Saturday, 30 June 2007

Ten easy steps to dictatorship

Naomi Wolf identifies the steps any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms, and argues that George Bush and what is left of his administration seem to be taking them all, using time-tested tactics to close down an open society:

1 Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2 Create a gulag
3 Develop a thug caste
4 Set up an internal surveillance system
5 Harass citizens’ groups
6 Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7 Target key individuals
8 Control the press
9 Dissent equals treason
10 Suspend the rule of law

No reason for us to feel smug about the unlikelihood of such measures ever being introduced into the UK. Most of them are for the moment unthinkable to us, but there are already indications that we are starting to edge in that direction.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Don’t mention the class war

More from Watching the English...

Class denial rules
We are clearly as class-conscious as we have ever been, but many of us are increasingly embarrassed by our class-consciousness, and do our best to deny or disguise it. The middle classes are particularly uncomfortable about class, and well-meaning upper-middles are the most squeamish of all. They will go to great lengths to avoid calling anyone ‘working class’—resorting to polite euphemisms such as ‘low-income groups’, ‘less privileged’, ‘ordinary people’, ‘less educated’, ‘the man in the street’, ‘tabloid readers’, ‘council estate’ (or sometimes, among themselves, less polite euphemisms such as ‘Tracey and Kevin’, ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Mondeo Man’.)

These over-tactful upper-middles may even try to avoid using the word ‘class’ at all, carefully talking about someone’s ‘background’ instead—which always makes me imagine the person emerging from either a Lowry street scene or a Gainsborough or Reynolds country-manor portrait, depending on the ‘class’ to which ‘background’ is intended to refer. (This is always obvious from the context: ‘Well, with that sort of background, you have to make allowances…’ is Lowry; ‘We prefer Saskia and Fiona to mix with girls from the same background…’ is Gainsborough/Reynolds.)

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Hole in the wall

The idea of global electronic money was invented in 1968 by a junior bank manager called Mr Hock. Wisely, he didn’t give his name to the idea, but called it Visa International and sold it to the world.

The year before that, forty years ago this week, the world's first ATM had been installed in a branch of Barclays in Enfield, north London. Here is Mr Shepherd-Barron, now 82, who, while he was in the bath, had the idea of adapting a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash.

From BBC News:
Barclays was convinced immediately. Over a pink gin, the then chief executive signed a hurried contract with Mr Shepherd-Barron, who at the time worked for the printing firm De La Rue. Plastic cards had not been invented, so Mr Shepherd-Barron's machine used cheques that were impregnated with carbon 14, a mildly radioactive substance. The machine detected it, then matched the cheque against a Pin number. However, Mr Shepherd-Barron denies there were any health concerns: "I later worked out you would have to eat 136,000 such cheques for it to have any effect on you."

The machine paid out a maximum of £10 a time. "But that was regarded then as quite enough for a wild weekend," he says.

Mr Shepherd-Barron had come up with the idea of the PIN when he realised that he could remember his six-figure army number. But he decided to check that with his wife, Caroline. "Over the kitchen table, she said she could only remember four figures, so because of her, four figures became the world standard," he laughs.

A small plaque was placed on the site of the first machine on the 25th anniversary of its installation, but few people notice it. Given that there are now more than 1.6 million cash machines worldwide, it is a classic case of British modesty.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The saviour of the human race

Those readers who are of a prurient disposition (I’ll mention no names, you know who you are) and who therefore followed a link I gave recently to an improper extra verse to You’re the Top may have been puzzled by the reference to Miss Pinkham’s Tonic.

Here is the lady herself.
A resident of Lynn, Massachusetts, Lydia Pinkham first began developing home remedies after the near bankruptcy of her husband. Mass marketed from 1875 on, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century.
Lydia and her "medicinal compound" are memorialized in the folk songs "The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham," and "Lily the Pink". A sanitized version of Lily the Pink was a number one hit for The Scaffold in the United Kingdom in 1968/69.

The reason a humble women's tonic was the subject of this and other ribald drinking ballads and an increasing success in the twenties and early thirties was its availability as a 40-proof patent eye-opener during Prohibition.

So we'll drink a drink a drink
To Lily the pink the pink the pink
The saviour of the human race.
She invented a medicinal compound
Most efficacious in every case.

All this information is from Wikipedia, which also gives the full lyrics of this and other versions and describes in great detail the ingredients of the compound and its indications; it is still being manufactured.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Cucumis melo

It’s not too difficult to grow melons in England, though only, I imagine, under glass. But a travel book of 1607 described them as growing here freely, and Andrew Marvell, in a well-known poem written about fifty years later also refers to melons. These must have been in the open, for the hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses must have been a great rarity. Is it possible that our climate was warmer four hundred years ago, or were those so-called melons actually pumpkins?

The history, varieties and nomenclature or the fruit are perplexing. All forms of the species hybridise readily with each other, or indeed with other family members; the puritanical French have traditionally taken care to avoid ‘incestuous intercourse’ by keeping melons and cucumbers well apart.

To us, giving a melon as an expensive gift would be considered a little eccentric. Not so in Japan; the price shown here is equivalent to about $50.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Anything goes

This and Porgy and Bess are the only 1930s musicals which are regularly revived.
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
Now, Heaven knows,
Anything Goes.

I went to see it at the De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff in 1935 and restored in 2005.
It was built by Earl De La Warr, the socialist mayor of Bexhill-on-Sea,when the modern was only just beginning to be the accepted architectural style of social progress. and was the first large scale welded steel-framed building in the UK.

It was a good production, but even if it hadn’t been there would still have been huge pleasure in marvelling at the lyrics:

You're the top! You're the Colosseum.
You're the top! You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.

You're the Nile, you're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!

You're the top! You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top! You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery, you're Garbo's salary,
You're cellophane.

You're sublime, you're a turkey dinner,
You're the time of a Derby winner
I'm a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop
But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top!

You're the top! You're an Arrow Collar
You're the top! You're a Coolidge dollar,
You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You're an O'Neill drama, you're Whistler's mama,
You're camembert.

You're a rose, you're Inferno's Dante,
You're the nose on the great Durante.
I'm just in a way, as the French would say, "de trop".
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top! You're a dance in Bali.
You're the top! You're a hot tamale.
You're an angel, you,
Simply too, too, too diveen,
You're a Botticelli, you're Keats, you're Shelley,
You're Ovaltine.

You're the top! You're a Waldorf salad.
You're the top! You're a Berlin ballad.
You're the boats that glide on the sleepy Zuider Zee,
You're an old Dutch master, you're Lady Astor,
You're broccoli.

You're romance, you're the steppes of Russia,
You're the pants on a Roxy usher,
I'm a broken doll, a fol-de-rol, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

Fancying myself as a fast man with a pastiche, I spent a very long time trying to write some new verses to this with contemporary references. This was a hopeless task, partly because few of today’s icons, apart from the obvious ones like Blair, can be wittily rhymed, but mainly because I am not Cole Porter.

Many others have written parodies, not least Porter himself, who used to perform them at private parties; his have not survived except for this one, though some say it was actually written by Irving Berlin. It is not suitable for quoting here; this is a respectable blog.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Happy times in Paris

Between the two world wars many English-speaking expatriates lived in Paris; Samuel Beckett, John Dos Passos, Lawrence Durrell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein were among them. Most of them enjoyed themselves in various discreditable ways, or were interestingly miserable.

George Orwell was also one of those, though in his case the misery was not particularly interesting, except to us reading about it now. In 1933 he published Down and Out in Paris and London in which he describes his routine life as one of the working poor in Paris: slaving and sleeping, then drinking on Saturday night until the early hours of Sunday morning—the "one thing that made life worth living" for some of the unmarried men of the quarter. Penniless after leaving a hotel job, he takes another at a new restaurant, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, where he falls into a daily routine of fighting for a place on the Metro to reach the "cold, filthy kitchen" of the restaurant by seven:

The patron had engaged me as kitchen plongeur; that is, my job was to wash up, keep the kitchen clean, prepare vegetables, make tea, coffee and sandwiches, do the simpler cooking, and run errands. The terms were, as usual, five hundred francs a month and food, but I had no free day and no fixed working hours.

At the Auberge, I learned how things are done in a thoroughly bad restaurant. It is worth describing, for there are hundreds of similar restaurants in Paris, and every visitor feeds in one of them occasionally. I should add, by the way, that the Auberge was not the ordinary cheap eating-house frequented by students and workmen. We did not provide an adequate meal at less than twenty-five francs, and we were picturesque and artistic, which sent up our social standing. There were the indecent pictures in the bar, and the Norman decorations—sham beams on the walls, electric lights done up as candlesticks, 'peasant' pottery, even a mounting-block at the door. The patron and the head waiter were Russian officers, and many of the customers titled Russian refugees. In short, we were decidedly chic.

Nevertheless, the conditions behind the kitchen door were suitable for a pigsty, for this is what our service arrangements were like: The kitchen measured fifteen feet long by eight broad, and half this space was taken up by the stoves and tables. All the pots had to be kept on shelves out of reach, and there was only room for one dustbin. This dustbin used to be crammed full by midday, and the floor was normally an inch deep in a compost of trampled food.

For firing we had nothing but three gas-stoves, without ovens, and all joints had to be sent out to the bakery. There was no larder. Our substitute for one was a half-roofed shed in the yard, with a tree growing in the middle of it. The meat, vegetables and so forth lay there on the bare earth, raided by rats and cats. There was no hot water laid on. Water for washing up had to be heated in pans, and, as there was no room for these on the stoves when meals were cooking, most of the plates had to be washed in cold water. This, with soft soap and the hard Paris water, meant scraping the grease off with bits of newspaper.

We were so short of saucepans that I had to wash each one as soon as it was done with, instead of leaving them till the evening. This alone wasted probably an hour a day. Owing to some scamping of expense in the installation, the electric light usually fused at eight in the evening. The patron would only allow us three candles in the kitchen, and the cook said three were unlucky, so we had only two.

In these conditions the cook and I were expected to serve thirty or forty meals a day, and would later on be serving a hundred. From the first day it was too much for us. The cook's working hours were from eight in the morning till midnight, and mine from seven in the morning till half past twelve the next morning—seventeen and a half hours, almost without a break. We never had time to sit down till five in the afternoon, and even then there was no seat except the top of the dustbin.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Two invitations

The great Nellie Lutcher, singer and pianist, has died aged 94. I had what we quaintly used to call a “record” (black disk, with a hole in the centre) of Fine Brown Frame, and on the flip side was her very best, Hurry On Down:
I love you, you love me.
A-hurry through the alley
So the neighbours don't see
Hurry on down to my house, honey,

Ain't nobody home but me. Oooh.

That was made in 1947, then four years later Rosemary Clooney had a big hit with a song on a very similar theme, Come on-a My House:

Come on-a my house, my house, I'm-a gonna give-a you candy
Come on-a my house, my house, I'm-a gonna give-a you
Apple, anna plum, anna pomegranate too, eh
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I'm-a gonna give you EVERYTHING

This was from an off-Broadway musical called The Son, by the prolific writer William Saroyan, who was of Armenian descent, and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, (who later, as "David Seville", created The Chipmunks). Saroyan married the seventeen-years-old Carol Marcus; they had two children, Aram and Lucy; when Carol revealed that she was Jewish and illegitimate, Saroyan divorced. They remarried and divorced again. Aram became a poet, who published a book about his father, and Lucy became an actress. Carol Marcus later married the actor Walter Matthau.

So there.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Feeble Endeavour

A TV or film adaptation of an admired novel is often judged not on its merits but by the extent to which it is faithful to the original. It rarely happens that reading the novel after first seeing the adaptation is a disappointment: more often, you discover that the original has riches which the adaptation lacked.

But the reverse can sometimes happen. In the eighties and nineties I watched an occasional episode of Morse and found the character of the detective unattractive: he was pretentious, arrogant and patronising and his love of crosswords, beer and classical music struck me as attributes tacked on in a feeble attempt to make him interesting. The esteem in which he was held by his sidekick Lewis—and the viewing public—was inexplicable.

Of course it was John Thaw's brilliant characterisation that did the trick; that, coupled with good writing, enjoyably preposterous stories and high production values, made the series watchable and even memorable.

The other day I came across a copy of Last Bus to Woodstock, the first in the long series of Morse novels by Colin Dexter, and read it. It was not easy to finish, for it tells a dull and confused story in flat, turgid, cliché-ridden prose, and Dexter's Morse is desperately uninteresting. In the adaptations he may be unlovable but at least he is a character. Here he is quite unlike the TV Morse: the original is an unconvincing, boring, cigarette-smoking cipher, given to vulgar chat-up lines and younger than Lewis.

There must have been something in the novel—or perhaps in its successors , which I don't want to read—to inspire the creation of a TV series, but it is difficult to imagine what it was. Their undistinguished author was lucky to have been made extremely rich by the work of the talented scriptwriters, directors and actors who contrived to give his oeuvre what it so conspicuously lacked: style.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Keeping the mud off their balls

Pétanque is reputed to have been invented in 1907 in the village of La Ciotat near Marseille. The name is derived from the term pés tanqués, which in the Franco-Provençal dialect means "stuck feet", because in Pétanque the feet have to remain fixed together within a (small) circle. Pétanque has become so popular that the term Jeu de Boules (game of balls) is often used to refer to it, even though Pétanque is only one of several variants of boules. Many French villages have a special stadium for the game called a Boulodrome.

In recent years we too have taken to the Jeu de Boules in a big way, and a crack team of retired accountants from Much Wenlock is said to be hot favourite for the next World Championships.

I am indebted to an anonymous correspondent who has informed me that the French, always eager to express their affection for Anglo-Saxons and their admiration for our sporting prowess, have paid us a pretty compliment by adopting an English name for one of the accessories used for the game, the thin mat which often needs to be laid down at Boulodromes when the heavy rain so common in the south of France causes the pitch to become too wet for play and may cause pés tanqués. This useful piece of kit comes in sections which are zipped together to cover the entire area, and they call the whole thing a complete Boul’-sheet.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

The hidden rules of English behaviour

This is the sub-title of Watching the English, a survey by the social anthropologist Kate Fox which dissects and explains the quirks and habits of the English people.

The hidden rules that govern our behaviour—rules we obey without thinking—are revealed in all their Byzantine complexity by minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight—and moan about it all. As the blurb says, …If you are English, it will make you stand back and re-examine everything you normally take for granted, discover just how English you really are, and laugh ruefully at yourself. If you aren’t English, you can laugh without squirming: you will finally understand all our peculiar little ways. If you wish, you can become as English as we are—Englishness is not a matter of birth, race, colour or creed: it is a mindset, based on a set of behaviour codes that anyone can decipher and apply….now that Kate Fox has provided the key.

No more now: I must finish reading about: the reflex-apology rule; the ironic-gnome rule; the money-talk taboo; the eccentric-sheep rule; the paranoid-pantomime rule; the dangers of excessive moderation; the rules of bogside reading…..and the rest of the 420 pages. Then in future posts I can quote chunks of this witty and fascinating treatise.

For a start, the ten pages explaining in detail the rules of English weather-speak are introduced with the observation that:
Our conversations about the weather are not really about the weather at all: English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?, ‘Still raining, eh?’ and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data: they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters or default ‘fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming-talk’—the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.

I would like to copy the whole of the book into Other Men's Flowers page by page, but it wouldn’t be proper. Besides, English readers don’t need it and foreigners who want to understand us can buy it from Amazon (paperback) for $16.

[Watching the English was published in 2004 but we haven’t changed much since then. The whimsical How to be a Brit by the Hungarian George Mikes is funny but dates from 1986, and we have modified a few of our little ways the last twenty years.]

Friday, 8 June 2007

How about a Beefeater newt?

It is easy, but pointless, to say rude things about the London (or rather london) 2012 logo: everybody knows that if you give world-famous brand consultants Wolff Olins a year and £400,000 to design it then you are likely to get a piece of laughable rubbish. So no surprise there, though the animation of it which causes epileptic seizures, the unrecognisable 2012 and the fact that it suggests a swastika were unpredictable bonuses. It was apparently designed to "attract the internet generation", an objective both deeply sad and clearly not achieved: an online petition to get the whole thing ditched attracted nearly 50,000 signatures within a couple of days, while a "Support the 2012 Logo" list was struggling to make it into double figures.

There will also be a London 2012 mascot and we can be fairly sure that its unveiling after the Beijing Olympics will evoke similar contempt and ribaldry. In recent years many Olympic venues have settled for awful sub-Disney cuteness as in Moscow’s Misha and Seoul’s Hodori.

An honourable exception was Barcelona’s Cobi, but then they had taken the extraordinary step of giving the task of creating it to a real artist-designer (Javier Mariscal), who was responsible for the corporate identity for the Games; their logo was one of the best ever.

Few will be much impressed by the charm and originality of Huanhuan, the mascot for Beijing 2008 now being promoted to the world.
[Note that it is a microphone that the gentleman on the right is holding.]

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Recipe for a Salad

Recipes expressed in verse are rarely any good. Here’s one by Sydney Smith (1771-1845), clergyman, writer, lecturer and society figure. He was also, on the evidence of the following, a rotten poet and not much of a gastronome:

To make this condiment, your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half-suspected, animate the whole.
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust a condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt.
And lastly, o’er the flavoured compound toss
A magic soup-spoon of anchovy sauce.
Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbaceous treat!
‘T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat;
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
Fate can not harm me, I have dined today.

It is said that because of this recipe Smith’s memory was to live on among homemakers in the United States (and presumably among dying anchorites) long after his death. It is hard to see why; anchovy sauce and double salt, anyone?

He rather fancied himself as a fast man with an epigram, and his sayings infest the quotation dictionaries. Most of them are pretty unremarkable:
“A comfortable house is a great source of happiness. It ranks immediately after health and a good conscience.”
“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.”
“Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.”
“As the French say, there are three sexes - men, women, and clergymen.”

But this one I like:
“Correspondences are like small clothes before the invention of suspenders; it is impossible to keep them up.”

Monday, 4 June 2007


The days when a hot summer was a pleasing prospect are long gone; we all know now that summers are going to get hotter and hotter, i.e. worse and worse. But even before we were told that we must get used to the idea of being burnt to a crisp, we had begun to find out that sunny weather is not always fun. In 1995 we had one of the hottest, driest summers for 200 years, and August was the hottest ever recorded.

An article in the Evening Standard at the time noted some of the effects, good and bad, which were considered newsworthy then but would be unremarkable now:

300 sheep and 80 cattle had to be shipped off the Isle of Lundy because of a shortage of water on the island.
Free bottles of water were delivered to thousands of homes by Welsh Water after tapwater from the reservoir at Llandegfed turned green.
More that 17 million people were hit by hosepipe bans.
Swarms of ladybirds drove sunbathers of beaches in the west country. They even bit people in their search for moisture.
At London Zoo, rhinos Jos and Rosie had to have sun cream rubbed into their hides to stop them from burning.
Fire burned slowly beneath the surface of peat moors near Wensleydale, and five fire engines had to soak the ground to stop it spreading.
Radio weather forecasters got tired of saying the same thing every morning and wondered how they would fill the bulletin when the whole country was sun, sun, sun. Not so a TV forecaster, however, who said, “It’s not a bit boring for us, because records are tumbling right and left. This is sheer naked excitement for weathermen!”

Even this excitement will pall after a few decades of boring, boring summer sunshine.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Mother Courage

I have been asked why I wrote about Yiddishe Mommas the other day when I never had one. But all is grist to the mill of Other Men's Flowers, and I liked the essay about them from which I quoted.

But I did have a mother whose quiet calm and gentleness gave no hint of the extraordinary strength with which she faced the appalling adversities of her life and which enabled her, against all the odds, to provide her five children with childhoods which they would later remember as happy ones.

Here is a picture of her, aged 18, in 1907. At that time she was a children's nurse, a "nanny".