seems to be usually transliterated as Kyrgysztan. Why? It doesn't help us to pronounce it more accurately.
The CIA Factbook has a map (which they probably copied from a 19th century children's book about missionaries in Central Asia), showing that there's no difficulty with the transliteration of the capital, Bishkek, or the towns of Osh, Sary-Tash or So'x, but that there is some uncertainty with Tokmok (or Tokmak) and Kyzyl-Kyya (or Kyzyl-Kiya).

The latest news from this former Soviet republic is that the ousted president, Askar Akayev, has agreed to resign if they promise not to kill him, and that it is doubtful if Kurmanbek Bakiev, 56, the new interim president and prime minister, is popular enough to take over. Here's a picture of the latter wearing his rather unusual ceremonial hat.

...and since he looks a bit dull here's a jolly picture of a Kirgiz (or Kyrgysz) family, taken by an intrepid pair of back-packers who visited them in 1998 and shared their lunch of rice and decomposed duck.