Tuesday, 31 January 2006

Royal titfers

The mere wearing of a silly hat is not, in itself, funny: there must be some ancillary cause of mirth before we fall about laughing. When our own dear Queen opens Parliament the preposterous thing on her head—surely of a weight which would reduce a less hardy sovereign to tears—is over the top, but not riotously so: it is the addition of her spectacles which provides that touch of incongruity that is the hallmark of true comedy.

King Gyanendra of Nepal is much less admired by his subjects, so it is possible that his expression of gentle melancholy is deliberate, aimed at courting sympathy and at the same time giving his subjects a bit of a giggle. But perhaps it is quite unfeigned and arises from the distress caused him, poor fellow, by the need to wear on state occasions a tweed suit and a plumed and bejewelled pudding basin.

[This note caused great offence to someone who castigated me in an anonymous comment posted nine months later. I did not allow it to appear since I wanted to reply to it in detail, which I did in October].

Sunday, 29 January 2006

Absolutely all things

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) was the daughter of a major in the Royal Marines and wrote Hymns for Little Children, including All Things Bright and Beautiful. According to her biography, “…she died in Ireland and published a further seven volumes of poetry…”, though not, I imagine, in that order.

I always felt that most hymns of praise offer a rather one-sided view of the great creator’s achievements; after all, in crediting Him (or Her, or It) with responsibility only for rather nice things, little flowers that open and all that, they do seem to be describing a wimpish, goody-goody sort of being which couldn't possibly have created anything with a bit of zing to it like, say, Margaret Thatcher, or a plague of boils.

But Mrs Alexander was, after all, writing for Little Children, and in those days it was believed (though not by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann) that nasty things should be kept from them. We grownups now know, of course, that He (or She, or It), is no wimp, and that His (or Her, or Its) hand is just as good at hurling down thunderbolts as at sprinkling the warm refreshing rain. Some versions of hymns reflect this.

Friday, 27 January 2006

Freshening up the Taliban

I was listening to the news with rather less than half an ear, in the way that we used to listen to announcements about new peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, when suddenly one item seized my complete attention: An advance party of British troops from 16 Aerosol Brigade will fly to Afghanistan this week….

The last weapons I handled were Stens, Brens and Short Lee-Enfields, but for some years after I took early retirement (at 22) from the army my name featured on the reserve list, so in case I should one day be summoned to defend democracy, or something, I always tried to keep abreast of developments, noting the introduction of the M1 and the AK47, and being aware that the Hechler & Koch is a submachine gun and not a firm of investment bankers. But I had somehow missed the addition of deodorant sprays to the arsenal of British military hardware.

I suppose, when you come to think about it, such weapons were bound to be deployed sooner or later in the kind of warfare with primitive people that takes place in remote spots. Clearly, mountain fighters must sometimes go without a hot shower for several days at a time, and it is better not to think about the state of their underwear.

It is good to know that we now have specialist units to deal with this sort of thing. 16 Aerosol Brigade presumably forms part of the Queen’s Own Fragrancer Regiment (motto: Semper Redolens), known affectionately as The Squirts, and back at Pinefresh Barracks in Hampshire some grizzled old Perfumier-Sergeant is training recruits in the skills they will need—the volleys of short puffs in hand-to-hand fighting, the long co-ordinated bursts in a disciplined advance, and so on.

It is re-assuring to know that our Ministry of Defence will, in accordance with its tradition, have supplied these troops before they go into battle with the finest of modern equipment, ranging from lightweight fast-draw cans worn on the hip for dealing with individual bearded fanatics as they advance with wild yells wearing socks which have not been washed for weeks, up to the huge StenchMaster carrier-mounted cylinders which can take out a whole latrine from half a mile away.

And their ammunition will have been brought right up to date, too. Feeble domestic Lavenders and Citrons would be no good for tackling the personal hygiene of fundamentalist tribesmen, but no doubt there are refills of combat-strength Cinnamon, Musk Ox or Old Stogie already waiting to be loaded onto the transport aircraft.

Disappointingly, I discovered when I read the newspaper that I had misheard the announcement: Air Assault Brigade.

Wednesday, 25 January 2006

The Uzzards

You must imagine this spoken at a cocktail party in a gushing voice :

Oh, you live in the North, do you? How super. What fun. You don’t by any chance know the Uzzards? They live in the North somewhere. He’s in some terrific chemical thing up there and she’s hideously pretty. I mean, I hardly know them, but I do remember someone saying that they lived up in that part of the world. You must meet them, they’re frightful sweeties. Well, I say they’re up in the North, but of course at the moment they aren’t because he’s doing … what is he doing? How is it that one can never remember what people are doing? I think he’s doing five years. I think I’m right in saying five. There was some terrible confusion about some money thing he was mixed up with. Such a pity, because he’s such good value. And she’s so madly sensible about it all.

And the absolutely unforgivably ghastly thing is that I’ve forgotten what she’s doing, but I think that what she’s doing is life. There was some kind of dreadful muddle about her au pair getting sort of murdered. Such rotten luck. And of course just when she needed the girl most! Maddening when you get a good one and off she goes. Because the tragic thing was, the girl was an absolute marvel. I think that’s why David got involved in this terrible confusion about the money thing. I think so. There was some ghastly mix-up over sort of fur coats and abortion sort of things. I think that was it. Then Sue heard that David had got involved in this muddle about the money thing and she thought, wow, and she got into this muddle about the murder thing.

So absolutely awful when everyone involved is so awfully nice. And such killingly good value. But you’ve never met them? And now they’re not up in the North any more! How sickening. Such a dreadful waste, somehow. No, I mean of the North. Still, I get the impression it’s frightful fun living up there.

Michael Frayn

Monday, 23 January 2006

Confucius and Crackling

Last week I published a pretty picture of a roast loin of pork. A friend who lives in Ireland commented that it looked like a diseased liver, evidently unaware that livers, diseased or not, rarely have any crackling.
On the internet, as we all know, one thing leads to another, and my attention has now been drawn to Charles Lamb’s Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, in which he writes lyrically and at length on the subject of crackling “…There is no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well called—the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance—with the adhesive oleaginous—O call it not fat—but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat—fat cropped in the bud—taken in the shoot—in the first innocence—the cream and quintessence of the child-pig's yet pure food—the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna—or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosian result…

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

The greedy poet and essayist goes on to quote Confucius on the subject, describing how the Chinese accidentally discovered crackling. A swineherd’s son, one Bo-bo, let some sparks ignite a bundle of straw and their cottage was reduced to ashes, together with a fine litter of new-farrowed pigs which had been living inside it. Bo-bo poked one of the smouldering piglets to see if it was still alive, burnt his finger, sucked it and was immediately transported with delight at the taste: “…surrendering himself up to the new-born pleasure, he fell to tearing up whole handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next it, and was cramming it down his throat in his beastly fashion…”.

His father, at first angry, was tempted to try it, and “…both father and son fairly sat down to the mess, and never left off till they had despatched all that remained of the litter…”.
Then “…the thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district…” The authorities were not pleased about this outbreak of arson, and father and son were summoned to trial at Pekin. “…The obnoxious food was itself produced in court, and verdict was about to be pronounced, when the foreman of the jury begged that some of the burnt pig might be handed into the box….
They all tried it and “…to the surprise of the whole court, without leaving the box… they brought in a simultaneous verdict of Not Guilty.”

A happy ending indeed. Perhaps I take particular pleasure in this story because a thirteenth-century Franciscan namesake of mine is the patron saint of things lost, amputees, Brazil, paupers, travel hostesses, boatmen and many other things—including swineherds.

Saturday, 21 January 2006


Unsolicited commercial email is what the manufacturers of canned spiced ham would like us to call it, but everyone has called it spam ever since the early '90s, twenty years after the 1971 Monty Python sketch (Bloody Vikings! You can't have egg bacon spam and sausage without the spam!) which inspired the modern usage. Now, you can't have your email without the spam.

My main email address (which I don't want to change) was harvested many years ago before I knew how to prevent this, and about 74% of all the emails I receive are spam, which is close to the figure currently being quoted as the world average*. Research by Microsoft suggested that on one day in April last year the proportion was 98%, so perhaps it is a declining problem.

Anyway, for me it's only a very minor irritation nowadays. After a quick look before downloading (using MailMaint) the various other filters do their work and then there are only a tiny handful of doubtfuls that I may have to open and check; in all, I suppose I spend a couple of minutes a day deleting spam, which is not a great burden, about the same time as I spend polishing my glasses.

But over a few days last week I actually looked at a couple of hundred spam messages before deleting them, just to see what sort of things were coming in. The enticing offers broke down as follows:
Drugs (including Viagra): 78
Dodgy goods (watches, software, university degrees): 39
Financial (shares, mortgages etc): 30
Miscellaneous or incomprehensible: 22
In Russian or Japanese: 9
Easy money: 7
Hotels and travel: 7
Porn: 6
Scams (419 type): 2

[*The website linked here has a great deal of data about the countries where spam and viruses originate. It seems that the UK is relatively innocent in this respect, though it looks on their map as if there might be a bit of spam-producing wickedness going on in the Brighton area, which would surprise no-one. However, some sources of spam cannot be traced, so it is quite possible that there is a vast organisation based in, say, Bourton-on-the-Water, churning out spam and cunningly concealing its location.]

Thursday, 19 January 2006

That sounds good

I imagined—and, indeed, asserted—that the title of my previous post was a good one for exciting readers’ interest, but of course in my innocence I had forgotten that a title which promises nothing to the prurient can never be of universal appeal, particularly if it is very long and cryptic in a dull sort of way.

Someone who understands this very well is a major league fruitcake called David Jay Jordan who lives in Canada. His colourful and exuberant website has attracted over a million hits over the last five years and one can see why, for it has something for everyone.

Most visitors to his pages will probably not bother with the links to items like I was one of Canada’s Ten Most Wanted, or Basketball for Jesus, or Geography Mysteries, and indeed these lead to nothing very exciting.

Feminists might want to check out his Wonderful Women webpage covering Twelve Women Apostles of Jesus, Feminine Holy Spirit, Women Warrior Poems, etc, but they will find little to inspire them there.
A great number of his page titles, however, feature the key word which attracts those who spend their days trawling the net for titillation They will want to go straight to Sexual Mysteries; few people in search of lewdness, or even, for the most depraved, a bit of hardcore, could resist the lure of links to Sexual Dancing, Sex Is Divine, Chocolate Sex, Fish Sex and the Bible, and 130 Years of Recreational Sex.

Following these, however, may lead to disappointment; for example, Mr Jordan tells us that the 130 years which sound like fun are merely those between the Creation and the birth of Seth, when Adam and Eve "just kept doing what came natural, until the Lord eventually blessed them with another son to replace their beloved Able".

Tuesday, 17 January 2006

Yes, I meant Bored of Fitzrovia* in the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells sense

Good title, that, if a bit long. Arresting. Intriguing. Makes you want to read on to find out what it's all about.

Last Friday I sent an email: In the freezer we have a loin of pork on the bone, if you want to come to lunch on Sunday. Afterwards I realised that this was a slovenly way of writing, because our possession of a loin of pork, whether on the bone in the freezer or not, was in no way contingent upon whether anyone wanted to come to lunch on Sunday. The erudite recipient of the invitation described the sentence as a non sequitur, and for all I know he was right. Anyway, he signified acceptance of my gracious invitation by replying in a gratuitously brusque manner: Defrost your loin.

Actually the proposal was rendered nugatory because he and his wife decided to come on Saturday instead, so they didn’t get any pork; we ate it ourselves the next day.

But, I hear you cry, what bearing does this pointless anecdote have on the cryptic title above? It is true that there is a close link, but now that I have started to write this piece it occurs to me that the relationship is a complex one, and that explaining it will be a difficult and lengthy procedure. It's been a long day and I don’t think I'm up to it: ye must thole yer ain ignorance, as Burns might well have said in such a circumstance.

But here's a nice picture of the loin in question.

[* Never heard of Fitzrovia?]

Sunday, 15 January 2006

Signals for the highway

Our Highway Code has a series of rather pretty illustrations of hand and light signals for drivers (I couldn't find any in the Straßenverkehrsgesetz but it probably has some; if in doubt when driving in Germany, Schrittgeschwindigkeit is the word to bear in mind).
In earlier editions of the British code there was a very fetching line drawing of a man driving a cart, showing him from the back, sitting up in an alert manner as he held his whip aloft, rotating the tip anti-clockwise; I think this indicated that the whole equipage was about to veer to the left, but it may have meant something quite different. Sadly, Google Images could not help with a reproduction.
With regard to flashing headlights, the Highway Code says "Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there", but wisely adds, ..."never assume that it is a signal to go. Use your own judgement and proceed carefully". Yes, indeed, for in my experience the driver is saying either "You stay there, I'm coming through", or "You go first, sweetie", or "You're a dangerous idiot!", or "Watch out, police trap ahead", or (if he's a truckdriver) "It's OK to pull over in front of me now", or (if abroad) "Hi there, compatriot!", or "Did you know your sump's falling off?", or, to the driver behind you,"Good morning, George".

Friday, 13 January 2006

Delayed responses

Several correspondents are awaiting replies to recent emails they have sent me. These are in the main messages raising complex issues and therefore requiring detailed and lengthy answers from me, and the truth is that at the moment I simply do not have the time to consider such topics as those raised by Peter Liebeschütz in his draft paper on Ontological and Epistemiological Methods in Textual Analysis, of which he has very kindly sent me a copy.
I am currently working on an article of my own for Grazer Philosophische Studien (Internationale Zeitschrift für Analytische Philosophie) and had hoped to have this ready to submit in time for the summer edition, but it is proving a more onerous undertaking than I had expected and I am already behind with it.

Apologies to all. Please be patient.

Wednesday, 11 January 2006

Comments that aren't

A particularly offensive spamming trick is posting the same comment on a very large number of random blogs, the idea being that you can compliment the blog owner on his blog and include in the message a link to your own blog which will increase his Google rating.
A typical message might be:
Great blog! I have put this among my favourites and will certainly come back often to look at it again. You might like to have a look at mine: www......
This comment spam is easy enough to identify, because such messages will not refer to anything specific in your blog, but deleting them is a chore. There are many websites (e.g. this one) suggesting ways of combatting this nuisance, many of them specific to one bloghoster, but some prophylactic measures are off-putting for genuine commenters or are difficult to apply if you get a very large number of genuine comments.
I use comment moderation, which means that every comment is forwarded to me in an email before it is published, and I can choose to reject it or allow it to appear. This works well for me, and also makes it possible to reject comments which, though genuine, I prefer for one reason or another not to have appearing on my blog.

[One woman with whom for some weeks I had been having an enjoyable exchange of views in our respective blogs or by email suddenly became antagonistic because she had begun to receive spam comments and was convinced, in spite of my denials, that I was responsible. So our relationship ended: sad, really.]

Monday, 9 January 2006

Look who's turned up in Las Vegas

I have added one more to my list of film quotes which have given me pleasure.
A few days before Christmas I was enjoying a lunchtime G&T, as is my wont, and the TV happened to be on. Suddenly, there was Elizabeth Cleopatra Taylor, clad in 24-carat gold, preceded by huge squads of dancers, musicians, shamans and assorted horsemen, seated fifty feet up between the paws of a sphinx being dragged along by several hundred slaves keeping perfect step, while Rex Caesar Harrison, strongly got up in purple but looking slightly bemused—as well he might—awaited her. Richard Antony Burton leans over and imparts:
"Nothing like this has entered Rome since Romulus and Remus."

He sure spoke a mouthful there.

Saturday, 7 January 2006

Hardship on the South Coast

Last week our garden looked like this, for a very short period; a nice picture, but not really news.
The seaside town where we live had the "heaviest snowfall in Britain", no less than 13 cm in two days. The local paper spoke of severe rail disruptions... bus services in chaos... dangerous road conditions, and had a huge front-page picture of the town centre with what looked like a dusting of snow on the rooftops and a perfectly clear main road. The implication was that if all this continued they would soon have to get the helicopters out to drop us emergency supplies.

How this would mystify any Canadian or Finn!

But I think I'd rather live here than in countries that have terrible winters; imagine having to do as my Canadian relatives do and decamp to Phoenix, AZ, when it starts to get cold.

Thursday, 5 January 2006

Ginette, Yad Vashem
and the House of Lords

A friend of ours named Ginette lived in France during World War II. We have known her for many years, but only recently heard the story of what she did as a young girl.

In 1941 her parents, Georges and Eva Rouquet, owned a greengrocer's shop in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in south west France, and in 1943 Ginette moved there from Paris. Among the customers of the Rouquets were a Jewish couple, Raymond and Marthe Friedman, who had fled Nazi-occupied Paris with their 13-year-old son Jacques. When arrests of Jews became more frequent Georges and Eva hid the Friedmans in the attic space above their shop, while Jacques was boarded at a school nearby, provided with false papers by the headmaster and frequently visited by Ginette.
By May 1944 the tension in Villeneuve had grown so much that the Friedmans had to flee again. Ginette managed to provide Raymond with false papers and the family left separately to stay with a friend of Georges who lived in the Black Mountains and had agreed to shelter them. Ginette accompanied Jacques on the journey.

It was through the actions of Ginette and her parents, at great risk to themselves, that the Friedmans survived the Holocaust. In recent years Ginette renewed her friendship with the young boy Jacques Friedman—now 75 years old—who wrote an account of all that her family had done for him and his parents, with the result that the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority have entered Ginette's parents' name and hers in their records and presented her with a medal and a certificate recognising their bravery.

Ginette was kind enough to invite my wife and me to be with her and her family—and Jacques Friedman—when the presentation was made last month by the Israeli Ambassador in a ceremony at the House of Lords. Here she is, more than sixty years after the events for which she and her late parents have now been rightly honoured.

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Bouquets and brickbats

Eighteen months ago The Weblog Review (now defunct) looked at Other Men's Flowers and made some comments. One of the reviewers, a writer of some consequence herself, quite liked it; the other was not at all impressed but did make one very perspicacious remark: the vast majority of posts are off topic and trivially nondescript. I loved that bit: it's EXACTLY what I aim for in all my writing.
Last week two more reviewers had a go and neither of them could find anything interesting in the blog: you can see some extracts from their reviews HERE. I believe they really thought I was serious.
It is strange that some compatriots of Lehrer and Thurber find parody, satire and irony pass them by like foreign movies, and need signposts before they can enjoy them. I heard that when Monty Python's Flying Circus first went out in the States it was not popular: a lot of silly Limey twits fooling about. Then, a critic described their humour as "zany" and a great light dawned: ZANY! Of course, that's what it is! Woohahaha!
Nowadays, you can get just as sick in the States as you can in Britain of people quoting from The Parrot Sketch or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eric Idle's SpamAlot won the 2005 Tony award for Best Musical, is currently pulling them in at the Shubert on Broadway, and then goes to Boston and Chicago.

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Happy Birthday!

Two years old today!
It’s an exciting age: using new words all the time and sometimes getting them almost right, generally with a sunny disposition but occasionally spiteful, stubborn or wilful, possessing a short attention span and easily distracted, constantly demanding praise and re-assurance but often affectionate, and very nearly potty-trained.

Yes, Other Men's Flowers has come a long way since 1st January 2004: today it contains 344 posts (listed and described here) with 115 pictures, 304 links, 614 comments and 85,754 words.
That is, on average, 17.2 words an hour, assuming a 48-hour working week with no holidays.
Put that way I suppose it doesn’t sound very many. I would drive myself, like the mighty Boxer, to work harder, except that this led to him being carried away, hooves feebly drumming, in the knacker’s van. However, a favourite correspondent has assured me that, whatever the deficiencies of OMF, she will come to my rescue if there is any likelihood of me being boiled down to make glue.
[Those who have no idea what that last paragraph is all about should not ask or attempt to comment because they will be first insulted and then deleted, and those who do know need not show off by telling me. So there.]