Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Three words, two meanings

Some quite literate people often get this wrong:

Loathe, v.t. detest, regard with disgust [OE lathian]
Example: I really loathe him and his awful wife

Loath, loth, pred. a. unwilling, disinclined [OE lath]
I am loath to vote for his lousy party wor_pol_

Monday, 29 May 2006

Lies, damned lies and fiction

I never had any desire to read The Da Vinci Code but I did think I might go and see the film when it came out. Now that it has, I am not sure I shall bother, since the reviews I have read suggest that in plausibility, literacy and characterisation it is even worse than the book, though seeing Ian McKellen camping it up dementedly is always fun, and nothing so roundly condemned by the Vatican and fundamentalists of assorted faiths can be all bad.

Debate has centred on the distinction to be made between truth and fiction in both these works rather than the merits of either. This, as Mark Lawson points out in a Guardian article, is remarkable considering that The DVC is possibly one of the most preposterous novels ever written, and, moreover, that “If Dan Brown had written the book in the style of journalism (a common fictional device), then there might have been confusion among those troubled enough to be confused. But Brown told his tale in a prose so far from reportage (indeed, from any recognisable form of English) that the book telegraphs its own incredibility on every single page”.

Lawson wished to avoid such debate arising over his article, and therefore invented his own simple code to guard as far as possible against misunderstanding: he classified every sentence of it as either O for opinion or F for fact, and notes that “Ian McKellen suggested that perhaps there should be a warning printed at the beginning of the Bible saying that some of it might be fiction; for example, the walking on water. What McKellen said is clearly a fact, F, while the miracles are a matter of O”.

Finally, Lawson says:” In fact (O), let's end with a simple coded message to the book and the film and to those who insist on taking any of its nonsense seriously: FO.”

Saturday, 27 May 2006

Keeping attuned to the zeitgeist

Casual acquaintances of mine may be surprised to hear that I have been glancing at episodes of the current series of Big Brother. For those living in the Andaman Islands without electricity I should explain that this is a TV series which lacks the diffident charm of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the sharp wit of Gardeners’ Question Time and the intellectual rigour of Fox News.
Those who know me better will realise that this is merely evidence of my constant struggle to keep up with modern pop culture; I have virtually no help with this since even my children are now of an age when they must make a conscious effort to stay with it (a phrase common in the fifties and now used only by pensioners, who rarely are).
But I also have a personal reason for taking an interest in the show. My wife’s nephew is a gentle and engaging character called Robert, a.k.a. Wobbly Bob, a talented artist and musician who is guitarist, singer and co-founder of a band called Daddy Fantastic, and creator of the cartoon character of that name. We are all proud of him.
All clear so far? Right.
Now, the band's lead singer, called Pete, otherwise The Daddy, is one of the fourteen contestants currently doing their thing (and probably each other) in the Big Brother House.
I have not met him, but from what I have seen of him on the screen he is one of the less repellent inmates. This is admittedly not a huge compliment, but anyway we are all rooting for him.
It is said that Pete suffers from Tourette's syndrome, and certainly he does shout abuse quite often. But no more than most of the other inmates and anyway this is only one of the symptoms of this distressing malady.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

Has Congress fallen out with Blair?

It seems that Euan Blair's internship in Washington didn't work out too well. I read that “he decided to leave the office of his second placement, Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, after just two weeks”.
I wonder whether it really was his decision; it seems possible that Ms Harman found that having him around was distracting her from her heavy responsibilities, or that his ridiculous face fungus gave her the creeps.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it can’t be much fun to be the son of a Prime Minister, particularly one like ours, and our good wishes must go to Euan. He has a long road to travel before he can hope to gain the level of affection and respect which the world has accorded to Mark Thatcher.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Sex with everything

What do the following have in common?
A revolutionary design for affordable houses, a cerise-coloured back-pack, the music of Chopin, a dual-fuel oven and THREE of the gardens at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.
The answer is that over the past week or two I have seen or heard all these things mentioned in the media with the adjective sexy attached.
The OED gives two meanings: a. Concerned with or engrossed in sex, and b. Sexually attractive or provocative, sexually exciting. But it adds also fig. (figurative), which I suppose suggests that it can be applied to virtually anything and has thus become a meaningless cliché.
It is now just an aid to lazy writers and commentators who are saying: “I use this sleek modern word in any context to suggest that I am rather sophisticated although actually I do so because I am too lazy to think of an appropriate adjective”.
It is interesting, in a dull sort of way, that the very first recorded use of the word in print was in 1925, in La Nouvelle Revue Française:
"Depuis que Joyce a publié un livre qu'ils croient ‘sexy’ cet état d'esprit n'a pas d'équivalent français on s'en empare..que sa méthode sert de modèle à des gens disent surréalistes.

Sunday, 21 May 2006

Could it be dry rot?

I was lucky enough to inherit a sound constitution (and complete immunity to baldness, boast boast) so I have never had to bother doctors much. Of course I have to go and see one from time to time—a little more frequently with increasing age—but whether it is for something trivial or something less so, it has never been anything difficult to diagnose; the verdict would be immediately forthcoming: “Oh, yes, you’ve got a touch of coreopsis, there’s a lot of it about”, or: “Well now, these are only going to get worse so we might as well put in a couple of replacements”. It is always re-assuring when whatever you’ve got is given a name, even in cases where they tell you that there is nothing much to be done about it.

However, I was always envious of acquaintances who had unidentifiable and therefore interesting things wrong with them, because they could hold a group of people spellbound by describing the difficulties of finding out what it was they had: “Well, the doctor said he’d never seen anything like it, and then when I’d been referred it had the consultant completely stumped…”.

But now at last I too can bore people by talking about my mysterious malady: I’ve got this pain in my foot, you see. In the past I’ve had various kinds of pain there—plantar fasciitis, an inflamed metatarsal (“metatwhat?” a shocked friend asked me), a bit of gout and so on, but this is something different, a sort of intermittent stinging, if you know what I mean, and….oh, never mind the details, they don’t matter. The point is that it is something quite unknown to medical science: my GP said he was puzzled but welcomed the challenge, gave me some gel to put on and when this didn’t work referred me to a consultant rheumatologist because he couldn’t think of anything else to suggest. The rheumatologist examined my feet very thoroughly, ruled out a couple of possibilities, complimented me on my excellent circulation, and cheerily said he didn’t have the foggiest idea what was causing the pain.

And there the matter rests. I am not complaining; the sting isn’t really severe, and I do enjoy telling people about it. I don't show them, because there is absolutely nothing to see.

[I must be honest and confess that the photo was taken some years ago.]

Friday, 19 May 2006

Taste that tangy, zestful sodium benzoate!

As a typically naïve and ignorant consumer, I had always vaguely thought that the chilled prepared dishes colourfully packaged and temptingly displayed in supermarkets were really rather superior to frozen ones, being somehow nearer to fresh food. Not a bit of it: in order to increase their shelf life and for other purposes, many chilled dishes have to be crammed with additives: for example, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Luxury Shepherd's Pie—"based on the famous Ivy restaurant's recipe"—has a roll call of 69 ingredients, featuring artificial flavourings, preservatives, hardened fats and science-lab additions such as wheat gluten and dextrin that you would not find in any self-respecting home kitchen. If you read this you will get the picture.

So frozen is generally superior all sorts of ways, apart from being much better value. I recently discovered a company started in 1997 by a couple of chaps in a kitchen based on the principle that it is possible to freeze dishes made using only the ingredients and methods one would use at home; of course it is, for after all many of us sometimes freeze our own home-made dishes.

Selling them commercially is not so easy, but evidently these two found the right collaborators and the right way because the company, still private and family-run, now employs 200 people and sells both on line and in eighteen shops of its own (one of these, happily, being near me).

It is called COOK and there is a well-planned and elegant website at

• COOK’s products should not be confused with one of Marks and Spencer’s over-priced ranges of chilled dishes. They are branding this one as COOK!, and this was their charming response to a polite suggestion that their unoriginality might be causing confusion.

[I have no connection with COOK other than as a new and satisfied customer.]

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Hair of the dog

The Observer publishes a weekly colour supplement consisting mostly of childish rubbish which makes a nice contrast to the content of the paper’s other earnest, sober and usually responsible pages. It includes, for example a whole page of astrological drivel; having been quite busy lately, I have only just caught up with the edition of 23rd April, and thus missed the opportunity of benefiting from the advice that current planets were indicating a “a grand trine in water signs”, so that I (and a twelfth of the world’s population) would have been having a good week for publishing, going sailing, creating art, “twirling as a fashionista”, and tippling. I don’t mind too much because I never participate in any of these activities except the last, for which any week is a good one.

On a page of the same issue dealing with medical matters there are assorted experts, charlatans and fruitcakes earning an honest—or in some cases a dishonest—penny by providing solutions to the problem of the week. That week there was a query about a child who might, or might not, be suffering from an allergy to the family pet, and I was much taken with the splendidly dotty answer from one Anton Van Rhijn, described as a “consultant homeopathic physician” (he doesn’t put Dr. before his name but perhaps consultant homeopaths, like consultant surgeons, are grander than mere Drs).

Anyway, he recommended a concoction made from “dog hair in homeopathic potency”, which "can help relieve the symptoms of allergy to dogs and other pets". He says: "take 12c every day or 30c once a week".

(30C dilution is equivalent to 1 drop in the total mass of the sun, while 12c is many thousands of times stronger, so if you take the daily dose you are getting many many thousands of times more of the active element than if you take the weekly one: this is known as the "Less is more" principle, and some people actually believe in it.)

I really must stop poking fun at homeopaths and the mugs who buy their nostrums. Homeopathy is beyond satire, and criticising it is supererogatory, like throwing mud at a sewage farm.

Monday, 15 May 2006

Good job, bad job, McJob

From the Oxford English Dictionary:
McJob, n., colloq. and depreciative (orig. U.S.).
An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.
Used with allusion to the McDonald's Corporation's practice of using Mc- as an initial element in a range of proprietary product names, rather than a direct allusion to the programme mentioned in the first of these quotations:
1985 Los Angeles Times 29 July II. 6/1 For instance, the McDonald's fast-food chain recently began a training program for the handicapped in the San Fernando Valley called McJobs. McDonald's has hired a dozen people after the two 10-week training programs held so far.]
1986 Washington Post 24 Aug. C1 (heading) The fast-food factories: McJobs are bad for kids.
1991 D. COUPLAND Generation X I. i. 5 Dag..was bored and cranky after eight hours of working his McJob.
1993 Albuquerque Jrnl. 4 Apr. C3/2 So many bright and ambitious young people are wasting what should be their apprentice years in low-wage, low-skilled jobs, what are called ‘McJobs’.

[Little more was heard of McDonald’s 1985 initiative, which may have been a PR stunt but was well-meant, and it was unfortunate for them that, as the other quotations show, the name they invented for it has acquired a connotation that does them no credit at all. They featured in a 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign poster.]

Saturday, 13 May 2006

We English

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: A Derbyshire Village. L.S.Lowry, 1943

In a post about warm beer a couple of years ago I commented on some of George Orwell’s much misquoted remarks about the characteristics of the English which he made in a 1941 essay called The Lion and the Unicorn.
I have just been re-reading a book he published in 1947 called The English People which goes into much more detail about what he considered to be the defining features of Englishness as they might be observed by an unprejudiced foreigner. It is interesting, nearly sixty years later, to look at those he chose, and to decide which are as accurate today as they were then and which are no longer true. Here is a selection of both kinds, unsorted:

• The language of the BBC is barely intelligible to the masses.
• The tall, lanky physique which is traditionally English is almost confined to the upper classes: the working classes, as a rule, are rather small and with a tendency among the women to grow dumpy in early middle life.
• [A foreign observer] …would find the salient characteristics of the English common people to be artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, hypocrisy, exaggerated class distinctions and an obsession with sport.
• Except for certain well-defined areas in half a dozen big towns there is very little crime or violence.
• There is a general feeling that the law will be scrupulously administered, that a judge or magistrate cannot be bribed, and that no-one will be punished without trial.
• Almost never is any major honour bestowed on anyone describable as an intellectual.
• For perhaps a hundred and fifty years, organised religion, or conscious religious belief of any kind, have had very little hold on the mass of the English people.
• A tendency to support the weaker side merely because it is weaker is almost general in England; hence the admiration for a “good loser” and the easy forgiveness of failures, either in sport, politics or war.
• They will refuse even to sample a foreign dish … they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unlivable to them unless they have tea and puddings.
• Poetry, the art in which England has above all others excelled, has for more than a century had no appeal whatever for the common people … indeed the very word “poetry” arouses either derision or embarrassment in ninety-eight people out of a hundred.
• At this moment the mass of the English people are mildly republican. But it may well be that another long reign, similar to that of George V, would revive royalist feeling and make it—as it was between roughly 1880 and 1936—an appreciable factor in politics.
• Imported labourers with low standards of living, such as the Irish, are greatly looked down on.
• The man of obviously upper-class appearance can usually get more than his fair share of deference from commissionaires, ticket-collectors, policemen and the like.
• It is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.
• Except for a handful of “self-made men” and Labour politicians, those who control our destinies are the product of about a dozen public schools and two universities.

[A very few of these comments may have been inaccurate then and remain so. Even Orwell, acute observer and honest critic that he was, didn’t always get it right, as we can now see. But on almost everything he was more nearly right than any of his contemporaries.]

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Where is Rover now?

A woman I know attempted to comfort a bereaved friend by saying that at last the late lamented had been re-united with the much-loved spaniel who had predeceased him by some twenty years. I did not think it appropriate to point out that this is rank heresy, since nowhere in Holy Writ is there any mention of an after-life for lesser beings than Man.
But, for all except believers, common sense suggests that it is ridiculous to imagine that we are the only beings who qualify. No-one who has ever seen a gorilla cuddling her young or a chimpanzee scratching his bottom can doubt that we are very closely related indeed to them, and that they have the same rights as humans to spend eternity in reasonable comfort, though of course their total lack of interest in the Scriptures disqualifies them for a place anywhere in the vicinity of Jesus.
The same goes for lesser creatures. My own guess is that all of them spend eternity in some sort of heavenly annexe, with accommodation graded from plain but commodious quarters for the primates to smaller establishments for, say, water-voles, down to very tiny cubby-holes for worms and other creepy-crawlies.
After all, Noah made adequate arrangements for all contemporary living creatures, and we must suppose that the Almighty, with far more time and resources at His disposal, has set up something adequate for dead ones, though of course the Ark provided for only two of each whereas the number of dead creatures in residence upstairs must by now be running into zillions, even if you discount insects, bacteria, and others who for one reason or another are not eligible.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

Without words

Animals cannot speak and have developed non-verbal ways of expressing themselves. Some of these signals we can use ourselves: we cannot wag our tails to indicate pleasure, and it is not considered proper to express contempt in the way that dogs do (there is a Winston Churchill anecdote about that), but we can if we want threaten an attacker with a snarl, or disarm him by licking his nose and purring. There are others we might usefully adopt:

The orang-utans of Suaq say goodnight to their families by blowing a loud raspberry noise, often amplified by cupping hands.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Badly designed

Pointing out people’s physical defects is generally considered offensive. Commenting on big ears, knock knees, bent noses, sagging bottoms and so on can get one disliked, if not punched in the face.
But what about those defects which we all have by virtues of our membership of the human race (those of us that belong, that is)? There is little point in commenting on the things which are fundamentally wrong with everyone, representing what the insurance industry calls inherent vice. Such flaws as sinus cavities that clog, pelvises wrongly angled so that most of us get backache, too many teeth for the size of our jaws, useless vestigial organs and so on can only be explained either as the result of our evolution from differently shaped beings, or by the fact that we were designed by an idiot.
Don Wise, Professor Emeritus of Structural Geology at the University of Massachusetts, believes that “ID” as a name for the junk science argument aimed at justifying anti-evolutionism and leading subtly into creationism should properly stand for “Incompetent Design”.

Friday, 5 May 2006

Time for a clear statement

Home Secretary Charles Clarke is rapidly losing the confidence of the people of this country by his continued refusal to come clean about his plans. We have a right to know where he stands and he must give an honest answer without any further delay to the question that concerns us all: Does he intend to grow a proper beard or not?

Many commentators have pointed out that his stubble, if that is the right word for something so tentative, is very similar that sported by Noam Chomsky, though the latter’s is even less luxuriant, and confined to the bridge of his nose. Perhaps this is Clarke’s way of telling us that he is really an intellectual manqué and not a jug-eared bruiser. If that is the case he should never have been given a bruiser's task of running a government department, and we shouldn’t complain that he’s made a pig’s ear of it.

P.S. Just heard that he's been sacked, so we don't care now whether he shaves or grows it.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

White collars

Not all the readers of Other Men's Flowers are living in Spain under an assumed name or are wanted for questioning in connection with serious crimes. A few are captains of industry, senior statesmen, noted intellectuals or distinguished academics.
One of the latter, an American professor of law, is also a writer whose latest book, Lying, Cheating, and Stealing has recently been published by Oxford University Press; it has been described as “a long-needed and path-breaking consideration of white-collar crime from the perspective of a top-notch legal scholar.”
An accomplished and well-researched treatise, it is also a fascinating read, equally informed by American and British approaches to criminal law theory. However, the kind of people described in the first sentence above will be disappointed if its title leads them to imagine that it contains useful hints of special interest to them: it is not a “How To…” book.

[One of the high profile cases analysed in the book is that of Jeffrey Archer, which is of particular interest to UK readers and fans of his rotten novels. Lying, Cheating and Stealing is one of the series of Oxford Monographs on Criminal Justice; sadly for impecunious law students, this series is not included in the Oxford Reference Library which is available free online in the UK as described here].

Monday, 1 May 2006


I wished him a Happy 96th Birthday in 2004 but for some reason I failed to mark his 97th last year; he died yesterday.
So farewell then, John Kenneth Galbraith. His assertion that he was the tallest man in the world, at 6ft 8in, was almost certainly false, but as a visionary economist he towered over all others.
Just one quotation from hundreds of possible ones: "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable".
(I showed a photo of him once before, but here is a much better one by Richard Mildenhall in the Guardian).

P.S. And I liked the Guardian leader comment: "Hypocrisy will sleep more sweetly tonight for the knowledge that Galbraith is no longer around to look down from his very great height and skewer it".