Wednesday, 30 November 2005

My career in opera

The longest singing career ever was probably that of Danshi Toyotaki of Hyogo, Japan, who sang in Musume Gidayu for 91 years from the age of seven. A friend of mine was still singing in public in his ninetieth year, but he’s not a contender because he didn’t have lessons and start singing seriously until his seventies. Several of the great prima donnas of the past, and some tenors or baritones, carried on, in most cases with declining greatness, for many decades; I have not searched the internet to find out who sang on the longest, but I expect some knowledgeable friend will tell me. However, when it comes to the record for the shortest career ever on the operatic stage, then if you count abortive attempts there is no doubt that I am the holder.

I have been a keen bath singer since early childhood and have once or twice sung publicly in a jokey sort of way (and I don’t mean karaoke), not being too inhibited by the lack of anything in the nature of a voice. It might be said of me, as Bernard Miles said of one of his characters, that I have a belly-full of music but a bad road out.

So I was immensely flattered when I was invited to take part in a performance of Tosca in a country house venue in Sussex. It was no small scale production: there were distinguished internationally known singers as the soprano Tosca and the bass-baritone Scarpia. The husband of the soprano was directing, and as friends of mine the two of them thought I might like to fill in as they were a bit short in the chorus department.

I had some misgivings but took it very seriously from the start. The soprano tested me with a few scales and gave me some hints about what to do with my diaphragm, how to breathe and so on, and then told me that I would probably be all right. One problem was that I can’t really read music, and I went to the trouble of driving down to Dorset for some practice with my niece who is a musician so that I could get most of the notes more or less right from memory.

[The picture is not of this production, which was in modern dress; we were to be dressed as Mafia hoods.]

Then rehearsals began. The director was very kind and helpful to me, as were my colleagues in the chorus, talented amateurs or semi-professionals, but I became increasingly unhappy. In my mature years I am no longer much afraid of making a fool of myself because life has already done it, but I began to realise that I was just not going to be any good, even in an undemanding chorus role.

So I went to my friends and said I am very sorry, but I just can’t do it. If they had been angry and complained about me leaving them one short in the chorus at the last minute I wouldn’t have blamed them, but the final embarrassment was that they were terribly nice: no, not at all, quite understand, don’t worry about it.

And so ended my career, a week or two before it was to begin. My wife and I went to see the performance, of course, and very good it was. But I never liked Tosca much, and now I can’t even bear to listen to it, or for that matter anything else by Puccini.

Monday, 28 November 2005

They sang every Sunday night

Like many of the posts in Other Men's Flowers, this one is of little interest to Americans or anyone born after the Reichstag was set on fire.

With Christmas approaching, it is time to put an end to the obsession with modern sleaze which characterises this blog and to return to a simpler and less sophisticated era.

Many organisations now defunct sprang up in the 1930s. There was one which at its peak in 1939 had five million adherents in the UK. The exact number may never be known, for its secrets were guarded with extraordinary rigour; it had its own passwords and codes, and signs by which its members might recognise one another.
It even had its own anthem:
We are the Ovaltineys, little girls and boys,
Make your request we'll not refuse you,
We are there just to amuse you,
Would you like a song or story?
Will you share our joys?
At work and play we’re more than keen,
No merrier children can be seen
Because we all drink Ovaltine,
We're happy girls and boys.

You can hear the tune—and many others of the same period and in the same genre—played HERE, or a whole 1937 Radio Luxembourg broadcast HERE. How innocent were our pleasures!

I was a keen member, and in another popular organisation for young people which flourished at the same time (not based in the UK) I might well have reached the rank of Gefolgschaftsführer, or even Hauptgefolgschaftsführer. As it was, I was merely a Silver Star Member. To reach this height you had to enlist three more members, a sort of pyramid selling operation. All you got for this effort was the rather pathetic badge which you could swank about with, but I remember the honour fondly as my first taste of the privileges of rank. And, come to think of it, the last.

[The way in which children nowadays are brainwashed by advertising into influencing their parents’ purchasing habits is crude and ineffective compared with this scheme, perhaps one of the most brilliant marketing ideas ever. It was intended to promote the sale of a malted milk drink (containing barley and malt extract, dried skimmed milk, sugar, whey powder, glucose syrup, vegetable fat, full cream milk powder, fat reduced cocoa, caseinates, egg powder, emulsifier, stabilisers, flavouring and vitamins), which was invented in 1904 by a Swiss chemist: it succeeded to the extent that ten million jars used to be sold in the UK every year. It was withdrawn here in 2001 but apparently is still in demand in S.E. Asia.]

Saturday, 26 November 2005

A brilliant idea

Imagine waking up long before sunrise, walking for more than two hours to the nearest river or borehole and then carrying a bucket full of water on your head all the way home.
Now imagine you are a woman or a young child and it is your responsibility to carry this heavy bucket of water every day of your life
This is a reality for millions of women and children around the world who do not have access to fresh water on tap. What quality of life could you expect from one bucket of water for your whole family? How could you wash, drink, clean, cook or even grow vegetables? How much time and energy does it take to provide your family with this most basic human requirement?
A very simple invention has been improving the quality of many such lives for the past twelve years.

You can read about it HERE.

[I found this mentioned in the admirable blog of a designer and writer in Brighton called Jonathan Baldwin. Apart from this and chat about graphic design, he reproduces there the whole script of Four Candles and a marvellous photo of Norman Stanley Fletcher.]

Thursday, 24 November 2005

Manners maketh man

(William of Wykeham: motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Not really relevant but I couldn’t think of another title)

I was hurrying along a crowded London pavement when I collided with a man going in the opposite direction. It was 90% my fault because of my carelessness and 10% his because of his width and swagger.

It felt like walking into a concrete block. He was a head shorter and many pounds heavier than I: shaven head, earring, tattoos, biceps stretching the sleeves of his T-shirt.

He looked up at me with little piggy eyes in a totally expressionless face, and for a second or two I considered my options: humbly express my profound regret, or run like hell. Neither seemed hopeful: he did not look like a man who would be likely to accept an apology gracefully, and even on his short bandy legs he could probably run faster than me.

But before I could do anything at all, he said: "Sorry, mate".

Makes you feel warm all over, doesn’t it? And ashamed of stereotyping.

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The Plains of Abraham

This is a continuation of the previous post, in which I promised to write something of interest to people wanting a change from shovelling snow and eating maple syrup. For a start, here is a picture of the British landing from their boats before the battle of Quebec, on September 17th, 1759. The leaders on both sides, Wolfe and Montcalm, were killed. (There was another Battle of Quebec in December 1775, when the British and Canadian garrison drove off an American attack and ended the threat to the British control of Canada.) But Canadians know all this, of course; that is not what this post is about.

In the English county of Kent there is a small town called Westerham (town square shown below). Winston Churchill and I used to live not far from there, though not in the same house or even in the same direction.
It was the birthplace of General Wolfe, so naturally local pubs, tea-rooms and, for all I know, public conveniences, proudly bear his name.
On the outskirts of the town there is a large house, converted some years ago into a very good restaurant. It was run by a large and fierce francophone Egyptian called Zarb. I like to think that it was not from chauvinism or to thumb his nose at the locals but only in a spirit of fair play that he called it Le Marquis de Montcalm.

Sunday, 20 November 2005

Above the 49th

Reading with enjoyment the other day of the arrest and indictment of Conrad Black, it occurred to me that Other Men's Flowers has paid insufficient attention to Canada. I frequently post items of interest to Americans, noting some of their quaint orthographical habits or discussing their major historical figures such as Hattie McDaniel and Curly Joe DeRita, but I have never dealt in depth with that great country which Americans from Albuquerque to the Bronx fondly refer to as The Friendly Giant to the North.
I do not know why this should be so, since there has been much in my life which relates to this former—now, alas, no longer—Dominion:
1. My wife was for some years a Canadian citizen and has relatives who live there, except in the winter when it gets cold and they go to Phoenix AZ.
2. I have been there on two occasions, one of them extending to more than a week (not counting several touchdowns in Vancouver en route to somewhere else),
3. I possess a splendidly bound two-volume history of the CPR which I have every intention of reading one of these days, and
4. I am one of the very few non-Québécois who know why they put sweetcorn in Shepherds’ Pie and call it Pâté chinois.
Not only all that, but I have read up on the Yukon, and used to be able to recite the whole of the poem that begins:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew;
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

Anyway, let me now make up for my neglect by passing on some information of interest only to Canadians, hoping that it will bring a moment or two of happiness into their drab, miserable lives. No, on second thoughts, let them wait; I’ll do it in the next post.

Friday, 18 November 2005

Delphiniums, eschscholtzia and blogs

Gardening and keeping a blog are similar pursuits in several ways: admirable, solitary, not too expensive, absorbing and providing salutary exercise, the first for the body and the second for the mind. I have nothing more to say about this, except that I know I should do more of the former but that this is ruled out partly by my extreme physical laziness and total lack of interest in things horticultural, and partly by my good fortune in having a wife who is a brilliant gardener and needs exactly this kind of relaxing occupation after long days teaching mathematics.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Domo arigato gozaimashita

We all know how to say thank you in Japanese (though remember if you’re in Okinawa it’s Nihwee-deebiru). And if someone says it to you it's a good idea to come back with a fast Doitashi mashite.
There can never be enough posts featuring polite usages (to set against the large number featuring obscene invective), and in August last year I wrote some notes on ta ever so in a piece thus titled.
This was a fairly uninteresting post and I was surprised and pleased to find last week that after a lapse of some 14 months it actually had a visitor. Someone had evidently put ta ever so into a search engine without putting it in quotes to link it as a phrase, so of course up came 12,400,000 search results.
The search engine was Yahoo Japan, and it had brought up my 2004 post at No 1. I like to think that this gave the Japanese searcher all the information that he needed so that he didn’t have to read through the other 12,399,999 websites.

(One of the sites that came up was, probably because –ta is a Japanese verb ending. Entrancingly, this site invites you to Explore the fun side of the Japanese language… This sounds a bit like suggesting you might like to Investigate the comedy aspects of Margaret Thatcher.)

Monday, 14 November 2005

Properly attributed quote

Tom Lehrer’s Russian mathematician explaining how to reach the top in that field:
Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise!
But be sure always to call it, please, research.

I wrote the other day about my sins as a blogger including my shameless but harmless plagiarism, and cited J K Galbraith as someone from whose writings I like to lift bits. Coincidentally, a day or two later I came across something he wrote which I had missed so I am happy to slip it in here and as a nice change give due credit.
He was writing about the Reaganite idea that if you make the rich richer then the poor will also benefit.
Trickle-down theory: the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."
—John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, 13 November 2005

Remembrance Sunday

I have just been watching the TV replay of the ceremony in Whitehall and I am sorry now that I used the title Lest We Forget for a post deploring the wearing of poppies weeks in advance.
In the cold bright sunshine thousands of men and women (and some children representing their parents and grandparents) from dozens of organisations marched past the Cenotaph after the top people had done the wreath-laying. As a member of the Suez Veterans Association (albeit with a lapsed subscription) I could have been among them, as could my sister who served as a radio operator in the WAAF. Like most of the others there today, we have a particular reason for remembrance—a brother whose bomber went down over France in 1940.
Today's ceremony, for all its complexity and length, was not in any way excessive. It was beautiful and very moving.

Saturday, 12 November 2005

Adeste laetis animis

Our school song was a rousing number but the lyrics were in Latin, which meant that few of us ever had much idea of what it was about. It was called Carmen, but this did not mean that we bawled it from the ramparts of Seville or that we ever had much contact with sloe-eyed castanet-wielding beauties of easy virtue, more's the pity. No, Carmen is simply Latin for Song.

It would have been pleasant to record that the school motto was Motto, but it wasn’t, it was Vincit Qui Patitur, which had little resonance for me because I didn’t do much suffering or conquering while I was there. A better one for some of my contemporaries might have been the motto of my primary school, Amor Omnia Vincit, though you could get expelled for that.

The references to Deus in Carmen were fairly perfunctory. The school had been founded by a High Church prelate—a bit of a show-off, apparently, who used to travel to Canterbury with a retinue of 800 horsemen—but four hundred years later it had become a rather godless establishment, and the only man of the cloth on the staff when I was there (Holy Joe, though I expect he had another name) was of no account, and his colleagues disliked the sanctimonious old fool as much as we did.

It is to this background, and the fact that I moved on later to a university college founded by a notorious free-thinker, that I attribute my lack of enthusiasm for the Church as a career, though at one time I might have accepted a bishopric, if only because I rather fancied myself in the hat.

We led a monastic life; to lust after there was only the headmaster’s elderly secretary, called, delightfully, Miss Bird; later she acquired an assistant, a not uncomely younger woman. I wonder whether these two were conscious of the miasma of testosterone in which they had to spend their working days, and of the roles (not passive ones, I might say) which were assigned to them in our adolescent fantasies.

These mawkish reminiscences were inspired by an Old Boys Reunion Lunch which I and a contemporary went to yesterday. We were rather heartened by the fact that although we were among the oldest there we didn't really look it, and that the number of old acquaintances who after a lapse of several decades actually remembered one or both of us was substantial, as was the number of those whom one or both of us remembered. And when it came to singing Carmen we were able to belt out all three verses and the chorus without using the crib sheets to which many others had to resort.

Thursday, 10 November 2005


Ever since, at the age of eight, I was one of the finalists in the contest for the annual Lucy Beamish Prize for Good Behaviour in Class, I have striven (strived?) to Do the Right Thing. In fact, I am known for it; people often point to me and say, “Now there goes a man who always strives to Do the Right Thing”.
So I was mortified* to realise that when I write on the internet I fall a long way short of the highest ethical standards; clearly, nowadays the Lucy Beamish award panel wouldn’t even allow me to be nominated.
I have recently come across several proposals for a Code of Ethics which bloggers are recommended to observe; an example is at Apart from being rather po-faced, they all seem to me to confuse ethics with etiquette or advice on literary style, but whichever way you look at it I have been ignoring most of their recommendations with gusto. Worse, if taken to task for this my attitude would be one of defiance rather than exculpation.

“Ethical bloggers treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”
What, all of them? Including those who merit total contempt? Most celebrities, say, or Bush, or Blair?

“Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”
I have never attempted the former injunction and consistently flout the latter.

“Always make your meaning clear and do not write confusingly.”
Well, there’s no pleasure in writing if you follow these guidelines. A bit of obfuscation is fun.

“Write only what you believe to be true.”
This would rule out anything in the nature of satire or irony.

“Never add to or amend items you have already published.”
Why ever not?

“Never plagiarise. Always give full credit to your sources”
Wicked to plagiarise if you make money out of it, I suppose. But otherwise, what’s the harm? If I don’t credit J. K. Galbraith with some bon mot that I have lifted from his writings, does it diminish his reputation?

“If you allow comments, reply to them courteously. Never ban a person, or delete a comment from your blog, merely because you disagree with the person, or feel the comment is too aggressive.”
This is fatuous; most comments do not call for a response and some deserve to be deleted. If you write a letter to a newspaper, can you complain if the editor doesn’t publish it or reply to it? At least if you comment on a blog your remarks, however pointless, silly or perverse, will have a brief currency before the author sees them and consigns them to oblivion. Anyway, Other Men's Flowers is not a public space, it’s mine. Others are permitted ex gratia to contribute but I’ll ban or delete whomsoever I damn well choose.

Explain your weblog’s mission.”
No need, mine is obvious: to give wide currency to secondhand jokes, hoary anecdotes and scurrilous rumours, and to attack with cheap jibes the credulous, the pretentious, the bigoted, the humourless and other undesirables. And anyone else I don’t much like.

“Expose unethical practices of other bloggers.”
Do us a favour, guv’nor, I ain’t no grass.

I suppose one should try to observe an ethical code if one aims to have one’s blog esteemed for its fairness, integrity and objectivity; this has never been my ambition.
The hell with Lucy Beamish.

However, although I am quite happy to evoke any amount of obloquy, prison sentences and heavy fines are another matter and I try to keep more or less on the right side of the law. There are some interesting notes on legal issues for bloggers
HERE, though these relate to US law; no doubt there are some more relevant to ours to be found elsewhere.

*I see that one definition of mortified is to become necrotic or gangrenous: this is not what I mean here.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005


As I write I am watching Tony Blair perspiring gently and writhing under the polite and gentle questioning of cuddly old Jon Snow, alternating between defiance, petulance and something close to tears of frustration at the inability of parliament to see that he is the only person in the government who knows what must be done to assure our security.
Once before, Blair asked us to trust in his judgement, and enough did so to enable him to take the country trotting along into disaster behind George W Bush.
"It is better to be right and lose than to be wrong and win" he said several times after the result of the vote was announced. This is a typically meaningless remark: in 2003, he was wrong, and won; today, he was wrong, and lost. We have learned something in the last four years; clearly, he hasn't.

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Thinking ahead

I suppose Anne and I would place ourselves as middle class, though in terms of antecedents we are a totally disparate pair. Anyway, we hardly ever hunt, shoot or fish; in none of our pursuits do we attempt to ape the upper classes. There is, however, one practice confined largely to the aristocracy, or at least to the well-heeled, which we do follow: laying down wine for our future enjoyment and that of our heirs.
Often, we buy some as much as two or three weeks before we intend to drink it. This year we looking even further ahead and have ordered a few bottles for Christmas; some of them are described as suitable for drinking as late as 2009, but of course none will survive into 2006.
A munificent government will shortly be sending me £200 as a Winter Heating Allowance, so in keeping with the spirit of this gift we have chosen mostly warming reds: there is nothing like a bottle of something described as "dark, rich and brambly; deep purple layered with spicy blueberry and chocolate Shiraz" for keeping out the chill.
Other than on special occasions—religious festivals, family celebrations, weekends and so on—we have made a real effort in recent years to cut down our wine drinking. We have two techniques, recommended by my doctor, to help us with this: one is to buy rather expensive wine so that we can't afford to drink much of it, and the other is to buy really cheap plonk which is so nasty that we don't want to drink much of it.

Sunday, 6 November 2005

Time for a decision

For weeks now the press has been unable to make up its mind about Tony Blair's position. Some papers say one thing, some another; some change their stance from day to day; worst of all, some take one view on one page and a different view on another page of the same issue.
Of course we do not want unanimity from our newspapers, but it would be nice to see some kind of consistency in their handling of this matter. Our language is rich in synonyms, but if we eschew fancy or obscure words only four choices remain, or really only three, because embattled isn't quite right.
Journalists must stop pussy-footing around with the alternatives and decide: is Blair besieged, beset, or beleaguered?

Friday, 4 November 2005

The simplest explanation

Tectonic plates, global warming and so on are difficult concepts for the layman to grasp, and many look to religion or philosophy rather than science to explain why appalling things happen to innocent people. Methodological reductionism (Occam's Razor), a principle often argued over, giving rise to acrimony or even fisticuffs in playground and pub, suggests that the simplest theory is always the right one, and perhaps the best non-technical answer to the question Why earthquakes? was given by, of all people, Winston Churchill’s son Randolph.
During the second world war Evelyn Waugh and Lord Birkenhead were holed up with him in what used to be Yugoslavia. They soon tired of his noisy drunkenness, so to keep him quiet they each bet him £10 that he could not read the Bible in a fortnight. He accepted the bet, and after some days could be heard saying from time to time in tones of awed admiration: "God, isn't God a shit?"

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

Foeniculum vulgare

We acquired a rather spectacular fennel bulb, the size of a melon, and wanted a new way to cook it; we don’t much like them raw and we usually do the smear-with-butter-cover-with-clingfilm-shove-it-in-the-microwave thing. A web search among thousands of fennel recipes eventually produced the simple idea of slicing it and grilling it with olive oil. With a couple of duck legs in plum sauce, this slipped down very pleasantly.
All that is not very interesting, but we had found the recipe in a newsletter from the site of Community Farms Outreach (CSO), a splendidly worthy non-profit outfit supporting farmland preservation, hunger relief, and education.
I read through several of their pages carelessly under the impression that they were based in the UK (not noticing the funny way they spelt “honourable”); this chap with his turnip looked tremendously British, somehow. Then I came to a list of their sponsors, one of which is the Massachusetts Vitamins Litigations Settlement Fund. Even without the name of the state, I would have guessed immediately that this is an American organisation.

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Lest we forget

Never mind about Christmas beginning in August, we are now seeing on TV a rash of poppies on lapels. Presumably everyone is running scared because of the vituperation heaped upon an unfortunate presenter who was caught last year not wearing one actually on—or very near—Remembrance Day, the rotten swine. Only ten days to go.

Noam Chomsky—the greatest intellectual?

To answer that question sensibly, it seems to me, you would need to ask another intellectual of similar calibre, and intellectuals being what they are his answer would probably be No, I am. Emma Brockes is a bright young journalist and did not attempt to answer it after she had interviewed Chomsky for The Guardian; it was a very silly question anyway, posed by Prospect magazine and answered with appropriate idiocy (yes to Noam, which is fair enough, but Christopher Hitchens at no 5, for God's sake?).

Brockes made the point that "Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's, he just states it more forcefully". Certainly, a mighty intellect hardly manifested itself in the interview, but then how could it have done? The most perceptive and persistent of interviewers cannot be expected to evoke with a few questions anything as intangible as intellectual brilliance. People with first class minds often come across as being clever, and stupid with it.

This is not a discussion to which I can make any useful contribution, but two things strike me about Chomsky: the first is that it is difficult not to feel some affection for a man who believes that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes and who voices the increasingly widespread disgust with the Bush administration; the second is that while a public figure with a great brain may well be without vanity as far as his appearance is concerned one is bound to wonder why Chomsky, generally well-shaven, has allowed—or possibly even encouraged—some spectacular white hairs (just visible in this photograph) to sprout, not from his nostrils as is normal with old men, but from the ridge of the lower part of his nose. This is reckless self-indulgence.

My idea of a cerebral giant who looks as he should is the great John Kenneth Galbraith. I published a photo of him on his 96th birthday last October and it is pleasant to hear a year later that he is still fizzing mentally, though sadly not in the best of health.