Sunday, 29 April 2007

Now, the picture

Last year I posted a note of the captions to some of Thurber’s drawings without showing the drawings, thus irritating some unfortunate people who do not have his complete works on their shelves. I shall make amends, starting today:

‘Perhaps this will refresh your memory!’

Friday, 27 April 2007

Bright ideas

The admirable Martin Gardiner (not to be confused with the equally admirable Martin Gardner) maintains on his website for the delight of all of us a continuously updated review of “some of the most promising, interesting, and intriguing examples of the latest US patents”. He has been accused of spoofing, but, as he says, no-one could make up things like these—other than those who really did have the ideas and patented them, that is. Here is a small selection:

Leg-mounted mouse pad
Chin chain
Steerable roller skates
Cucumber sandwich

Boot lacing system
Breast enhancement device
Circular shirt
Garment for two people

Potato chip bag holder
Men’s underwear with adjustable support sling (illustrated above)

Fish breeding toy for cellular telephones
Internally illuminated knitting needle
Criminal arresting assembly
Beach blanket
Shelter for small animals and pets
Burial container

There seems to be a recurring theme which suggests that an easy way to come up with a patentable device is simply to cut a hole in something: the last three listed above, for example, consist of, respectively, a blanket with a hole in it, a box with a hole in it and a coffin with a hole in it.

All this is just as an introduction for those who have not yet sampled these joys. For Martin’s (often puzzled) comments, the filed illustrations and specifications, you need to go to Really Magazine.

[In an introduction, Martin had explained the basis on which US patent applications are assessed. It doesn’t seem too difficult to persuade American Patent Officers that they should protect your right to profit from some unlikely device you have invented, but their British equivalents are probably made of sterner stuff. Alan Coren described the weary cynicism with which they might have greeted John Logie Baird’s unsuccessful attempt to register his machine for sending pictures by radio:“What is it this time, Mr Baird? Raspberry death-ray? Thing for turning socks into honey?” ]

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

You can’t cross here

A much admired competitor in the 1907 Peking to Paris car "challenge" was a Frenchman called Auguste Pons, who had to withdraw when his three-wheeled 6 HP ice-cream cart type of vehicle ran out of fuel in the middle of the Gobi desert. He can in no way be considered a failure in life, because nine years earlier he had become the father of Lily Pons, who was a principal soprano at the Met for thirty years, starred in three films with Henry Fonda in the thirties and could vocalise up to the A-flat above high C without visible effort.

In the hundred years since that great 1907 rally, there have been many attempts to repeat the event, the latest being an optimistic one planned, perhaps not entirely seriously, for 2007. But the difficulties faced in making such journeys nowadays are illustrated by a report in the Guardian about the proliferation of barriers of one kind and another which now exist or are being developed. A graphic attached to the report enumerates them, classified by their raison d’être: anti-immigration (8), anti-terror (8), internal (2) and so on.

The latest, still proposed or under construction, are in the West Bank and Russia/Chechnya, and the oldest (1953) is between the two Koreas, described by Bill Clinton as ‘the scariest place on earth’. It is certainly the most impenetrable of all borders; when I went with a colleague to Pyongyang in 1978 we had been to the other Korea first but although Pyongyang is only 30 or so miles from the border we had to fly there from Seoul via Tokyo.

My colleague, as a special treat, was taken down to Panmunjom, where they were hurling insults and threats across the DMZ over a powerful loudspeaker system. As a distinguished guest he was given the microphone and asked to say something.
“What shall I say?” he asked.
“Well, you could say “Go home, filthy American fascist-imperialist hyenas” was the answer.

The reason he gave for declining was something to the effect that the Americans and South Koreans were also members of the international sports federation of which he was the president, so he didn’t feel it would be quite right for him to send such a message. Anyway, they didn’t insist.


Monday, 23 April 2007

Hair today

At breakfast a couple of weeks ago—toast very sparingly spread with Patum Peperium (The Gentleman’s Relish), if you must know—I was glancing through the pictures in the paper (too early for the effort of reading) when I noticed something which had not struck me before: nowadays, men do not part their hair. I realised that even my elderly friends have dispensed with their traditional parting (except, that is, for the many who settled years ago for the Erich von Stroheim look).

So I discussed this with my stylist (Wendy at Annabelle’s, 10% discount for pensioners on Wednesdays) and we agreed to just comb it straight back.

It didn’t work. At first my hair just stuck up so that I looked like a mad professor, then gradually it began to part itself again, whatever I did. What I have marked here is not a bald patch (I do have one, but not that shape and not in that spot), but the parting beginning to re-establish itself. In a week or two it will once again look much as it has done since my mother first parted it, round about the time of the Munich crisis. I suppose that's something to be thankful for, really.

Isn’t that interesting? No? All right, then: next week, some pictures of my elbows, which.... no, perhaps I won’t bother.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Oons for everyone

I noted last July that many English words which end in och or ock represent unattractive or uninteresting things. Here’s another trio of letters to consider: oon. Few words ending thus are to be taken seriously: most are dull, and many are derogatory—we laugh at a buffoon and despise a poltroon.

We thought of throwing an OON party to which all these would be invited, but the OED lists no less than 469. This makes them a fairly exclusive crowd (there are more than twice as many ooms), but still too many to fit into our anderoon (the inner room of a house, but also part of a Persian harem).

So we must restrict the number of guests. A select group will arrive in the afternoon, to be welcomed by a platoon of dragoons marching and countermarching on the lawn. We might charge a small entry fee, payable in doubloons, ducatoons or tosheroons, which would include a free balloon and the chance to stand on the pontoon and harpoon a polystyrene whale floating in the lagoon.

Refreshments would feature cardoons au gratin and macaroons, all to be eaten with a spoon. Drinks are something of a problem; all we have been able to come up with so far is St. Emilioon, which is cheating a bit.

Entertainment would be varied and lavish and would include a bassoon player making the ladies swoon by wearing maroon pantaloons and, in the evening, a performing baboon doing conjuring tricks by the light of the moon.

These guests are mostly familiar, not to say dull, so to liven up the party we might invite some exotic oons who would keep everyone guessing; these would probably include a few cantaloons, flocoons, impoons, rattoons, scandaroons, spadroons and of course several woons. (Note, by the way, that if your forebears were early settlers in Canterbury, New Zealand, from anywhere except Britain, then you may claim to be descended from a bunch of shagroons.)

And when will this party take place? Well, we haven’t fixed a date yet, but clearly it will have to be soon.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Can you or can’t you?

Bought a packet of duck legs confit the other day and found this note on the back. What on earth does it mean? That you could have frozen the stuff if the manufacturer hadn’t frozen it first, but now you mustn’t? That you can freeze it once, but not twice? Or merely that the night before the final copy was approved the whole Packaging Design Dept. (Chilled Foods Division) had been overdoing the Macedonian Merlot (5% off) at a party celebrating the engagement of Darren (Asst. Manager, Pack Warnings Team) to Sharon from Accounts?

I wasn’t much bothered because I didn’t want to freeze it anyway (we ate the legs that night: they weren’t particularly nice), but I was curious to know the answer so, as it’s a free number and I was having a quiet day, I telephoned the supermarket’s Careline.

Young Beverley was polite but couldn’t understand my question, let alone answer it. She was able to bring up a picture of the pack on her monitor but that didn’t really help either of us much; she thought it might be a new product (so what?) and couldn’t really see why I was telephoning her. After a bit of chat she said she would get someone to call me back.

No-one did so, and nearly a fortnight has passed. Not worth taking it further, I think, and I shall not name the supermarket since I do not want them to be upset about this; the poor lambs are just recovering from the the ordeal of fighting off a £10 billion bid from a private equity consortium, and we all know how that feels.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007


Search for information on this topic in Conservapedia—“the conservative encyclopedia you can trust”—and you will learn that “Theoretically, if a person has the power to take the life of another, other people will not perpetrate criminal offenses against them….”, though “countries with high rates of gun ownership, such as present-day Iraq or many countries in sub-Sharana[sic] Africa, are not guaranteed to have a low crime rate”.

No, indeed. But apparently having lots of guns around works really well provided they are in the right hands: “…Law-abiding citizens carrying guns are statistically an effective deterrent and defense against lawless or criminal individuals”.

So far, so dotty. But the point is hardly confirmed by: “...This has certainly been shown in the USA, which had 11,350 murders by shooting in 2005, compared with 50 in 2005/06 in the UK, which restricts the possession of handguns. However, it should be noted, that the USA has a population approximately 5 times greater than the UK, the number of murders by shooting is approximately 200 times higher".

How’s that again?

According to a true story recounted in Thank God I Had a Gun
"Ron Honeycutt had been delivering pizzas in Indianapolis for 20 years. When a robber tried to hold him up with a gun, Honeycutt shot his attacker 10 to 15 times, killing him. He was not prosecuted, but was fired by Pizza Hut."
So make sure you've got plenty of ammunition.

I wrote the above and was about to post it when the appalling news came from Virginia Tech.
There have been the predictable comments that this will re-open the debate in America on their lax gun laws, but that seems unlikely. There has never been much of a debate on that: some think it might be a good idea to tighten them, others see the answer as Guns For Everybody.
Typical of the latter is the demented blogger whose comment on yesterday's events was: "When my daughters go to college they will go armed".
A spokeswoman for George Bush says that the president believes in the right to bear arms, but "...Walking into a school hall and shooting people is clearly against the law". That's really laying it on the line, that is.

Sunday, 15 April 2007


I was filled with horror—no, mildly irritated—to read that outside the UK Mr Bean has become an “iconic figure” representing “an English archetype”, an "international symbol of Britishness", and that although the world is bowled over by his comic persona and his latest film is grossing millions everywhere, it is widely believed that we English do not laugh at him because we cannot laugh at ourselves.

Let’s get this quite straight: the reason we do not laugh at Mr Bean is that he is not funny. In his early days Rowan Atkinson was very funny, and Blackadder is a masterpiece, but Mr Bean gurning and falling about is not funny at all.

And in no way does Mr Bean typify the English: I have never met an Englishman remotely like him. Pierre Daninos in The Notebooks of Major Thompson created a much funnier caricature of Englishness and that wasn’t particularly accurate either.

When we see ourselves caricatured effectively we certainly laugh without restraint; nearly forty years ago a certain bunch of comics portrayed us to ourselves as ineffective, feeble, loony, and with a penchant for cross-dressing. Whether this was entirely accurate or not is irrelevant: we loved them because they were funny. Lesser breeds didn’t get it at all for years, though finally they did.

Mr Bean is one of several totally unfunny Englishmen to go down a storm outside his native land. Norman Wisdom is apparently very big in Romania and so of course is Benny Hill in the States: back home their comic acts sank without trace years ago. There is also an ancient English sketch which has become a cult classic, shown on German TV every New Year to the huge delight of millions of viewers. It wasn’t funny, and never had been.

National differences in sense of humour are not surprising: why should something that makes them roll in the aisles in Bradford have the same effect in Prague or Des Moines? We don’t really expect to share each other’s tastes in comedy, but in other fields people are often oblivious of differences in national viewpoints: it is sad, for example, when others blithely assume that we share their view of our country’s leaders. Many times I have been at a loss when American acquaintances, meaning to be friendly, tell me of their admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. What can I say which will not hurt their feelings?

Back in 1997 I might have lost a few (not very close) friends when foreigners wrote to me saying nice things about Diana, if I had not lied when responding. Had I been honest I would have told them that although of course it is sad when any young woman dies, their condolences were misplaced, for I had never admired her much, and that national mourning, closed shops and widespread sobbing seemed to me excessive for the mistress of a dodgy Egyptian playboy.

Friday, 13 April 2007


Opinions differ on the meaning of this word.

Wikipedia, written collaboratively by volunteers and with over two million articles, defines fnord as “the typographic representation of disinformation or irrelevant information intending to misdirect, with the implication of a conspiracy; the word was coined as a nonsensical term with religious undertones in the Principia Discordia by Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, but was popularized by The Illuminatus! trilogy of books by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson”. The entry goes on to explain in more detail what the word means.

Conservapedia, a “conservative encyclopedia you can trust” has over 7,200 “educational, clean, and concise entries” and claims to have no controversial ideas at all while being based on good Christian values; it is supportive of conservative Christianity and Biblical literalism (including Young Earth Creationism).

Its educational, clean, and concise entry for fnord is simply: an inlet of water. At least, that is how the entry stands this week; perhaps one of their editors will soon find out that this is not quite right, and delete it. Shame on the wicked prankster who slipped it in.
[That was yesterday. Today, the entry has been marked Deleted due to vandalism. Difficult to see why anyone would want to vandalise anything so perfect in its idiocy.]

Fnord illustrates something else about online information: much of it is merely gibberish. Google finds 837,000 web sites containing the word: most of them are of no use or interest to anybody.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

More Thurber

After some Thurber prose, let's have one of his drawings:

You and your premonitions!

Monday, 9 April 2007

Memoirs of a Banquet Speaker

This is my favourite James Thurber piece. It is a description of an incident in which he is guest of honour at a banquet and has reluctantly agreed to give a short talk. He gets to the hotel where the function is to take place but realises that he has forgotten the name of the organisation which invited him, so walks into the first banqueting-room he comes to….

I found myself seated at a long table on a dais next to a lady who asks me if I understood the purpose and the make-up of the organisation we were about to address. I told her facetiously that I was under the impression that we were guests of the National Women’s Bulb-Raising Association. This caused the man on her right to pale slightly. He drank a little water and whispered that, on the contrary, we were at the annual dinner of the North-Eastern States Meat-Handlers Association. I could see, however, that he was uncertain of himself on that point; he kept twisting his napkin. After the coffee and ice cream he was called upon for the first speech of the evening and if ever a man touched lightly on the meat-handling situation he did. His nervous condition and incoherent remarks obviously upset the toastmaster, who, all we speakers were instantly aware, was not absolutely sure he was at the right banquet himself.

At this point, since I figured that several speakers were yet to come before I would be called, I slipped from the table and made a hasty trip to the lobby to look up the sign which tells where the various conventions are being held. Several were listed, and their locations were given merely as Ballroom A, Ballroom B, Second Assembly Hall, etc. It was impossible to identify these rooms in the short time at my disposal and so I simply hurried back to my seat. From the sign, however, I had discovered that I might be in the midst of the National Chassis-Builders Association, The Society for the Advancement of Electric Welding, The American Society of Syrup and Fondant Makers, or the Past Presidents and Active Officers of Ye Olde Record-binding Company.

As I sat in my chair, breathing heavily, I tried to think up a few words which might apply equally to the aims and purpose of all the various organisations. This got me nowhere at all. Nor did I receive any help from the gentleman who was talking at the moment. His expression was the agonised expression of a man who hasn’t the slightest idea what it is all about and wishes he were home. He told four stories, in a husky voice, and sat down.

The toastmaster now arose and said that we were now going to have the pleasure of listening to a man who knew more about the subject nearest our hearts than anyone else in America, a man whose great authority in this field has been recognised by his being selected to write on the subject for the new Encyclopaedia Britannica. Finally, with a sweep of his head, he pronounced the speaker’s name—“Mr Septimus R Groves”. As the toastmaster sat down, I lapsed back into my chair and applauded lightly. Nobody got up. All eyes then followed the toastmaster’s—and rested finally on me. I knew then that I was at the wrong banquet

Vaguely, as I got to my feet, I wondered where Mr Groves was and on what subject he was so eminent an authority. I was received with tremendous applause. When it quieted down I began to speak.

I sketched briefly the advance of transportation, the passing of riveting, the improvement shown in the handling and distribution of meats, chassis construction, electric welding and fondant manufacture, and the absolute reliance that one could place nowadays upon the binding of old records. In conclusion I left with my audience the thought that in meat-handling, as in bulb-raising , and binding old records, it is Service and Co-operation that count. The speech was received with thunderous applause and a little stomping.

It was not until I got into a taxi that I realized my mind was already beginning to go. The driver asked me where to. I was surprised to hear myself tell him the Pennsylvania Hotel. There I registered as “Septimus R. Groves” “We already have a Septimus R. Groves registered here,” said the clerk, with polite interest. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Septimus R. Groves,” he said. “He’s attending the annual banquet of the Fish and Game Wardens”.

“Oh,” I said, “there must be some mistake; the man you’re thinking of is Horace R. Morgner—gypsum blocks and building laths.” The clerk gave me my room key, albeit with a certain reluctance. It was a week before I went home. I don’t mutter any longer, but I still cry out in my sleep.

[from James Thurber: Collecting Himself. ©Michael Rosen and Rosemary Thurber]

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Good and bad

A curate's egg is something that is partly good and partly bad, but as a result is entirely spoiled. Nowadays we use it to mean something having a mix of good and bad qualities.

Few clichés have an origin which can be so precisely dated. On 9th November 1895, in Punch*, George du Maurier drew this picture, entitled “True Humility”.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.”
Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

*Punch was founded in 1841 and was responsible for the modern use of the word 'cartoon' to refer to a comic drawing. During the late 19th century it was notorious for publishing anti-Irish jokes and was, to present-day tastes, rarely funny, though occasionally its political or social satire hit the spot. In the twentieth century it passed through phases when it was funny and witty and others when it was bland and dull, but for most of its life was a much-loved British institution.

Among its more distinguished contributors were cartoonists John Tenniel, Phil May, Arthur Rackham, E. H. Shepard, Rowland Emett, Graham Laidler (Pont), Norman Thelwell, Leslie Illingworth, Kenneth Bird (Fougasse), Nicolas Bentley, Edward Ardizzonne, Michael ffolkes, Russell Brockbank, Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Wally Fawkes (Trog), and David Langdon, and authors Kingsley Amis, John Betjeman, A. P. Herbert, A. A. Milne, Anthony Powell, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, Thackeray, Artemus Ward, Somerset Maugham, P.G. Wodehouse, Keith Waterhouse, Quentin Crisp, Olivia Manning, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Grenfell, E. M. Delafield, Stevie Smith and Joan Bakewell.

Circulation peaked during the 1940s when it reached 175,000, but then slowly declined until the magazine closed in 1992 after 150 years of publication. In early 1996, the Egyptian businessman Mohamed Fayed bought the rights to the name, and it was re-launched later that year. It was reported that the magazine was intended to be a spoiler aimed at Private Eye, which had published many items critical of Fayed and showing him in a bad light. The magazine never became profitable again. At the end of May 2002 it had only 6,000 subscribers, and once more ceased publication. [Wikipedia]

Happily, Punch was said to have cost Fayed £16 million (about $28 million U.S.) over the six years of his ownership. In 2004, much of the archive was sold to the British Library but it seems that the Shopkeeper-Pharaoh has retained the rights to the half-million cartoons, for if you want to use them you have to buy a licence from

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Not particularly welcome

The Oxford English Dictionary releases every three months some notes on the quarter’s updates to the online edition, consisting of the revisions to entries in one section of the alphabet and the new entries from across the alphabet.

The revised range published on 15 March covers the words from Prakrit to prim. It contains 2,693 entries (8,756 subsenses, including compounds, etc.). This brings the total number of main entries in the OED to 259,487 (containing 684,542 subsenses).

Of course, the OED’s aim is simply to record words which have come into use and it cannot exclude those which need not or should never have come into being, so the list of 288 new words and senses which were added last quarter makes rather depressing reading. Many of them originated in former colonial territories whose peoples are clearly misusing the lexical licence they acquired when we gave them their freedom. Few of the following can really be said to have enriched our language, because they are superfluous or they describe something we have no real need to know about, or are just silly; I think I could have lived quite happily without adding any of these to my vocabulary:

asswipe, n.
1. A foolish or contemptible person.
2. Toilet paper.

tighty-whities, n.
Men's snug-fitting white cotton underpants; briefs

bimbette, n
slang (derogatory)
A young woman or adolescent girl, esp. one regarded as sexually attractive but thought to lack intelligence or distinctive personality; a bimbo.

irritainment, n
Broadcast material which is irritating yet still entertaining; irritating entertainment

leccy, n.
Brit. colloq.

Electricity, esp as commercially supplied

, n
A toasted sandwich, typically sealed around the edges

toodles, int
U.S. colloq. (freq. humorous).

(=toodle-oo, int.)

pretzelled, pretzeled, adj
N. Amer. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
Twisted, contorted, tangled

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Giovanni Antonio Canal and his gang

In a column on the left of this page there is a list of the categories into which fall the 570 (as of today) posts in Other Men's Flowers. I suppose it does reflect more or less what is important to me: there are 88 posts about words, for example, and only 4 on fashion; 24 on food and drink but only 7 on art. Actually this last figure is not really representative, for while I am without artistic taste, talent or understanding, I do quite like looking at pictures, provided no-one expects me to say anything intelligent about them.

Anyway, I went to an exhibition last week, so here’s post number 8 on art.

This year there have been two London exhibitions of pictures including many of the city itself: by Hogarth, showing its squalor and the depravity of its people, and by Canaletto, showing its beauty and the elegance of those who stroll there. I get quite enough squalor and depravity at home, so it was the Canaletto exhibition, in Dulwich, that I went to and enormously enjoyed.

Looking at Canaletto’s pictures of London and Venice, it struck me how tedious architectural painting must be for the artist: one of the buildings had a dozen identical windows, another a row of ten identical pillars. Of course I knew that artists of that period used various devices to help, and had apprentices to work from their sketches, but I had never realised just what an industry they created until I read this:

Recent studies have brought to light the extensive efforts Canaletto employed in creating such works. The paintings were drawn, if not painted, from inside a portable, room-sized, camera obscura by highly trained (and no doubt very patient) draughtsmen (we could hardly call them artists), and then turned over to studio assistants and apprentices for the actual painting. Canaletto, of course, oversaw the whole enterprise and no doubt lent his hand to the all-important finishing work, but in large part, these incredible painted images were the output of a surprisingly sophisticated art factory.

So one can see how it was possible that he had nine hundred paintings attributed to him.