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.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Bush and the Apocalypse

While carrying out intensive research (i.e. wandering around the net) for the post on Endtimers, I came across a report dated March 4th this year of an interview with Joel C. Rosenberg, a writer of Christian apocalyptic fiction, who said that he had been invited to a White House Bible study group last year to talk about current events and biblical prophecy, so I thought it would be interesting to find out just how strong are Dubya’s beliefs in the Armageddon/Rapture/Tribulation prophecies, and whether they influence his views on world affairs. Happily, later that month in Cleveland, Ohio, he was asked the question and revealed all in his reply:

Q: “Do you believe that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the Apocalypse? And if not, why not?”

DUBYA: “Hmmm, uhh, hah -- ummm -- I, the answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way, heh, heh. Heh. Here's how I think of it. Ummm -- heh heh. First I've heard of that, by the way, I, ah -- uhh -- the, uhh -- I, I guess I'm more of a practical fella. Uhh. I vowed after September the 11th that I would do everything I could to protect the American people. And, uhh -- my attitude, of course, was affected by the attacks. I knew we were at a war. I knew that the enemy, obviously, had to be sophisticated, and lethal, to fly hijacked airplanes, uhh, into -- facilities that would, we would, killing thousands of people, innocent people, doin' nothing, just sittin' there goin' to work.”

So now we know. But this is only a transcript of what he said, though it is more complete than the official one issued by the White House, which omits the uhhs and the heh, hehs. It is one of the items collected in Dubyaspeak and there you can hear him saying it.

That website records dozens of other statements made by the most powerful man in the world which you can listen to or read: a real banquet of idiocy and ignorance. These two were both made in New Delhi in early March:
“I believe that a prosperous, democratic Pakistan will be a steadfast partner for America, a peaceful neighbor for India, and a force for freedom and moderation in the Arab world.”
“Obviously, nukyular power is a, uhh, renewable source of energy, and the less demand there is for non-renewable sources of energy, like fossil fuels, the better off it is for the American people.”

Thursday, 12 October 2006


Whether the French are any good at food nowadays is arguable but it is certainly true that they are still much better at naming it than the English or—even more—the Americans. I mentioned last month that pieds et paquets is only mutton stew with tripe but there’s no doubt which sounds more appetising, if cryptic.
The other day I came across an American recipe for Collard Green Soup, the ingredients of which included 1½ lb. of dried great northern beans, a gallon of fresh water and two packets of frozen collard greens; all that sounds extremely depressing. Collard greens are a staple of southern US cuisine and soul food: they are like kale or turnip greens; collard derives from the Saxon colewarts, “cabbage plants”.
But the recipe also gave the dish the name Verzada, which sounds and is something much more interesting. The Guardian’s cookery correspondent picked up the following from Ada Boni’s Italian Regional Cooking: it is a dish from Lombardy, simple and cheap. I tried it last week, and it's very nice. Here, at third hand, is the recipe:

1 large white cabbage
100g belly pork (or four bacon rashers)
1 onion
2 tbsp butter
2½ tbsp white wine vinegar (This is the secret, and is essential)
8 sausages (preferably Toulouse style)
Cut away the outer leaves of the cabbage and shred the rest coarsely. Slice the belly pork into bits about the width of a pencil and slice the onion.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan, add the pork and fry until the fat begins to run. Add the onion and fry until soft but not brown.
Add the cabbage, stir to coat it in the pork fat and cook over a moderate heat until it begins to brown. Sprinkle with the vinegar and season with salt. Arrange the sausages on top, then cover and simmer over a gentle heat for 40 minutes to an hour. Serve at once.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Ramanujan's interesting number

I have a friend called T D Ranga Ramanujan (or I used to have: I lost contact with him some years ago). It's not an uncommon name in India and he once told me to my disappointment that he was not a relation of Srinivasa Ramanujan, said to be the greatest mathematical prodigy that the world has ever seen.

C. P. Snow and many others have told the extraordinary story of how the British mathematician G. H. Hardy discovered Ramanujan’s genius in 1914 and brought this poor self-taught Madras clerk to Trinity College Cambridge, where he later received the highest possible honours, including a Fellowship of the Royal Society at the age of thirty. But he soon became ill and returned to India where he died in 1919 aged 33, probably of tuberculosis.

The best-known anecdote about him was told by Hardy:
I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxicab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. "No, Hardy!" he replied, "No, Hardy! It is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways”.
This was not a lightning calculation on Ramanujan’s part: he had referred to this and many other characteristics of the number (now called the Hardy-Ramanujan number and a taxicab number) in his notebooks written years earlier.

An Indo-British feature film on his life will begin shooting in 2007 in Tamil Nadu state and Cambridge.

Wikipedia covers all this in detail here and here. It also has an article describing an internal dispute among its contributors which illustrates the difficulties of producing an online encyclopedia which anyone can edit, particularly when mathematicians are involved—they will even argue about what is interesting and what is dull: reading that discussion carefully will give you a buzzing sensation in the head.

[By the way, 1729 = 1³ + 12³ and also 9³+ 10³]

Sunday, 8 October 2006

Why didn’t I think of these?

Really Magazine, that splendid repository of significant, surprising, extraordinary or merely amusing news items, has brought to the attention of the world two patents granted by the US Patent Office on August 29th and October 3rd respectively. They are for:
A towel with a hole in it
A floating city surrounded by giant windmills and equipped with an explosion-proof stainless and special alloy composite curtain that may be deployed during an emergency.

If you want to know why these inventions were accepted as patentable, Martin Gardiner explains here, where he also provides links to the patent specifications, with fetching illustrations.

Most lists of favourite websites are a total waste of space. Martin has the best I’ve seen: not a dud among them (except the one he describes as “possibly Google's least informative page”).

Friday, 6 October 2006

God, etc.

Here are three things often mentioned in conversation: a profound belief in them is widespread. Two of them certainly don’t exist and one seems to me to be highly improbable.

The Law of Averages:
There’s no such thing, really. By this people usually mean that an event will occur regularly with a frequency approximating its probability (e.g. after five heads in a row, the law of averages would make tails the better bet).
This is in fact false; there are useful comments on averages here.
It is permissible, but often misleading, to divide one number by another and call the result an average; thus, it might be said that, on average, every human being has one breast and one testicle.

Centrifugal Force
You might define this as that force which acts outwards on something going round in a circle, like a ball being whirled round on a string, or someone on a fairground ride (in that case you can actually feel the force pushing you away from the centre or, if you are at Coney Island, the center).
Only, there isn’t one: the tension in the string or the handrail you are gripping is pulling you inwards. Look here if this doesn’t sound right.

Let’s not go into all that here. A famous broadcast discussion between Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston many years ago said it all, really. I have it on tape and very impressive it is, but after the second or third exchange you have to be a leading philosopher or a top Jesuit to have any grasp at all of what they are on about.

And there’s not much fun in just studying the pronouncements of bully-boys like, say, Ratzinger or Dawkins, because it’s all one way: they don't want to know what you think and you can’t argue with them.

Much more interesting is to have your beliefs questioned and then to be told why they are illogical, even if you are devout and therefore not moved by logic. Thanks to The Philosophers’ Magazine, you can do just that.

First, try it Do-It-Yourself Deity. This is an attempt to find out what you mean by God; you merely choose from eight attributes that you want your God to have, and the “metaphysical engineers” who devised the test will then give you a personal report which, they say modestly, may help you to understand what you mean by God more deeply, and perhaps even revise your former beliefs.

OK? Now try Battleground God, which is a bit more complex. You’ll be asked a series of 17 questions about God and religion. In each case, apart from Question 1, you need to answer True or False. There are no “correct” answers: the aim is to be rationally consistent; if you choose answers that contradict one another, you will be told precisely why. Now this really is fun; last time I looked, 338,502 people had tried it; I wonder how many of them subsequently changed sides, either taking Holy Orders or resigning their bishoprics.

If you can’t be bothered to answer the questions I urge you at least to follow the links and read the authors' explanations.

Throughout the text the creators of these webpages use the feminine pronoun for the Deity. Bully for them: this makes a nice change, though I can’t see it catching on—imagine the cost of reprinting all the holy literature, and the scansion of many hymns would be all over the place (All things wise and wonderful, the Good Lady made them all…).
Also, it posed a problem when I looked for an appropriate illustration to enliven all this text. Google Images offers over two million representations of God but nearly all those I looked at featured heavy beards. Finally I chose to leave her out altogether and show this striking painting (His Day of Wrath, John Martin, 1789-1854, Tate Gallery). Her Day of Wrath sounds just as good.

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Well done, for once

I write this piece for my sister, who is probably quite fond of me really but, like some others, believes that I am a carping, intolerant old curmudgeon, always seeking out the worst in everyone. There may be something in this, although I think of myself as a gentle and kindly soul, almost excessively lenient and long-suffering. Anyway, I wish to demonstrate here that I am quick to commend virtue whenever I encounter it.
How many people can say that they have telephoned BT Broadband Support and had a pleasant experience?
My email had stopped working and when I consulted an expert he told me regretfully that it looked as if I would have to ring BT. Full of foreboding, I did so.
There was the usual business with all calls are recorded so that our supervisors can have a laugh listening to customers getting angry, followed by if you really want help and are not just ringing for fun, press 3, and so on. But then there were only three rings before someone answered.
That was the first shock; the second was that I found myself speaking to an intelligent, articulate man who sounded as if he actually wanted to help me and was optimistic about the chances of doing so; moreover, there was nothing in his tone or his questions to suggest that I was a fumbling idiot. Best of all, it seems they now have a system whereby, instead of ordering you to type this and click on that, they tell you not to touch the mouse or the keyboard and then take over your computer, so that you can watch on your screen as they prod about repairing corrupted files or whatever needs to be done. It took the man five minutes or so (I was pleased to see that his typing was not much faster than mine) and then all was well again.
After that I felt none of the rage and frustration normally generated by a call to a support line; both of us were in a relaxed and chatty mood. We compared the current weather conditions in the south of England and New Delhi, then for some reason he asked me how old I was and we discovered that I had exactly 3½ times as many years as he. Finally, we parted with expressions of mutual esteem.

So there. I might say that I am always generous in giving credit where credit is due, except that this would commit me to citing the source of everything I write which I have lifted from somewhere else, and that would be tiresome.

Monday, 2 October 2006

An apology, maybe

Many of the posts in Other Men's Flowers might well give offence to someone; indeed, a few are actually intended to do just that. Nevertheless I was surprised that what I had thought was a harmless bit of levity about the King of Nepal’s crown should have elicited this anonymous comment which I moderated out but reproduce, exactly, here:
“its ok that you feel this way abt the king. but who the hell are you to mock the crown? it has been a sign of sovereignity and unity for nepal. keep your stupid humor and low sense of respect for others nation to yourself you low life person”

Oh dear. Many Nepalis have a low opinion of their royal family (with good reason, though the present king seems a harmless sort of chap, unlikely to run murderously amok as did another member of his family), and it never occurred to me that there might be some who venerate their trappings. Anyway it looks as if in recent years the crown has failed dismally as a symbol of unity for that unhappy country, and I doubt if Anonymous knows anything about the place: he just doesn't sound like any Nepalese person I have ever met, somehow. If I took his rancour seriously I might point out that my lack of respect for royal headgear is not confined to those of “others nation”: in the same post I noted that our own dear Queen looks pretty silly in hers.
But if Anonymous really is a patriotic royalist Nepali to whom I have given offence then I am very sorry, for I have the warmest feelings towards his countrymen and would not want to upset any of them.
A few years ago my wife and I went to Kathmandu (on business, sort of) and on to Pokhara (for a holiday), and we have very happy memories of the gentle charm of our Nepali colleagues and the friendliness of almost everyone we met.

And, of course, of the scenery, which I cannot resist illustrating with this picture of Anne and a young friend in one of the less spectacular valleys (click on it to see it full size).

But I also want to show this rather poor photo which recalls an encounter amounting to nothing much but which I shall never forget.

When we were doing the tourist bit in the centre of Kathmandu a young boy attached himself to us. There was something a bit odd about him; he looked rather sad, he didn’t seem to be able to say much and had some strange mannerisms, but was clearly harmless.
He followed us around all the time we were there, occasionally patting our arms very gently and not insistently. When it was time to go we gave him some money but he clearly hadn’t expected it: he had just been enjoying our company. Then as we shook his hand he gave us a smile of such beauty that the memory of it is with me to this day.