Sunday, 29 May 2005

A chat with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Here’s another bore, quite unforgettable although it’s many years since I met him.

We didn’t have gap years in those days, but there was always a few months to wait and my fill-in job was as a barman at a pub in Tooting, South London. Then it was a fairly deprived area; it probably still is, relatively, but nowadays if you want to buy a one-bedroom flat there it will set you back around £120,000.

When the head barman told me his name was Macbeth I said “What bloody man is this?”, which was both feeble and pointless, since, as I later discovered, The Thane of Cawdor wasn’t even in that scene, but I was only seventeen. Anyway, I think he thought I was just being offensive.
But he was a friendly and helpful man, and on my first day he gave me a warning: “You want to watch that old chap in the corner”.

“Why”, I asked him, “is he dangerous?”. But Mac just smiled and said, “You’ll see.”

Later, when I went round collecting glasses, the old man beckoned me and I went over to him. He was certainly Ancient, and may well have been a Mariner, but he didn’t have a long grey beard and his eye was rheumy rather than glittering; before I could ask wherefore he had stopp’st me, he pulled out a battered old tin fob watch and began to speak.

You must imagine the story told over many minutes, with repetitions and long pauses while he lost the thread, took a sip of his half of mild or just decided to rest for a bit, and punctuated with frequent interjections like what I meanter say is. This is a greatly abridged version:
“My grandfather gave this watch ter my father when ‘e was 21, my father I mean. Course, when ‘e died, the watch come ter me. Now. I got two daughters and THEY got two daughters, each of ‘em. Now, what I wanter know is, what’s gonna ‘appen to this ‘ere watch WHEN I’M GORN?”

Eftsoons his hand dropt he, and not a moment too eftsoon. I couldn’t answer his question, though long afterwards it occurred to me that I might have suggested that he left instructions for the watch to be buried with him as a memorial to his grandfather. Anyway, when I went back behind the bar I told Mac I didn’t think the old boy was all that bad. Once again, he just smiled.

The next day when I went to collect the glasses I was beckoned over to the same table; out came the watch and:
“My grandfather gave this ……..”
I worked in that pub every day for seven weeks, which is why I have never forgotten that watch.

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

Flower Power

Leaving the theme of boredom for the moment - no, hang on, continuing with the same theme – The Chelsea Flower Show is about to open. I have always had the feeling that this is an occasion I must not fail to miss, and the previews of it on TV have confirmed this, though happily the strike of BBC staff reduced the coverage somewhat.

We have seen a great deal of an irritating Yorkshireman and an even more irritating Irishman who have been inviting us to admire the show gardens. Many of these are built round eccentric accessories (“Here are the famous coloured balls again, and over here we have a large blue slate sphere… ”) or feature stainless steel bits and cascading water which make them look like rather chic sewage farms. Why, even dear old green-fingered Microsoft has sponsored a garden with wireless connectivity, combined with a custom-built work pod. Just imagine, you can sit here with your laptop in a sort of steel cage, downloading your emails while you enjoy the flowers! How about that, Capability Brown, eh?

Then we saw a giggle of B List celebrities interviewed, telling us how beautiful it all is and how much they love gardening, but there was a refreshing moment when another Irishman cheerfully announced that gardening held no pleasure at all for him: this was Terry Wogan, an appropriate guest here as the Eurovision Song Contest gives much the same degree of aesthetic pleasure as the Flower Show. Sadly, there was nothing at Chelsea to inspire Terry to say anything as memorable as his comment on one of the Eurovision contestants: “Will ye look at the thighs on that woman?”.

The irritating Yorkshireman had been well instructed: the main sponsors, Merrill Lynch, haven’t yet quite got their name indissolubly welded to the title of the event, but he constantly worked it in. The Royal Horticultural Society has clearly made a wise choice: these sponsors, with their innovative solutions for affluent individual investors across the world, their strategic advice to corporations and institutions worldwide, and above all their skilled underwriting of debt & equity securities clearly have much to offer garden lovers.

Sunday, 22 May 2005


Following the previous post, I shall stay on the theme of boredom for a while; I have at least two more Grade A bores to write about, both of them totally unknown to the world at large, with good reason. But first here’s a famous victim of boredom: Hedda Gabler.

Eve Best at the Duke of York’s Theatre

“I have a vocation for boring myself to death”, she says. And of course it is the literal truth: after the sound of the shot with which she blows her brains out, Judge Brack ends the play with a puzzled “People don’t do that sort of thing”.
Yesterday I saw Richard Eyre’s fine new production of Ibsen’s 1890 play; it is years since I saw it, and I had forgotten what a marvellous savage comedy it is.

Wednesday, 18 May 2005

Boring for England

Major league bores are of many kinds, but the commonest variety have one characteristic: everything they say, but everything, is either a stupefying banality or a totally pointless anecdote. I know one – let us call him UTF, which happen to be quite close to his initials but might stand for Unbelievably Tedious Fellow – who could combine the two with powerful effect.

The discussion is, let us say, about the injustice of workers losing their pensions when a company goes bust while the directors walk away with millions. In comes UTF:
“Well, I always say, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. Far from being entombed in the wave of glum silence which follows this remark, UTF, having got the floor, presses on: “That’s what a friend of mine called Peter often used to say: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, he used to say”. At this point he realises that what is called for now is some background information about Peter:
“Interesting chap, Peter, used to live in St Albans, well, at any rate, he was at school there but moved to Harpenden when he married, girl I knew who used to work with me at ICI, actually, that’s how I met him. Anyway, he had this marvellous collection of cigarette cards, must have had, oooh…”.

Here he demonstrates another habit of people who have nothing of interest to say: the long pause while he sits with furrowed brow and pursed lips trying to recall some completely unimportant detail, and we all wait: “...several hundred!”.

And so on.

Like most bores, he is a very nice chap, so no-one says “Oh, for God’s sake shut up, you miserable wretch!”. Everyone listens for a bit and then gradually lets his voice fade into the background while they start conversations among themselves on some totally different topic, or just start showing each other little tricks with matches.

This post is quite a short one but seems to have taken a long time to write; I must have dropped off to sleep in the middle of it.

Sunday, 15 May 2005

There was a young lady……

A year ago I commented on the fact that the French, pauvres types, seem to have only one limerick, and no-one wrote to tell me of another. Three months later I offered to email my translation of it to anyone who was interested, but no-one was, so I have to assume that this most virile of verse forms, with its anapest rhythm (which may of course be modified by the use of amphimacers) is now totally out of fashion.
However, a correspondent has just sent me a new one:

Dit Premier Ministre Blair:
L' affaire irakienne est trop chère
Et quand ma femme dit
“Ne t'inquiete – c'est la vie”
Je réponds “Non, Cherie - c'est la guerre!”

I would have liked to have credited the brilliant polyglot author of this - a former maths professor - but he has thirty years academic and business involvement in data security so naturally he wishes to remain anonymous.

Friday, 13 May 2005

Mr Toad

"Unlike most toads, wealth toad has three limbs and a pair of red fiery eyes and is commonly seen offering an ancient Chinese coin in its mouth, sitting on a pile of gold. As a wealth enhancement, one may place a wealth toad at the main door or wealth sector to increase business flow and personal luck.”

Yes, indeed, quite unlike your typical toad.
I don't think my house has much in the way of wealth sectors, but I’m thinking of getting an eight-foot wealth toad for the main door. It might not do much for my business flow or personal luck but it would sure as hell frighten away Jehovah’s witnesses and, come October, trick-or-treaters.

I wonder why those who peddle ancient Chinese drivel, and the idiots who pay money to learn how to align their wardrobes so as to maximise the flow of qi through their socks, pronounce it fung shway but don't spell it like that. In China it's regarded as a peasant superstition but is hugely popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong and of course in California.

Wednesday, 11 May 2005

A good send-off

Every so often a news story appears which confirms one's belief in the infinite richness and variety - and, ultimately, the inexplicability - of human conduct. This week's comes from Barnsley in South Yorkshire:
"Twenty-four police officers in riot gear using CS gas, five of them injured, nineteen people arrested, three pubs closed, traffic backed up for miles."
The occasion was a funeral......
It's often said half-jokingly by mourners but must have been true here: "How he would have loved this - what a pity he's missing it !".

Monday, 9 May 2005


This is a serious post, unlike nearly all the other 236 in this blog.
I have been diligently scribbling for more than sixty years. I enjoyed doing it (even the quarter of a million words of penny-a-line journalism) but nothing I put down was worth preserving, except for the piece I reproduce below.
In 1993 a man who had been my friend and mentor for eighteen years died. In 1975 I had taken over from him the administration of an international sports federation of which he had been the Honorary General Secretary; I became its Secretary-General and was not badly paid for doing the work he had done for nothing since the 1930s (all this time he had had a paid job as a local authority official).
Although the piece I wrote – not really an obituary, for it gave few biographical details – went out to around a hundred countries, it was probably read by only a few hundred people. But I am proud of it because my friend’s widow, who had been married to him for sixty years, said after reading it, “You got him right”.

Peking (now Beijing) 1972

Bill Vint, the least deceitful of men, had a deceptive personality – like his name, which was not Bill at all, but Arthur Kingsley.
It is true that he was, as he appeared to be, a gentle and kindly man, but in other respects he was not at all what he seemed. For one thing, his staid demeanour and the conservatism of his dress and habits might have led one to suppose that he was a fuddy-duddy, set in his ways and hostile to change. Not a bit of it – Bill was a radical, always dismissive of old ideas and receptive to new ones. The fact that something had always been done one way was, to him, a challenge to find a new and better way. For example, he had seen many years ago that computers would revolutionise office work, and was enthusiastic about their introduction; if they had been available during his day as General Secretary he would certainly have ensured that the federation had the latest and best ones.
Then again, the unchanging mildness of his manner and his desire to please everyone might have suggested that he was a trimmer, blown with any wind, easy to sway. This would have been a serious misapprehension, for underneath his diffidence lay a rock-hard integrity; he was not a stickler for correctness in the usual sense and would compromise on almost anything to find the solution to a problem but never, ever, would he compromise on decency or fairness, for these were his watchwords.
From these qualities sprang his skill as a mediator. Malice, impatience and contempt were unknown to him; he would never take offence or stand on his dignity. He was rarely angry, and then usually only with himself, for having failed, in his own eyes, to achieve the highest standards in some trivial matter. But he had enormous tolerance for the frailties of others and assumed that everyone’s intentions were as good as his, and that those he dealt with could be trusted. Of course, he was sometimes let down or deceived; but not often, for he seemed to bring out the best in people, who generally responded to his sincerity as they might not have done to someone who was merely conciliatory or subtle.
In 1976, having been instrumental in building up the federation’s administration and then acquiring and setting up its first permanent office, he handed it over as soon as it was ready to me, a newly-engaged employee with no experience in sports administration and no background in the sport. This was his choice, but even so a lesser man might have found it difficult; if Bill did he never showed it. Though he had to come to the office almost every day, he never sat at a desk or took his hat and coat off; this was his way of telling me that it was my office and he was there only to help.
For a year he gently inducted me into the world of sport, somehow without appearing to give any direct instructions. “Perhaps it would be good if …..”, he would say, or “I think I should feel inclined to …..”. Nor did he ever utter a rebuke; the nearest he came to it was on an occasion when I had committed a major blunder which would clearly cause a lot of trouble. “There may be some complaints”, he observed mildly.
Thus he passed into my inexperienced hands the fruits of his many years of unpaid work, and then retired after the 34th World Championships in 1977. Nobody wanted him to go, so he was never allowed to retire completely. He never gave advice unless asked, but naturally I and others all over the world did ask, frequently, and for years continued to benefit from his sage counsel.
The federation owes much to Bill’s wife Nora, whose devotion enabled him to indulge his obsession with the sport and its administration, and on whose support he became increasingly dependent in later years. And yet, on his last appearance at a major event, in Dortmund in 1992, he was, though frail, still busy doing what he was so good at – rallying the disaffected, counselling the perplexed, calming the intemperate.

It is good to reflect that in his last years he must have become aware of the affection, esteem and trust which he inspired in so many people all over the world. We shall all miss him very much; he is irreplaceable.

Friday, 6 May 2005

The nation speaks

Well, not quite the nation: one in five of the population voted to return New Labour to power, with the lowest share of the vote ever taken by a winning party.

Tony Blair has said that he thinks he has a very clear idea of what the British people now expect, but nevertheless has not yet announced the date of his resignation. It was a pity that the clearest message about the main reason for the widespread contempt for him, and the loss of a hundred seats, had to be delivered by the unsavoury George Galloway in overturning a former Labour majority of 10,000.

By way of light relief after the long night we had the usual upbeat statements from the leaders of the other parties, with Michael Howard laying out the plans for rebuilding his party “from the grass roots” and Charles Kennedy telling us once again that Lib Dems are "a national party of the future”.

World reaction has been understandably muted, with a slight overtone of puzzlement and some reluctance to attempt any analysis. Typical was the comment of the Thai Government spokesman Chalermdej Chopoonut: “The results of the election came out as expected…”
The big problem faced by the media over the last 24 hours has been the difficulty of choosing words to describe the outcome of these elections. An historic third term was widely favoured but an unprecedented third term cropped up almost as frequently. Historians of the future may settle for an historically unprecedented third term.

It was an enjoyable night, though it had its longueurs, notably when Returning Officers were making the most of their moments of fame. My only regret was that while catching up on the night’s excitements this morning I forgot to watch a film that was showing on TV: Sons of the Desert, one of Stan and Ollie’s finest.

Thursday, 5 May 2005

Ave atque vale to all throdkins

Since throdkins first appeared on the internet on April 27th, there has been worldwide interest in this unattractive-sounding dish (oatmeal, bacon and syrup? Oh, for goodness’ sake) and today Google finds about twenty references. In the singular - “throdkin” - there are three others, and one of these, on a Chicago-based culinary chat site, ante-dated my introduction of the word to the net.
That’s enough; I’m bored with this. As Falstaff very nearly said, A plague on your poxy throdkins, I’ll have no more of them.

However, some of the other dishes in danger of extinction which William Black mentioned in his book The Land That Thyme Forgot sound intriguing:
Bawd bree: Scottish hare soup
Blaand: A Shetland drink of lightly fermented buttermilk whey
Cabbieclaw: a Scottish dish of cod with egg sauce and horseradish
Clapshot: Orcadian mashed potato and neeps
Hindle wakes: boiled fowl stuffed with pigs blood and prunes and covered in a lemony butter sauce
Katt pie: from Pembrokeshire, this is made from mutton, sugar and currants
Muggety pie: made with the umbilical cord of a calf
Pan haggerty: a fried mix of potatoes, onions and Lancashire cheese
Seftons: veal custard
Sherwood pot: a Nottinghamshire poacher’s stew containing game, rabbit and sometimes squirrels and other small mammals, cooked in ale.
Shoe horns: eighteenth-century hors d’oeuvres made from anchovies, bread, salted tuna roe, snapdragons and herrings
Umble pie: umble means offal. Nothing to do with humility.

It is possible, I suppose, that some of these are not merely obscure but never actually existed. This is certainly true of one of them; if I get three or more comments guessing correctly which is the one I just invented I promise to give £10 to Save the Children.

Wednesday, 4 May 2005

He be silly prat

I remember a moment of joy on a bad day at the office some years ago when I discovered by accident that these words made an anagram of the name of a colleague of mine.
This encouraged me to buy a computer program for exploring anagrams (the latest version costs £24.95). This is perhaps a childish pursuit but one which has given me much pleasure. Apart from enabling you to find new anagrams of your own the program lists 15,000 of the best ever, encourages you to submit more and updates you by email from time to time with topical ones.
I quote here, from their latest bulletin, their correspondents’ suggestions relating to current British politics. These reached me just in time, for about thirty-six hours from now we shall have a good idea of the election result and can turn our thoughts to something more elevating.
In most elections one wouldn’t want to print anagrams casting aspersions on the probity or competence of those leaders whom one admires and supports, but of course this time the need for any such inhibition simply doesn’t arise:

The Conservative Party has not been in power for a while but maybe this time around they will attract nervy, apathetic voters.
When one considers their earlier funding for education, is it more than coincidence that the letters of the Conservative Party also make teacher in vast poverty?
And what about the health service? Could spending cuts after they have been let back in mean that they reactivate NHS poverty?
But is the Labour Party much different from the Conservatives? A simple rearrangement shows that they travel a bluer Tory path.
Their right-wing credentials also seem to be confirmed by many anagrams of their leaders' names. Tony Blair becomes a Tory in Lab. while Tony Blair MP rearranges as I'm Tory plan B. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair tells us: I'm Britain's Tory peril, men, to which he might well add: Blimey! I'm irritant person.
But what of the Liberal Democrats? They may well have creditable morals but perhaps in reality their party is just a terrible old scam.
The minor parties don't sound much good either. What are the Scottish National Party involved in? Clearly: oh, nasty tartan politics, while The UK Independence party have been heard to cry: 'End EU and keep the pint!'

And what can be said about our next Prime Minister?
Anagrams are especially cruel to The Right Honourable Michael Howard MP, describing him as the horrid, globular chap. Women hate him. He wouldn't be much nicer as Prime Minister Michael Howard, either: 'I howl. I'm mean-spirited charmer', he would declare.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown may well succeed Tony Blair if Labour wins another term, though it seems he would be the worst, boring premier - no mind.
Prime Minister Charles Kennedy is unlikely to be appointed, which may be a good thing since he could be a semipermanently sick hinderer.

Whatever happens at the polls tomorrow, our prospects don't look too good, with the Houses of Parliament involved in the shameful operations carried out by loonies far up the Thames.

Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Meeting on the net

The great advantage of meeting new people on the net as opposed to meeting them in person is that you have total control over the relationship. You can end it whenever you like because there can be no come-back: they cannot telephone you and you will not bump into them at the supermarket. There is no commitment: you are never going to meet any of them.

If you are fed up with them but they choose to go on emailing you or leaving comments on your blog then a few clicks will dispose of their unwelcome communications; you don’t even have to read them first. But often the loss of interest is mutual, like a marriage nearing an undramatic end: you merely discover after a bit that you have nothing to say to each other.

Actually I have not often found it necessary to break off a net acquaintanceship. I have run into a few people whose continuous ranting becomes tedious or who want to tell me that my relationship with Jesus is unsatisfactory or who are dreary in some other way, but the great majority of contacts have been agreeable, interesting and stimulating.

Through Other Men's Flowers I have had some kind of net contact over the last eighteen months with dozens of people. These differed in the depth and intensity of their involvement: some just engaged in a brief exchange of jokey comments in their blogs or in mine, some permitted me to plagiarise their writings, and with others I have had months of email correspondence amounting to several thousand words. Nearly all these contacts were rewarding in one way or another and through them I have acquired some valuable mentors and interesting mentees.

In no particular order, here are some of those I am or have been in touch with:
A speech therapist in Bolton, a translator in Brighton, the first cousin once removed of a Prime Minister (not ours), a world expert on cryptography in Hertfordshire, a professor of law in Baton Rouge, a seventeen-year-old poet in British Columbia, an interpreter in Brussels, a teacher of law in Montana, a newsreader on Channel Four, a professor of English in Newark, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea at Leeds University, an embittered Vietnam vet in Australia, a law lecturer (another!) at Stanford, a librarian in Florida, an IT worker in Luton and another in Chislehurst, a student in Arlington VA, an engineer in New Delhi, an aspiring writer in New Jersey, a musician in Hove, a writer in New England, a polyglot teacher from Lesotho living in Paris, a woman who spins and knits in California, a banker in Grand Rapids, a lawyer in Michigan, a researcher and project associate in Atlanta, a net administrator in Houston, a teacher of English undergoing chemotherapy in London, a retired newspaperman in Oregon, a professional photographer in South Dakota......

These were all total strangers. Of course, there are also people I know - relatives, friends, relatives of friends and friends of relatives - who read Other Men's Flowers and make occasional comments - supportive, critical, contemptuous or ribald.
I have a huge advantage over nearly all those who are kind enough to spend time corresponding with me: my time is not nearly as precious as theirs because I never have any real work to do.

Sunday, 1 May 2005

A sound approach, if outspoken

No-one deplores more than I the use of strong language on the net, particularly in those boring simple-minded polemics which are called rants and are peppered liberally with pointless swear-words (though "liberal" is not a word one usually associates with their authors). It is refreshing, therefore, to come across an instance where such a mode of expression adds to rather than detracts from the thrust of its argument, giving it an entirely appropriate emphasis.

Other Men's Flowers is essentially a repository for gentle and kindly comment, and I will not have it sullied by the appearance in it of words likely to offend the pure in heart; therefore I will not even deign to type the indelicate name of the website; I merely put a link to it HERE and commend it as a pungent yet perceptive (though somewhat partisan) analysis of the North/South divide in the USA, albeit one which one would hesitate to send on to one’s grandmother in Florida lest she passes it round her retirement home and it causes offence, or even offense.
The website also contains some links to other sites which provide a useful historical background to its theme.

[Thank you to my friend Edward Cabot Ames III of Boston Beanfeast
for bringing this admirable site to my attention.]