Monday, 31 December 2007

On the Seventh Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December…]

31st December
I thought I said no more birds, but this morning I woke up to find no less than seven swans all trying to get into our tiny goldfish pond. I’d rather not think what happened to the goldfish. The whole house seems to be full of birds—to say nothing of what they leave behind them. Please, please stop.
Your Emily

[…and continues on 1st January]

Sunday, 30 December 2007

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December…]

30th December
Dear Edward,
Whatever I expected to find when I opening the front door this morning, it certainly wasn’t six socking great geese laying eggs all over the doorstep. Frankly, I rather hoped you had stopped sending me birds—we have no room for them and they have already ruined the croquet lawn. I know you meant well, but—let’s call a halt, shall we?
Love, Emily

[…and continues on 31st December]

Saturday, 29 December 2007

On the Fifth Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December...]

29th December
Dearest Edward
The postman has just delivered five most beautiful gold rings, one for each finger, and all fitting perfectly. A really lovely present—lovelier in a way than birds, which do take rather a lot of looking after. The four that arrived yesterday are still making a terrible row, and I’m afraid none of us got much sleep last night. Mummy says she wants to use the rings to ‘wring’ their necks—she’s only joking, I think, though I know what she means. But I love the rings. Bless you.
Love, Emily

[...and continues on 30th December]

Friday, 28 December 2007

On the Fourth Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December...]

28th December
Dearest Edward
What a surprise—four calling birds arrived this morning. They are very sweet, even if they do call rather loudly—they make telephoning impossible. But I expect they’ll calm down when they get used to their new home. Anyway, I’m very grateful—of course I am.
Love from Emily

[...and continues on 29th December]

Thursday, 27 December 2007

On the Third Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December...]

27th December
My darling Edward,
You do think of the most original presents; whoever thought of sending anybody three French hens? Do they really come all the way from France? It’s pity that we have no chicken coops, but I expect we’ll find some. Thank you, anyway, they’re lovely.
Your loving Emily

[...and continues on 28th December]

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

On the Second Day of Christmas

[This correspondence began on 25th December...]

26th December
My dearest darling Edward,
The two turtle doves arrived this morning and are cooing away in the pear tree as I write. I’m so touched and grateful.
With undying love, as always, Emily

[...and continues on 27th December]

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

The Twelve Days of Christmas

[On the First Day of Christmas...]
25th December
My dearest darling,
That partridge, in a lovely little pear tree! What an enchanting, romantic, poetic present! Bless you and thank you.
Your deeply loving Emily

[This correspondence continues on 26th December...]

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Two days to go

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Tralalalala la la la la
Let us all be frightfully jolly
Tralalalala la la la la

Or not, if you’d rather not. As Eeyore said in a different context: Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.

In eight days time Other Men's Flowers (the blog, not Wavell's anthology) will be four years old, and now contains more than one third as many words as War and Peace. There has been much controversy over the relative merits of the two works, but actually they have very little in common: there is practically no reference to the retreat from Moscow in OMF (though there are two fascinating notes on Napoleon’s hat), and no-one is going to film it with either Henry Fonda or Anthony Hopkins, because Pierre Bezukhov hardly figures in it at all. On the other hand, W&P is not made up of over 700 posts and does not contain 1100 comments, 360 pictures and 670 hyperlinks. Above all, Other Men's Flowers reproduces no less than SEVEN cartoons by James Thurber and THERE ARE NONE in Tolstoy’s great novel. I think the conclusion is obvious.

The day after tomorrow is the First Day of Christmas. For that day and every day until Epiphany I have sought the help of John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich CVO, an English historian, travel writer and television personality known as John Julius Norwich: posts on those days will be entirely his work.

So until 7th January 2008, toodle-pip and A Happy New Year to everyone .

Friday, 21 December 2007

I said just a chickpea salad, didn’t I?

This is the time of year when many of us are planning to prepare and then consume one or more gargantuan meals. Thurber notes that not everyone will enjoy them. “I don’t want any part of it!”

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Poetry competition

Fond of doing jigsaws? Try this for a change. It is a similar mindless waste of time, requiring little skill but a great deal of patience and much trial-and-error, and producing, after a great deal of time and effort, something of no value whatsoever....

Shakespearean sonnets, as we all know, usually have the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Writing a pastiche is an absolute doddle, provided that you don’t worry about its meaning. Here’s one I made earlier:

Of that which, dying, consummates its choice
The greater part is taken in extremes.
The single passion and the silent voice
Have need of darkness to escape those dreams
Which turn them, quickening, to such distaste
That by their very virtues are they lost;
A changing nature, summon'd thus in haste
In all humility to bear the cost
Doth swiftly and most eagerly o'ersway
Those forces which of magnitude are free
No less from birth and greater in decay
Old when 'tis born and older still to be;
And neither shall that power be denied
Which is, by human reason, yet untried.

Good, isn’t it? One might almost say it had a dying fall, coming o'er my ear like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets.

I offer a challenge to anyone who fancies him/herself as a versifier: Write a fourteen-line sonnet using these words for line endings:

mind about blind out
heart latch part catch
sight creature
night feature

you untrue

...then send it to me as a comment to this post before the end of the year. I won’t publish any as comments, but I will post a report on 7th January, with a link to all the entries, and send a cheque for £20 in the name of the writer to the Save the Children Fund.

(As I said, your sonnet doesn’t have to mean anything, but it must sound as if it might; it must not be gibberish.)

Monday, 17 December 2007

Don’t try to be funny

A year ago I suggested that the ePetition scheme (petitions online to the Prime Minister) was a fairly pointless exercise, though amusing in a quiet way. Although 10 Downing Street does not actually say so, the new Prime Minister probably agrees. A recent progress report strikes a ho-hum note, suggesting that those responsible for running it are rather bored with the whole thing, though some members of the public continue to support it.

Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 [more than half!] have been rejected outright. Reasons for rejection are:

[We] reject petitions that appear to be duplicates.
There have been a number of petitions that are based on premises that are simply not true. There are a good number purely based on newspaper stories or web rumours that have no truth behind them.
We had no option but to refuse all URL addresses and links in future petitions.
Initially, we decided it would be wrong to accept petitions proposing people for honours this, since there is an existing procedure for honours nominations from members of the public. However, after discussion with the Cabinet Office Ceremonial Secretariat, we agreed that we could accept these petitions, provided that we make clear to petitioners that the e-petitions service will not replace the existing system. Anybody wishing to nominate somebody for an honour should still complete the online form.
We have reluctantly decided that we cannot respond to petitions of less than 200 people, unless they relate specifically to small groups (for example, people from a small community). Similarly, if a petition cannot really be expected to gain a ministerial response and therefore its purpose is only its existence rather than the response from government then we will reserve the right to simply not respond.
We have to avoid libel, incitement or any other legal issues and we do not have the resources to systematically check the details of individual cases, or to seek legal advice on every contentious petition. So we have erred on the side of caution, asking people to re-phrase petitions if we believe there is any likelihood of legal risk, or of causing offence.
There have been cases where we have decided to remove previously accepted petitions. Mostly, this has been due to human error and we have sought to correct those errors.
On a couple of occasions, we have rejected petitions because of the way those petitions were being promoted. Petitions were being 'hijacked' by extremists and were promoted in the most offensive terms imaginable. While the petitions themselves weren't provocative, the actions of those supporting them most certainly were. We deemed this to be contrary to the spirit of the petitions site and removed them. This is an action we are prepared to take again if necessary.
These reasons for rejection are obviously quite sensible but taken together suggest a certain lack of enthusiasm for the project among those who have to read all the submissions, who do not, of course, include Mr Brown. But perhaps he in involved to some extent, for he could well have inspired this po-faced comment:

Initially we accepted humorous petitions, on the grounds that they did no harm and were often funny. However, as the site grew in popularity, we found that more and more time was being taken up considering borderline cases where supposedly humorous petitions risked being seen as offensive or in bad taste.
Some users also contacted us to complain about silly petitions undermining the serious purpose of the site. We decided it was impossible to justify this use of Civil Service time, or to come up with clear guidelines as to what amounts to good or bad taste. We have decided no longer to accept petitions that are obviously intended as jokes.

Our mandarins tackle many difficult tasks brilliantly, but “to come up with clear guidelines as to what amounts to good or bad taste” is certainly one which would tax the mightiest intellects.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Euphemism in the drugs trade

...or, if you prefer it, the pharmaceutical industry.

My first job after leaving the army was with an American firm which had been started early in the twentieth century in the United States by a man pushing a medicine cart round the mid-West, giving away samples of his One-minute Cough Cure and similar wonders. By the time I joined it, it was a small but successful company exporting world-wide from a factory in South London.

They sold a range of proprietary pharmaceuticals (which used to be called patent medicines)—pills, powders and ointments, all useful remedies for minor ailments. Their really big seller was Pills for the Kidneys and Bladder, which contained a variety of herbal compounds of proven efficacy such as Pichi and Buchu. It was recommended for, among other things, the relief of a certain geriatric problem which we described coyly as “Getting Up Nights”. (I was young then: my problem in those days was Getting Up Mornings.)

These pills contained, among their perfectly respectable ingredients, methylene blue. This is a urinary antiseptic of genuine therapeutic value, but it also made a major contribution towards the pills’ popularity in six continents because it turned your pee bright blue. In most markets we made the point discreetly in our advertising: “...within a few hours of taking the pills you will see the good they are doing you”, but in the Far East and Africa we were more blunt: “The Blue Comes Through”.

The company still exists with the same name (which was the surname of the character played by George Sanders in All about Eve*) but is now part of a group whose skincare, feminine hygiene and oral care brands are marketed from Sweden. The group claims the usual sort of thing: “commitment to innovation, brand development and quality”, but these banalities are feeble successors to the (literally) colourful boasts of earlier days.

There are further revelations  HERE about my work for this company.

[*But the line about a bumpy night was not a reference to the nocturnal geriatric problem.]

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Reading the riot act

We now use this casually to mean uttering a warning to desist or face unpleasant consequences but it had a very precise legal significance until it came off the UK statute books in 1973.

The act created a mechanism for certain local officials to make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together". If the group failed to disperse within twenty minutes, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the Mayor, Bailiffs or "other head officer", or a Justice of the Peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a Justice of the Peace or the Sheriff or Under-Sheriff. It had to be read out to the gathering concerned, and had to follow precise wording:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King.

has all this information and much more but, oddly, the link it gives to the full Act takes you to it via a website created by a bunch of fundamentalist nuts; if you want to study the Act’s 2,400 words it is better to get it from Project Gutenberg EBook. Its preamble is:
WHEREAS of late many rebellious riots and tumults have been in divers parts of this kingdom, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and the endangering of his Majesty's person and government, and the same are yet continued and fomented by persons disaffected to his Majesty, presuming so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences; and by such rioters his Majesty and his administration have been most maliciously and falsely traduced, with an intent to raise divisions, and to alienate the affections of the people from his Majesty therefore for the preventing and suppressing of such riots and tumults, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the offenders therein; BE IT ENACTED…
and so on, and on.

[In the United States the principle was incorporated into the first Militia Act of 1792. The act's title was "An act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions"; Section 3 gave power to the President to issue a proclamation to "command the insurgents to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within a limited time", and authorized him to use the militia if they failed to do so. Something similar is presently codified in Chapter 15 of title 10, United States Code.]

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Doing it twice in a day

Last Thursday was the first time I’d attempted this for many years. I hardly ever did it even in my twenties, though three times a week was nothing out of the ordinary for me. In those days twice in a day was actually less demanding than it is now because it all took rather less time, while nowadays just doing it once can take two and a half hours or more.

However, back then there was a risk of getting backache if you did it too often. One day last week we were encouraged to try it twice because of our recent discovery of a really comfortable place to do it. I mean, of course, watching a film.

And both the films we wanted to see were showing there on the same day, so we caught Brick Lane at 12.30, nipped out for a snack and a glass of wine and went back in at 2.30 for Earth, which moved for us.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Gendarmes: Two, Deux, Beaux, or Bold

About once a month, according to my tracker, some confused elderly person will put one of these alternatives into Google, hoping to get the words of a song by Gilbert and Sullivan. The seeker ends up here and finds both the words and a link to a duo singing the first verse, as well as the information that it is not by G&S at all, but by Offenbach. In this song, the public guardians are a pair of corrupt cowards.

Obviously the poor old dears (most of them, oddly, are Australian) who think it's by G&S are getting it mixed up with When a Felon’s Not Engaged in his Employment, from The Pirates of Penzance. which is sung by a whole squad of honest and caring coppers. They can hear the first verse of this by clicking with their palsied fingers on this link and going down to Sample No 16.

Friday, 7 December 2007

One more royal titfer

I am not obsessed with Her Majesty the Queen, nor do I have a hat fixation. I am posting yet one more picture of a spectacular hat (also worn in Kampala) because this one confirms that I was absolutely right when I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago that many of the Queen’s hats are inspired by the esculent architectural fantasies created by a great chef at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It looks so much more like a patissier’s creation than a milliner’s that perhaps it really is made of spun sugar, though it is unlikely that jesters at the Court of St James (Gyles Brandreth, say) would be allowed to dance on it in the way that was permitted, so we are told, to those entertaining the royalty of Carême’s day.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Another Thurber

"Have you no code, man?"

Monday, 3 December 2007

One for the diary

Really Magazine reports that The University of British Columbia, the main centre for A/r/tographic Research, is running a course from January to April 2008 which will examine :

... the relational ways of knowing inherent in the renderings and reflections found in a/r/tography as an approach to research that is attentive to the sensual, tactile, auditory, performative and unsaid aspects of artist-teacher lives.

As any fule no, a/r/tography “develops the relationship between embodiment and ethics as a being-with”. I am not too proud to admit that I find this a fairly difficult concept to grasp, though Really Magazine kindly supplies a link HERE to some further explanatory notes (called, of course, renderings) with some rather pretty backgrounds (you have to run your mouse over the numbers to reveal them).

Unfortunately, I have several major commitments in January, and anyway the course is probably already over-subscribed.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Use Of the Five Fingers

Writing about my itchy ear the other day reminded me of a very old Jewish joke. It is not easy to write down because it calls for actions, but I will try.

“Moshe, soon you will have your bar mitzvah and you will become a man. Before then I must teach you all the things that a Jewish man needs to know, and I will start today by telling you the use of the five fingers.”

“Yes, Papa”.

“Now, the first finger is the thumb, which is called the Introduction Finger”...[Extends a thumb and twists his wrist from left to right and back again.] “...Mr Cohen, Mr Levy. Mr Levy, Mr Cohen.”

"Then, the second finger is the Warning Finger...” [Extends a forefinger and wags it up and down.] “...Don’t you try to cheat me!”.

"The third finger is the Reassurance Finger...” [Taps his chest with his middle finger.] “...You think that I would try to cheat you?”

“And lastly, there is the Admiration Finger...” [Slips his fourth finger under an imaginary lapel and slides it up and down.] “...That’s a nice bit of cloth you’ve got there!”

“…And that, my son, is what you need to know about the use of the five fingers.”

“But Papa, that is only four fingers. What about the other one?”

“Oh well, Moshe… I don't know... I don’t think that’s got any special use….” [Looks thoughtful while poking his little finger in his ear and wiggling it about].

Thursday, 29 November 2007

We don’t do symptoms

I had this itch in my ear, you see. Not really life-threatening but annoying and perhaps a bit worrying. Had an ear-wig burrowed inside, as earwigs are alleged to do, and laid eggs which, when hatched, would come marching out in serried ranks in the middle of the night as fully-grown forficula auricularia*? Even learning, on looking up the things in Wikipedia, that “Interestingly, the male of the species has two identical, fully-functional and independently-operable penises” did not reconcile me to the prospect, and anyway I didn’t think the information was all that interesting, except perhaps to female earwigs.

So I resolved to get help. Some internet sources identified the problem as swimmer’s ear, and the American Academy of Family Physicians went into much detail, recommending a 2% solution of acetic acid; as I had never done any swimming, and didn’t much like the idea of filling my ear up with vinegar, I felt I should look elsewhere for advice, and sent an email to NHS Direct.

I suppose this service seemed like a good idea at the time it was set up, saving busy doctors from having to listen to trivial complaints by providing medical advice on the telephone or through a website, but it seems unlikely to be serving much purpose. I have never heard of anyone who has found it useful, and my own experience of it was not gratifying: I simply said that my hearing was OK and that I had no earache and asked “ why does my ear itch?”, and got back a standard letter saying, in effect, “This is not the sort of question we can deal with”.

This seemed remarkably feeble of them, as in their blurb they invite you to “…Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of..**”. I suppose, with over two million enquiries a month, they simply cannot give specific advice to many; one imagines a call centre where hundreds of teenagers sit at consoles with a array of buttons to press from which they can choose a standard pre-recorded message or an email (in any one of the twelve languages they say they use), like the one I had, or others saying Don’t worry, it’ll get better on its own, or Call an ambulance NOW, or Don’t scratch it, leave it ALONE, or even just Dear Sir, You have the pox, Yours faithfully.

In my case they could have said Sounds like a minor infection, see your GP and he will prescribe something which will cure it in a trice. Anyway, I did, he did, and it did.

But of course this would have meant a bit of typing; easier to press the button to send the We don’t want to know email.

All this has reminded me of a very old Jewish joke, but I’ll keep that for another time.

* forficulae auriculariae?
**Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of...” This is disgracefully careless writing: symptoms don’t cause anything: they meant to say “..may be caused by”.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Celebrity Cool

It takes a really big star to stay completely calm when they photograph you just after you’ve vomited.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Splendour in Uganda

Thousands lined the road from Entebbe airport last Wednesday to welcome this hat to Kampala.

Opinion was divided as to whether it was more impressive than its sister, a lime-green job which made a big hit when it visited the Ugandan parliament later the same day.

However, according to the official parliament website, this was the one which had arrived outside the parliament building. If this was so, there must have been a lightning change in the lobby, but my guess is that this an attempt to cover up the fact that they couldn’t get a good close-up of the green one.

It has been said that the first two above were inspired, as were many of the Queen’s hats, by the pièces montées of the great chef pâtissier Antonin Carême (1783-1833). These were monumental confections, several feet high, made from sugar, nougat, marzipan and pastry for the crowned heads of Europe. They were rarely eaten and never worn; you can see why, if you believe Wikipedia's note on Carême: Utilizing his previous architectural knowledge coupled with culinary genius, some of his sugar works were so elaborate that court jesters would dance upon them while entertaining the king.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Lovely with buttered toast

Here are twelve things, ten of which are considered edible, though obviously not by everyone:

Fried cockchafers
Sonofabitch stew
Icelandic moss porridge
Cajun wild toad
Prairie dog
Crunchy sand-bugs with honey
Stuffed baboon’s nostril
Apple slump
Wart-necked piddock

Ten of them are in the Oxford Companion to Food (you'll have to buy it: it's not online). The other two are merely creations of a diseased mind; see if you can decide which before you look at further details.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Two Trinities, and a note on Jesus

Carmarthen, Dublin, Hartford, London, Melbourne, Toronto and many other towns and cities have a Trinity College, with varying degrees of distinction. Most people would agree on which are the two most highly distinguished and prestigious, but there is no such consensus about which of the two has the edge. Cambridge’s (Henry VIII, 1546) is larger and older than Oxford’s (Thomas Pope, 1555), though neither of these attributes necessarily confers distinction or prestige; antiquity certainly doesn’t—think of professions.

Since neither I nor any member of my family went to either, there is no reason why anyone would ask for my view, but if someone did I think I would choose Trinity College Cambridge, if only because of Crème Brûlée.

This is the French term for a rich baked custard made with cream (their language is utterly useless for naming food—there is no French word for custard, imagine!). In English, the dish is called Burnt Cream.

It is also sometimes known as Trinity Cream because at Trinity Cambridge they used to impress the college crest on top of the cream with a branding iron. I call that stylish.

In the case of the two top Jesuses it also looks as if Cambridge has it. Their Jesus is not only the older (the Bishop of Ely, 1496; Oxford, Elizabeth, 1571), but has a splendidly resounding full name: "The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge".

However, your typical Oxford Jesusman is totally unimpressed by this. Asked whether he went to Jesus, Oxford or Jesus, Cambridge, he would almost certainly reply: “Jesus”.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Good letters bring success

Most people are aware that if your surname begins with a letter in the first half of the alphabet then you have a better chance in life, simply because having your name crop up near the top of written lists, or having it called out before others, must in some circumstances confer an advantage.

I had not realised before that there is something called the Name Letter Effect (NLE) which is said to work in other, subtler, ways, and involves not merely your surname but your monogram—all your initials. Martin Gardiner in Really Magazine quotes from and gives links to several pieces of research on this phenomenon.

The most recent of them resulted in a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Psychological Science by Leif D. Nelson of the University of California and Joseph P. Simmons of the Yale School of Management , which they childishly titled Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success. It found that “law students with initials which represented poor grades in exam results did less well than their colleagues whose initials included As and Bs” and generally “people perform worse when their initials match objectively undesirable performance outcomes”.

I was tempted to download a copy of the research but a glance at the Abstract warned me that it is unlikely be a thumping good read:
People like their names enough to unconsciously approach consciously-avoided name-resembling outcomes. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players with strikeout-signifying K-initials strike out more than others. All students want A's, but C- and D-initialed students find initial-resembling outcomes less aversive and achieve lower GPAs, particularly if they like their initials. Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, C- and D-initialed students go to lower ranked law schools than their A- and B-initialed counterparts .… These findings provide striking evidence that unconscious wants can insidiously undermine conscious pursuits.

Back in 2005, the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine had a paper entitled Monogrammic Determinism? describing research in which students had to categorise some initials according to unpleasantness. Unsurprisingly, they rated initials such as P.I.G. and Z.I.T. as severely negative. Next, the researchers correlated the unfortunate initials with death records from the California Department of Health Services mortality database stretching back to 1905.
So did having an undesirable set of initials mean that you might D.I.E. earlier? No, it didn’t, so let’s move on.

The concept goes back much further. In 1984 Joszf M Nuttin, the founder of the Laboratorium voor Experimentele Sociale Psychologie, in Belgium, reported on NLE to the General Meeting of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology. Here again, I cannot comment, because a glance at the Abstract made me decide that Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name letter effect was not something I wanted to spend a long weekend with:
Mere belongingness to self is tested as a sufficient condition for the enhancement of the attractiveness of visual letter stimuli….The effect is obtained in the absence of awareness of the Gestalt of any name, thus challenging current understanding of fundamental affective processes.

So there you have it, or possibly don’t. Why was I interested in these enquiries into trivial and probably rather pointless matters, you may ask? Well, because they illustrate the point that sociological research, whatever degree of correlation is found in two sets of data, is never more than generalisation, and tells you nothing about a specific case. My initials, you see, are AAB: I have yet to make my first million, my academic achievement consisted of failing the same degree twice, and my sporting career began when I was ten with the discovery that rugger is a very rough game indeed and that cricket is played with a very hard ball, and went downhill from there.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Here it is again

If you put "Origami Bank" into Google, you will be offered 2,200 versions of the piece below, some of them dating back many months. I couldn’t be bothered to look through them all to see where it originated; it was passed to me by a renegade Englishman currently hiding in Spain.

After all the stress of being tricked about those green Belgian marchers earlier this week I was not inclined to overtire myself today
by trying to think of something original to post, and anyway true originality is out of place in Other Men's Flowers, so here is the 2,201st appearance of the joke on the internet. Maybe there is someone out there who hasn’t seen it.

We all know that the knock-on effect of the US sub prime banking problems has stretched far afield; it is now devastating the banking industry in Japan.
In the last seven days the Origami Bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly-up and Bonsai Bank is planning to cut many of its branches. Only yesterday Karaoke Bank was put up for sale and will probably go for a song.
Today shares in the Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived, while investors at the Anime Bank were left wide-eyed. Analysts report that there is something fishy going on at the Sushi Bank and staff there fear that they may be in for a raw deal, after hearing that 500 clerks at the Karate Bank got the chop.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

At the pictures

The modern multiplex adds nothing to the experience of going to see a film. A whiff of popcorn and the sight of a garish display of nasty snacks and sweets is followed by what seems like hours of ads and trailers until finally, in an uncomfortable seat, we get to the object of the visit.

So it was a huge joy to find something quite different. In a very small town called Hawkhurst, twenty miles from where I live, there is a building that looks from outside like an old school, and only some very discreet signs tell you that inside is Kino, the UK’s first entirely digital cinema. To be told that “its state-of-the art technology features a Christie 2K projector and a Dynaudio sound system” and that its “digital content is supplied by the world's first digital networks, the UKFC's DSN [digital screen network] and Brazil's Rain Network” means nothing to me. Brazil?

Digital-shmigital; but what did mean a great deal to me is that after a glass of red wine in the cinema café we watched the film, and nothing but the film, in extraordinarily comfortable seats. And digital programming means that they can have a sort of repertory, showing up to six different films every day, which include the latest movie releases, Hollywood classics and art-house classics. This means that virtually every week something I want to see will be showing several times, on different days at different hours.

There is a second Kino in another small town, Sevenoaks, not far away. Digital cinemas are rapidly spreading in the US, and the UK is home to Europe's first fully digital multiplex cinemas: a couple of digital Odeons opened last February with a total of 18 digital screens. But I bet they’re not nearly as nice as the two little single-screen ones we’ve got in rural Kent.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Suspicion and deceit

A couple of days ago I posted a picture of part of a parade in Brussels featuring some marchers wearing splendid green furry costumes. As I had found this, uncaptioned, on the cover of a tourist brochure, I had no idea who they were or what they were representing: The Gnomes of Flanders, perhaps? Die Grünen? The Brussels Lettuce Growers Association? I was certain that someone living in Brussels would write in and tell me.

Sure enough, within a few hours several comments had appeared on the blog, including one in French and one in Dutch. Both of these informed me that the parade was in fact part of the 2007 21ème Festival Gay et Lesbien de Belgique. The Frenchman not only gave me the website but said that his sister Éloise was on the left in the photo.

Well, fine. And yet…

I am ever mindful of Thomas Paine’s dictum: Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. So I stifled my doubts and engaged this helpful pair in an exchange of comments. Finally, though, the doubts increased and I emailed a polyglot friend who writes under the name of Grumio. He is an unashamed blackguard and, on being pressed, freely admitted that he had written the comments, and that the G&L people of Brussels, had never, as far as he knew, marched in green fur.

By then I really wanted to know what it was all about, and asked a friend in Brussels for her help. She didn’t know the answer but referred me to a website which posts answers to questions about Belgium.

Bingo! Two anonymous people replied to my query with the totally convincing suggestion that "this could well be a group taking part in the Zinneke Parade (which takes place every two years). The theme changes on each occasion, and this sounds like the ecological theme from a couple of years ago".

That seems extremely likely. Anyway, I am going to accept it as the truth and make no more enquiries, suppressing the thoughts that anyone can send in answers to that website, the comments on it were anonymous, and Grumio is a persistent spoofer with time on his hands…

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Is that water-cannon trained on us?

I find all spectacular hats fascinating, but en masse they can be terrifying. I have no idea where these ladies were off to, or what they were advertising, or demanding; all I know is that they were in Brussels.

Perhaps they were just out to enjoy themselves, though it doesn't look much like it. Anyway, they were tremendously green, which must be a good thing, so let us hope they had a fun day, or a successful outcome, or whatever it was they were after.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Or take precautions while you're waiting

This notice in my local hospital might have been less likely to be misunderstood if the last three words had come immediately after "radiographer".

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

More hat fetishism

This post, the twenty-sixth in the series, features the Seppelhut, traditionally worn at the Oktoberfest, the Bavarian beer festival; this is claimed to be the largest fair in the world, attended by six million people each year. Some years ago I was one of them (by mischance, having gone to Munich for quite another reason) and can confirm that wearing this hat makes the most handsome and distinguished Münchner (or, indeed, anyone else), look a complete idiot.

I can also state authoritatively that the festival is not a fun event for those who don’t much care for beer and dislike crowds. I do not know why nobody in this picture is wearing a silly hat.
(Click on it to appreciate the full beauty of the scene)

[My thanks to Crowbark for bringing the Seppelhut to my attention.]

Monday, 5 November 2007

The shape of evil

In my last post I wrote that I could not really see the connection between the Whore of Babylon and Hudson Bay (which the French, in that sly way they have, call baie d'Hudson). Several readers emailed me with comments on this, none of them, sadly, on behalf of the Cree and Inuit people who make up most of the population of the coastal villages of this 1.23 million square kilometres of very cold water. Most of these correspondents told me that a quick glance at the map should have made it perfectly clear to me that the shape of this closely resembles that of the allegorical figure of pure evil, though one pointed out that the issue is clouded somewhat by the assertion made by some that the Whore of Babylon is in fact the Roman Catholic Church, which by no stretch of the imagination could be called Hudson-Bay-shaped.

Well, maybe. Anyway, there seems to be no agreement as to what shape the W of B actually was. Put Whore of Babylon into Google Images and you are offered over fifty thousand pictures, many of them, frankly, of an indelicate nature, and none looking remotely like any part of Canada. So over to Wikipedia, which has this one; it is a charming German woodcut showing her doing a bit of juggling before an appreciative audience, but it doesn't really get us any further forward:

(Great Britain undoubtedly has the shape of an old woman riding on a pig, but that is quite another matter and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Book of Revelation. Don't know why I mentioned it, really.)

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Forty-one shopping days to go

On Christmas Day this year the volcanic island of La Palma will erupt and the unstable part will fall into the sea, resulting in a mega-tsunami that will devastate the east coast of America, if the word of God is anything to go by. Or, rather, the word of Alasdair T R Laurie, who is, or was, a promising second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds in the UK. He did not finish the course after becoming a fundamentalist Christian.

All this is set out in his website, called unequivocally WorldEnds. Many will find some of his evidence difficult to follow; it is not easy, for example to see just how the date was first predicted by showing that the 666th name in the Bible is Solomon, the number of the beast, and I myself am totally confused by Laurie’s reference to the whore of Babylon being outlined by Hudson Bay (Canada), riding on the scarlet beast (Labrador). He does provide a map but this doesn’t really help much.

But while one may be unable to comprehend the main thrust of his argument, one must admire the way in which he presents it. Unlike many American fundamentalists, he has an excellent command of English: the syntax and grammar of his prose is quite sound, and his spelling is impeccable. If his reasoning is difficult to grasp, this is only because these are complex matters which would tax the exegetical skill of the keenest mind, even that of a bioinformatics PhD student who had actually completed the course.

Another point in Mr Laurie’s favour is that he has taken the trouble to pass on this particular warning to residents of the east coast of America, although the catastrophe lined up for December 25th will presumably affect the whole world, including Leeds. It seems that the tsunami which hit the Solomon Islands on April 1st this year did actually ‘herald an end to the capitalist ideology that is in opposition to following Jesus’, and ‘God is in support of this line of argument, but is giving extra warning to the Americans’. This is a clear rebuke to those who have ever doubted that the USA has a very special place in the affections of the Almighty.

Christmas in Maine, 2007
(actually, a microphotograph of organic crystals
by John Cheslik, entitled "Apocalypse")

Thursday, 1 November 2007

When galaxies collide...

this is the sort of thing you see through the Hubble telescope. At least, it would be if you were orbiting the earth and the Hubble telescope was for looking through and not for taking pictures.

This beautiful colliding pair is called Arp 87 and is 300 million light years away in the constellation of Leo. Phil Plait tells you about it in Bad Astronomy, which in this instance is an inappropriately named website.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The maligned Sir Granville Bantock

Here is an extract from a splendidly tumid piece of writing:

Sir Granville Bantock probably has the unenviable distinction—with less than a handful of other arguable challengers—of being the most unreasonably neglected composer in the whole pitiable chronicle of neglected 20th century British music. He is truly the supreme musical Ichabod of our Isles and the almost complete disappearance of his works from the repertoire of his country is one of the strangest and perhaps saddest musical biographies of recent times. The winds of cultural opinatry and the gravities of critical mythologising have condemned him to a limbo of fabled ingloriousness and he is left as nothing much more than a fleeting footnote in the histories of British music: his foibles and idiosyncrasies have been exaggerated and his gifts minimised, misjudged, and precondemned; characteristic idioms glibly recast into mannerisms, influences reduced to imitation, and critical marginalisation all too easily transfigured into musical fault in the shallow doctrines of accepted musical historiography.

Supreme musical Ichabod in a limbo of fabled ingloriousness, eh? This is fighting talk from a brief introduction to the neglected composer’s life and works (actually a ten thousand word essay) by Vincent Budd, a noble attempt, almost certainly doomed, to rescue the reputation of Bantock from the ‘unfounded, beggarly, and ignominious inscriptions cast upon his name down the years’.

One cannot but admire the author’s conviction and the vigour with which he expresses it, but ‘the winds of cultural opinatry and the gravities of critical mythologizing’ have clearly had a strongly deleterious influence upon me, for although I am deeply impressed by the flow of his prose I am not convinced by his argument. To be fair, I suppose I might be more open to the view that Bantock’s music has ‘enduring and commanding glory’ and that it ‘stands by itself majestic, mighty, and magnificent for all to hear’ if I had actually heard any of it.

However, he was clearly a remarkable man, and one cannot read about his life without feeling some affection for him. Here is a photo of the dear old fellow just about to audition as an extra for Lawrence of Arabia (presumably not the David Lean film, as Bantock died in 1946); whether he got the job is not recorded).

Although ‘there were palpable streaks of malevolence and moral ambivalence in his character… some of his behaviour had deeply unhappy consequences for those closest to him… and he had one known extra-marital liaison… which had a profound effect on his wife and children, all of whom obviously loved and cherished him deeply’, perhaps we should not judge him too harshly, and his biographer may be right in saying resoundingly that ‘his neglect owes little to the intrinsic quality of his work, and much more to do with the unluck or misjudgements associated with the blinding mythic tyrannies of taste and fashion… his music should be freed from the stale blinkeredness of our cultural treadmills; his weathered laurels discarded and replaced with a new sweeter smelling wreath’.

True or not, that’s a nice bit of purple prose.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Homeopathy and other snake oil

Every sensible person keeps paracetamol tablets in the house to relieve pain, and adhesive plasters in case of injury. It is also a good plan to have always to hand something to counteract the effects of finding material on the internet which offends one’s regard for the truth, feeling for justice or merely one’s common sense.

Happily, many such antidotes are freely available and take the form of websites expressing sane and considered points of view based on evidence and not superstition or bigotry. There is, for example, RationalWiki, which discusses crackpot ideas in general and the beliefs of the American religious right in particular; an example of its style is its note on Faith Healers. For a corrective to anti-science, there is Sense About Science, which is an independent charitable trust responding to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science with a similar aim.

There is also Bad Astronomy, which is currently dealing briskly with:
"Asteroid 1999 AN10 is predicted to come close to Earth in 2027 and 2039. NASA doesn’t think that it will hit. However there is evidence that it will—from the Bible."

Naturally there are many sites devoted to medicine and health, for this is the field in which more greedy charlatans flourish than any other. To cure the depression engendered by encountering pernicious rubbish about miracle cures, you can turn to Quackwatch or Quackometer which are an assurance that the snake-oil salesmen do not have it all their own way.

Then there is Homeowatch, which notes that
“Homeopathic 'remedies' are usually harmless, but their associated misbeliefs are not. When people are healthy, it may not matter what they believe. But when serious illness strikes, false beliefs can lead to disaster. This website provides information about homeopathy that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The bottom line is that it is senseless and does not work.”

An illustration of the value of such sites in counteracting the outpouring of quackery was provided when Dr Andy Lewis put on his Quackometer website an article criticising the Society of Homeopaths (Europe ’s largest professional organisation of homeopaths) in no uncertain terms. The SoH did not attempt to challenge his assertions, but sent a threatening legal letter to his hosting company Netcetera, demanding they take his page down. Dr Lewis emailed the SoH politely asking which of his comments they wished to counter. There was no response but instead their lawyers sent another angry letter to his hosting company, who finally took the page down.

Of course, it has now been replicated a hundred times across the internet, on blogs or websites which have a total readership many times greater than that of the original article. You can read it here and Dr Lewis’s polite email is here.

[News items beginning ‘Scientists have discovered that…’ or an assertion that the efficacy of a product has been ‘scientifically proven’ should be regarded with scepticism (or by Americans with skepticism) until the relevant research has been published and peer-reviewed as described here.]

Friday, 26 October 2007

It’s the oil, stupid

The received opinion is that, for America, Iraq is ‘unwinnable’, a ‘quagmire’, a ‘fiasco’. An article in the London Review of Books by Jim Holt (the New York Times writer, not the Arkansas politician) suggests that, on the contrary, it is none of these things, and that the US may be ‘stuck’ precisely where Bush and Cheney want it to be.

Holt argues this convincingly, though he tacitly admits that this is in a sense a conspiracy theory which, like all such theories, calls for a level of foresight, cunning and general brilliance which the conspirators are unlikely to possess. You can judge the validity of his theory by reading the article, but he does quote a number of incontrovertible facts which tend to support him. Among these are:

  • Iraq’s known oil reserves are five times the total in the United States.
  • If current estimates are correct, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil resources, with a value of $30 trillion at today’s prices.
  • The projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.
  • The draft law that the US has written for the Iraqi Congress would cede nearly all the oil to Western countries.
  • The US can maintain hegemony over Iraqi oil by establishing permanent military bases in Iraq; five self-sufficient ‘super-bases’ are in various stages of completion; their main day-to-day function will be to protect the oil infrastructure.
  • The beneficiaries of the continued occupation of Iraq and the exploitation of its oil will be: oil-services companies like Halliburton; US voters, who will be guaranteed price stability at the gas pump; and Europe and Japan, which will both benefit from Western control of such a large part of the world’s oil reserves.
Holt ends: “The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. If the US had managed to create a strong, democratic government in an Iraq effectively secured by its own army and police force, and had then departed, what would have stopped that government from taking control of its own oil, like every other regime in the Middle East? On the assumption that the Bush-Cheney strategy is oil-centred, the tactics – dissolving the army, de-Baathification, a final ‘surge’ that has hastened internal migration – could scarcely have been more effective. The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.”

[These are depressing facts, but Bird and Fortune had a lot of fun with them in a sketch they did in Rory Bremner's programme on Channel 4 just after after I posted the above.]

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

In the bleak midwinter

So farewell then, Alan Coren, the funniest and most stylish of columnists. It was a surprise to learn that he was so prudish that he would not have as dinner guests any couple who were living together but not married, but this was reported some years ago and he may have mellowed later.

We shall miss him, but happily his short pieces have been comprehensively anthologised; they do not date and the collections will be readable for years to come.

Here he is in Bethlehem, in the year BC (and AD) 0. The star has arrived overhead and the ox and the ass have been arguing about which of them is to be the Messiah, when a ram turns up:

‘Anyone seen three wise sheep?’
“What?” snapped the ass.
‘Three wise sheep,’ repeated the ram, ‘They’re due here any minute now, bearing gifts.’
‘Gifts?’ lowed the ox.
‘Yes,' said the ram, confidently. ‘It is traditional, I gather. Three wise sheep come from the East, bearing gifts for the Messiah. Grass, grass and grass, as I understand it.’
‘Messiah?’ croaked the ass, ‘What Messiah?.’
‘You’re looking at him’, said the ram. ‘Or rather, Him. It is customary at this point to fall down and praise my name, but as my three wise sheep are still en route we might as well hang on till they get here and I can do you all at the same time. Makes sense.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the ass, ‘The star is hanging bang over the stable, the Messiah is either me or the ox, there are no sheep on these premises, you are well out of order!’
The ram tutted, as only rams can.
‘Never mind hanging over the stable’, it said sharply, ‘we have had an angel up our field, sunshine, there is no question but that I have been singled out, it is all over bar the paperwork’.
‘Hail the King of the Ewes!’ cried an invisible chorus.
‘See?’ said the ram.
The ass and the ox peered out into the night.
‘Stone me!’ cried the ox. ‘Who are they?’
‘Ewes,’ replied the ram. ‘My followers. You got to have followers, if you’re a Messiah. It is doubtless why He chose a sheep. It is one of the main things sheep do, follow’.
There was a long uneasy silence. Finally, the ass said:
‘What did this angel say, exactly?’
‘Hard to tell, replied the ram. ‘There’s the hell of a wind up there and I got all this wool in my ears, but the gist was unto us a something something and follow the star, and then He give me this Look’.
The ox shrugged.
‘Well, that’s it, then,’ it said, ‘Can’t say I’m sorry, it’s a big responsibility redeeming mankind, never mind not liking ‘em much to start with, if they’re not eating you they’re turning you into bloody suitcases.’
‘Good point,’ said the ram, nodding. ‘One of the first things on my agenda will be the commandment Love Thy Sheep. You’ve no idea what it’s like, having them shears running over you, I go all funny just thinking about it. My millennium will spell the end of the pullover, as we know it, and not before time. Also collies. I am not having the disciples rounded up and put in pens just so’s some nerd in moleskin trousers can go home with a silver cup.’
The ass cleared its throat.
‘That could explain it,’ it said.
‘What could explain what?’ enquired the ram.
‘The non-arrival of your three wise sheep. You got to go through Turkey, if you’re coming from the East. They are probably a gross of shish kebabs by now’.
‘Careful, son,’ said the ram. ‘When they get here with the documents, I shall be able to do miracles, e.g. turning donkeys into frogs.’
‘Possibly, possibly’, said the ass. ‘However, I remain to be convinced that the Almighty would entrust the salvation of mankind to something on which mankind has been putting mint sauce all these years.’
The ram narrowed its eyes.
‘Listen,’ it said. ‘it may interest….’

But at this point there is another arrival at the inn, and of course in the end all three creatures are disappointed.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The most beautiful spring of the love

[Skip this post if lieder are of no interest to you.]
The lovely Holywell Music Hall in Oxford, built in 1742, is said to be the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe, and hence England's first concert hall.

Grumio and I went there last week for a lunchtime lieder recital given by students from the Guildhall School of Music. The singing seemed to our untutored tastes to be rather good, and anyway just sitting in such a room for an hour is a pleasure not to be missed.

I know exactly what a leichenbegleiter* does, though I have no idea how I came by this piece of information and have never found it in any way useful. Nevertheless the knowledge probably does give me a slight edge over many lieder singers, but my understanding of German does not go much further than this and I depend on my Penguin Book of Lieder to tell me what Goethe or Heine is going on about. On this occasion, however, the crib let me down, for it did not include a song which was to be in the recital at Oxford and which I had heard before and rather liked without knowing what the words meant.

So before I went to Oxford I looked up the words (by Friedrich Rückert) on the net. Here they are:

O du Entrissne mir und meinem Kusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!
Erreichbar nur meinem Sehnsuchtgrusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Du von der Hand der Liebe diesem Herzen
Gegebne, Du von dieser Brust
Genommne mir! Mit diesem Tränengusse
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst.

Zum Trotz der Ferne, die sich feindlich trennend
Hat zwischen mich und dich gestellt;
Dem Neid der Schicksalmächte zum Verdrusse
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Wie du mir je im schönsten Lenz der Liebe
Mit Gruss und Kuss entgegenkamst,
Mit meiner Seele glühendstem Ergusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Ein Hauch der Liebe tilget Raum und Zeiten,
Ich bin bei dir, du bist bei mir,
Ich halte dich in dieses Arms Umschlusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

I could not find a translation anywhere except one in a website about a recital in Rio de Janeiro sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, but this was into Portuguese so it didn’t really help me all that much.

Then a friend lent me The Book of Lieder, which has the original texts, an English singing version, and a translation of over a thousand lieder including the one I wanted. Finally, I realised that—as usual at recitals— translations of the text of the words were provided in the programme notes, so I needn’t have gone to all that bother.

But I’m glad that during my search I had asked Babel Fish to have a go at the poem, for the result was quite pleasing:

O you is greeted Entrissne me and my kiss
Is greeted me, is kissed me!
Attainable only my longing greeting
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

You of the hand of the love this heart
Gegebne, you of this chest
Genommne me! With this tear casting
Is greeted me, is kissed me.

To the defiance of the distance, hostilely separating
Between me and you placed;
The envy of fate powers to the annoyance
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

How you came to meet me ever in the most beautiful spring of the love
With greeting and kiss,
With my soul most glowing Ergusse
Was greeted me, was kissed me!

A breath of the love erase space and times,
I are with you, you are with me
I hold you in this arm Umschlusse
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

[*He is a funeral attendant, or what Babel Fish calls a corpse companion.]

Saturday, 20 October 2007


This boring word has been around since at least the year 786, but several of its meanings (forest, wooded upland, a hill) have happily become obsolete, and the OED says that nowadays it is:
A piece of open country; a plain; in early use (with the) sometimes = ‘the plain’, the ground, the earth; in later use chiefly, an elevated tract of open country or moorland; also collect. pl. or sing. rolling uplands. (Frequent since c 1600 in vague poetical use.)

Rolling upland is right for the range of hills mainly in Gloucestershire which since 1306 have been called The Cotswolds. The cot part may be something to do with the word for a small sheep-shelter, but on the other hand it may not. Sheep have always been a big deal in that part of the country, and Cotswold lion is “a humorous appellation for a sheep”, though I do not find this tremendously humorous.

Enough of all that, which was just an excuse for posting a note for which the world has not really been waiting about Where We Went on Holiday This Week.

It struck us that the Cotswolds is (are?) less likely to be a serious let-down for, say, American tourists, than anywhere else in England, for you get exactly what you hope for: it is beautiful, it is unspoilt, the natives are friendly, the pubs are great, the eating is excellent. Certainly, in high season it would not have been possible to travel as we did from Lower Oddington (where we stayed in Rose Cottage) to Stow, Bourton, Naunton, the Bartons, both Slaughters and one of the Swells, for hours along mostly deserted roads, and we were lucky with the weather, but the whole experience could have been much less perfect and still memorable.

Even the downsides had their compensations: the RSC had nothing on in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, but we found something good to go and see in even nearer-by Oxford; major roadworks were causing delays in Chipping Norton, but made us detour through some glorious scenery we might have missed; and things we bought in a very up-market farm shop to take home to our wives were grotesquely over-priced (and the Organic Greek Shortbreads turned out to be horrid), but you could have breakfast there and the oeufs-en-cocotte à la crème with smoked salmon were so good that I had them two days running.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

R and R Leave Program

Those who have been concerned of late that my heavy workload and manifold commitments are beginning to take their toll will be pleased to hear that tomorrow I am taking a break from my normal stressful routine and going on holiday. Of course I realise that on my return there will be a heavy accumulation of neglected duties—unrefilled ice trays, bottles to be recycled, and several emails (perhaps one or more of them requiring a response)—but I am confident that I shall tackle the backlog with renewed vigour, and even manage to bring myself up-to-date with the newspapers within a few days.

The holiday itself, though, will not be without its exertions. I am spending the week with my old friend Grumio, the Bruton Mews Bohemian, in a cottage in the Cotswolds. The pub is a good few yards walk away and from time to time we may decide to seek intellectual sustenance and a change of menu by making forays to the equidistant Cheltenham and Oxford; there will also be the pressures of the vibrant Stow-on-the-Wold market and the Bourton-on-the-Water aviaries to cope with. But we are hoping that in the afternoons and evenings some serious sitting about and a relaxed but closely-fought game or two of Laskers (or Lasca) will enable us to recover from any exhaustion which may result from frenetic morning activities.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Horses’ Doovers and suchlike

Nibbles, which are small things to eat before the start of the meal proper or to have with drinks, are a civilised pleasure and are mostly good for you, unlike snacks, which are nasty vulgar things you eat at any time, and are very bad for you.

Here, with some acknowledgement to The Oxford Companion to Food, are descriptions of six varieties of nibbles. These are the ones which have become popular world-wide, far beyond the confines of their countries of origin.

Hors d’œuvres

A French term which has been current in a food sense since the 17th century (in England from the 18th), indicating minor, usually cold, items of food served at the beginning of a meal. In the 20th century until quite recently the hors d’œuvres trolley was a familiar sight in restaurants, carrying up to several dozen little dishes containing such items as anchovies, sardines, slices of smoked fish, olives, radishes, sliced tomato or other salad vegetable and various sorts of sausage and other charcuterie.

This is a French word meaning 'couch', which has been a culinary term in France since the late 18th century, when it was applied to the thin slices of fried or toasted bread which served as supports for various savoury toppings. In the 1890s it became an English word referring to titbits of this kind. They do not really deserve to be listed along with the other five mentioned below: the word now sounds old-fashioned and is most likely to be found in contexts such as catered receptions or 'cocktail parties'. The modern practice of offering guests in Western restaurants a titbit before the meal proper begins, calling it an amuse-gueule (gob-tickler), may go some way towards extending the life-span of canapés, though these often depart from the standard canapé formula of small dead things on toast.


This interesting word came from the Persian maza, meaning ‘taste, relish’. The mezze tradition extends westward from Turkey into the Balkans, including Greece, and southwards to the Lebanon and Egypt, and through North Africa to Morocco, but in other Muslim countries the prohibition of alcohol has prevented the tradition from taking root. Even in those Muslim countries where mezze survive or flourish, they tend to be part of the structure of a main meal, while in Greece and the Balkans they are nibbles to be taken while drinking, or gossiping. Typical mezze will include simple things like olives or cubes of cheese, more complicated dips such as taramasalata, tsatsiki, hummus and more substantial dishes of tabbouleh, falafel, dolma and kebab.
It is generally acknowledged that Lebanese mezze are second to none, not only in variety and flavour but also in appearance.


This assumed its present form in 19th century Sweden, following old traditions of placing all foods on the table at once and of guests bringing their own contributions. Nowadays it is usually prepared by the hostess, without contributions, and consists of an assortment of cold dishes, sometimes supplemented by hot ones served either as the preliminary to a meal or as a full buffet meal. The term means ‘buttered-bread table’ but in practice the savoury items (cured herring, other seafood, cold meats, salads and cheeses) are presented with Swedish crispbreads and the like, and only a few items, if any, would appear as open sandwiches.
The smorbrod of Norway and smörrebrød of Denmark sound as though they would be similar to smörgåsbord, but both terms refer to open sandwiches, as the names (buttered-bread) suggest. In Finland, smörgåsbord is the name used by Swedish-speakers, while Finnish-speakers use voileipäpöyta.


These can be served at home or in a restaurant, but their essential role is to be eaten in a bar, or rather in a succession of bars. They have a philosophy all to themselves—tapeo is the Spanish tradition of going out before lunch to mingle with friends while drinking an apéritif. [This philosophy deserves a post to itself, which I will write in a week or two.]
Some of the most representative tapas come from the area of Castile which offers, for example, montados de lomo (small pieces of bread with a slice of meat on top), grilled chorizo, and morcilla (fried black pudding). From Galicia come many kinds of cephalods such as octopus and the Galician omelette, while Andalusia has seafood fried or dressed with vinaigrette. Apart from the many regional specialities, tapas such as unpeeled prawns and boquerones (fresh whitebait) are displayed on the counters of bars everywhere in Spain.


The word means ‘little bites’ and originally referred to the sweets served after a main meal. Nowadays it means either something light served before a meal, usually with vodka, or a snack eaten in a zakusochnaya—a stand-up bar.
Zakuski may be hot or cold or both. Cold ones will include, when possible, caviar. as well as salted and pickled fish, cheese, sausage and other preserved meats. Hot ones are always items which are simple to prepare and eat; pirozhki are favourites (little filled pies in a variety of shapes; larger ones are called pirogi).

All these descriptions of food, and the labour of typing the ALT codes for the Scandinavian diacritics, have made me feel peckish: I must find something to nibble.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Chic alors!

I intended to write something about chic in my last post but one since it would crop up naturally in a piece about a Frenchwoman, but I found that there is more to the word than I had thought. The OED categorises it, rather oddly, as slang, but gives it a lot of space:

[F. chic, of uncertain origin; it has been variously referred to the German schick tact, skill, and viewed as an abbreviation of chicane.]
A. n. Artistic skill and dexterity; ‘style’, such as gives an air of superior excellence to a person or thing.
1856 LEVER Martins of Cro' M. 321 The French have invented a slang word.. and by the expression ‘Chic’ have designated a certain property, by which objects assert their undoubted superiority over all their counterfeits. 1882 M. E. BRADDON Mt. Royal II. ix. 178 She had no chic. 1887 SIR R. H. ROBERTS In the Shires i. 12 There is an air of chic and high tone about him. 1888 Pall Mall G. 6 Sept. 4/2 Her voice is sweet and her delivery artistic, but she is wanting in what the French call ‘chic’ an untranslatable word, denoting an indispensable quality.

B. adj. [Not so used in French.] ‘Stylish’, in the best fashion and best of taste.
1879 Print. Trades Jrnl. XXVI. 14 What they term ‘Fashionable Chic Note’. 1880 OUIDA Moths I. 44 They are all chic, you know. 1887 Lady 20 Jan. 38/3 The ladies of New York.. think no form of entertainment so chic as a luncheon party.

chic, n. and adj. As the second element in compounds: the style or look associated with a specified lifestyle or subculture (now esp. one which might seem unlikely as a source of inspiration) regarded or appropriated as fashion. Cf. radical chic, punk chic, heroin chic n.
1961 Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe 25 July 7/6 (advt.) Deep country chic from our ‘Landed Jantzens’ collection for late summer on. The look: woodsy and casual. 1974 Black World June 33/2 Howard University, which is apparently a hotbed of lumpen, field nigger, proletariat, professional street-nigger chic. 1984 Sounds 29 Dec. 13/6 Add as an accessory a wooden club (for terrace chic). 1987 I. SINCLAIR White Chappell Scarlet Tracings i. 13 His skull was shaven, deathrow chic, and was so massive and burdened with unassimilated information that it tipped aggressively forward, almost onto his chest. 1991 Elle (U.S. ed.) July 112 With that change comes the fast, free, and uncontrived appeal of biker chic. 1995 i-D Nov. 64/1 Our popular culture is shot through with images of junkie chic. 2001 Yahoo! Internet Life July 42/4 When major fashion labels started making laptop bags, we knew geek chic was here to stay.

In spite of last month’s draft additions, the OED still seems to be lagging behind current usage. It was correct to point out that the French don’t use it quite as we do, to mean ‘stylish’, but it is also true is that nowadays this is the meaning we nearly always give to it; the OED’s second, B, definition should come first. A typical use would be the description of one of the gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, which featured streams of water running along channels covered with steel gratings, as looking like a rather chic sewage farm.

The story of the sign on a tweed jacket in the window of a Paris tailor describing it as très chic, très snob, presque cad is probably apocryphal.

Harrap gives the English equivalent of Chic alors as Fine! or Great! but I think How about that! is nearer.

P.S. I was wrong to include 'chic' under gallicisms here. We adopted it more than 150 years ago.