Friday, 29 December 2006

Before the Arabs and the Israelis

Many others have owned the Middle East in the last five thousand years. This fascinating animated map reminds you in 90 seconds who they were.

This site, Maps of War, also has more brilliant animations, particularly of The History of Religion and American Wars 1775-2006.

View them Full Screen if you can.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Comment is free...

...but often not worth reading. The Guardian has “a collective group blog, bringing together regular columnists from the Guardian and Observer newspapers with other writers and commentators representing a wide range of experience and interests. The aim is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement and to invite users to comment on everything they read”.

This seems a nice idea, but the comments often provide little in the way of worthwhile debate, particularly when the original piece leans to the left a little, as Guardian writing occasionally does. There was a cool and reasonable article the other day by Melissa McEwan about nasty Republicans which inspired a couple of thousand words of comments, some of them merely making the obvious point that there are some pretty nasty Democrats too, but many of them (perhaps most, I couldn’t be bothered to count) consisting of abuse from simple-minded and often illiterate bigots who have nothing to add..

This wouldn’t matter too much—most such comments reveal in the first couple of lines how little the writer has to say, so really tedious mouthings can be skipped—except that others who comment are tempted to waste their time responding to people with whom it is pointless to argue, when they could be making intelligent comments on the original article.

When the collective blog (called Comment Is Free) was started I registered a name and participated for a while, but now I just read some of the articles and don’t join in the feeble ranting that follows many of them.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Eat, drink and be merry

...but you might feel better while you do it if you
went HERE first (or HERE if you’re American).

Saturday, 23 December 2006

Warrior headgear

I was quite right to think that I wouldn't be able to keep writing about Christmas for a week. Enough of all that, let's move on to something else.
Here is a reconstruction of the rather splendid kind of helmet with visor, called a rhizopoda, worn by the Mongol horsemen, who, operating from the Mongol base in Persia and led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu Khan, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1250.

Halegu Khan himself used to top his helmet off with an impaled baby, which was said to give him a fearsome aspect and discourage the opposing forces.

[From an 1862 engraving by Dr Ernst Haeckel in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin]

Thursday, 21 December 2006

John who?

And another thing about Christmas cards: the contemptuous way in which people with very common first names often sign without a surname, thus indicating that they believe you are a sad, lonely person and that your circle of acquaintances is so pathetically small that you will identify the writer immediately because you know no-one else with the same name. You can only hope that you didn’t send the idiots a card, whoever they are.

And then there are the couples whom you may have met once in 1974 but who believe their personalities are so remarkable that you will remember them for ever.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Jolly Xmas fun for all the family

Christmas quizzes and Christmas competitions are among the most grisly of the things that Christmas brings; the mere thought of them is depressing. I have come across one which could actually be enjoyable, even though there isn’t much likelihood of me completing it, let alone winning one of the three prizes.

It is the Advent Calendar Competition run by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I doubt if many will accept my recommendation to follow the link I have provided but I shall describe it anyway, so there.

There are actually three competitions: one is closed, one ends today and one will go on over Christmas. In the first, every day from 1st to 8th December a page opened on the website illustrating someone who is listed in the ODNB. You click on the picture to get the full entry and on 8th December you had to answer the question: What festive theme links these eight people? The people were William Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel), Ewan MacColl, Quentin Bell, George Bernard Shaw and four others of whom I had never heard (so you see what I mean about me not getting anywhere near an entry or a prize), and the answer was: Like Father Christmas, each had a fine white beard at some time in his life.

The second part began on 9th December and ends on 19th (today). Those who feature are Bob Barclay (jazz musician), Dorothy Osborne (letter writer), Phiz (Dickens illustrator), Catherine of Valois (consort of Henry V), Sir Carol Reed, Nancy Astor, Anne Jane Thornton (sailor and cross-dresser), Constantine the Great, Sir Ebenezer Howard (founder of the garden city movement), Jacob Isaac (writer) and Ellen Ternan (Dickens' friend).

Today you are asked the question: Together, these eleven men and women point to a twelfth seasonal person. Who?

There is still time to enter this second part; you will have to fill in the form today. The third part starts on 20th December and goes on until 31st. Win either, and you might get OED books to the value of £200 (or the equivalent in US$).

Generous of me to urge people to go in for this, really, because the more entries there are the less chance I shall stand of winning a prize.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Merrily On High

I have been told that my choice of topics in the pre-Christmas period so far has been shamefully inappropriate, and I suppose this is true: there are very few aspects of Tory policy, marine diatoms or prostitution which are likely to waken anyone’s festive spirit.

So here we go on a series of Christmas-themed posts; it’s a bit early to start this because I doubt if I can keep it going for a whole week, but we shall see.

Many years ago when commercial silkscreen printing was in its infancy a friend and I started a little business making and selling, among other things, Christmas cards, in both secular and religious designs. Our artists were equally proficient at both but found the former enabled them to adopt a more uninhibited approach. Here are two of our designs; angels are timeless (obviously), but the style of the other drawing has dated a bit.

Sadly, the unsold stock is long since exhausted and nowadays we have to buy cards. Everybody knows that charity cards sold in shops give only a derisory share to the charities which produce them and most of them are awful anyway, so we get ours from a local voluntary organisation which pops up every year to offer a selection of cards from all the charities, and presumably passes on a fair slice of the proceeds.

Most of these designs are pretty awful too, and one also has to choose from those supplied by a charity of which one approves. Well, I suppose all charities are deserving in one sense (except maybe Eton and Harrow and all that lot, whose charitable status gets them £100 million a year in tax relief) but most people would rather give money to some than to others.


Friday, 15 December 2006

By any other name

The appalling events around Ipswich have inspired many thousands of words of media comment, much of it trite, prurient or fatuous. One piece I saw, by a female journalist who is usually fairly level-headed, was headed “Decriminalisation is the only way to safety” a pronouncement which apparently refers to the Green Party’s policy on prostitution.

Selling sex for money is not, of course, illegal in the UK (there is a useful summary here of laws throughout the EU), so it is presumably the ancillary activities such as advertising it, joining together in a co-operative, soliciting and perhaps pimping and brothel-keeping which they think should be legalised. To make her own version of the proposal absolutely clear, the journalist went on to say “we should stop regarding sex work as having any sort of stigma… It should be a job choice like any other…”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, we just have to tidy it up a bit, amend our attitude and regard it as something perfectly acceptable, and all will be O.K.

Exactly how this will work is not spelt out, and perhaps the Green policy-makers cannot see that a legal, properly regulated trade in prostitution, with every kind of protection afforded both to free-lance workers and employees—Health and Safety and employment rules properly enforced (minimum wages, contracts, pensions and so on), and the Inland Revenue keeping a watchful eye on tax evasion—would be a multi-billion pound industry. It would from the start attract the attention of our top entrepreneurs, not only as employers but in providing all the services needed, such as training, careers advice in schools, selection (head-hunting at universities) and the establishment of professional standards and qualifications. And, of course, marketing: Richard Branson would have a head start here with his already widely-known brand name.

Male prostitution, I suppose, might still remain a cottage industry.

All this, of course, is lunacy. The article prompted a sensible reply from someone who has seen what happens in places where there is legalised prostitution, and knows that it singularly fails to achieve what its proponents imagine. But it would not be fair to think of them as merely simple-minded: if you have a naive idea of what the trade is like, then the daffy notion that prostitution could become “a job choice like any other” arises naturally from adopting the term “sex worker”. It was George Orwell who first showed the extent to which attitudes can be moulded and ideas changed simply by controlling the words used to describe something: you don’t change the thing, but Newspeak makes you regard it quite differently.

I wrote about this phenomenon in the context of prostitution a couple of years ago in a post called Opinion poll; this was a feeble and jokey piece mainly concerned with Sainsbury’s check-out girls, but somehow it evoked some lively comments from women writers, one of whom provided a fascinating magisterial survey of terms for prostitutes in their social context through the ages (whores, courtesans and so on). I contributed enthusiastically for a while but we got side-tracked into talking about death, putrefaction, the Dewey Decimal system and other irrelevancies, and then a soi-disant dyke from Prescott, AZ, joined in and I felt that the discussion had wandered off the point and it was time to end it.

See here for a fair comment (from another female journalist) on what the trade is really like and why the idea of de-stigmatising it is daft.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Intelligent design at Georgia Tech

Coupling the possibilities offered by genetic engineering with the discipline of microelectromechanical systems, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have recently turned their attentions to the prospect of controlling the growth of diatoms to provide useful 3-D microstructures.

Really Magazine reports here on the astounding possibilities this offers, but those whose pulses are not set racing by such news can still derive much pleasure from the article, for it provides a link to the on-line version of Ernst Haeckel: Die Radiolarien (1862). Dr Haeckel’s work involved the engraving of copper plates with pictures of some of the more than 100,000 varieties of marine diatom.

But never mind about all that; even if marine biology means as much to you as it does to Dolly Parton, you cannot fail to find these engravings things of wonder. Here is Plate Number 34:

Click on it to enlarge it, and marvel at the beauty and complexity of the structures.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Up the chimney with you, sonny

The shadow Attorney General’s pronouncements about the success of our Victorian forbears in changing public attitudes to moral codes, together with a lot of stuff (in a report on social justice prepared by Iain Duncan Smith and published today) about fathers—particularly Afro-Caribbean ones—shirking their responsibilities and unmarried parents damaging society may not mean that his party actually wants to put the clock back a hundred and fifty years.
But the suggestion first voiced in 1983 by Margaret Thatcher that we could learn much from Victorian mores remains alive in the Tory mind, and some of them will not regret that a front-page headline in one of yesterday’s papers was:
Bring back Victorian values, says key Tory.

There cannot be many, even among aged Yahoos of the right, who believe that our modern ills stem from the abandonment of the values of 1850, and that—for example—giving women the vote, letting them into universities and allowing them to own property even when married were the first steps along the slippery downward slope which has led in modern times to a widespread lack of moral fibre and a general decline in such matters as the ability to wage a decent war against lesser breeds.

I suppose there must be some, though, in the higher echelons of the party, who sincerely believe this.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Looking for Jane

Suppose you are one of those people who doesn’t know everything there is to know about Jane Austen, but would like to. When you’ve read, twice, everything she wrote, and a few of the hundreds of books about her (including Claire Tomalin’s, 2000, and Peter Knox-Shaw’s, 2004), what you need is a biographical summary short enough for you to actually remember most of it. Where should you look?

The Oxford Companion to English Literature has a perfunctory 860 words about Jane, the Encyclopædia Britannica has a rather gossipy 2,490, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as you might expect, has a magisterial 19,660. All these require a subscription to obtain access to their online editions so there's no point in giving links to them.

But Wikipedia provides a crisp and enjoyable page. Rather oddly, it carries a tag, dated August 2006, to the effect that “To meet Wikipedia's quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup”; I have no idea what this means.

I quote from the article:
Twentieth century scholars rank her among the greatest literary geniuses of the English language, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare. Lionel Trilling wrote in an essay on Mansfield Park: “It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the secularization of spirituality as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch, and Jane Austen is the first to tell us what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of "sincerity" and "vulgarity" which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty.”

Sir Walter Scott put it rather more succinctly: That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

Mark Twain's reaction was revulsion, the silly old fool:
Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.

And Charlotte Brontë completely missed the point, saying cattily:
Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works… She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible woman, if this is heresy--I cannot help it.

But then Charlotte and her sisters were queens of sentimental piffle. Jane was not a Romantic: passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel: the young woman who exercises twice a day is more likely to find real happiness than one who irrationally elopes with a capricious lover.

Rudyard Kipling felt differently, going so far as to write a short story "The Janeites" about a group of soldiers who were also Austen fans, as well as two poems praising "England's Jane" and providing her with posthumous true love.

This, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, has been described sniffily as “a somewhat rudimentary coloured sketch”. It is the only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen, done by her sister Cassandra.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Many a mickle makes a muckle

Unlike the Scots saying twa piggles dinna mek’ a thrup, this old English one does actually mean something: many small amounts accumulate to make a large amount. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to mean, but it doesn’t really, because mickle and muckle are merely variants of the same dialect word meaning "a large amount” (there was originally a misunderstanding that mickle means "a small amount”). So the whole thing is meaningless and certainly not worth quoting. [However, in Budapest they say "Sok kicsi sokra megy", which does mean exactly what this mickle nonsense is supposed to mean, thus showing that Hungarians are more sensible than Scotsmen.]

For further confusion it should be noted that a muckle is also a heavy maul for killing cod. The OED illustrates it with a quotation from Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous: There was no sound except.. the flapping of the cod, and the whack of the muckles as the men stunned them.

There was a 1937 film of the novel with Spencer Tracy and the English child actor Freddy Bartholomew who later, like his contemporary Shirley Temple, had a cocktail named after him. Both are non-alcoholic and the recipes sound disgusting.

It’s difficult to get away from muck: the Online OED has a column down the left-hand side of the page listing all the other words alphabetically within fifty or so of the one you are looking up, a hideously time-wasting arrangement which obliges me to inform my readers that muckibus is a rare Irish word meaning drunkenly sentimental or maudlin and muckerish is US college slang, also rare, meaning unsportsmanlike.

Mucker, on the other hand, has a great number of different meanings. I use it in the British army sense when I end this post with: that’s all for now, me old muckers.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006


Wiktionary, the lexical companion to Wikipedia, has a useful—well, if you're going to Canada—glossary of Canadian English words. Here is a selection; I suspect some of these are long obsolete, or included with tongue in cheek just to bulk out the list:

allophone: a resident whose first language is one other than English or French. Used only by linguists in other English-speaking countries, this word has come to be used by journalists and broadcasters, and then by the general public, in some parts of Canada.
bachelor: bachelor apartment ("They have a bachelor for rent").
Bunny Hug: Term used in Saskatchewan that is a hooded sweatshirt with or without a zipper that has a pocket in the front. Also refered to as a Hoodie in most other provinces
Bytown: the original name of Ottawa before its designation as national capital, often still used in the same context as Hogtown for Toronto or Cowtown for Calgary.
Canuck: A slang term for "Canadian" in the U.S. and Canada. It sometimes means "French Canadian" in particular, especially when used in the Northeast of the United States and in Canada. Adopted as the name of the National Hockey League team in Vancouver. Sometimes jokingly pronounced can-OOK (not used this way for the hockey team, aka "the Nucks").
chesterfield: a sofa or couch. Used somewhat in Northern California; obsolete in Britain (where it originated). Sometimes (as in classic furnishing terminology) refers to a sofa whose arms are the same height as the back, but more usually to any couch or sofa. The more international terms sofa and couch are also used; among younger generations in the western and central regions, chesterfield is largely in decline.
concession road: in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, one of a set of roads laid out by the colonial government as part of the distribution of land in standard lot sizes. The roads were laid out in squares as nearly as possible equal to 1,000 acres (4 km²). Many of the concession roads were known as sidelines, and in Ontario many roads are still called lines.
Cowtown: Calgary Alberta, also called C-Town and Calgon.
Deadmonton Another name for Edmonton Alta. Also known as E-Ville, Edmonchuck or Oil Town.
deke: A word derived from decoy and used to decribe a fake or feint intended to deceive a defensive player, often drawing that player out of position, usually in hockey, as in "I deked him out and scored."
double-double: a cup of coffee from Tim Horton's with two creams and two sugars
eaves troughs: (also Northern & Western U.S.): grooves or channels that attach to the underside of the roof of a house to collect rainwater. Known to most Americans and to Britons as gutters.
eh: a spoken interjection to ascertain the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed ("That was a good game last night, eh?"). May also be used instead of "huh?" or "what?" meaning "please repeat or say again." Frequently mis-represented by Americans as A, or hey. May have its origins from the French hein, which is pronounced in a very similar fashion.
Family Compact: a group of influential families who exercised substantial political control of Ontario during part of the 1800s. The Quebec equivalent was the Chateau Clique.
garburator: a garbage disposal unit located beneath the drain of a kitchen sink.
homo milk: homogenized milk, particularly with a fat content greater than 2%, usually 3.25%. Referred to in the U.S. as whole milk.
hydro: (except Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Maritimes) commonly as a synonym for electrical service. Many Canadian provincial electric companies generate power from hydroelectricity, and incorporate the term "Hydro" in their names: Toronto Hydro, Hydro Ottawa, etc.
joe job: a low-class, low-paying job. Not to be confused with the computer term joe job.
Kokanee: British Columbian name for a species of land-locked salmon (accent on first syllable). Also the name of a popular beer made in the Kootenay district, also known as "Blue Cocaine."
Kraft Dinner: Kraft macaroni and cheese. Sometimes called "Krap Dinner" or "KD".
loonie: Canadian one dollar coin. Derived from the use of the loon on the reverse.
lumber jacket: A thick flannel jackeolett either red and black or green and black favoured by blue collar workers and heavy metal/grunge fans. This apparel is more commonly referred to as a mackinac (pron mackinaw). In parts of British Columbia, it is referred to as a doeskin.
Nanaimo bar: a confection named for the town of Nanaimo, British Columbia and made of egg custard with a Graham-cracker-based bottom and a thin layer of chocolate on top; however, this term is now common in the United States and elsewhere, thanks to the efforts of Starbucks in popularizing them.
Newfie, Newf: A colloquial, often derisive term used to describe one who is from Newfoundland and Labrador. Historically used with light humour in "Newfie Jokes", similar to "Dumb Blonde Jokes". Use of the word is now considered to be offensive and in very bad taste.
parkade: a parking garage, especially in the West.
pencil crayon: coloured pencil.
quiggly hole and quiggly town: remains of First Nations underground houses in the Interior of British Columbia
runners: running shoes, sneakers, especially in Central Canada. Also used somewhat in Australian English.
Timbits: a brand name of donut (doughnut) holes made by Tim Hortons that has become a generic term
toonie: Canadian two dollar coin. Modelled after loonie (q.v.). Also spelled tooney, twooney, twoonie, twonie, or twoney
tuque: a knitted winter hat, often with a pompon on the crown. Sometimes misspelled "toque", which is in fact an unrelated type of hat.
washroom: the general term for what is normally named public toilet or lavatory in Britain. In the U.S. (where it originated) mostly replaced by restroom in the 20th century. The word bathroom is also used; the term toilet is generally considered somewhat indelicate in Canada and is avoided.

Canadian French words are for another day.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

We the undersigned…

…petition the Prime Minister to…

Several columnists have found easy pickings among the requests which have been submitted to the online petitions website. I started to go through the 843 petitions still “open” (i.e. to which one may add one’s signature) in order to get a feel for the popular view about the issues of the day, but the steady background hum of ignorant bigotry was making me gloomy about the future of our country so I gave up.

However, here are a few under several categories that caught my eye. I have not edited them in any way.

How’s that again?
…take action against child abusers and tougher sentances when they seldom do
…prohibit the sale of Baked Beans
…one off payment for honest citizens
…make the minimum wage equal to those over the age of 16 (no longer of compulsary school age)

Oh dear
…force all ramblers/walkers to wave a red flag when walking on a "public road. Petitioner’s note: Waving of a flag whilst walking on these unsurfaced roads/lanes may help prevent farmers, bikes and recreational offroaders from not seeing a walker dressed in green waterproofs and causing an unfortunate accident
…Make spanish the only language taught at schools
…Keep Britain British
…make it possible for motorbikes to be allowed louder exhausts if the rider requires for safety reasons.
…take the war to criminals by permitting law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns
…introduce legislation which would recognise the Roman Catholic faith as the State religion of the UK
…Bring back public flogging
…For our Country, the NHS and it's Doctor's to practice and accept Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM). Including food avoidance and natural medicines for many illness's
…Give Serious Offenders the option to work for food. Otherwise they dont get anything!

Excellent idea and quite practicable (very few of these)
…Bring back the NIT NURSE* into our schools

Excellent ideas but very unlikely to be implemented
…Stop all wifes from nagging us men
…get people to stop bullying to other people
…punishment publicly, who pee on streets
…stand on his head and juggle ice-cream. Petitioner’s note: If he's not going to resign, the least he can do is provide us with some entertainment.[1409 signatures in support, the last time I looked]

On a more serious note, and totally unacceptable to Blair
…champion the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, by not replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.
…Acknowledge the illegality of the present war in Iraq
…fully investigate the failure of intelligence that led the UK into the war in Iraq

After reading all the above it is tempting to add a signature in support of:
…Stop wasting money on pointless "e-government" websites such as this one.

* Explanation HERE

Friday, 1 December 2006

One song, I have but one song

...One song, only for you… Thus warbled the handsome prince in Disney’s Snow White.

There were others who had only one song. In most cases they were people famous for something else, and one can see why a singing career did not follow: Lee Marvin growled along under a wandrin’ star, Walter Huston didn’t have time for the waiting game (the recording he made of Weill’s song become famous after his death twelve years later), and there was Bette Davis who pouted her way through a 1943 song complaining about the lack of eligible men:
They're either too young, or too old,
They're either too gray or too grassy green,
The pickings are poor and the crop is lean.
What's good is in the army,
What's left will never harm me.

I'm either their first breath of spring,
Or else, I'm their last little fling.
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup,
I either have to hold him off,
Or have to hold him up……

But my favourite one-hit singer is Conrad Veidt. He had a distinguished film career in Germany from 1916 but his widely-known contempt for the nascent Third Reich meant that he had to leave in 1933, and he spent the rest of his life in England or Hollywood, often playing a Nazi like those he despised. Here he is in Casablanca; he was the highest-paid actor in the film.

In his last German film he recorded a song called Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay, and it was later issued in an English version in which he was accompanied by what sounds like a chorus of tipsy Leuchtturm-Wächter. Actually he doesn’t really sing it, but does it in sprechstimme, in a softly menacing voice and with his highly imitable accent. It is about a girl who lives in a cottich thetched vis stroh and waits for her lover to come back from the sea. While she waits she does a bit of stair-gazing (or possibly stare-gazing), and when the record became a hit many years later its fans formed a Stair-Gazing Society in homage to the great actor. You can listen to him not singing HERE.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Let’s call the whole thing off

Eether/eyether, neether/nyether and tomahto/tomayto are fine, but the song gets silly because nobody ever says potahto. Someone will probably write pointing out that this is exactly the way the word has been pronounced for centuries in Adare, Co. Limerick, or Townsville, Queensland, but they needn’t bother because I shan’t believe them; Ira Gershwin must have searched desperately for another pair of words but in the end just gave up and hoped no-one would notice. And, of course, who cared about the lyrics when Fred and Ginger were doing their stuff?

There’s only one way of saying potato, unless you count spuds, tatties and so on. But the word banal, which has been around for a long time (though the OED can’t find it in print in its usual sense before 1837), has yet to acquire a standard pronunciation accepted by all. Sixty years ago, H.W. Fowler recommended rhyming it with panel, but hardly anyone does today. I’ve always said b’narl, but according to the American Heritage Dictionary only 14% (mostly English) do this, while 38% say baynal and 46% rhyme it with canal.

But none of this matters, since this attractive word is best in print, used to describe such things as politicians’ speeches, or the content of most blogs; it’s quicker than writing "devoid of freshness or originality; drearily commonplace and predictable; hackneyed; trite".

Monday, 27 November 2006

Corridors of Power

This phrase was first used by the novelist C P Snow fifty years ago. After it had been taken as the title of an article about his work by the critic Rayner Heppenstall, Snow decided to use it for a novel he was writing at the time. As he said, if a man hasn’t the right to his own cliché, who has?

This was one of a sequence of eleven he wrote between 1940 and 1970. They are essentially political novels depicting intellectuals in academic and government settings of that period; although the series has been read as a study of power, or as an analysis of the relationship between science and the community, it is primarily a perceptive and frequently moving delineation of changes in English life during the 20th century. The principal characters are mostly academics, scientists, politicians or civil servants.

This makes them sound pretty dull, and certainly they are not read much today. But I was impressed by them in my twenties and I am enjoying re-reading them now. They are not without their longueurs; Snow frequently has his narrator analyse a character’s motives and psychology at enormous length, based on a casual word, thus:
“Yes”, he said: he was not bitter, but quietly resigned, and with his memories of the events of earlier days still intact, though fading. I could tell that jealousy played no part in his sadness, and that given time he would probably be reconciled to the situation, and yet there was in his voice a hint not so much of regret but more of a dawning hope which….. And so on for half a page before the conversation continues. (This is not a quotation, just a pastiche.)

Corridors of Power is not one of his best, but is interesting in that the major public issue which arises in the novel is disarmament. The hardware was different (the atomic bomb rather than nuclear missiles), and the view that Britain should retain its “independent deterrent”, as it was, and still is, quaintly called, was easier to defend at the height of the Cold War than it is today, but the matter is topical fifty years later and it is fascinating how little the arguments have changed.

Apart from his novels, Snow is chiefly remembered for the Two Cultures debate which he initiated. This too is relevant today, though in a slightly different form, and gives me an idea for a later post.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Turkey Day

This is how they sometimes refer to Thanksgiving Day in the United States (the picture shows the first one).

This year it was last Thursday (they have it on a different day in Canada) and we celebrated it on behalf of our American friends by having for dinner one of the other traditional ingredients of the feast: sweet potatoes (we had them as a purée with mascarpone and crème fraiche¹, to accompany not a turkey but a pork loin chop on the bone, and very nice it all was too).

Thanksgiving is the equivalent of our Harvest Festival², but we do not make much of that and we certainly don’t have parades or make it an occasion for family gatherings and tremendous nosh-ups.

It is an admirable North American celebration which we ought to have imported rather than adopting their Halloween nonsense and allowing it to overshadow our Guy Fawkes Night; fireworks, bonfires and burning the Pope in effigy are so much more fun than dressing up the children in stupid costumes and encouraging them to scrounge from the neighbours by making veiled threats.

One of the good things about Thanksgiving is that—in theory at any rate—it postpones the Christmas frenzy, which for us starts much earlier. But although since the 1930s the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. traditionally begins when Thanksgiving ends, most shops start to stock for and promote the December holidays immediately after Halloween, and sometimes even before. Those who deplore over-consumption protest against this practice by declaring an international Buy Nothing Day (in America it is the day after Thanksgiving, in the UK this year it is TODAY).

¹ I don’t think I’d want to try many of the dozens of (Southern US) recipes for sweet potatoes listed here, though Sweet Potato Cake with Coconut Frosting and Sweet Potato and Banana Casserole may be delicious. It seems you can also cook them with peanuts, honey, pineapple and marshmallows, though not necessarily all at once.

² I am told that the voluminous knickers worn by elderly ladies used to be known as Harvest Festivals, from a line in the Harvest Hymn: “All is safely gathered in”. Just thought I’d mention it.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

...and don't stop in the summer.

From one of our bedroom windows we can just see a little white three-bladed thing on the roof of a house half a mile away.

A chain of DIY stores has been selling these wind turbines for £1500, and apparently they are being bought enthusiastically by people who either wish to slow down global warning and save a bit on their electricity bills, or hope it will impress the neighbours.

Either possibility seems over-optimistic; most people have read by now that unless you live on a storm-lashed promontory of the Outer Hebrides such a device is likely to provide barely enough power to run a hair-dryer, and will take at least a decade to pay for itself, meanwhile making a irritating noise and possibly shaking your house to pieces with its vibrations.

But the one we can see won’t cause much trouble of that kind: it doesn’t seem to be rotating. Perhaps it is a dummy, like those cast-iron cats people put on the roofs of country cottages.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

I shall enquire what time the inquiry begins

Americans have added many useful words to our (and their) language, but they have also lost a few. They use inquiry for all purposes and for them at least enquiry seem to be disappearing—Google offers 108 million pages containing the first and only 42 million with the second. (They sometimes pronounce either of them oddly to our ear: en-kwuh-ree, where we say en-kwahyuhr-ee.) In England we can, if we want and can be bothered, preserve a distinction: enquiry is used for asking a question, inquiry for making an investigation.

There is another distinction we can make which the Americans cannot. We can write programme when we mean a plan of activities, a radio or television performance, or a list of items, performers, etc in a theatrical or musical entertainment, or we can write program when we mean a sequence of instructions enabling a computer to solve a problem, while they can only write program, whichever they mean.

My programme for the rest of the afternoon is to launch an inquiry into the reasons why I have spent so much time on a matter of no importance to writers and of very little interest to anyone, including me.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Where’d you get those eyes?

When you are in a really black mood there is no point in trying to cheer yourself up by listening to some jolly music: it will make you feel worse. Far better to play something reflecting your feelings rather than trying to find something that might change them: the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, say, or, even better, that chilling Schubert song Der Doppelgänger.

From a poem by Heine, this is about a poor fellow who, wandering in the deserted streets at night, passes the house where his lost love had dwelt before she left town. There is a grisly figure standing at the door wringing its hands in grief and pain. When he sees its face, he realises that it is his own ghost*. Let Fischer-Dieskau tell you about this and you will realise that others have been more miserable than you.

Or, again Schubert, there’s Goethe’s Erl-King, which ends: “…in his arms the child was dead”.

But if you’re merely feeling a bit low, there are any number of pieces which can lift the spirits. Here are three which never fail to work for me:

1. The patter duet Cheti, cheti, immantinente from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, sung with tremendous comic verve by Martin Lawrence and Mariano Stabile.

2. Tout Va Très Bien, Madame la Marquise. Ray Ventura and his band, in a variety of silly voices, are Madame’s servants telephoning her with news of gradually worsening disasters, ending with the suicide of her husband and the destruction by fire of the château…..
Mais, à part ça, Madame la Marquise,
Tout va très bien, tout va très bien

3. Johnny Mercer’s Jeepers Creepers. The late Nat Gonella (he was 90 when he died in 1998) and his American All Stars, with Nat on vocals and trumpet, Benny Carter on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano and a sublime clarinet solo from Buster Bailey. Magnificent!

*...and the last verse is:
Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein liebesleid
Das mich gequält auf dieser steller
So manche nacht, in alter Zeit?

[You ghostly double, pale companion –
why do you ape the pain of love
that tortured me, in this very place,
so many nights in times gone by?]

Friday, 17 November 2006

A master mind

This year’s Mastermind competition has just been won by Geoff Thomas, a retired lecturer. We do not know his age for certain, but I would guess he is older man than I*.

His fund of general knowledge was remarkable, and even more remarkable was the speed at which he produced the answers. In earlier rounds he had chosen for his specialist subjects William Joyce and Edith Piaf. For the final he chose Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind, and in preparation had made a trip to Atlanta. He did quite well with this but not outstandingly so—15 correct answers—but in the general knowledge round this is what he was asked, and the answers:

1. Burke and Hare provided medical specimens for a medical school in which city?

2. A codling is an elongated variety of which fruit?

3. Which American harmonica player was largely responsible for raising the instrument to classical concert status?
Larry Adler

4. Brian Boru was high king of which country from around 1002 to 1014?

5. In business, what name is usually given to an individual or company which makes a welcome bid for a company as opposed to an unwelcome or hostile bid?
White Knight

6. Which playwright’s works include the Wild Duck and the Master Builder?

7. Which actor played The Good in the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?
Clint Eastwood

8. Which common name for a tree closely related to the birch comes from the Old English for “hard wood”?

9. Which England wicket-keeper was born in Papua New Guinea of Welsh parents and played his early cricket in Australia?
Geraint Jones

10. In the Bible, what’s the name of the sister of Lazarus and Mary who lived with them in Bethany?

11. Which Wagner opera is based on the legend of the minstrel who after spending time carousing at the court of Venus goes to Rome to seek absolution for his sins?

12. Who used the codename Formal Naval Person in correspondence with Franklin D Roosevelt during World War Two?

13. Which artist, one of the foremost exponents of abstract art, was born in Barcelona on 20th April 1893?

14. What is the meaning of the Latin phrase tempus fugit?
Time flies

15. The river Po runs for more than 400 miles before it enters which sea?
The Adriatic

16. Who has presented Radio 4’s Loose Ends and the quiz show Counterpoint since they both began?
Ned Sherrin

17. What’s secreted by the sudoriferous glands?

18. Who in February 1981 announced that his News International Organisation had purchased Times Newspapers from the Thomson Group?

19. Which Vickers aircraft was used by BEA to launch first sustained passenger service operated by turbo-prop airliners in 1953?

20. For which film did Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray win Best Actress and Best Actor awards at the 2004 BAFTA ceremony?
Lost in Translation

21. Which animals are particularly affected by the contagious disease glanders?

22. Who wrote the autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage?

23. In the French revolution, what name after the department their leaders came from was given to the moderate republicans who were prominent in the Legislative Assembly during 1791?

Given a quarter of an hour to rummage among the windmills of my mind, I would have got eleven of these right, and been rather proud of it. Geoff Thomas answered 23 questions, getting only two wrong (8 and 13), in two minutes.

When Magnus Magnusson presented him with the engraved glass bowl, he recalled that in an earlier edition Geoff had said he had two ambitions: to win Mastermind and to live to be a hundred, and went on “Good luck with the second, you’re nearly there.” I think Geoff muttered “...just ten years”, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, if he does make a century I bet that by then he will still have better recall and reaction speed than most of us had in our twenties. Not fair, is it? Still, he is losing his hair.

* I was right.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Mid-term elections

A friend, knowing of my interest in things American, asked me today why Other Men's Flowers has had nothing to say about last week’s elections.

The reason is simply that the media—at any rate the parts that I follow—have for the past week been bursting with expert, wise, perceptive and thoughtful comment on the results, and it is not for me, a specialist in the trivial, facetious and frivolous, to add my two pennyworth.

But I must say that I have been humming a merry tune for several days now. Every week or two I participate in an online poll (they give you 50p each time!), and a recurring question is: How positive do you feel about the way things are going in the world? (answer 0 for not at all, 9 for extremely positive). My answer has usually been 2, but in future it will be 6 (not 9, because Blair is still there and we have no Congress to restrain his idiocy).

Monday, 13 November 2006

Special Note: there are no special notes on this page

I like self-referential jokes like that one, and the sign that reads: It is forbidden to throw stones at this sign.

Here is another one I saw in an illustration of a British-born rabbi’s office in Berlin. It may well be a Hassidic joke from the beginning of time, but it was new to me.

Apart from silly jokes like these, self-reference is not a particularly amusing literary contrivance: Wikipedia has a rather boring article about it. But it does include some good examples, such as "This sentence contains threee erors". Are there only two? In that case the sentence is an error in itself, in which case there are three errors, in which case it is a true statement, in which case.... I believe there is a special name for this kind of circular confusion, but I cannot think what it is.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Cutting a cake

“The paper is a joint study from three mathematics professors at New York University, Montclair State University, and the University of Graz , Austria, and explores the subtle, yet crucial, differences between Proportional equitability, Pareto optimality and Envy-freeness.”

To find out what that is all about, you will have to consult Really Magazine, which gives some brief extracts and a link to the full paper (seven pages plus references).

This website is justly much-admired; its author must be joking when he refers to drawing “our reader’s attention…” to the post from which I lifted the above, and claims that the placing of the apostrophe is correct. If this is so, then it seems grossly unfair that Other Men's Flowers consistently attracts three times as many visitors as Really Magazine.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Steadily, and blade by blade…

Skip this one, unless maudlin reminiscence turns you on.

Fifty-five years ago, I was languishing (exactly the right word in this context) in Ismailia, in the Suez Canal Zone. There had been a long bureaucratic delay in sending me home for a WOSB (if you don’t know what that is you shouldn’t be reading this), so I wrote to my mother and asked her to write to the Minister for War (they had honest titles in those days). He replied courteously, saying that “a hastener” was being sent to the War Office.

A few weeks later, my CO, a pompous double-barrelled ass who had done nothing to press my cause, summoned me and announced ceremoniously that I was about to be flown back. I replied: “Yes sir, I know, my mother has already told me”. He never spoke to me again, not even to wish me luck.

I passed the WOSB, just in time to go to cadet school and buy the hat (£5 10s 0d, made to measure) before my undistinguished two years of National Service drew to its close. Not long after, the rest of the 30,000 brave lads guarding the Canal were also brought home, but a couple of years after that Nasser nationalised the canal and Anthony Eden cooked up a plot with the Israelis and the French to provide an excuse for parachuting troops in to seize it back again. This led to what many referred to as The Suez Debbakull; if Eden, and later Tony Blair, had consulted me about the wisdom of invading Arab countries on flimsy pretexts, they might have avoided such idiocy and the world would now be a safer place.

Then, in 2003, it was announced that a medal was to be awarded to all those who had served in the Canal Zone (presumably the cheapskates had delayed this for half a century in the hope that many of those eligible would have died and so would be unlikely to ask for one), and as I wasn’t at all dead I applied. Two years went by and then I wrote to ask why it hadn’t come, to be told, “Now look, there are thousands to be sent out and it will take time”.

Another year passed and then I read the other day that there is now a Minister for Veterans, one Derek Twigg, MP (imagine, a whole minister just for us!), so I sent him an email. He didn’t reply, but ten days later —today—my medal arrived.

It’s a pretty thing, and I shall wear it with pride in the unlikely event that an appropriate occasion arises.

P.S. And the next day there came a charming letter from Pamela Kay, BSc (Hons), Secretariat Officer 1a, The Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency, on whose desk my email to young Twiggers had evidently landed. "Problem with the computer system... completely unacceptable delay... really sorry... far short of the standard we strive to achieve and to which you are entitled... please accept my apology..." The letter also told me that I may apply for a free Veterans Lapel Badge.
Also, it confirmed that my application "was received on the 21 February and approved on 12th April", though it didn't actually mention the year, which was 2004.
But I was not being sarcastic when I said it was a charming letter—it was not short and had clearly been composed with some thought, and not merely by stringing together the standard phrases. And it was on cream laid vellum: I take back what I wrote about cheapskates at the MoD.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Saddam not pleased with verdict

...but had an even more arresting headline yesterday:
Silent plane would cut airport noise

and Grumio offered me another "Well, I never" headline, from BBC News Online:
Death row man 'glad to be home'

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Blue men

Although the Blue Man Group originated in New York in the 1980s and now has many shows running in the States and elsewhere, it would be pleasant to imagine that its successful current run in London’s West End is in recognition of the fact that there were blue men among the earliest inhabitants of our islands; the woad they painted themselves with is now being used again in the UK in inks for inkjet printers—it is biodegradable and safe in the environment, though the Ancient Britons probably didn’t care too much about that.

These brave people were over-run by successive invaders throughout two millennia, but those who take this as a reason to deplore recent and current waves of immigration have failed to realise that, compared to earlier ones, they have all been fairly benign, from crafty Huguenots, clever Sephardim and industrious Ashkenazim and so on, all the way up to the last sixty years‘ assortment, and none have come anywhere near to destroying our native culture as did those who arrived before, say, 1100. By then we had had the Romans bossing us about while playing out their decline here, hairy great Vikings with their axes, Saxons, Angles and Jutes pillaging away and finally the Normans imposing yet another language on us.

I say “we” and “us”, but of course we are nearly all descended not from the real natives but from one or another of those gangs of rapacious foreigners. Call yourself a Briton?

The least we can do is to honour the true original owners of the land that our forebears seized. This song, though anachronistic, admirably expresses their defiance and courage; let us sing it loudly, to the tune of Men of Harlech.
(It was written by an unknown hand and first appeared around 1921—though spats had gone out of fashion decades before—and may have been a Scout song; the perfection of its rhymes puts it in a different class from most.)

All together, now:

What's the use of wearing braces, vests and pants and boots with laces
Spats and hats you buy in places down the Brompton Road?
What's the use of shirts of cotton
Studs that always get forgotten?
These affairs are simply rotten, better far is woad.

Woad's the stuff to show, men, woad to scare your foemen.
Boil it to a brilliant blue and rub it on your chest and your abdomen.
Ancient Briton ne'er did hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck or knees or where you sit on.
Tailors you be blowed!

Romans came across the channel all dressed up in tin and flannel
Half a pint of woad per man'll
Dress us more than these.
Saxons you can waste your stitches building beds for bugs in britches
We have woad to clothe us, which is not a nest for fleas

Romans keep your armours, Saxons your pyjamas.
Hairy coats were made for goats, gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas.
Tramp up Snowdon with our woad on,
Never mind if we get rained or blowed on
Never need a button sewed on.
Go it, Ancient Bs!

Friday, 3 November 2006

Scratching your head

Ask Google about nits and they give you 3,710,000 pages to consult. If I were not so pressed for time I would check to see how many are referring to each of the main meanings of the word:
A unit of illuminative brightness equal to one candle per square metre, a Dutch band, the National Intelligence Test, and Pediculus humanus capitis.

But it is only the last of these which is a really absorbing topic, and for everything you need to know about it you have only to go to the magisterial website of the (American) National Pediculosis Association, Inc., called

What riches are here! Current Lice and Scabies News, details of the LiceMeister Kit and, best of all, a section for kids which offers Head Games, animations and Bug Fun Activities. And with one click you can send this page to a friend!

Tom Lehrer was joking when he told us about National Gall Bladder Week, but National Bug Busting Days are for real. There are no less than three of them: 31st October, 31st January and 15th June every year. I cannot think how I missed the recent one, which everyone else celebrated last week.

A Guardian columnist writing about it on Monday referred to the “trained, strong-stomached stoics who went into schools, checked every child and then informed the parents about what to do”, and rightly regretted the fact that the state is no longer nannyish enough to employ them; she said they were known as Nitty Noras, but at my primary school we were more respectful: we called them The Ladies What Look for Lodgers.

Photos of pediculus humanus capitis tend to be rather scary, so I have chosen one of the prettier ones, showing the adult male at the salute.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

The chance of a lifetime

Substitute Executive
Would you like to make at least 1.5K to 3.5K daily just for returning calls? If you have a phone and can return calls you are fully qualified. Call us - 888-701-3877
Goodbye, Lloyd Jones

Gosh! At, say, twenty calls a day, that's $75 to $175 each time you answer the phone!

I was greatly taken with this proposal, which sounds quite legal and makes a nice change from the usual lengthy and ill-written requests for help in money-laundering. Its simple and direct approach is really appealing: in the middle range of the likely income, the job will, if accepted, bring you in around a million bucks a year.

I thought long and hard about it, but although returning calls doesn’t sound too onerous, and is certainly well within my capabilities, it seems likely that some of them might come in at an inconvenient time (such as when I am having my breakfast), and the admittedly generous rewards would not be worth the resultant stress. So in the end I decided not to offer my services, and to leave the opportunity to someone who needs the money more than I.

Monday, 30 October 2006

One for the diary

I unaccountably missed the European Beard and Moustache Championships which took place last month in Germany, hosted by Der Ostbayerische Bart- und Schnauzerclub.

There was competition in all categories:
Schnauzbart: Naturale, Englisch, Dali, Kaiserlich, Ungarisch, Freistil
Kinn- und Backenbart: Naturale, Chinese, Musketier, Kaiserlich, Freistil, Kinn
Vollbart: Verdi, Garibaldi, Naturale, Freistil

The first World Championships were held in Höfen/Enz, Germany, in 1990. I shall certainly not miss next year’s, which will be hosted by the Handlebar Club of London on 1st September at The Brighton Centre. Details here.

As with so many other major world sports, we English led the way in early days—the Handlebar Club celebrates its sixtieth anniversary next year and claims to be the oldest club of its kind—but nowadays we are often outclassed; Germany won gold in 14 of the 17 categories in the 2005 World Championships and Beard Team USA will be strong contenders next year in Brighton, though they seem to have a certain lack of gravitas which may count against them.

I am sure that the distinguished Swedish photographer Tobias Nilsson will not mind me reproducing here this excellent photo. It shows Heinz Christophel of the Palatinate Beard Club who travelled from Germany to the New York City Beard and Moustache Championships last May and came first in the Full Beard Freestyle category.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Cinderella shall go to the ball

It must be a hundred years since anyone cared greatly about the distinction between shall and will. It doesn’t matter much in speech or informal writing because either word often becomes ‘ll anyway, and in most contexts using the “wrong” one will rarely cause even the most fastidious pedant to fustigate. Sometimes the right one is obvious anyway, as with the will in the previous sentence: shall would sound silly there.

But if you want to be fussy and remind yourself of the rule that most of us vaguely observe but haven’t really thought about, English text-books state that that to express the ‘plain’ future shall is used in the first person and will in the second and third. Thus, these are prophecies:
I shall go
You will go
He will go
…while if it is a matter of volition or obligation, it is the other way round:
I will go (I am determined to go, or I intend to go)
You shall go (you must go, or you are permitted to go)
He shall go (he must go, or he is permitted to go)

In the admirable Complete Plain Words (the whole text of which is here) Ernest Gowers points out that the Celts are different (well, we knew that, didn’t we?). They have never recognised I shall go, hence the very old story about the drowning Scot who was misunderstood by the English onlookers and left to his fate because he cried ‘I will drown and nobody shall save me’.
American practice follows the Celtic and we tend to follow the Americans, so we can no longer say dogmatically that ‘I will go’ for the plain future is wrong, or, smugly with the nineteenth-century Dean Alford, that:
I never knew an Englishman who misplaced shall and will; I have hardly ever known an Irishman or Scotsman who did not misplace them sometimes.

That’s quite enough of all that. Except, of course, for those who really want to know more. The King’s English (the invaluable gives the whole text of the 1908 edition here) has twenty pages on shall/will, introduced by this paragraph:
It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it, and for them the section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the lengths of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them from their constant failure to take him right; and the unobservant is the victim of false security.
These immensely patronising words certainly put northerners, Johnny Foreigner and the ill-born in their place; but they were written a hundred years ago: modern Wikipedia points out that the book is rather dated, deals exclusively with British English usage and that readers should be aware that its attitude to 'Americanisms' reflects the age in which it was written.

For those who really really want to know all about it, the OED (now free online to all Englishmen and even Englishwomen) has 20,464 words on shall and 22,811 on will, including the quotations. Reading them all is no mean task, but not without its rewards: for example, if you get as far as Section 52 on will, you can learn that there is a Lancashire dialect phrase wilto shalto (wilt thou, shalt thou), meaning whether voluntarily or by compulsion. This has become our willy-nilly. Its use is illustrated by the following quotation from an 1857 book on Lancashire:
There is at'll believe naught at o', iv it isn't fair druvven into um, wilto, shalto.
This is a charming pronouncement; I have just about worked out what it means, that I ‘ave, and I await an opportunity of introducing it into a conversation and a thissens producing a stunned silence.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Great composers

If you put “Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky” into Google, you get around three hundred references; at the very top of the list is a link to the third post in Other Men's Flowers, which I posted in January 2004.

I would be rather proud of this prominence were it not for the fact that the item, consisting of a couple of perceptive and interesting comments about these three composers, wasn't actually written by me: it was nothing more than a quotation. Thus was established the shameful practice, which I still follow, of publishing second-hand material .

Come to think of it, the second post in OMF was one explaining how I stole the title of the blog from somewhere else, and the very first was a parody which I had written thirty years earlier, pretending it was by a famous writer.

So the strapline for the description which appears at the head of the page should be Mostly Re-cycled Unoriginality. It is so easy to copy the clever things that have been written by others; I greatly admire bloggers who constantly strive to think of something new to say in every post, but have never felt the urge to take this approach. I fear, too, that if I tried to add thoughts of my own to other people's someone would say of me: Your work is both true and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are true are not original, and the parts that are original are not true.

Needless to say, I didn't compose that comment. I think was Edgar Allan Poe, but it may have been someone quite different.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

La Lollo is 79

It was pleasant to read last week that the classiest of the 1950s Italian beauties (until she was supplanted by Sophia Loren) is now to marry Javier Rigau Rafols, a rather younger estate agent from Barcelona. This photo is not a recent one, but she doesn’t look bad today and in all sincerity I wish them both happiness.

Sunday, 22 October 2006

On gravy

The chef of River Cottage recently said that he still hasn't decided what the best word for gravy is: “…I can't stand jus." Just the sort of remark one might expect from someone with a name like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

What’s wrong with "gravy", for God’s sake?

The OED says that the word is of obscure origin, but goes on at length:
“...prob. cogn. with OF grain ‘anything used in cooking’ and with grenade, grenadine; cf. also faus grenon = gravy bastard [an inferior imitation of the real stuff]”...
and ends, rather feebly:
“…the most probable conclusion is that the OF grané was early misread as gravé, and in that form became current as a term of English cookery”.

It crops up sometimes as a synonym for undeserved wealth. There’s the gravy train, of course, and one version of She Was Pure But She Was Honest has “It’s the rich what gets the gravy...”

One of the warmest and most endearing of Stan and Ollie’s films was Laughing Gravy: not much of a plot, just the two of them, a landlord and the eponymous dog.

A young chef of my acquaintance sometimes cooks for a retirement home. His haute cuisine is much appreciated, and they want him to do it all the time: “He makes such lovely gravy!”

There are many references to gravy in Dickens. Scrooge accused Marley’s ghost of being merely a bad dream caused by indigestion:
"… an undigested bit of beef… a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!".

And in Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs Todger, the proprietress of Todger’s boarding house, explains to the Misses Pecksniff the reason for the deterioration in her looks:
“Presiding over an establishment like this makes sad havoc with the features… The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one's age, I do assure you… The anxiety of that one item, my dears, keeps the mind continually upon the stretch. There is no such passion in human nature as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen”.

It’s an important thing, gravy, and a lovely word. To be treasured, conjured with, and certainly not to be lightly tossed aside by the pretentious.

Wikipedia has a great deal of information on gravy and describes some exotic versions, e.g. . Redeye gravy, made from the drippings of ham fried in a skillet; the pan is deglazed with coffee. This gravy is a staple of Southern U.S. cuisine and is usually served over ham, grits or biscuits.

Friday, 20 October 2006

Friends adding value

James Agate (1877–1947), francophile, hedonist and immensely prolific writer, wrote a weekly column of drama criticism for the Manchester Guardian before the First World War, and was theatre critic for the Sunday Times for 24 years from 1923. In 1945 Lord Kemsley, the proprietor, threatened to replace him with a ‘married man’ when he learned, belatedly, of Agate’s homosexuality.

He published, over twelve years from 1935, nine volumes of his diaries under the title Ego; they record chiefly the books, plays, personalities, club talk, and bohemian life of the time. I shared almost none of his passions, which included cricket, show hackneys, Wagner and boxing, but he wrote with scholarship and wit and I devoured all nine volumes of Ego and many collections of his reviews while I was in my teens. I still find them immensely readable.

After the diaries started to become famous he could fill pages of the later volumes simply by reproducing letters which he had received from friends; one reader told him: “I love your diaries: everything people write in them is so good”.

I have often wished I could do the same; so much less effort. But I do not have Agate’s huge circle of witty and erudite friends with fascinating lives who share their entertaining thoughts with me so that I can quote them at length.

However, I do have a few such friends. One is Grumio, the Sage of Soho, and another is George Corrigan, an Englishman now living in San Francisco, formerly involved in something called Logistics and Risk Management consultancy and now very happily working the West Coast clubs and pubs as a stand-up comic. A couple of years ago I wrote a short and not very interesting* post about the famous musical family Goossens, the last member of which had just died; George moved it down a notch and up a level by adding, in a comment, a wild flight of fancy.

[* Though it did contain a link to an MP3 file with a jolly little bit of Scarlatti which would lighten anyone's day.]

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

My horoscope (2)

Last Friday I was writing a post about superstition when I realised that it was the 13th of the month, so I thought it would be prudent to get some advice from the astrological top brass about how we Pisceans might survive the day. Here is the advice given (without fee, the generous souls) by eight experts I found on the internet. It is hard to say which of them was the most hilariously unhelpful.

MSN Astrology
You might be feeling a little stir crazy today, fantasizing about leaving your job or your romantic relationship behind you. You have been going through a challenging period where you have had to be more disciplined and focused. Free-spirited Pisces likes to handle things much more spontaneously. But don't make any hasty moves today. You don't want to end a situation or relationship that is teaching you and helping you to grow.
You've got lots of different directions you can go today but, if you follow a creative path, you will end up in a place that pleases you both financially and aesthetically. Children will play a role in a decision you make.

Jonathan Cainer
You can create a case this weekend, for getting upset and worried about many things but none of them, I promise, are as serious as you suspect. [Pretty perfunctory, this one; you have to pay to find out more]
Take the path of least resistance—wait for everyone else to get on the same page. A part of your past involving a female relative or some female energies becomes a pressing matter. Part of you wants to pull the covers over your head, but go deep. You'll come out of this with a new point of view. (via Washington Post)
Your new and improved take-charge attitude is starting to work today. Results are still coming slowly, but people are getting behind you more and more. No one else sees things like you do, and that is working in your favor. Resist taking on any more right now. Instead, take the path of least resistance and wait for everyone else to get on the same page as you. They can pick up the slack while you stand on the sidelines, cheering everyone on like a coach.
People can't keep their word. There are likely to be unkept promises and mix-ups in personal talks and communications. Enjoy your good taste and refinement to the max, but stay within budget.
If you do one thing this morning make a list of everything you need to do today as you are likely to in a very forgetful frame of mind. On the plus side someone who likes you a lot more than you may realize is going to let you know just how much they like you.

Mystic Meg
Your mind is at its sharpest and you are ready to say yes to learning extra work skills. Even though it may be hard to see, your opinions count for a lot at home, so do give them in a tactful way. Later, the moon in your house of love can turn even a grumpy partner into a real romantic.

There seemed to have been an awful lot happening to me on that day and I was undecided which advice to take: follow a creative path? pull the covers over my head? make a list of everything I need to do? Perhaps just “enjoying my good taste and refinement” while “giving opinions tactfully” would be the best way to cope with it all, provided that my mind is really “at its sharpest”.

But I am not merely a couple of fish, but a Chinese sheep as well (sometimes, confusingly, referred to as a goat): what does this tell me about myself?

Well, it seems I have a knack of getting off on the wrong foot, I can be charming company, I sometimes hold back my emotions, and I am not fully appreciated for my true nature. Further, I am first to complain about discomfort, naturally pessimistic, mild mannered and even shy, a lover of art and nature, creative, cultured and well-mannered. While being Intelligent, Artistic, Gentle, Kind, Cultured and Sensitive, I am at the same time Fussy, Insecure, Ingratiative, Self-Indulgent and Dependent.

This is almost dead right, though hopelessly wrong towards the end, but it is disappointing to realise that I am by no means the unique possessor of all these qualities: I share them not only with Michelangelo, Buster Keaton, Laurence Olivier, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Rudolph Valentino and Orville Wright but also with all those countless millions born in the same year as I and every twelfth year before and since.

Monday, 16 October 2006

My horoscope (1)

If you want to annoy a militant feminist (and who, from time to time, does not?), it is necessary only to make some confident pronouncement along the lines of "women are more (or less) [….] than men, of course". The response will be to the effect that (a) they aren’t and (b) if they are, it is because of social conditioning/centuries of repression by men/under-nourishment, etc. This response will in some cases be quite justified—generalisations about gender differences are often inaccurate and to be deplored.

However, there is one which I have always taken for granted and which can be attributed, as far as I can imagine, only to some innate disparity between the male and the female psyche. It is this: women tend to be more superstitious than men.

My belief that this is so was based merely on casual observation, until it was questioned the other day by a (totally unsuperstitious) woman for whose intellect I have the greatest respect. "Nonsense", she said, robustly, "there are just as many men as women who believe in preposterous things". Clearly, my empirical belief would have to be tested.

I decided to pick one particular superstition, since many seem to appeal to men and women equally (homeopathy, say); I couldn’t think of one which mostly men go for (though there must be some: UFOs, possibly?). No-one much thinks about spiritualism these days, and I didn’t want to look at religious beliefs because they are too heavy-weight a subject for a playful little enquiry like this.

So I chose astrology. Judging by the space given to it in magazines, and the serious money being made by the charlatans who peddle it, an interest in this drivel must be widespread, even if people who look up their stars are not necessarily taking any of it seriously. But is it mostly men or women who actually read the stuff?

I have to say that my results were as conclusive as any amateur, unscientific test (small and unadjusted sample and generally poor methodology) could possibly produce.

I began by asking friends and family whether they believed in astrology, but I couldn’t find anyone who gave any kind of positive answer (sceptical lot, my friends and family), though a few said they thought it was a bit of fun . Then it occurred to me that I could widen the field of enquiry quite simply, without going to much trouble. Most blogs offer some kind of profile of the author ("About Me") and the bloghoster provides suggestions for personal details to fill in: occupation, place of residence, gender, interests, favourite (sorry, favorite) books, films, Astrological Sign and Zodiac Year. I guessed that anyone who thinks it worthwhile to fill in these last two details may not actually believe in astrology but probably at least regards it as something more than a silly superstition and a lucrative fraud.
So over two or three months I looked at all the profiles linked to any blogs I happened to visit. This gave me a sample of 32 men and 46 women, and I found that 15.6% of the men and 73.7% of the women wanted the world to know that they were born under the sign of Capricorn, in the year of the Ox*, or whatever.

I believe this shows that women tend to be more superstitious than men.

Donald Swann had a song which gave me the title for this post:

Jupiter's passed through Orion,
And come into conjunction with Mars.
Saturn is wheeling through infinite space,
To its pre-ordained place in the stars.

And I gaze at the planets in wonder,
At the trouble and time they expend.
All to warn me to be careful.....
In dealings involving a friend!

[More about horoscopes HERE]

*Actually, Chinese star signs have nothing to do with astrology, though horoscopes have developed around them much as monthly horoscopes in the West have been developed for the different signs of the zodiac. For example, a Chinese horoscope may predict that a person born in the Year of the Horse would be, "cheerful, popular, and loves to compliment others". These horoscopes are amusing, but not taken seriously by the Chinese.
Every year is assigned an animal name or "sign" according to a repeating cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar; every twelve years the same animal name or "sign" would reappear.
Thus, the signs serve a useful social function for finding out people’s ages, avoiding having to ask directly how old a person is; you can just ask what is his or her animal sign. This would place that person’s age within a cycle of 12 years, and with a bit of common sense the exact age can be deduced.