Thursday, 30 March 2006

Observing things

I posted a note last year about the most successful series of books ever written by one man (14 million copies over 45 years and still selling fast). But these cater for only a single interest; there was another series of equal fame (with many authors but originally only one publisher) which covered a range of interests running into three figures. Among their subjects were:
Birds, Aircraft, Castles, Pond Life, Wild Flowers, Heraldry, Architecture, Dogs, Cats, Coins, Flags, Grasses, Cacti and Other Succulents, Postage Stamps, Modern Art, Weather, Paris, Music, Railway Locomotives of Britain, Horses and Ponies, Glass…

And so on and so on and so on. These are of course The Observer’s Book of…..
They were published from 1937 to 1982 and are now collectors’ items selling at prices ranging from a few pence for some titles published in the 1970s heyday of the series to hundreds of pounds for a first edition of The Observer's Book of Birds.

If the title of this 1964 publication makes your heart beat faster you should know that a copy was recently for sale on eBay at around £18.

Acknowledgements to Alan Parker/Stella & Rose's Books

Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Much ruder in Finnish

In a post last month I traduced the memory of John Donne by suggesting that the title of the comedy series Last of the Summer Wine might have been taken from one of his poems. I am making amends by quoting from an article which shows clearly how wise he was to write in English and not in Finnish.
The article is by Anniina Jokinen of Philadelphia, a distinguished writer who has created a magisterial and much admired website on mediaeval, Renaissance and 17th Century English literature. She was asked (possibly by a monoglot Finn rather hopelessly studying English poetry) to translate one of Donne’s poems into Finnish, and replied as follows:

Firstly, I do not fancy myself a translator of poetry. Secondly, in my opinion Donne translates into Finnish clumsily and poorly—all the subtlety is gone, and whereas the original is coy and veiledly risqué, the end result in Finnish is jarringly vulgar. That said, a translation was requested. Here is the first verse:

ELEGY XX. (Original English)
Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.

ELEGIA 20 (Finnish translation)
Tule, neitoseni, tule, kaikkea lepoa voimani kaihtavat;
Siihen asti kunnes uurastan, ponnistelen.
Vihollinen usein, vastustajansa näkösällä,
Väsyy seisomaan valppaana, vaikkei taistelisikaan.

Jarringly vulgar indeed, sufficiently so to make me glad that I never pursued the option of a degree course in Finno-Ugrian Studies. And some of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s verse is not just vulgar but downright filthy: the other day I found this phrase of his quoted in print together with its translation into several other languages: Täysravinto aaikuisille kissoille…. I ask you!

On the other hand, there is something admirable about a language in which even a soap salesman is palindromic: saippuakauppias. And Finnish has no gender: the same pronoun hän denotes both he and she.

Sunday, 26 March 2006

How now, you secret, black and midnight hags? What is't you do?

In my last post I wrote about some famous long-dead women. They weren't very interesting, so now let’s have a happy picture of a couple of living ones in spectacular hats.
In a colourful and moving ceremony in 1990, Dame Shirley Porter presents Baroness (as she then wasn't) Thatcher with the freedom of Westminster.This was, of course, before they fulfilled their respective destinies.

Friday, 24 March 2006

Early celebrities

As I expected, responses to my offer to answer questions about the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography have come flooding in by email. I shall answer one of them here and the other one in a later post.
Who were the first famous women connected with Britain (i.e. those who died before the end of the fifth century and whose biographies are included in the ODNB?).
Here they are:
Boudicca [Boadicea], queen of the Iceni
Brónach, an Ulster saint
Canir [Cannera], a Munster saint
Cartimandua [Claudia Cartimandua, Julia Cartimandua], queen of the Brigantes
Cranat ingen Buicín, Munster saint
Ercnat ingen Dáire, Ulster saint
Gobnait [Mo Gobnat], Munster saint
Helena [St Helena, Helen, Flavia Julia Helena], mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I
Lallóc, Connacht saint
Non [Nonnita, Non Fendigaid], patron saint of Wales
Ursula [St Ursula], martyr

A couple of queens, some Irish saints, a martyr and a mum: no-one of much interest there, except for Boudicca. Remember, though, that not a great deal was going on that early in these misty isles, and the ODNB doesn’t include the likes of your Cleopatra and your Queen of Sheba.
And their 172 male contemporaries didn't really amount to much either: assorted kings, Romans who visited or were stationed in the British Isles, more martyrs and lots of hairy great chieftains from the Celtic fringes. Very few of this bunch could be described as famous or even interesting.
In other parts of the world, of course, there were thousands of men in those times (and even a few women) whose names are known and who did tremendously important things—building pyramids, bearing the Son of God, inventing gunpowder, smiting the hosts of the Amalekites, raising the dead and all that—which would certainly have earned them a biography in the ODNB if only they hadn’t been foreign.

[The ODNB has no picture of the Queen of the Iceni but here's one of Alex Kingston having a go at the role for relaxation after her seven years as ER's Dr Elizabeth Corday.]

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Pavilion’d in splendour…

Monotheists seem to feel the need to give constant praise to their creator; all widely-worshipped deities are believed to expect this and to find any sort of criticism, however well-meant, quite unacceptable. Leaving aside the question of what kind of being demands constant admiration, it must be frustrating for the devout to know that there can be no let-up in their songs of praise, and that the merest hint of complaint, or even a momentary lack of enthusiasm, will call down some form of punishment, amounting perhaps to a plague of boils or in serious cases to eternal damnation.

In secular matters, happily, we have more freedom to express disapproval: when there is cause for dissatisfaction we are at liberty to give the offender a good kicking. So professional critics of plays, novels or restaurants can, when they encounter a real stinker, relieve their feelings by lashing into it. And of course a good outpouring of bile is a pleasure to read as well as to write. An experienced reviewer wrote the othe day with complete candour in our most respected national daily about a meal he had recently at a restaurant in Bournemouth:

The first observation was the scent of a badly run nursing home… the decor a collection of facetious conical lampshades and swirly wallpaper… nasty, grubby place… the secret ingredient [of the sauce]—Vim would be my guess, possibly Pledge—couldn’t disguise the rubbery tastelessness of the mussels… beef carpaccio staggeringly awful, dark grey… chips were ready for use as makeshift slingshot… wildly overboiled vegetables… white chocolate ice cream tasted like vinegarised Milky Bar… the most hilariously abysmal restaurant I’ve reviewed in a dozen years… 0.25/10.

Dinner for two with drinks at this place apparently costs around £120. This is equivalent to about $210, but Americans are made of sterner stuff than we diffident English and might justifiably refuse to pay the bill for such a meal.

Monday, 20 March 2006

A final nun from Nicolas

"How's about a coupla ringsides for tonight, Jack?"


Saturday, 18 March 2006

Here they come again

Just a reminder that if you happen to be passing this week through Southern Orange County, CA, you should note that although the Hirundos (Hirundae?) are due to arrive there as usual on 19th March this year, the parade in celebration of the event will take place with typical Californian perversity on the following Saturday, the 25th.
And what do the French call this species? And why does a Sussex town feature it on its crest? Well, you see…. Oh well, forget it, it’s not very interesting anyway. Don't know why I mentioned it really; I don't like birds much, silly sort of way they peck about.

Thursday, 16 March 2006

How to get really really comfortable, Italian style

This idiotic picture was used on the front page of a travel supplement to illustrate an article on how Italians take their holidays.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

On a personal note

Earlier this month a gang broke into my house. They had slipped through the unlocked front door and then suddenly burst violently into the room where I was quietly surfing. Though profoundly shaken, I had the presence of mind to grab the camera that happened to be on my desk and got them bang to rights just as they finished bawling Happy Birthday to You.

Daughter-in-law, son, daughter, grand-daughter, daughter, grand-daughter

I was then presented with a comic book containing a story about a mission carried out by a special agent bearing a strong physical resemblance to me. Though largely fictitious, it is to some extent realistic, for in a very high proportion of the 174 photos it contains, taken over a period of fifty years, the only action involved is either eating or drinking.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

Grimm with Axel and Lutz

My grand-daughter stood us up because she wasn’t well, and it seemed a pity to waste the tickets even if they were comps. So we were among the few adults-only groups at a matinée of Snow White featuring The Russian Ice Stars.
Anyway, I enjoyed it. (Their production company, which is based in Wales, has a rather good website.)
Watching them leaping about with great élan, I was struck with the thought that here is a really dangerous occupation: on a crowded stage with skaters carrying others, long legs with skates at the end of them whizzing round high in the air, it needs only a tiny error of judgement on someone’s part and you could easily have your face sliced off.
It all looks more dangerous than Formula One; it is certainly more exciting and prettier. In that dull sport, the most—some would say the only—interesting element is the possibility of something nasty happening, with plumes of black smoke and torn-off wheels bouncing down the track. But Russian ice dancers are much more engaging characters than racing drivers and one would be sorry if any of them came to grief. At the matinée, one girl did drop a plate but at the time she was twirling two of them on long poles and going backwards on one leg so one could hardly blame her; no harm was done, and nobody minded.

Friday, 10 March 2006

Diamond in the dross

I watch quite a lot of TV, and some of it I actually enjoy. By chance, I have recently seen the same drama three times and would be happy to see it again. It is in black and white, has no dialogue and a very confused plot, with a small and engaging cast behaving in a good-natured but rather odd way. This didn't put me off because nowadays I find most dramas confusing and the actions of the characters often seem to me to be totally inexplicable.
It is amusing to watch and a pleasure to listen to, for the sound track consists of nothing but one of those gracious Victorian piano pieces, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. I went on the internet to find out which one it was (who could identify all 48?): it is No. 32 in F# minor, Op.67 No. 2, allegro leggiero. Only snippets, unfortunately—bars 1-13, 51-52 and 54-56, but enough to provide a very happy interlude.
It doesn't bother me at all that the whole thing was created at enormous expense in a doomed attempt to persuade me to go out and buy a Volkswagen Jetta.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Introduction (2)

"Say 'How d'you do?'"

[Here is another one of Nicolas Bentley's affectionate drawings of nuns]

Monday, 6 March 2006

Ode to a Moose

Among the more laudable achievements of Laurens van der Post, the much admired writer, farmer, war hero, conservationist, liar, fraud, paedophile and alleged guru to Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles, was the creation in 1974 of the excellent Wilderness Foundation.
The foundation is currently proposing the replacement of 800,000 hectares of traditional farmland in the UK with reserves, possibly inhabited by vanished species such as moose, beaver, wild horse…..
This sounds like a jolly idea, though we shall need to accept that these reserves may not be places where we shall go for relaxing days out in the country. I mean, we are used to wasps getting in the jam, but having a grumpy Alces Alces turn up and start walking all over the sandwiches will be enough to ruin any picnic. They stand six feet tall, can weigh three-quarters of a ton and have antlers up to five feet across: sleekit, possibly, but neither wee nor cowrin’, and not in the least tim’rous, especially during rut. Also, it looks as if they tend to dribble a bit.

Saturday, 4 March 2006

More women

As promised in an earlier post, I have dredged the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for figures illustrating the gender (they call it “sex”) comparison for the number of entries over the centuries: HERE they are.
I don’t know that there are any tremendously interesting conclusions to be drawn from this, except perhaps that in earlier times you had to be a very extraordinary woman indeed to get yourself written up by posterity, and even now you have to be a lot more extraordinary than a man. It was probably rather a pointless exercise but it did give me a happy hour playing with this fascinating website.
I did notice that men who died in the second half of the nineteenth century qualified for inclusion at a rate (an average of 177 each year) which has never been exceeded or even equalled. This is surprising, since “famous” people of today include many (I mention no names) who wouldn’t have had a chance of having their biographies written if they had lived in earlier times. I suppose that in the nineteenth century there were huge numbers of chaps energetically building railways, writing novels, inventing things, making money and growing spectacular whiskers, thus providing something for biographers to write about. The number of women with biographies didn’t start to increase appreciably until the early twentieth century, perhaps because they seldom made money or had whiskers
In the spirit of generosity which has made Other Men's Flowers a by-word among literati everywhere, I shall be happy to look up things on behalf of sad people who have no access to the ODNB and to answer such questions as Who were the eleven women who died before the fifth century and whose biographies were included? Of course, if this turns out to involve a great deal of work I shall have to charge a small fee, possibly to be passed on to some charity.
The Oxford University Press also publishes the American National Biography. This has 24 volumes, is also on line (though most people have to pay for access), and includes 17,400 people. This is rather less than it should be, I would have thought; although it only goes up to 1999 and they couldn’t have found many to include before the Pilgrim Fathers, apart from the odd Aztec. Hollywood alone must have produced a few thousand people whose fame, if not their lives, makes them eligible for inclusion.

Tony Coeur de Lion

Blair confessed on a chat show last night that his decision to go to war with Iraq was underpinned by his Christian faith. So it was a crusade!
But asked whether he prays to God when making such decisions, he replied "Well, I don't want to get into something like that".
Ah, that's all right, then.

Thursday, 2 March 2006

Famous people

I have just discovered to my delight that by using my library membership card I can access at home the mighty Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a collection of the biographies of “55,000 men and women from all walks of life who shaped British history worldwide, from the 4th century BC to the year 2002. It includes not just the great and the good but people who have left a mark for any reason, good, bad, or unusual”. (The printed version has 60,000 pages and costs $7500.)
The women range from Boudicca (d. 60/61AD) to Barbara Castle (d. 2002) and include saints, monarchs and Fanny Adams, (1859–1867), murder victim and source of a colloquial expression. Men in the latest update include four Nobel prize winners and John Entwhistle, bass guitarist of The Who. Really, the only rule applied rigorously in selecting those for inclusion is that they have to be absolutely dead. And, I suppose, famous or infamous in one way or another.

What proportion of all the entries are for women and how does this proportion vary over the entries for the last two millennia? I shall answer these questions in a couple of days time; in the meantime those who are interested in such matters might like to guess at the answer to the first one and then see how close they got. There are 25,600,000 websites on the net which have some reference to feminism (roughly the same as for communism) as well as 47,000 feminist blogs, so it may be that there are other analyses of this kind out there somewhere, but mine will be based on the January update of the online DNB so will at least be more up-to-date than most.