Saturday, 29 April 2006

A Journey Up the Amazon

I ordered a Gift Certificate from a well-known internet retailer of books etc. and got an email acknowledgement. Then:

• After four days I checked on their website and found that it had not been despatched.
• In response to my enquiry asking for the reason I had a standard reply: “…apologise for any inconvenience…system error…working hard on a resolution…".
• Four days later I found that the order had still not been despatched, so I enquired again.
• I received another copy of the same message.
• There was a name at the bottom, so I tried to send a reply email.
• It came back “This address cannot accept emails”.
• Two days later, the order still came up as “Not despatched”.
• I cancelled the order. This produced yet another copy of the same message, with two additional paragraphs: "...We request you please write back to us after order completed so that we will refund you and serve you better... and "Please visit the following link to provide the information we requested...". The information requested was the order number, which I had already quoted on all my messages.
• I sent a second message cancelling the order again.
• There was no reply, but three weeks later the certificate was delivered.
• The recipient tried to buy a book with it and got a message: Invalid voucher.

And this was only an order for a Gift Certificate.... imagine what these idiots might have achieved if I had ordered something difficult, like a real book!

Two weeks on, I discovered that my credit card had been debited. I sent another message pointing out mildly that this matter might have been better handled and eventually got a reply saying that the amount would be refunded and offering "appologies" for the inconvenience.

Thursday, 27 April 2006

The OED, etc.

I wrote a post a year ago which began with a mention of rat’s testicles and a whale’s pizzle and went on to laud the virtues of The Oxford English Dictionary. Then, in June, I dealt with poo, pork scratchings and bonk, also with reference to the OED. Finally, a few months ago I wrote a fond and sad valedictory to this marvellous work, my subscription to its online version (£195 a year plus VAT) having expired.
Those who do not find the OED interesting may have been pleased to think that it will no longer be quoted here. These scrofulous degenerate louts—many with criminal records—will be disappointed, for from 1st April this year the online versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Grove Music Online, Grove Art Online, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Times Digital Archive and many other databases including the Oxford Reference Library and the mighty Oxford English Dictionary itself, all of which were formerly available only on subscription, can now be accessed FREE, and I can once again disport myself among the OED's half-million entries; talk about an embarrassment of riches.

This is the result of a landmark agreement under which 142 public library authorities in England have joined together for the first time to share the cost of a two-year national licence for a range of online publications, so that anyone with a ticket to a public library can simply get a PIN and use it to log on to these resources at home.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

If you can fake that…

you’ve got it made (referring to sincerity; variously attributed to Groucho Marx, George Burns et al.).

Or: He looked me straight in the eye and shook me firmly by the hand, so I knew he was a creep.

As with body language, so it is with speech patterns. Our leader tries hard, but, surprisingly for a former barrister, just doesn’t cut the mustard. A few moments of his matey, open, informal and confident style of discourse and you know beyond doubt that you are listening to a lying hypocrite cracking up under pressure.
I suppose that nowadays we would not be as stirred by Churchill’s Edwardian cadences as we once were, but what we hear now is surely the least inspiring political rhetoric ever. History might have taken a different course if we had heard on the radio in 1940: Hey, look, let me tell you frankly that we shall fight on the beaches…

Sunday, 23 April 2006

Tough on crime

Pick pocketing, 15th January, 1680.
Elizabeth Spark and William Abbot were indicted the former being a notorious pickpocket, was as she pretended picked up in Cornhil, by one Nichols a Butcher, who would needs fasten a Glass of Wine upon her, so that they repairing to a Tavern, whilst he was searching her Placket, took the opportunity of searching his pocket, and drew thence for her own proper Use, about 14 or 15 Shillings, and then making an excuse to go down stairs, sheard off ; at which the Cully having some mistrust, all was not as it should be searching his Pockets, found his loss; and runs down stairs, to enquire after his departed new acquaintance, but she had left him to bewail his folly: yet whilst he was in pursute of her, she not fully satisfied, returns again, perhaps for more; but contrary to her expectation, was seized by the Master of the House, upon which Abbot lying perdue, endeavoured to rescue her, and fell upon the said Nichols, who was then returned from the pursute. She pleaded in Court, that he gave it her for to debauch her, yet she being an antient Pickpocket, was brought in Guilty, but Abbot not being in her Company when the Fact was committed, could not be found Guilty .

Elizabeth Spark was sentenced to death.
A Placket is a pocket in a woman’s skirt; why one Nichols a Butcher needed to search Elizabeth’s is not clear.)

This and details of 101,101 other trials at London’s Central Criminal Court are set out in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1834, an online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published; it is fully searchable by, for example, Keyword, Crime, Verdict, Punishment, Gender, and Date.
The site also has notes on the historical background, including essays on Crime, Justice and Punishment, London and its Hinterland, Community Histories and Gender in the Proceedings.

From December 1834 to April 1913 the Proceedings continued to be published under the title of The Proceedings of the Central Criminal Court. The creators of this fascinating website have received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to enable them to put online all 100,000 trials between those dates; the project will take three years, and should be completed by September 2008. his2

Friday, 21 April 2006

Do not read on

If you are keen to catch the attention of those who stumble across your blog, and to tempt them to read it, it is easy enough to give your posts seductive titles, suggesting that what follows is amusing, informative or salacious. It is almost as easy to choose titles which do the opposite, and suggest the casual reader who comes across them that he should switch off his computer and get out in the fresh air. Few bloggers do this deliberately, but here are three fine examples of this kind of title which I found by chance:

My shoes and other stuff I buy

Our gorgeous Jenny is five today!

Why I want to sell Honda generators in Kalimpong

And here's one of mine:

Old Men Singing and Dancing

Wednesday, 19 April 2006

Limited sphere of operations

Having, in adult years, rented four flats and owned four houses, some Victorian and all in various degrees of dilapidation, I am no mean hand with drill, saw, paintbrush and screwdriver. Usually I tackled with some enthusiasm whatever needed to be done, and at some periods this occupied all my spare time.
I read recently that DIY is now going out of fashion, and I am following this trend ardently, for nowadays I cannot do ladders or bend down or lie on the floor (well, of course I can, but getting up calls for assistance). But the skills laboriously acquired over the years can still occasionally be brought into play: if the job is sited between, say, between three and five feet from the ground (and preferably can be done sitting down), requires little strength or dexterity, and someone is on hand to pick up dropped screws or tools for me, then I am your man.
Except that on the whole it bores the hell out of me, and I would rather read a book.

Monday, 17 April 2006

I bet it makes the corgis sick

When so many people nowadays think of religious festivals merely as holidays or excuses for gluttony it is good to hear that the Head of the Church of England understands their true meaning. Nick Crean, joint owner of Piccadilly-based Prestat, “the Queen’s chocolatier”, has again delivered the traditional Easter gift to Buckingham Palace—a 4lb egg stuffed with handmade truffles—and reports: “The Queen takes Easter very seriously and we make a very special egg for her”.

But this seems almost frugal compared with the way that the average householder apparently marks holy days: I have just been informed that my household contents insurance cover has been increased (without me asking) by £3,000 "during any month in which you celebrate a religious festival, to cover gifts and food bought for the occasion". This might give rise to false claims, since there are few months of the year in which no religious wingding takes place: who is to say that Zoroaster's birthday is not October 14th, and that the crate of Mumm which got smashed on that day had not been bought to celebrate the event?
Anyway, it is pleasant to think that if my house burnt down this month I could claim for a bottle of Saussignac...

and this.......

(though that would be dishonest, for these items are in my house over Easter to celebrate my birthday and not the resurrection of Jesus Christ or even Zoroaster).

Saturday, 15 April 2006

Thought for Today

"Sort of makes you stop and think, doesn't it?"
(S. Gross, The New Yorker)

Thursday, 13 April 2006

Home alone

For a (happily) short period recently The Other One was heavily occupied elsewhere for reasons not entirely unconnected with open heart surgery, and I found myself with unwonted domestic responsibilities. These turned out to be rather less onerous than I had feared, and I summarise below my approach to them:
• Bed-making. Unnecessary: it’s a duvet, so I just got out carefully in the mornings.
• Shopping. I like this anyway. I find that a bit of suggestive banter at the checkout sets me up for the day.
• Cooking. This too I like, and when I got bored with it there was always M&S.
• Dusting. Certainly not. What’s the point?
• Vacuuming. Had good intentions, but somehow didn’t seem to get round to it.
• Keeping up the supply of ice. A constant pre-occupation but not too tiring.
• Giving TLC to the cat. A doddle. She slept whenever she wasn't dribbling on my keyboard.
• Watering the seedlings in the greenhouse. Tough one, this: it meant going right to the bottom of the garden, EVERY DAY.
• Putting out the rubbish. Only once a week and no problem when it’s not raining.
• Washing up. (Doing the dishes as those other people call it.) I've always been a bit of a whiz at stacking the dishwasher. And we’ve plenty of crockery, so the rest could be done every third day, or before meals.
• Dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I tried hard but didn’t succeed in converting any of them to my own beliefs.

All in all, an interesting experience, though I am glad it is over. And probably The Other One would say the same.

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

The cliché is still going strong

In a post in October 2004 I quoted a comment on Political correctness gone mad explaining why this phrase, which at that time had appeared at least 631 times in British national newspapers since 1993, was a silly cliché.
In February the tedious columnist Cristina Odone referred to “little Welshies” in a Question Time programme. Apparently some idiot—possibly a small Welshman—complained to the BBC, and, hilariously, the police telephoned the wrong woman to administer a rebuke. Odone then phoned the police to have a go at them and they told her that they "take anti-Welsh racial slurs seriously".
The comment of the egregious Cristina, always on the lookout for a witty and original phrase, was: "I think this is political correctness gone mad". Still, it enabled her to fill her Guardian column with a rant about the North Wales police, so she's done well out of this supremely uninteresting story.
The Sunday Times was always very fond of p.c.g.m., and it appeared twice in their last Sunday edition; in both cases it was in inverted commas as if to say "Yes, we know this is hackneyed and foolish phrase but lots of people use it so why shouldn't we?".

[I must make it clear that in my own view many Welsh persons are neither idiots nor little, though some of course may be both.]

Sunday, 9 April 2006


One of the world’s great tourist traps is Mont St Michel, where the Hotel Poulard became famous for the omelettes made by the proprietress. On the web there are some 27,000 pages in English with a reference to la Mère Poulard, and twice as many in French (with slightly less referring to the historic Abbey; the French have their priorities right). Many of them give recipes for the omelette which differ widely from the only one ever revealed by its creator. In a letter dated 6 June 1922, responding to the request of a celebrated Parisian restaurateur and collector of cookery books, she wrote as follows:

Monsieur Viel,
Voici la recette de l'omelette: je casse de bons oeufs dans une terrine, je les bats bien, je mets un bon morceau de beurre dans la poêle, j'y jette les oeufs et je remue constamment.
Je suis hereuse, monsieur, si cette recette vous fait plaisir.
[quoted in Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking]

The menu at her hotel was always the same: the famous omelette, ham, a fried sole, pré-salé lamb cutlets with potatoes, a roast chicken, salad and dessert. With cider and butter on the table (this is Normandy) it cost, before the 1914 war, 2.50 fr.
Madame Poulard founded the hotel in 1888 and died in 1931 at the age of eighty, though she had retired many years before. Later there were two establishments claiming to serve the one-and-only true omelette Poulard and charging up to $40 for it. Since 2003 Michel Bruneau, founder of the Michelin 2-star La Bourride in Caen has been the master chef at La Mère Poulard and no doubt his omelette is pretty good, though to justify his prices he probably has to make more of a business with the preparation of it than Mme Poulard described in her letter to M.Viel.

Friday, 7 April 2006

Words and music

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece hinting at my extensive knowledge of French poetry. This was perhaps misleading, and I was rightly taken to task in a comment by an old friend. Actually, I do know several chansons de salle de garde (a less crude equivalent of our rugby songs), a poem that begins Le temps a laissé son manteau…, some French cabaret songs, and a blasphemous French limerick, but that’s about it: my acquaintance with poésie is, well, limited.
I think I might appreciate it more if I knew more of it, though I doubt if the same could be said of my feeling for German poetry and French music (always excepting Bizet). For me, the parodist Anna Russell was not far off when she said that the difference between German lieder and French art songs is that lieder consist of rather soggy poems set to magnificent music, whereas French art songs are magnificent poetry set to rather wispy music.
That was not her only bon mot; it was she who noted that a certain kind of English soprano sings in a Pure White, or Nymphs-and-Shepherds, style.
After she became hugely popular in North America and Australia her parodies became less amusing, but at her best she was accurate and very funny. At one of her concerts she sang her own four-part setting of a secular text called O Lovely Death to underline the point that there is absolutely NO sex in madrigals.

Wednesday, 5 April 2006

Frog poetry

I mentioned a poem of Baudelaire in a post last February and was greatly impressed to hear from a friend that in her teens she had learned L’Invitation au Voyage by heart with a view to reciting it one day during some romantic episode; sadly, it seems that the opportunity never came, not through a lack of episodes featuring luxe, calme et volupté but because none of them involved anyone who would have appreciated this mystical (i.e. incomprehensible) poem.

Perhaps I might have done, given the chance, but, let’s face it, nowadays there aren’t many of us left who know the difference between rondel, rondeau and triolet, or could give examples of the displaced caesura in Hugo, or comment on Rouget de Lisle’s use of enjambement or on Lamartine’s rejection of classical Alexandrines, all topics that used to provoke heated discussion down the pub in my teenage years.
Ah, fuyez, douce image!”, as we often sang in boozy chorus at closing time.

Monday, 3 April 2006


Issued by Lord Tevye of Milchiker:
"I wish it to be known that there is no truth whatsoever in the allegation that I have made loans totalling £1.8 million to a certain political party. Furthermore, I do not intend to do so at any time in the future. After all, it's not as if I were a rich man...."

Saturday, 1 April 2006

Cherie Blair arrested on assault charge

During the night, I drafted in my mind what I thought was a fairly convincing extract from a White House Press Office release announcing the shock resignation of George W Bush, with a view to posting it here. In the light of day I realised (a) that it was really rather silly and (b) that no-one would be fooled by it, even for a moment, because readers of Other Men's Flowers do not take any of its content seriously, with good reason.

The best (or at any rate the most convincing) April Fool hoaxes are perpetrated by institutions of the utmost probity: preposterous stories can be convincing if you read them in the dry pages of The Lancet or the Proceedings of the Philological Society. So in 1977 The Guardian’s seven-page Special Report on a group of Indian Ocean islands called San Seriffe (largest ones: Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, capital: Bodoni, President: Marie-Jesu Pica), enthusiastically supported by advertisers, was an enormous success, with travel agents and airlines making official complaints to the editor about the disruption as customers simply refused to believe that the islands did not exist.

But surely the classic 1st April hoax was the one put out by the BBC in a 1957 Panorama. In those days most of us knew little about pasta so many were intrigued by a short film about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. What really made it utterly convincing was that the commentary was by Richard Dimbleby, for disbelieving anything he said would have been like questioning the Word of God. (Sadly, he was not available in 1981 to provide the commentary on the wedding of Diana and Charles, because he had died sixteen years earlier: some people believe that if he had been able to grace the ceremony with his magisterial tones their marriage might have stood a better chance of success.)

The spaghetti film is on the BBC website here, and today David McKie writes in The Guardian with some other stories about All Fools Day.