Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The maligned Sir Granville Bantock

Here is an extract from a splendidly tumid piece of writing:

Sir Granville Bantock probably has the unenviable distinction—with less than a handful of other arguable challengers—of being the most unreasonably neglected composer in the whole pitiable chronicle of neglected 20th century British music. He is truly the supreme musical Ichabod of our Isles and the almost complete disappearance of his works from the repertoire of his country is one of the strangest and perhaps saddest musical biographies of recent times. The winds of cultural opinatry and the gravities of critical mythologising have condemned him to a limbo of fabled ingloriousness and he is left as nothing much more than a fleeting footnote in the histories of British music: his foibles and idiosyncrasies have been exaggerated and his gifts minimised, misjudged, and precondemned; characteristic idioms glibly recast into mannerisms, influences reduced to imitation, and critical marginalisation all too easily transfigured into musical fault in the shallow doctrines of accepted musical historiography.

Supreme musical Ichabod in a limbo of fabled ingloriousness, eh? This is fighting talk from a brief introduction to the neglected composer’s life and works (actually a ten thousand word essay) by Vincent Budd, a noble attempt, almost certainly doomed, to rescue the reputation of Bantock from the ‘unfounded, beggarly, and ignominious inscriptions cast upon his name down the years’.

One cannot but admire the author’s conviction and the vigour with which he expresses it, but ‘the winds of cultural opinatry and the gravities of critical mythologizing’ have clearly had a strongly deleterious influence upon me, for although I am deeply impressed by the flow of his prose I am not convinced by his argument. To be fair, I suppose I might be more open to the view that Bantock’s music has ‘enduring and commanding glory’ and that it ‘stands by itself majestic, mighty, and magnificent for all to hear’ if I had actually heard any of it.

However, he was clearly a remarkable man, and one cannot read about his life without feeling some affection for him. Here is a photo of the dear old fellow just about to audition as an extra for Lawrence of Arabia (presumably not the David Lean film, as Bantock died in 1946); whether he got the job is not recorded).

Although ‘there were palpable streaks of malevolence and moral ambivalence in his character… some of his behaviour had deeply unhappy consequences for those closest to him… and he had one known extra-marital liaison… which had a profound effect on his wife and children, all of whom obviously loved and cherished him deeply’, perhaps we should not judge him too harshly, and his biographer may be right in saying resoundingly that ‘his neglect owes little to the intrinsic quality of his work, and much more to do with the unluck or misjudgements associated with the blinding mythic tyrannies of taste and fashion… his music should be freed from the stale blinkeredness of our cultural treadmills; his weathered laurels discarded and replaced with a new sweeter smelling wreath’.

True or not, that’s a nice bit of purple prose.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Homeopathy and other snake oil

Every sensible person keeps paracetamol tablets in the house to relieve pain, and adhesive plasters in case of injury. It is also a good plan to have always to hand something to counteract the effects of finding material on the internet which offends one’s regard for the truth, feeling for justice or merely one’s common sense.

Happily, many such antidotes are freely available and take the form of websites expressing sane and considered points of view based on evidence and not superstition or bigotry. There is, for example, RationalWiki, which discusses crackpot ideas in general and the beliefs of the American religious right in particular; an example of its style is its note on Faith Healers. For a corrective to anti-science, there is Sense About Science, which is an independent charitable trust responding to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science with a similar aim.

There is also Bad Astronomy, which is currently dealing briskly with:
"Asteroid 1999 AN10 is predicted to come close to Earth in 2027 and 2039. NASA doesn’t think that it will hit. However there is evidence that it will—from the Bible."

Naturally there are many sites devoted to medicine and health, for this is the field in which more greedy charlatans flourish than any other. To cure the depression engendered by encountering pernicious rubbish about miracle cures, you can turn to Quackwatch or Quackometer which are an assurance that the snake-oil salesmen do not have it all their own way.

Then there is Homeowatch, which notes that
“Homeopathic 'remedies' are usually harmless, but their associated misbeliefs are not. When people are healthy, it may not matter what they believe. But when serious illness strikes, false beliefs can lead to disaster. This website provides information about homeopathy that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The bottom line is that it is senseless and does not work.”

An illustration of the value of such sites in counteracting the outpouring of quackery was provided when Dr Andy Lewis put on his Quackometer website an article criticising the Society of Homeopaths (Europe ’s largest professional organisation of homeopaths) in no uncertain terms. The SoH did not attempt to challenge his assertions, but sent a threatening legal letter to his hosting company Netcetera, demanding they take his page down. Dr Lewis emailed the SoH politely asking which of his comments they wished to counter. There was no response but instead their lawyers sent another angry letter to his hosting company, who finally took the page down.

Of course, it has now been replicated a hundred times across the internet, on blogs or websites which have a total readership many times greater than that of the original article. You can read it here and Dr Lewis’s polite email is here.

[News items beginning ‘Scientists have discovered that…’ or an assertion that the efficacy of a product has been ‘scientifically proven’ should be regarded with scepticism (or by Americans with skepticism) until the relevant research has been published and peer-reviewed as described here.]

Friday, 26 October 2007

It’s the oil, stupid

The received opinion is that, for America, Iraq is ‘unwinnable’, a ‘quagmire’, a ‘fiasco’. An article in the London Review of Books by Jim Holt (the New York Times writer, not the Arkansas politician) suggests that, on the contrary, it is none of these things, and that the US may be ‘stuck’ precisely where Bush and Cheney want it to be.

Holt argues this convincingly, though he tacitly admits that this is in a sense a conspiracy theory which, like all such theories, calls for a level of foresight, cunning and general brilliance which the conspirators are unlikely to possess. You can judge the validity of his theory by reading the article, but he does quote a number of incontrovertible facts which tend to support him. Among these are:

  • Iraq’s known oil reserves are five times the total in the United States.
  • If current estimates are correct, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil resources, with a value of $30 trillion at today’s prices.
  • The projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.
  • The draft law that the US has written for the Iraqi Congress would cede nearly all the oil to Western countries.
  • The US can maintain hegemony over Iraqi oil by establishing permanent military bases in Iraq; five self-sufficient ‘super-bases’ are in various stages of completion; their main day-to-day function will be to protect the oil infrastructure.
  • The beneficiaries of the continued occupation of Iraq and the exploitation of its oil will be: oil-services companies like Halliburton; US voters, who will be guaranteed price stability at the gas pump; and Europe and Japan, which will both benefit from Western control of such a large part of the world’s oil reserves.
Holt ends: “The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. If the US had managed to create a strong, democratic government in an Iraq effectively secured by its own army and police force, and had then departed, what would have stopped that government from taking control of its own oil, like every other regime in the Middle East? On the assumption that the Bush-Cheney strategy is oil-centred, the tactics – dissolving the army, de-Baathification, a final ‘surge’ that has hastened internal migration – could scarcely have been more effective. The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.”

[These are depressing facts, but Bird and Fortune had a lot of fun with them in a sketch they did in Rory Bremner's programme on Channel 4 just after after I posted the above.]

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

In the bleak midwinter

So farewell then, Alan Coren, the funniest and most stylish of columnists. It was a surprise to learn that he was so prudish that he would not have as dinner guests any couple who were living together but not married, but this was reported some years ago and he may have mellowed later.

We shall miss him, but happily his short pieces have been comprehensively anthologised; they do not date and the collections will be readable for years to come.

Here he is in Bethlehem, in the year BC (and AD) 0. The star has arrived overhead and the ox and the ass have been arguing about which of them is to be the Messiah, when a ram turns up:

‘Anyone seen three wise sheep?’
“What?” snapped the ass.
‘Three wise sheep,’ repeated the ram, ‘They’re due here any minute now, bearing gifts.’
‘Gifts?’ lowed the ox.
‘Yes,' said the ram, confidently. ‘It is traditional, I gather. Three wise sheep come from the East, bearing gifts for the Messiah. Grass, grass and grass, as I understand it.’
‘Messiah?’ croaked the ass, ‘What Messiah?.’
‘You’re looking at him’, said the ram. ‘Or rather, Him. It is customary at this point to fall down and praise my name, but as my three wise sheep are still en route we might as well hang on till they get here and I can do you all at the same time. Makes sense.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the ass, ‘The star is hanging bang over the stable, the Messiah is either me or the ox, there are no sheep on these premises, you are well out of order!’
The ram tutted, as only rams can.
‘Never mind hanging over the stable’, it said sharply, ‘we have had an angel up our field, sunshine, there is no question but that I have been singled out, it is all over bar the paperwork’.
‘Hail the King of the Ewes!’ cried an invisible chorus.
‘See?’ said the ram.
The ass and the ox peered out into the night.
‘Stone me!’ cried the ox. ‘Who are they?’
‘Ewes,’ replied the ram. ‘My followers. You got to have followers, if you’re a Messiah. It is doubtless why He chose a sheep. It is one of the main things sheep do, follow’.
There was a long uneasy silence. Finally, the ass said:
‘What did this angel say, exactly?’
‘Hard to tell, replied the ram. ‘There’s the hell of a wind up there and I got all this wool in my ears, but the gist was unto us a something something and follow the star, and then He give me this Look’.
The ox shrugged.
‘Well, that’s it, then,’ it said, ‘Can’t say I’m sorry, it’s a big responsibility redeeming mankind, never mind not liking ‘em much to start with, if they’re not eating you they’re turning you into bloody suitcases.’
‘Good point,’ said the ram, nodding. ‘One of the first things on my agenda will be the commandment Love Thy Sheep. You’ve no idea what it’s like, having them shears running over you, I go all funny just thinking about it. My millennium will spell the end of the pullover, as we know it, and not before time. Also collies. I am not having the disciples rounded up and put in pens just so’s some nerd in moleskin trousers can go home with a silver cup.’
The ass cleared its throat.
‘That could explain it,’ it said.
‘What could explain what?’ enquired the ram.
‘The non-arrival of your three wise sheep. You got to go through Turkey, if you’re coming from the East. They are probably a gross of shish kebabs by now’.
‘Careful, son,’ said the ram. ‘When they get here with the documents, I shall be able to do miracles, e.g. turning donkeys into frogs.’
‘Possibly, possibly’, said the ass. ‘However, I remain to be convinced that the Almighty would entrust the salvation of mankind to something on which mankind has been putting mint sauce all these years.’
The ram narrowed its eyes.
‘Listen,’ it said. ‘it may interest….’

But at this point there is another arrival at the inn, and of course in the end all three creatures are disappointed.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The most beautiful spring of the love

[Skip this post if lieder are of no interest to you.]
The lovely Holywell Music Hall in Oxford, built in 1742, is said to be the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe, and hence England's first concert hall.

Grumio and I went there last week for a lunchtime lieder recital given by students from the Guildhall School of Music. The singing seemed to our untutored tastes to be rather good, and anyway just sitting in such a room for an hour is a pleasure not to be missed.

I know exactly what a leichenbegleiter* does, though I have no idea how I came by this piece of information and have never found it in any way useful. Nevertheless the knowledge probably does give me a slight edge over many lieder singers, but my understanding of German does not go much further than this and I depend on my Penguin Book of Lieder to tell me what Goethe or Heine is going on about. On this occasion, however, the crib let me down, for it did not include a song which was to be in the recital at Oxford and which I had heard before and rather liked without knowing what the words meant.

So before I went to Oxford I looked up the words (by Friedrich Rückert) on the net. Here they are:

O du Entrissne mir und meinem Kusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!
Erreichbar nur meinem Sehnsuchtgrusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Du von der Hand der Liebe diesem Herzen
Gegebne, Du von dieser Brust
Genommne mir! Mit diesem Tränengusse
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst.

Zum Trotz der Ferne, die sich feindlich trennend
Hat zwischen mich und dich gestellt;
Dem Neid der Schicksalmächte zum Verdrusse
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Wie du mir je im schönsten Lenz der Liebe
Mit Gruss und Kuss entgegenkamst,
Mit meiner Seele glühendstem Ergusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

Ein Hauch der Liebe tilget Raum und Zeiten,
Ich bin bei dir, du bist bei mir,
Ich halte dich in dieses Arms Umschlusse,
Sei mir gegrüsst, sei mir geküsst!

I could not find a translation anywhere except one in a website about a recital in Rio de Janeiro sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, but this was into Portuguese so it didn’t really help me all that much.

Then a friend lent me The Book of Lieder, which has the original texts, an English singing version, and a translation of over a thousand lieder including the one I wanted. Finally, I realised that—as usual at recitals— translations of the text of the words were provided in the programme notes, so I needn’t have gone to all that bother.

But I’m glad that during my search I had asked Babel Fish to have a go at the poem, for the result was quite pleasing:

O you is greeted Entrissne me and my kiss
Is greeted me, is kissed me!
Attainable only my longing greeting
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

You of the hand of the love this heart
Gegebne, you of this chest
Genommne me! With this tear casting
Is greeted me, is kissed me.

To the defiance of the distance, hostilely separating
Between me and you placed;
The envy of fate powers to the annoyance
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

How you came to meet me ever in the most beautiful spring of the love
With greeting and kiss,
With my soul most glowing Ergusse
Was greeted me, was kissed me!

A breath of the love erase space and times,
I are with you, you are with me
I hold you in this arm Umschlusse
Is greeted me, is kissed me!

[*He is a funeral attendant, or what Babel Fish calls a corpse companion.]

Saturday, 20 October 2007


This boring word has been around since at least the year 786, but several of its meanings (forest, wooded upland, a hill) have happily become obsolete, and the OED says that nowadays it is:
A piece of open country; a plain; in early use (with the) sometimes = ‘the plain’, the ground, the earth; in later use chiefly, an elevated tract of open country or moorland; also collect. pl. or sing. rolling uplands. (Frequent since c 1600 in vague poetical use.)

Rolling upland is right for the range of hills mainly in Gloucestershire which since 1306 have been called The Cotswolds. The cot part may be something to do with the word for a small sheep-shelter, but on the other hand it may not. Sheep have always been a big deal in that part of the country, and Cotswold lion is “a humorous appellation for a sheep”, though I do not find this tremendously humorous.

Enough of all that, which was just an excuse for posting a note for which the world has not really been waiting about Where We Went on Holiday This Week.

It struck us that the Cotswolds is (are?) less likely to be a serious let-down for, say, American tourists, than anywhere else in England, for you get exactly what you hope for: it is beautiful, it is unspoilt, the natives are friendly, the pubs are great, the eating is excellent. Certainly, in high season it would not have been possible to travel as we did from Lower Oddington (where we stayed in Rose Cottage) to Stow, Bourton, Naunton, the Bartons, both Slaughters and one of the Swells, for hours along mostly deserted roads, and we were lucky with the weather, but the whole experience could have been much less perfect and still memorable.

Even the downsides had their compensations: the RSC had nothing on in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, but we found something good to go and see in even nearer-by Oxford; major roadworks were causing delays in Chipping Norton, but made us detour through some glorious scenery we might have missed; and things we bought in a very up-market farm shop to take home to our wives were grotesquely over-priced (and the Organic Greek Shortbreads turned out to be horrid), but you could have breakfast there and the oeufs-en-cocotte à la crème with smoked salmon were so good that I had them two days running.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

R and R Leave Program

Those who have been concerned of late that my heavy workload and manifold commitments are beginning to take their toll will be pleased to hear that tomorrow I am taking a break from my normal stressful routine and going on holiday. Of course I realise that on my return there will be a heavy accumulation of neglected duties—unrefilled ice trays, bottles to be recycled, and several emails (perhaps one or more of them requiring a response)—but I am confident that I shall tackle the backlog with renewed vigour, and even manage to bring myself up-to-date with the newspapers within a few days.

The holiday itself, though, will not be without its exertions. I am spending the week with my old friend Grumio, the Bruton Mews Bohemian, in a cottage in the Cotswolds. The pub is a good few yards walk away and from time to time we may decide to seek intellectual sustenance and a change of menu by making forays to the equidistant Cheltenham and Oxford; there will also be the pressures of the vibrant Stow-on-the-Wold market and the Bourton-on-the-Water aviaries to cope with. But we are hoping that in the afternoons and evenings some serious sitting about and a relaxed but closely-fought game or two of Laskers (or Lasca) will enable us to recover from any exhaustion which may result from frenetic morning activities.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Horses’ Doovers and suchlike

Nibbles, which are small things to eat before the start of the meal proper or to have with drinks, are a civilised pleasure and are mostly good for you, unlike snacks, which are nasty vulgar things you eat at any time, and are very bad for you.

Here, with some acknowledgement to The Oxford Companion to Food, are descriptions of six varieties of nibbles. These are the ones which have become popular world-wide, far beyond the confines of their countries of origin.

Hors d’œuvres

A French term which has been current in a food sense since the 17th century (in England from the 18th), indicating minor, usually cold, items of food served at the beginning of a meal. In the 20th century until quite recently the hors d’œuvres trolley was a familiar sight in restaurants, carrying up to several dozen little dishes containing such items as anchovies, sardines, slices of smoked fish, olives, radishes, sliced tomato or other salad vegetable and various sorts of sausage and other charcuterie.

This is a French word meaning 'couch', which has been a culinary term in France since the late 18th century, when it was applied to the thin slices of fried or toasted bread which served as supports for various savoury toppings. In the 1890s it became an English word referring to titbits of this kind. They do not really deserve to be listed along with the other five mentioned below: the word now sounds old-fashioned and is most likely to be found in contexts such as catered receptions or 'cocktail parties'. The modern practice of offering guests in Western restaurants a titbit before the meal proper begins, calling it an amuse-gueule (gob-tickler), may go some way towards extending the life-span of canapés, though these often depart from the standard canapé formula of small dead things on toast.


This interesting word came from the Persian maza, meaning ‘taste, relish’. The mezze tradition extends westward from Turkey into the Balkans, including Greece, and southwards to the Lebanon and Egypt, and through North Africa to Morocco, but in other Muslim countries the prohibition of alcohol has prevented the tradition from taking root. Even in those Muslim countries where mezze survive or flourish, they tend to be part of the structure of a main meal, while in Greece and the Balkans they are nibbles to be taken while drinking, or gossiping. Typical mezze will include simple things like olives or cubes of cheese, more complicated dips such as taramasalata, tsatsiki, hummus and more substantial dishes of tabbouleh, falafel, dolma and kebab.
It is generally acknowledged that Lebanese mezze are second to none, not only in variety and flavour but also in appearance.


This assumed its present form in 19th century Sweden, following old traditions of placing all foods on the table at once and of guests bringing their own contributions. Nowadays it is usually prepared by the hostess, without contributions, and consists of an assortment of cold dishes, sometimes supplemented by hot ones served either as the preliminary to a meal or as a full buffet meal. The term means ‘buttered-bread table’ but in practice the savoury items (cured herring, other seafood, cold meats, salads and cheeses) are presented with Swedish crispbreads and the like, and only a few items, if any, would appear as open sandwiches.
The smorbrod of Norway and smörrebrød of Denmark sound as though they would be similar to smörgåsbord, but both terms refer to open sandwiches, as the names (buttered-bread) suggest. In Finland, smörgåsbord is the name used by Swedish-speakers, while Finnish-speakers use voileipäpöyta.


These can be served at home or in a restaurant, but their essential role is to be eaten in a bar, or rather in a succession of bars. They have a philosophy all to themselves—tapeo is the Spanish tradition of going out before lunch to mingle with friends while drinking an apéritif. [This philosophy deserves a post to itself, which I will write in a week or two.]
Some of the most representative tapas come from the area of Castile which offers, for example, montados de lomo (small pieces of bread with a slice of meat on top), grilled chorizo, and morcilla (fried black pudding). From Galicia come many kinds of cephalods such as octopus and the Galician omelette, while Andalusia has seafood fried or dressed with vinaigrette. Apart from the many regional specialities, tapas such as unpeeled prawns and boquerones (fresh whitebait) are displayed on the counters of bars everywhere in Spain.


The word means ‘little bites’ and originally referred to the sweets served after a main meal. Nowadays it means either something light served before a meal, usually with vodka, or a snack eaten in a zakusochnaya—a stand-up bar.
Zakuski may be hot or cold or both. Cold ones will include, when possible, caviar. as well as salted and pickled fish, cheese, sausage and other preserved meats. Hot ones are always items which are simple to prepare and eat; pirozhki are favourites (little filled pies in a variety of shapes; larger ones are called pirogi).

All these descriptions of food, and the labour of typing the ALT codes for the Scandinavian diacritics, have made me feel peckish: I must find something to nibble.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Chic alors!

I intended to write something about chic in my last post but one since it would crop up naturally in a piece about a Frenchwoman, but I found that there is more to the word than I had thought. The OED categorises it, rather oddly, as slang, but gives it a lot of space:

[F. chic, of uncertain origin; it has been variously referred to the German schick tact, skill, and viewed as an abbreviation of chicane.]
A. n. Artistic skill and dexterity; ‘style’, such as gives an air of superior excellence to a person or thing.
1856 LEVER Martins of Cro' M. 321 The French have invented a slang word.. and by the expression ‘Chic’ have designated a certain property, by which objects assert their undoubted superiority over all their counterfeits. 1882 M. E. BRADDON Mt. Royal II. ix. 178 She had no chic. 1887 SIR R. H. ROBERTS In the Shires i. 12 There is an air of chic and high tone about him. 1888 Pall Mall G. 6 Sept. 4/2 Her voice is sweet and her delivery artistic, but she is wanting in what the French call ‘chic’ an untranslatable word, denoting an indispensable quality.

B. adj. [Not so used in French.] ‘Stylish’, in the best fashion and best of taste.
1879 Print. Trades Jrnl. XXVI. 14 What they term ‘Fashionable Chic Note’. 1880 OUIDA Moths I. 44 They are all chic, you know. 1887 Lady 20 Jan. 38/3 The ladies of New York.. think no form of entertainment so chic as a luncheon party.

chic, n. and adj. As the second element in compounds: the style or look associated with a specified lifestyle or subculture (now esp. one which might seem unlikely as a source of inspiration) regarded or appropriated as fashion. Cf. radical chic, punk chic, heroin chic n.
1961 Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe 25 July 7/6 (advt.) Deep country chic from our ‘Landed Jantzens’ collection for late summer on. The look: woodsy and casual. 1974 Black World June 33/2 Howard University, which is apparently a hotbed of lumpen, field nigger, proletariat, professional street-nigger chic. 1984 Sounds 29 Dec. 13/6 Add as an accessory a wooden club (for terrace chic). 1987 I. SINCLAIR White Chappell Scarlet Tracings i. 13 His skull was shaven, deathrow chic, and was so massive and burdened with unassimilated information that it tipped aggressively forward, almost onto his chest. 1991 Elle (U.S. ed.) July 112 With that change comes the fast, free, and uncontrived appeal of biker chic. 1995 i-D Nov. 64/1 Our popular culture is shot through with images of junkie chic. 2001 Yahoo! Internet Life July 42/4 When major fashion labels started making laptop bags, we knew geek chic was here to stay.

In spite of last month’s draft additions, the OED still seems to be lagging behind current usage. It was correct to point out that the French don’t use it quite as we do, to mean ‘stylish’, but it is also true is that nowadays this is the meaning we nearly always give to it; the OED’s second, B, definition should come first. A typical use would be the description of one of the gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, which featured streams of water running along channels covered with steel gratings, as looking like a rather chic sewage farm.

The story of the sign on a tweed jacket in the window of a Paris tailor describing it as très chic, très snob, presque cad is probably apocryphal.

Harrap gives the English equivalent of Chic alors as Fine! or Great! but I think How about that! is nearer.

P.S. I was wrong to include 'chic' under gallicisms here. We adopted it more than 150 years ago.

Monday, 8 October 2007

To coin a phrase

Politicians, speechwriters and political commentators seldom attempt this; it’s much less trouble to recycle debased currency.

Effective and memorable adjective-and-noun combinations are very rare in political writing, which is generally clipped together like Lego from such things as radical policies and progressive agendas, so it is refreshing to come across two of them in one piece of commentary. Yesterday Tom Hamilton, in a coolly contemptuous post in his blog Let's Be Sensible, came up with these exemplars: tone-deaf right-wingery and inane vacuity.

He was, of course, writing about the speeches at the Conservative Party Conference.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

If you want to get a hat, get a head

My lifelong interest in hats (this will be my 24th post on the subject) stems not from their personal significance but entirely on envy, for I cannot wear them myself. At least, I can, but I look a complete idiot when I put one on. This is because the size of my head (largeish) is out of proportion to the size of my face (medium to smallish), so that any hat with a bit that sticks out (i.e. a brim or the floppy part of a beret) appears to be far too big for me, even if it is fitting so tightly that it will leave a red weal on my forehead when I take it off.

The French recognise that not everyone looks good in a hat. In fact, they have a phrase to describe a hat-friendly head: tête à chapeau. To illustrate this, here is a picture of our friend Blandine, who is French but has spent a third of her life in England. She clearly has not merely a tête à chapeau, but also what the critic Sarcey ascribed to the actress Réjane, an attribute which suits any headgear: une petite frimousse éveillée (a wide-awake little mug).

Thursday, 4 October 2007

God bless her and all who sail in her

I never thought that I would want to quote extensively from anything published in the Daily Telegraph, but Jan Moir’s review of a book by Graham Lord about Joan Collins, The Biography of an Icon, contained a few memorable observations, some by Moir and some lifted from the biography:

Some nitpickers might argue with the use of the word 'icon' in the title, but Joan Collins does remain eternal and utterly incredible in much the same way as, say, Bamburgh Castle… Both are famous English landmarks, renowned for their brooding beauty and timeless appeal, and both have withstood attack and the abrasion of salt wind for centuries. Neither has been extensively restored… still, from certain angles, it is clear that at least one of them is an old ruin… No one knows for sure if the actress, like the castle, ever sat on a basalt outcrop, but if Mr Outcrop was a bigshot producer offering a plum role in a 1960s B-movie, there's no knowing what our Joanie wouldn't have done back then.

During her first assault on Hollywood, Collins slept with so many men that she was known as the British Open. In later years, she would grandly claim that she was a proto-feminist exploring her sexuality and using her power to bewitch as leverage to get ahead in a man's world. Others saw it differently. 'Joan's had more hands up her than the Muppets', was how one actress deftly put it…

For many of us, Collins did not really appear on the entertainment radar until she swaggered into Dynasty in 1981, eating spoonfuls of beluga caviar and wearing improbably large shoulder pads… The thing was, five times married Joan never looked innocent. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she was living in Los Angeles and trying to make it in films, she was at her sexual peak, thirsting for young men like a vampire thirsts for blood… Driving a pink Thunderbird—no, that's not a euphemism—she roared around Hollywood in chinchilla stoles and emerald bracelets and was rarely without a lover. 'It doesn't count on location', she remarked, of various saucy infidelities.

On top of the early husbands, the lovers included Charlie Chaplin Jnr, Dennis Hopper, Robert Quarry, Robert Wagner, Buddy Bergman, Nicky Hilton, Gordon White (later Lord White), Harry Belafonte, Warren Beatty and even Taki Theodoracopulos… Husbands, lovers, collaborators, friends; here is a woman with no use for the corpse once she has extracted the marrow… Yet somehow she endures over the decades; green eyed St Joan presiding above a bonfire of dried sticks and husks of husbands. It is hard not to admire her for that, however awful she might be.

This is the kind of review that makes one want to rush out and buy the book, until one reflects that it is unlikely to contain anything of interest that hasn’t been quoted.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Ready for winter

In 1834 the fifteen-year-old Victoria paid a less than happy visit to the Sussex resort of Hastings. It rained incessantly, one of her footmen fell into the sea and drowned and she never went near the place again.

But the good burghers of the town, which is full of old burghers, bore no malice, and in a fit of patriotic fervour sixty-eight years later erected a bronze statue of her gazing disapprovingly out to sea.

Later in the twentieth century, as reverence for royalty declined, putting something on her head became a popular ritual among the young and agile. In recent years a traffic cone has sometimes been involved, which I thought was grossly disrespectful if not actually lèse majesté.

But last week someone kitted her out with something which looks much cosier, though it does give her a faintly raffish air.