Sunday, 30 October 2005

Eggs? Coming in tomorrow

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 October 2005

Not as harmless as you might think

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

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

A picture to chill the blood

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

Wogs down under

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

Monday, 24 October 2005

An old trick

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 October 2005

On a higher plane

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

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

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

To amuse
On warm summer nights
Do wiwis
From spectacular heights

Thursday, 20 October 2005

The Monstrous Regiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Another gullible idiot

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 October 2005

Brainwashing: How it’s done

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

Friday, 14 October 2005

How can I get down to Sidcup in these shoes?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Isn’t that Donald and Melania Trump over there?

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

Monday, 10 October 2005

A cool word

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

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Clear instructions

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

Friday, 7 October 2005

Hyperbole rules

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

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

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

One of the Ronnies

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

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

A name I remembered

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 October 2005

Le Roi des Eplucheurs

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

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

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