Sunday, 30 September 2007


I had intended to write for today’s post a rather critical review of Hey there, Ludwig!, Hans Thielemann’s new best-seller—over-praised, in my opinion—analysing Wittgenstein’s seminal 1921 treatise Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung, but halfway through I got bogged down in trying to unravel the morphological and semantic confusions which are so often apparent in Thielemann’s recent work. So I decided to chuck it, retaining only this photograph of dear old LW looking rather cross.

Instead, I shall recount an incident which occurred, or rather, didn't occur, the other day in my local butcher’s shop.

The butcher was joking with a woman standing next to me at the counter, saying that clearly she liked her bacon as she liked her men. I had not heard what prompted his cheeky remark and later I discovered that it was because she had asked for half a dozen rashers of something really tasty, unsmoked and not thick, but for one delirious moment I imagined that perhaps, aware I was within earshot, she had made an oblique pass at me, saying she fancied something crinkly at the edges and with plenty of fat.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Get out of hell FREE

We all have credit cards which encourage us to commit the sins of improvidence and excessive consumption while charging us heavily for doing so. It is refreshing, therefore, to come across an altruistic organisation called Faith Brokers which provides, without any charges, a way of obtaining absolution and avoiding not only the consequences of these but also of all other sins we have committed, or plan to commit in the future.

It offers a range of cards suitable for every level of turpitude:
The Convenience Sin Card for the occasional sinner (covers up to 5 venial sins a week)
The Gold Sin Card for everyday sins (covers up to 3 venial sins a day)
The Platinum Sin Card for heavy sinners (covers up to 20 venial sins a day)

There is also a range of other free services available such as No Confession Insurance and a Mortal Sinners Program.

Full details are HERE.

[Thanks to the salutary blog Debris for bringing this to my attention.]

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

More hats

When at a loss for something to write about, I can always fall back on an extract from my magisterial Dossier of Hats.
This is a cheerful detail from a beautiful photo by Hans Hillewaert (via Wikimedia) showing two splendid creations modelled by Herero ladies of Namibia. You can see the full version here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Oh, for goodness’ sake!

…or puh-leeze! The OED, in updating the alphabetical range porter to purposive, has added this, justifying its inclusion on the grounds that:
“Respelling is often used to convey qualities, such as emphasis or accent, which are easily distinguished in speech but difficult to express in written form. In this case, the respelling of please to indicate an emphatic or sarcastic pronunciation has become sufficiently well established to warrant inclusion in the OED as a separate entry”.

Also among the 2,785 new and revised entries in this range are psychonaut, pruno, and pudding-poke, while 310 new words and senses from across the alphabet have also been added, including aeroponics, ice-cream headache, guggle and saketini.

I have to say that I find none of the above interesting enough to make me want to look them up, since it is unlikely I shall ever use any of them; I already knew that a saketini is a cocktail made from sake but will never ask for one.

Another aspect of the OED’s constant updating is the search for earlier recorded uses of words already in the dictionary, and with the help of viewers to a BBC2 series many words have been updated. Most of the search list consisted of modern informal terms for which early documentary evidence has proved hard to track down. You can see some of the successful results here if you particularly want to know the early recorded use of such terms as dog’s bollocks (1981), mucky pup (1934), Glasgow kiss (1982), TWOC (1972), pole dance (1991), prat (1955), wazzock* (1976) and so on.

*I missed this one when writing this.

Monday, 24 September 2007

In Memoriam

My day has been made by a Mr Noel Privett of Whitchurch in Hampshire, who wrote to the Guardian:
"To mark the death of Marcel Marceau, should we have a minute's noise?"

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Holy headgear

It has been brought to my attention by a friend of mine (he’s a defrocked priest, actually, but this is not relevant) that in choosing pictures to reproduce in Other Men's Flowers from my huge library of reference works on hats, I have curiously neglected to include any top ecclesiastical titfers. This is quite true: the hats I have illustrated in twenty or so earlier posts are a variety of royal, military, political, historical and modish hats, as well as just plain daft things that people put on their heads, but there are none from the world of organised religion apart from those worn by some Greek Orthodox priests in a cartoon. I did, though, quote descriptions here of the hats worn by guests at the late pope’s send-off, and jolly good some of them were too.

I now hasten to fill the lacuna with this nice picture of a jolly little bearded fellow sporting the kind of thing favoured by top bishops. If only earlier leaders of the church could have given the lesser ranks a lead in this way! God himself could never be portrayed in a hat, of course, it wouldn’t be proper, and although in earlier portraits Jesus was often given a rather unconvincing keffiyeh, he is nowadays usually pictured bareheaded, possibly in deference to American fundamentalists who might otherwise get the impression that the Son of God was of Middle Eastern origin.

For the lower echelons, hats of any kind rarely feature in paintings. One might have expected that several of the Apostles would have worn some kind of fisherman’s cap, but the bareheaded look appears to have been de rigueur for saints. Here, for example, is Rubens' idea of Shimon "Keipha" Ben-Yonah, better known as Saint Peter; no hat, though the beard gives him a bit of gravitas. Imagine the impression he would have made, and what he might have achieved, if he had worn the beard and a golden mitre!

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Next, Peggy Babcock

My old friend Grumio, for whose intellect, percipience and erudition I have long had the greatest respect, emailed this to me the other day:

I learnt the history of Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper today, that is, who Peter Piper was. Am I very behind? Did everyone know this except me?

I replied that he and I may well be the only ones who had not known this, and he came back with:

Why, he was Pierre Poivre, of course, yer actual Frenchman who smashed the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg by picking a peck of pickled pepper from the Dutch-controlled Moluccas and taking it to Mauritius and starting a whole new spice island from scratch and preventing us having to call it notemuskaat all our lives. Piper is Latin for pepper. The pepper was pickled in brine so as to survive the voyage. Here he is, looking a bit smug, I grant you. I find that dead interesting, me.

In all honesty I had to tell him that I found this piece of information to be perhaps not-long-for-this-world interesting but certainly rather less than dead interesting, and that the picture of this French person which he attached was not at all interesting.

Moreover, the information itself is confusing: nutmeg (one of two spices obtained from the tree Myristica Fragrans, the other being mace), has nothing to do with pepper, pickled or not. It also fails to mention the fact that on a journey to the East Indies Pierre Poivre was involved in a naval battle with the British and that he was struck by a cannonball on the wrist, an injury requiring amputation of part of his right arm.

Come to think of it, that is not tremendously interesting, either, so perhaps I was being hard on Grumio. It was just that I can normally count on a man who contributes under pseudonyms to two satirical magazines, and who writes brilliant and witty essays, also pseudonymously, in several respected monthlies, to provide me on a Monday morning with something more substantial in the way of intellectual sustenance than this stuff about nutmeg.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

It’s delicious, it’s delightful, it’s de….

…lovely (marvellous Cole Porter lyrics here). I was once told that I use this word far too often (by an acquaintance who, like many Cambridge dons, is an over-educated fathead), but I was unrepentant. I could have replied that it is not in the least hackneyed but is one of those indispensable words we have in English, like nice, which can be used to express approval of almost anything (people, the weather, an underdone rib of Aberdeen Angus beef with gravy made from mushrooms and port, and so on) but actually I told him to go and boil his head. It’s a lovely word.

I recalled this rebuke the other day when I found I had used this word in a posted comment addressing a dear friend whom I shall never meet. Was it appropriate here? I looked it up in an (American online) thesaurus, which gives:
admirable, adorable, agreeable, alluring, amiable, attractive, beauteous, bewitching, captivating, charming, comely, dainty, delectable, delicate, delicious, delightful, dishy, drop-dead gorgeous, enchanting, engaging, enjoyable, exquisite, fair, foxy, good-looking, graceful, gratifying, handsome, knockout, lovesome, mink, nice, picture, pleasant, pleasing, pretty, pulchritudinous, rare, scrumptious, splendid, stunning, sweet, whistle bait, winning.

Apart from the inappropriate foxy, the mystifying mink, the vulgar dishy, whistle bait and drop-dead gorgeous, and the yucky lovesome (God wot), any of these probably express my meaning correctly. My internet friend can decide which apply, and anyway she hasn’t complained.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Sagesse Normande

Here’s the little fellow at the Empress Hall, London, in 1951 (the music stand was set too high for him).
It looks as if he was a fair athlete, but he was never very funny, his comedy act consisting mainly of using a silly voice, putting his cap on crooked, doing up his jacket on the wrong button and falling over. But perhaps we missed something: Charlie Chaplin called Wisdom his "favourite clown”, and his films outsold Sean Connery's James Bond features from 1955 till 1966; they were said to be the direct descendants of the films made a generation earlier by George Formby, who was not in the least funny.

He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1966 and was a success in America, though only moderately and briefly (unlike Benny Hill— also admired by Chaplin—who was inexplicably popular over there).

Wisdom is a well-known and loved cult film icon in Albania and was the only Western actor whose films were allowed in the country during the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The archetypal Wisdom plot where the common working man gets the better of his bosses was considered ideologically sound by Hoxha. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country, where to his surprise he was greeted by many appreciative fans including the then-president of Albania, Sali Berisha.

Sir Norman is 92, bless him.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Waewae takahia kia kino!

Céline Graciet is one of the best English-French translators in the country, but she is clearly not much good at translating from Te Reo Māori to English or, probably, to French. Having no knowledge of the New Zealand language, she merely made a guess at what the All Blacks might be trying to convey with their pre-match Haka, and has had to confess that it was wide of the mark.

What the chant actually means is apparently:

Slap the hands against the thighs! Puff out the chest! Bend the knees! Let the hip follow! Stamp the feet as hard as you can! It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life! This is the hairy person Who caused the sun to shine! Keep abreast! Keep abreast! The rank! Hold fast! Into the sun that shines!

How surprising! Apart from one bit this is quite gentle stuff, the sort of thing with which my sister might have used to encourage her class. Not a bit terrifying.

On Céline’s website there is the original, a YouTube clip of them doing it, and her translation. Hopelessly inaccurate this may be, but to my mind it is much better than the original in that it conveys the right spirit and has the desired effect on the listener. The All Blacks would do well to translate it back and use it to replace the existing rather feeble words.

But I suppose it doesn’t matter since no-one understands the words; if they were actually a quotation from Lady Windermere’s Fan the performance would be just as intimidating. However tough and menacing other teams’ players may look, they could never compete with this: Men of Harlech, say, even with what they call in the valleys a nice bit of 'armonising, wouldn't cut the mustard. It might be better for them to take an entirely different approach and come mincing on to the pitch singing, falsetto, “Shine Through My Dreams” from Glamorous Night. This wouldn’t frighten the other side, but sure as hell it would make them feel puzzled and uncertain, and thus put them off their game.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Kickflips for God

This year the Jesus Skateboarding Classic, the event of the year for those who are into skateboards, baggy shorts, God and crucifixes, is being held in Reigate. Organised by Christian Skateboarders UK, the competition started small but is now one of the most popular events in the skateboarding calendar.

There are Christian Skateboarders all over the country, from the heartlands of Surrey and Hampshire to the Outer Hebrides. There is even a one-member chapter in West Hartlepool, but most chapters have several members. Some traditional churches remain uninterested or suspicious but others believe that through skateboarding they might attract a younger crowd to their congregations.

Arthur “Big Wheelie” Wilmington. national director of Christian Skateboarders UK, said the group was concerned with drawing skateboarders in to Christianity and also introducing Christians to the joys of skateboarding. He said: “When you are sitting out there with the ramp dropping steeply down in front of you and you are looking at the skatepark all around you, I think a lot of people wonder where this all comes from”.

He had to admit that his faith was sorely tested this week when heavy rain was forecast and other competitions were being cancelled. “I did wonder whether we should call it off but I felt God was telling me to keep going,” he said, “In the past we have suddenly been sent fine weather in the midst of a downpour”. When he got up on Saturday morning and saw that it was raining—in his own words—“Ollies and Hippiejumps”, Mr Wilmington thought perhaps God had got his timing wrong. But then brilliant sunshine started to roll down Reigate High Street and, to borrow skateboarding terminology, he was “popped over”.

It is not just in the UK that skateboarding and Christianity are increasingly closely linked. There are many Christian skateboarding organisations, of course, in the US, the biggest of which is called The Four Wheels of Hiram (from 1 Kings 7:32 And under the borders were four wheels; and the axletrees of the wheels were joined to the base; and the height of a wheel was a cubit and half a cubit.) Its founder, Ziggy Simpkins, said, “I think Jesus was a rebel, a radical. That attracts many skateboarders who tend to be revolutionaries and, sometimes, misfits”.

In Britain, skateboarding commuterbelt towns report bigger congregations. In Reigate and Redhill, the three churches are all thriving, and in nearby Westerham the Wesleyan chapel got a boost this summer after rebranding itself The GodBoardPark and replacing pews with a skateboarding ramp.

Acknowledgements to today's Guardian.

Saturday, 8 September 2007


Where would we be without booze? Healthier, I dare say, but less happy. I have been enjoying it for more than half a century, but I have decided that it is time to cut down, partly because a recent check showed me that I have been taking 32 units a week and the suggested maximum for a man is 24.

Wine is not too difficult: now I either buy cheap plonk, which isn’t very nice so I don’t want to drink much, or really good stuff of which I can’t afford to drink much. Medical opinion differs, and changes from week to week, on whether red wine is bad for you or (in moderation) good.

Gin-and-tonic is more difficult and I am trying to reduce my intake; not the frequency—there are many occasions or situations when a modest snort is absolutely essential to my feeling of wellbeing—but the strength. Perhaps I shall eventually get used to a weaker mix.

My children, being half-French, were introduced sensibly to alcohol at a very early age and the happy result, in spite of my bad example, is that as adults they are very moderate drinkers, so that’s all right.

In the mid-eighteenth century the effects of gin-drinking on English society makes the use of drugs today seem a small problem. Gin started out as a medicine; it was thought to be a cure for gout and indigestion. But most attractive of all, it was cheap. In the 1730s there were in London more than 7,000 'dram shops': Drunk for 1 penny, Dead drunk for tuppence, Straw for nothing. Ten million gallons of gin were being distilled annually in the capital, and the average Londoner drank fourteen gallons of spirit each year.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Nursery school, Spanish style

A number of my acquaintances have emigrated to Spain or are thinking of doing so. I have never wanted to go and live there, though I have had some happy times in Spain and have met some delightful Spaniards. I don’t like the climate, I don’t play golf and I don’t think I would care much for some of the expatriates I might encounter. But there is a huge benefit in living there if you have small children.

One of my twin daughters has a happy life in a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada (the Spanish one, not the California/Nevada one where Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle came to a violent end). Her daughter went the local nursery school (Guarderia) when she was fifteen months old (they start in the September after they have learnt to walk). She went on to the main school two years later; children in Spain do not have to start school until they are six, but can do so before then if the parent pays for books and equipment.

The Guarderia is a world away from mere baby-minding. It is purpose-built, with two classes; the hours are 9am till 2pm. There are two teachers, both qualified, for each group of about twenty children, and a male teacher. The toddlers loved him; he gave them lots of cuddles—you couldn’t do that in England, of course. All foreign residents in Spain have the right to send their children there.

They give them all birthday parties—my granddaughter’s third (shared) one is pictured here—and offer a huge range of activities. They have at least three festivals in the year when they dress up in some costume. The holidays are much shorter than main school, six weeks instead of three months.

The Guarderia, subsidised by the Junta de Andalucia, costs 20 euros a month. Andalucia used to be the richest region in Spain; it is now one of the poorest but they somehow they can still manage to make such a provision for their children.

Now, at five, my daughter’s child is confident, sociable and extremely articulate in two languages. This, I guess, is largely down to her upbringing, but much must be the effect of her very early start at the nursery. By most measures we are substantially richer than the Spanish; if they can do this then why can’t we? It’s a rhetorical question: there are several reasons, none of them very good ones.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007


A wiki is a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it; you can read about them here. They may be categorised under Culture and the Arts, Directories, Geographic, Political, Religion, Recreational, Reference, Science and Technology, Societal and Travel. Some are run by the Wikimedia Foundation and are sister projects to the mighty Wikipedia, one of the ten most visited websites in the world. Here are a few which I have found useful or amusing:

Wikipedia is the biggest multilingual free-content encyclopedia on the Internet with over 7 million articles in over 200 languages, and still growing.

Uncyclopedia, the content-free encyclopedia, is a satirical parody of Wikipedia, sample here

Wikiquote is a vast database of quotations from prominent people, books, films and proverbs.

Wiktionary is a multilingual free content dictionary, available in over 150 languages

Citizendium aims to function in a similar way to Wikipedia, but does not allow anonymous editing and introduces a new "editor" role for specialists in particular subjects.

Wikimedia is a database of nearly two million freely usable media files.

Conservapedia, “The Trusworthy (sic) Encyclopedia” exists to promote the viewpoint of the American fundamentalist Christian right wing. Its 16,800 “educational, clean, and concise entries” are mostly fallacious, unhelpful, bigoted or very, very, funny. There is an assessment of it here and some examples here.

Rationalwiki. A brief glance at Conservapedia can bring on serious depression, and a useful pick-me-up is Rationalwiki, which aims to analyse and refute the anti-science movement and the full range of crackpot ideas, and to explore authoritarianism and fundamentalism. It also provides a running commentary on the Conservapedia website and a witty and devastating critique of its drivel.

This post may be informative, but it's a bit dull, so to liven it up here’s a lovely photo (from Wikimedia) of Leadenhall Market, London.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Greetings from the other side

One doesn’t hear much about Spiritualism* these days; I suppose there are so many other, newer, crackpot ideas vying for attention that survivals from the nineteenth century can’t compete, though Hahnemann’s quaint concept from the late eighteenth century still has its adherents.

A few weeks ago the New Statesman reminded us of Spiritualism with an article by one Libby Clark, who is an "Officiant" of the Spiritualists National Union and who has been a working Spiritualist Medium for 30 years:

Spiritualism is not, as is commonly believed, a strange cult meeting in darkened rooms to 'call up the dead', but an officially recognised religious movement with its own churches and Ministers who possess the same rights and privileges as other religions.
The difference between Spiritualism and other religions is the ability through Mediumship to prove that the human spirit survives death. Our services are taken by Spiritualist Mediums, who are individuals able to communicate with those who have died, and provide conclusive evidence of their continued existence in the Spirit World to their families and loved ones here.

But, as Thurber observed, mediums don’t always get it quite right:

'I can't get in touch with your uncle, but there's a horse here that wants to say hello.'

* The present-day descendant of Spiritualism is the mishmash of preposterous beliefs called New Age.