Friday, 31 August 2007


Raptors are birds of prey. The word has nothing to do with dinosaurs, though there was a dinosaur of the Cretaceous period called a velociraptor. Like spiders (British ones anyway), they pose no danger to humans but inspire fear, perhaps from memories of childrens' stories about eagles carrying off babies.

I learnt this and much more from seeing some demonstrations given by the Raptor Centre at Groombridge Place in Kent. Here is a photo I took of one of the stars, Helga (there are many better ones of her and others on the website), who is an American Bald Eagle, though actually bred in captivity in Nuremburg.

The centre is a long-established sanctuary for raptors, and has nothing to do with falconry which, for all its long history, strikes me as an unattractive sport.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

No violence here

It’s heart-warming, and makes one more optimistic about the future of our race, to come across a video action game, widely popular since 2004, in which the competitive element is constructive rather than destructive. In this game, no-one gets hurt or even mildly annoyed: you simply have to roll a sticky ball around picking up people, buildings, umbrellas etc, and see who can make the biggest lump of stuff. It is called Katamari Damacy, which translates as something like “clump of souls”, and there is a Quick Time trailer of it here.

Its basic mildness and delicacy is illustrated by the fact that it has inspired spin-offs of much interest to knitters and crochetters, a group of people who may be competitive but always in a gentle and tolerant way which hardly ever involves small arms, explosives or knives. Here, for example, is a picture of a knitted Katamari ball hat; there are many websites which show you how to amaze your friends by making or even wearing such things.

Monday, 27 August 2007


Forgetting it was Sunday when the TV schedules are all over the place, I switched on for the lunchtime news and found myself in the middle of Eastenders, which I hadn’t seen for many years; by an extraordinary piece of luck I had tuned in just in time to catch a line of dialogue which must be one of the finest in the soap’s twenty-two year history.

I never latched on to the background of the episode, but playing a major part in it was a sad, lonely, fat, unattractive woman who I gathered had, apart from all her other problems, lost her job. She gave out a wail of anguish comparable to Ian McKellen’s in his 1969 Richard II: “I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends", when he made the last two words a cry full of pain and desolation. The memory of the line from Eastenders will stay with me for a very long time:

“I’m not even good enough to sell cheese!”

Saturday, 25 August 2007


Or, as we pronounce it on this side of the Atlantic, awesome. Actually, it is better if we don’t pronounce it at all, for even in America where it was first mis-used it has been despised for more than twenty years.

The OED has:
1. Full of awe, profoundly reverential.
2. Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird.
3a. In weakened sense: overwhelming, staggering; remarkable, prodigious. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
3b. In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: marvellous; great; stunning; mind-boggling. (slang)

Nowadays, of course, it generally has only the last meaning.

Lake Superior State University published last January its 32nd Annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. Awesome had been given a one-year moratorium in 1984, "during which it is to be rehabilitated until it means 'fear mingled with admiration or reverence; a feeling produced by something majestic’. Many have written to tell us there's no hope and it's time for the full banishment."

So now it has appeared in their 2007 list, with the comments of its nominators:
"The kind of tennis shoes you wear, no matter how cute, don't fit the majestic design of the word."
"That a mop, a deodorant or a dating service can be called 'awesome' demonstrates the limited vocabularies of the country's copywriters."
"Overused and meaningless:' My mother was hit by a car ... Awesome!'. 'I just got my college degree ... Awesome!'"

You can nominate your own bêtes noires for inclusion in the 2008 list here, or see the complete list since 1984 here.

Many of these words and phrases are, happily, never seen outside North America, and there are some which you may consider to be clichés but occasionally useful, to be used sparingly but not totally banished.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

E L Wisty's World Domination League

If there’s one thing I can’t bear, it’s when hundreds of old men come creeping in through the window in the middle of the night and throw all manner of garbage all over me. I can’t bear that. I think that’s unbearable. Ghastly old men, with great pails of garbage, throwing it all over me. I don’t think it should be allowed, I think there should be a place for those people to go. I’d vote for any party that would say “I won’t allow people to throw garbage all over me”. But none of the parties seem to be particularly interested. That’s why I formed the World Domination League.

It’s wonderful league, the World Domination League. The aims, as published in the manifesto, are total domination of the world by 1958. How we aim to go about it is as follows: we shall move about into people’s rooms and say, “Excuse me, we are the World Domination League, may we dominate you?” Then, if they say “Get out”, of course we give up.

There’s been some wonderful dominators in history, you know. Attila was one. Attila the Nun. He was an amazing dominator. He had a Gothic Horde, you know. A wonderful Gothic Horde, and he used to move about entire countries and strangle people completely to death. And then, when everybody woke up, they’d see a little note pinned to their chest, saying: “You’ve been dominated. Ha ha. Attila the Nun".

Hitler was a very peculiar person, wasn’t he? He was another dominator, you know, Hitler. And he was a wonderful ballroom dancer. Not many people know that, he was a wonderful little dancer, he used to waltz around with a number “8” on his back. The only trouble was, he was very short, and people used to shout out to him when he was dancing, and say, “Wie kurz du bist – how short you are!” And this of course enraged Hitler. He flew into a tantrum, and he gave up ballroom dancing and took up wholesale raping and pillaging instead.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007


Liverpool housewives scrub their front doorsteps, 1954.

It were all right for some. We used to dream of having our own front doorstep.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Sound advice

Other Men's Flowers contains very few biblical quotations, because I know that most of my regular readers are familiar with the Bible and consult it frequently, so that for me to regurgitate chunks of it would be supererogatory and regarded as impertinent. However, even among the devout there are very few who take much notice of its injunctions, believing that most of them are irrelevant to modern life. No-one really needs to be reminded not to covet his neighbours oxen, or that looking back when your hand is on the plough may disqualify you for the kingdom of God. I mean, nowadays we all bear these thoughts constantly in mind.

However, when it comes to general recommendations the word of God is often quite sensible, and we would do well to heed it. Take, for example, Matthew 6, 28-31:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

Today’s obsessions with diet, booze and fashion demean us all, and this is undoubtedly salutary advice, rather well put.

Friday, 17 August 2007


Just outside the town where I live there is something called The Church-in-the-Wood, because that is what it is. It has a churchyard—or rather, at three acres, more of a necropolis—and my wife and I strolled through it happily in yesterday’s sunshine looking at three hundred years of headstones (actually more but the earlier ones are mostly illegible).
What struck us forcibly was that they stopped making beautiful ones soon after the nineteenth century began. This one from 1795, recording the deaths of Timothy and Mary Jannings, is fairly typical of the eighteenth century, with its lovely typeface and the simple but adequate wording (sadly not visible in my rotten photo).

As the nineteenth century wore on people were less inclined merely to die, preferring to pass on, fall asleep or rest in the arms of Jesus. A record of name, date and age was no longer enough; there had to be whole lines of mawkish or pious banalities and unconvincing encomia which today evoke only indifference or a cynical smile. Where did they bury the not-particularly-loving fathers and the not-really-very-devoted wives?

But here is a relatively recent stone we found which strikes at the heart, unusual in that the cause of death is given; this was in itself an unusual one in those days. After all these years it still speaks to us plainly and sincerely of the anguish and bitterness of the bereavement. Peter would have been 77 now.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

A la vôtre!

Shared a bottle of Nuits St Georges the other day, as modest a tipple as one would expect for £6.99; tentative, I suppose one would call it. I wonder how it would compare with one of the great ones from this region, a 1964 premier cru which an importer described at that time as:
Deep, untidy and a big shaggy nose. Rather a jumbly, untidy sort of wine, with fruitiness shooting off one way, firmness another, and body pushing about underneath. It will be as comfortable and comforting as the 1961 Nuits St Georges when it has pulled its ends in and settled down.

It will have pulled its ends in much too far by now, one fears.

This kind of description is useful for defending vice as well as to extolling virtue. Stephen Potter, inventor of Lifemanship, once promoted a Cockburn ’97 which was clearly past its best. He spoke of:
…the imperial decay of the invalid port…its gracious withdrawal from perfection…keeping a hint of former majesty, withal... whilst it hovered between oblivion and the divine Untergang of infinite recession…

Monday, 13 August 2007

Two Spaniards

Salvador Dali in his studio at Port Lligat in 1951 with his painting Christ of St John of the Cross and Pablo Picasso with a vast carving of a goat outside his villa in Cannes in 1955.

While Franco ruled Spain, Picasso remained in exile; Dali didn’t care, and carried on doing his thing. Or rather, various colourful things. James Thurber, quoting The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (written by Dali, with paintings by Dali and photographs of Dali) noted some vignettes which give the flavour of the book:

…the youthful dreamer of dreams biting a sick bat or kissing a dead horse, the slender stripling going into man’s estate with the high hope of one day eating a live but roasted turkey, the sighing lover covering himself with goat dung and aspic that he might give off the true and noble odour of the ram… Salvador kicking a tiny playmate off a bridge, Salvador breaking the old family doctor’s glasses with a leather-thonged mattress-beater…
There was, in Dali’s home town of Figueras, a family of artists named Pitchot, all of whom adored the ground the enfant terrible walked on. If one of them came upon him throwing himself from a high rock—a favourite relaxation of our hero—or hanging by his feet with his head immersed in a pail of water, the wild news was spread about the town that greatness and genius had come to Figueras. There was a woman who put on a look of maternal interest when Salvador threw rocks at her. A mayor of the town fell dead one day at Salvador’s feet. A doctor in the community (not the one he had horsewhipped) was seized of a fit and attempted to beat him up.

Thurber added “The contention that the doctor was out of his senses at the time of the assault is Dali’s, not mine.”

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Joining in

Who has not wanted to join in when people are dancing?

In the wings of a theatre in 1956, a charlady joins in a group dancing audition.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

What is cricket?

Martin G in the excellent Really Magazine reports that a new book, due for release later this year, At the boundaries of Cricket : Philosophical Reflections on the Noble Game (abstracts HERE) will attempt to answer this question.

Noble Game, eh?

NOBLE: (1) of an exalted moral or mental character or excellence; lofty; (2) admirable in dignity of conception, manner of expression, execution, or composition.

I suppose The Noble Game fits cricket as well as The Noble Art fits the activity which has as object the reduction of your opponent’s face to a pulp and his brain to a jelly.

Anyway, Martin G notes that the book will be of interest alike to those who feel that cricket can be seen from “Consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics perspectives”, and those who simply see men hitting a ball with a piece of wood. It asks whether “cricket is a language-without-words-game” and if, over the years, it could be said to show “an evolution from Lockean to Smithean liberalism”. Also discussed is the idea of ‘non-attached action’, as referenced techniques of mental preparation and mental hygiene, and the last chapter presents a strong argument against functionalism, in other words against those who might feel that :“ . . . the aesthetic appreciation of cricket, and sport more generally, can be reduced to or is subordinate to the putative purpose of the game, namely winning*”. [In other words, it’s better to read Wisden than to actually play the silly game.]

It all sounds like a cracking good read.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Wish you were here, George.

I wasn’t looking for the name specially but my impression is that last weekend my Sunday newspaper was virtually a Blair-free zone, apart from a few heart-warming references to the “post-Blair era”.

Is his fifth luxury vacation at Sir Cliff Richard’s Sugar Hill mansion in Barbados proving as enjoyable as ever? I think we should be told.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The old bruiser

I should like to think, though it is an impossible dream, that I shall end up rather like Denis Healey, “the best prime minister we never had”, though I’m not sure that at his age I would be keen to make twenty trips a year to my seat in the House of Lords as he does.

He was interviewed this week by the Guardian, holding a glass of whisky and looking out at the swimming pool of his East Sussex farmhouse where he takes a daily dip.

Over the years many quips about him and by him have provided harmless fun: his deputy at the Treasury, in response to a remark by a third party that "Denis Healey would sell his own grandmother", commented, "No, he would get me to do it for him". In 1978, he likened being attacked by the mild-mannered Sir Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons to being 'savaged by a dead sheep', and as Foreign Secretary he replied admirably to the accusation of being a name-dropper.

All that was a very long time ago, and it is pleasant to read that his 90-year-old tongue has lost none of its waspishness. The other day his reply to a mention of his past adversaries was “Sod ‘em—or, if you prefer, Gomorrah”, and his comment on the once popular David Owen was: "When he was born, all the good fairies gave him every virtue: ‘You’ll be beautiful, you’ll be intelligent, you’ll have charm and charisma.’ And the bad fairy came along and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘But you’ll be a shit.’ That was his trouble.”

Friday, 3 August 2007

This must be birthstrangled

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells no longer writes under that name but letters by him and his peers still infest the national newspapers. Often they feature complaints about that hobgoblin of little minds, political correctness. Another common theme is the decline in standards of English prose, involving tedious pedantry over piffling errors or harmless neologisms.

But new and undesirable coinages should certainly be publicly castigated. The headline “Government downplayed animal suffering in experiments” had appeared in The Guardian, and a reader commented wittily:

Not wishing to churlishbe or mountainmake molehillwise, might you consider usestopping of the ghastly “downplay”? Or am I doorclosing after horsebolting?

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

149 years at Drayneflete

Sir Osbert Lancaster (1908 - 1986) was a cartoonist (the only one ever to be knighted), author, art critic and stage designer. In his satirical history of British architecture, Drayneflete Revealed, he traced the development of one part of his fictitious town in a series of drawings: