Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Not funny any more

Half a century ago Michael Flanders wrote A Song of Patriotic Prejudice, consisting of vigorous—and, by and large, well-deserved—insults aimed at foreigners, including the Welsh, Scots and Irish. He introduced it with a complaint about our lack of a really good national song, noting that, for example, the Americans have My Country T’is of Thee (which, cheekily, they sing to the tune of God Save the Queen), the Scots have Scotland for I (which should properly be Scotland for Me), and so on.....

“And what do we have for an English national song? Jerusalem! Oh, and There’ll Always Be an England. Well, that’s not saying very much, is it? I mean, if it comes to that, there’ll always be a North Pole, so long as some dangerous lunatic doesn’t go and melt it.

How we laughed!

Sunday, 25 February 2007

True Grits

Yes, for Paradise the Southland is my nominee,
Just give me a ham hock and some grits of hominy…

Many people think of grits as a mainly Southern dish, but they have always been a popular delicacy with New Yorkers; during the Great Depression, El Morocco and many other top nightspots used to have signs outside offering “Grits to go 50c” and today grits still come with the $4.99 Janitor’s Special Supper at the 21 Club.

The word itself is an example of the rather endearing way in which Americans, always traditionalist, cling on to words which we have long since allowed to fall into disuse on this side of the Atlantic. The Old English grytt (in various spellings and usually in the plural) was in use in the eighth century and referred to coarse oatmeal; in the U.S. today it can be applied to other kinds of grain.

As for hominy, this attractive word for a not tremendously attractive thing is undoubtedly American (Indian) in origin and was first seen in print in Captain Smith’s unreliable Historie of Virginia, published in the middle of the seventeenth century. Talking about the colonists' servants, he said they “…commonly feed upon Milke Homini, which is bruized Indian corne pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.”

Smith was a braggart and probably a liar, so it is by no means certain that Princess Pocahontas saved him from death, but it is known that she was a daughter of Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief Powhatan), visited London with her husband John Rolfe, was presented at court, and gave birth to a son before dying in 1617. Here’s an engraving of her made the previous year.

Through her son she has many living descendants including, some say, the Bush family. Others believe that this (both the genealogy and the family) is a mistake.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Not easy, but worth it

It was a dull day yesterday but I was greatly cheered by news from my friend Grumio, who is currently on holiday abroad with his beautiful wife, staying in a borrowed flat overlooking a city and its bay. Yesterday he emailed me a photo of a fireworks display which they had watched from their bed, and I replied:

“Fireworks in bed, eh? Ah, to be young again!”

His response was:

“…Yes, but it only lasted 5 minutes, I had to squint a bit and nearly put my back out, and it was tricky getting good pictures. Mind you, the banging could be heard across the bay and there was a round of applause from the crowd afterwards”

You can see why I value this man's friendship, can’t you?

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Upon the fretful porpentine

This is from a recent catwalk show staged last week at a school hall in an East London back street by a fashion designer called Giles Deacon.

It is inappropriate, perhaps, to include it in my widely-acclaimed series of posts under the title Hats of Significance, for it represents a conscious (and successful) effort to be silly, and usually I choose only creations which are unintentionally comic.

It was just the glazed, trancelike expression on the model’s face which intrigued me, although, come to think of it, models always look like that and, with the sort of thing they have to wear in public, who can blame the little dears?

Monday, 19 February 2007

The third Monday in February

If any freeborn Englishmen (or, for that matter, Scotswomen) need an excuse for a party and want to join their American friends in celebrating Presidents Day today I can reassure them that there is no apostrophe, or if there is it comes after the “s”; therefore, marking the occasion in no way constitutes an act of homage to the present incumbent, or endorsement of what for want of a better word we may call his policies.

In fact this is all about a much more distinguished George, as Wikipedia explains here. Of course, he was no friend to us, but surely it is time to let bygones be bygones and forgive him for forcing us out of Boston, while remembering with pride that, the same year, we defeated and nearly captured him in New York City.

So if you have friends from the freed colonies there need be no embarrassment in having a joint celebration: just get in a crate of Jim Beam Black Label and tell them we no longer bear malice.

Jim Beam is of course a top Bourbon whiskey and this enables me to repeat a classic story which is best appreciated by those who know about European aristocracy:
The scene is a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna. An American matron is clearly having a problem at the bar, and is approached by a distinguished silver-haired gentleman whose chest is covered with insignia. He asks if he can help her.
“Yeah, I wanna Bourbon.”
The old gentleman gives a courtly bow: “Would a Habsburg do?”

Saturday, 17 February 2007

I'm the plain and simple kind

In 2004 I posted a note about Eartha Kitt, saying that I first saw her dancing in London a very long time ago and including a photo of her in a 1956 film which I saw three times.

I now have an excuse to feature her with a more recent (2005) photo: this week she is in London again, at the Shaw Theatre, where at eighty years old she is, according to a reviewer, purring and snarling with undiminished grace.

In 1950, Orson Welles gave her her first starring role as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr. Faustus and according to rumour she was duly grateful.

These clips are unfortunately lip-synched but illustrate her extraordinary talent and the perfection of her consonants:
Just An Old-Fashioned Girl

I Want to Be Evil
See What the Boys In the Back Room Will Have

In the first two she demonstrates how she can switch from sweet to vicious (sometimes within a single phrase). The third is from a show allegedly in homage to Dietrich, but she parodies her and does it much better.[Sadly, YouTube have now cravenly closed down this one: "This video has been removed due to terms of use violation"]

Thursday, 15 February 2007

A new Great Leader of All Turkmen

I and those of my friends who follow closely the changing political scene in the gas-rich central Asian states were dismayed to learn the result of the recent elections in Turkmenistan. Most of us, in the course of our late-night pub discussions over the years, had mastered the correct pronunciation of the president’s name: Saparmurat Niyazov (though sometimes we referred to him as Sapper). He was a brutal megalomaniac; the cult of his personality—he ran the country like a private Disney World—made Kim Jong-Il look like Clement Attlee.

The lovable old fellow died, full of years and fine cognac, a couple of months ago. So far so good, but this week 98.5% of the five million Turkmenis turned out to elect a successor. And whom have they chosen? The acting president, one Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov.

Clearly, dramatic changes are afoot. It will take us a while to catch up with that one, and he’ll have to be just Gurbers—or possibly Berdy—to us until we’ve got it right. We're playing the video of the swearing-in ceremony over and over again; the commentator pronounces his full name beautifully.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007


And thou—what needest with thy tribe's black tents
Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?

Two of the most beautiful last lines of any poem, but if you read the rest of Francis Thompson's Arab Love Song you will find that it is actually a sly way of saying "Do we have to go to your mother's every weekend?"

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Hold the front page

This week our media have been enthusiastically covering what is perhaps the least interesting story of the decade: Tory leader David Cameron refuses to say whether or not he was punished as a schoolboy at Eton for smoking cannabis.

His response to questions on this trivial nonsense was: “I did things when I was young that I regret … but politicians are entitled to a past that is private”.

Leaving aside his apparent preposterous belief that admitting to having smoked cannabis at school would upset the voters (the reverse is probably true), this remark needs to be questioned. No-one would suggest that the public has a right—or would want—to know all about such things as, say, his decade-long childhood resistance to proper use of the potty, but to assert that anything a politician, especially a potential prime minister, did in his youth should never become public knowledge is fatuous even by the standards of Tory leaders' pronouncements. Suppose he had been convicted of fraud, or grievous bodily harm, when he was 17, but had done his bird and thus paid his debt to society, would we nevertheless not feel that we ought to know about it before voting to put him in charge of the country? Politicians’ right to refuse to comment on everything they did when young? Aw phooey!

But wasn't he an absolute poppet at 21?

Sunday, 11 February 2007

A disease of one’s own

I posted a note last May describing the delight to be had in finding something wrong with you which baffles your doctor (and by the way whatever it was I had has now stopped hurting), but this is a small pleasure compared with the fun to be got by having some nasty affliction actually named after you. Best if you don’t actually suffer from it, of course, but merely devote several decades of your life to discovering it.

There is a splendid website called Whonamedit which is devoted to eponymous diseases, or syndromes, or obscure body parts, or procedures. Work on it is still in progress—it now lists a mere 7,829 eponyms but eventually it will include more than 15,000 eponyms and 6,000 persons.

As one does on a dull Sunday afternoon, I was browsing through it today and found some fascinating and little-known byways to explore. How many people, for example, know that a Morand’s Foot has eight toes, and that it is named after Sauveur Fran├žois Morand, an eighteenth-century pioneer in urology and the first to devise the Trendelenburg position? And who would not want to learn exactly what the prognosis is if they acquire Espildora Luque's syndrome, or Ledderhose's contracture, or even, God forbid, Kaposi's varicelliform eruption?

But the one which I found the most interesting was not really a medical condition at all. It is called Yentl’s syndrome and is named after the heroine of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, in which Yentl had to disguise herself as a man to attend school and study the Talmud at an all-male Jewish school in 19th century Poland; it was made into a 1983 film directed and starred in by Barbra Streisand. The syndrome describes the phenomenon that women are treated less optimally in the management of coronary heart disease than men.

How, exactly? Is it prevalent today? And was the problem first identified by cardiac specialists, or feminists, or, most likely, feminist cardiac specialists? I suppose one could find out, for Google brings up seventy other websites that refer to it, but I shall leave it there, for I think I've got a slight touch of Zenker's diverticulum coming on.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Writer’s block

One can’t chew one’s pen now, of course, and drumming one’s fingers on the keyboard doesn’t help. A writer friend of mine called Hugo Jennings, trying to get himself started on a novel for which he had already had the advance, once turned in desperation to an ancient method of stimulating creativity, which Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary defines as follows:

Taghairm, ta’garm. n. In the Scottish Highlands, divination; esp. inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall. (Gael.)

He told me later that it was a dismal failure. Exhausted after lugging his hired bullock’s skin halfway up the Scottish mountain to the waterfall, he found that the little ledge above which the water tumbled was crowded with an extraordinary bunch of people: a couple of crazy old shepherds, some palmists (who had come for the divination) and several Americans with waterproof laptops. He managed to find a space to lie down and wrap himself up in the skin, but what with the cold and the wet and the constant background hum of Texan chatter it was quite clear that inspiration was not going to come to him, and after a miserable hour or so he gave up and stumbled back down the rocky path.

Happily, he later managed to finish his book, which was a moderate success, and was able to get a good price for the bullock’s hide after he had dried it out.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Nicolas Chauvin was a devoted follower of Napoleon in spite of being wounded 17 times, disfigured and maimed, in his service. In post-Napoleonic France this earned the poor fellow ridicule and derision, and after he had been mocked in several plays the word chauvinisme was coined as a term for excessive nationalistic fervour (we dropped the "e", of course). In recent years, prefixed by “male”, it also denotes misogynistic contempt.

I have not been able to establish whether Nicolas ever married. Let us assume that he did, and that his wife was called Solange, which for all I know she might have been. Then we could coin a new word to describe the misandrist equivalent of a male chauvinist.

A solangist friend of mine—let us call her Vespertilia, for that is not her name—holds firmly to the belief that women would be perfectly well able to follow any occupation or sport had they not been oppressed by men for many millennia and prevented from engaging in most of them by men’s selfishness. If there were no discrimination and the right training was on offer, she says, women could equal or surpass men’s achievements in every field. and she rejects any suggestion that few women would have the desire to excel as, say, coal-miners, serial killers, caber-tossers, Royal Marine Commandos, hangpersons, front row forwards, bass-baritones, waste disposal operatives and so on. “Ah, but with encouragement they might”, she says firmly.

She is also very hot on gender-specific words and feels strongly about actress. If acting is acting, and there should be no distinction by gender between practitioners, of course they can all be called actors, but then logically we should demand that they compete together for awards, and there can be no “Best Actress” any more. This would probably be OK for your Denches and your Mirrens and your Blanchetts, and bully for the little dears, but in a bad year for male actors even the finest among them might have to be content with lesser trinkets such as Best Supporting Actor in a Foreign-Language Wildlife Film, which seems a bit hard.

“So what?”, says Vespertilia, “Awards are a load of silly rubbish anyway.”

Well, it’s a point of view.

Monday, 5 February 2007

And it goes marching on

About 1856 William Steffe wrote a camp-meeting song with the traditional "Glory Hallelujah" refrain; it started with the words "Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?" and the tune had such an infectious swing that it became widely known.

Early in the Civil War, a regiment stationed in Boston, using Steffe's tune, sang a marching song about John Brown of Kansas who was the first white American abolitionist to advocate and to practice insurrection as a means to the abolition of slavery and had been hanged for treason (against the state of Virginia) shortly before, but directed it as a jest towards a contemporary in their ranks also called John Brown. This version, John Brown's Body, soon became popular among the Union troops.

In 1861, after a visit to a Union Army camp, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) wrote the poem set to it that came to be called The Battle Hymn of the Republic, in response to a challenge from a preacher who thought that that there should be more uplifting words to the tune. Her words are certainly pious, and, like those of most hymns, utter drivel (you don’t store grapes in a vintage), but have a fire to match the spirit of the authoress, who said on her ninetieth birthday “I march to the brave music still”.

[As a footnote to this story, a man who taught music at my school, a moderately distinguished organist called George Oldroyd, had the perfectly idiotic idea of writing a different tune to these words and making us sing it. On these occasions I and a bunch of rather louche friends sitting at the back used to stick to the original; this gave rise to a somewhat confused rendering, but sadly there weren’t enough of us to make it a real contest.]

Like the two I mentioned the other day, Cwm Rhondda and Eventide, JWH’s words with Steffe’s tune can be counted among the top Christian holy numbers. Another might be the tremendously jolly oom-pa Whosoever Will much favoured by non-conformists. These are personal choices, of course; others will have their own favourites which will often include the dreary Onward Christian Soldiers or Immortal, Invisible.

But why am I, as hairy an atheist as you could wish to meet (or to avoid), writing about hymn tunes for the second time in two weeks? Because some of them are rather good; they are mostly just strophic ditties but very satisfying to give out with in the bath. And anyway, do I have to be a Freemason to enjoy The Magic Flute, or a Muslim to be awed by the Blue Mosque?

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Talking proper

When in the United States, the cuteness of my accent was sometimes remarked upon, always in a friendly manner. But that was some time ago; nowadays, when so many of the roles in big Hollywood movies go to British or antipodean actors (no longer playing mainly villains as they used to), perhaps the American ear has become more attuned to the way non-Americans speak; I doubt if the likes of Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Jude Law, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Nicole Kidman sound in the least cute to anyone.

I don’t think I speak like any of them; if pressed, I suppose I would say that I use a sort of debased RP, though I arrived at this not naturally, from birth, but more by assiduous imitation of my betters in my early years, for it is foreign to my social background: the only thing I have in common with the traditional users of the Received Pronunciation is that I was born in south-eastern England.

The Anthropology Department of the University of Arizona has much of interest to say about RP, as does Wikipedia and The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. All agree that it no longer has its former elitist connotation or is considered “standard” English, though it is still—more or less—the pronunciation taught to non-native speakers. For an authoritative note on Estuary English from the BBC look here (the BBC), and on the Queens English look here (the University of Arizona again!).

It is no longer true (if it ever was) that, as Henry Higgins said, “no Englishman can open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him”. (Scotsmen are another matter, but let’s not go into all that here.) But then Shaw was a silly old Irishman who greatly admired American English and preferred it to RP English; my guess is that this was not a matter of pronunciation but only because he was nutty about simplified spelling, and was impressed by the Americans’ half-hearted attempt at it with labor, dialog, traveler and so on.