Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Robert Chambers

Yesterday my wife's nephew died of cancer, aged 41.
Known professionally as Wobbly Bob, he was a gifted artist and musician, the guitarist, singer and co-founder with Pete Bennett of a band called Daddy Fantastic, and creator of the cartoon character of that name. Here is the cover page of one of his comic books.

I and all my family were very fond of him; we admired his gentleness, his good humour, his inability to bear a grudge and his total lack of malice or anger.

I have never met anyone else quite like him. He was much loved and we shall all miss him.

On 6th January in Brighton, over two hundred of Robert's friends joined his family for a last gig.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Let's face the music and dance

We were promised A Fortnight of Festive Viewing and this was no idle threat: we got Mary Poppins and then it was all downhill from there. The Queen's Address was an oasis of lively fun amid all the sad old rubbish.

There was one ancient clip, though, which justified its nth repeat. Throughout its thirty-two year history it has never been more topical than it was this Christmas:

Angela Rippon is reading the news: "A report on the economy has just come through from Number 11 Downing Street. The Chancellor's statement reads as follows: There may be trouble ahead..."

The newsdesk slides away revealing Rippon's gorgeous legs. She does a very high kick then dances and sings, while Morecombe and Wise join her and do their Fred Astaire act: "...but while there's moonlight, and music, and love, and romance..."

Friday, 26 December 2008

Playing choo-choos

I never wanted to be an engine driver. This showed untypical percipience on my part, for even then I could see that it was a matter of doing a hot, dirty, exhausting, job while under the appalling stress of being responsible for the lives of four hundred people being pulled at a hundred miles an hour by a machine which might be thirty years old, the design of which had been essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century.
But I had never realised what a difficult job it was. The picture shows just how much you had to do compared with modern train drivers sitting relaxed at their controls, which are barely more complex than those of a family saloon.
To get going, you had to test the brakes A and then release them, open the blower valve B and wind the reverser C clockwise. Then the fireman H opens the cylinder drain cock E; this releases a cloud of steam and he has to shut it off once the train starts so that you can see where you are going. You might blow the whistle F as you pull forward the regulator lever G which makes the engine move forward.
As the train picks up speed you gradually wind the reverser anticlockwise until the indicator D moves towards the middle: too far, and the train will go into reverse. You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and you may need to inject more with the injector control valve K.
At full speed the fireman is shovelling up to 50lbs of coal a minute into the firehole I [This reminds me of Peter Cook talking about a coal miner's life: "You can do whatever you like, you've got a completely free hand, so long as you get eleven tons of coal up every day".]
You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and if levels go down inject more with the injector control valve K.
To stop, shut the regulator G and apply the brake handle A. Finally, wind the reverser to the middle of the indicator.
Watch the speedometer L and keep peering through the tidgy little forward window for signals.

There is one luxury: the steam-heated mash pot M which keeps tea piping hot all day, though I cannot imagine when you have time to drink any.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

OED slashed!

Now is a very good time for buying things, particularly if you've got any money: huge discounts in the department stores, special offers in the supermarkets, Woolworths selling off their stock and bargains everywhere. Even the mighty Oxford University Press reducing prices, though this is not because of the global financial crisis but to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the publication of the last fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

The magnificent 20-volume printed set of the OED is now available at the special offer price of just 450 pounds sterling until 31 January 2009, or for US customers $895. This is a steal at 0.33 cents a word or 0.12 cents a meaning, but of little interest to those in the UK who have a public library ticket giving them free access at home to the online edition; this is even more of a steal. With this December's release of new and revised material the OED has passed a milestone, with a quarter of the third edition now published. Currently it contains 263,917 entries (741,153 meanings), illustrated by 2,931,547 quotations.

Among the new entries are:

ew int.
Joining a large family of imitative words expressing disgust or aversion, ew takes its place, alongside ugh, ough, auh, yah, pew, faugh, and many more, on the list of words which have attempted to tackle the age-old problem of how to represent in print what are essentially inarticulate sounds.

plus-one n.
A word of relatively unusual etymology and evocative meaning, plus-one is an invitational convention—that of indicating that a named invitee may bring one unspecified guest by following the name with the words ‘plus one’—made flesh, as a noun used to mean the extra person who attends an event or party under the auspices of these words.

podcasting n.
A very new word, for a recent phenomenon, and a great example of how technological change, especially that relating to the internet and the media, can be a driving force not only in generating new words, but in determining whether they survive and succeed. In this case the rapid adoption of podcasting (the technology) as a means of making audio material available has seen podcasting (the word) move quickly from its first tentative steps in 2004, as only one of a number of suggested names for the process, to near-ubiquity in 2008. The current OED quarterly release also includes other members of the same family: podcast as a noun and a verb, podcaster, and even the somewhat ungainly adjective podcasted.

rashomon n.
An indication of the wealth and variety of influences which are at work on the English language, as Japanese cinema gives us this word, which alludes to the method of storytelling used in Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film of this name, and is used attributively to denote things involving multiple conflicting or differing perspectives. The underlying simile is first invoked in English in the adjective Rashomon-like, which dates back to 1962, and is also included in this release of new and revised OED text.

[This last word is not yet widely used and is therefore a useful addition to the armoury of critics who like to impress with the sophistication of their vocabulary: "The new sit-com looks at life in a home for the criminally insane as it is seen by the inmates, the staff and some men repairing the roof, making it something of a rashomon de nos jours."]

Monday, 22 December 2008

Tight-lipped in Ystad

I wrote the other day about a marvellous Argentinian actor who expertly conveys a whole range of emotions while remaining almost totally expressionless. Kenneth Branagh gave a fine demonstration of this skill in three stylish films which the BBC has just broadcast. They are adaptations of novels by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell; here there is an exhaustive description of the background to the filming.

Branagh played the detective Kurt Wallander and almost succeeded in giving him an interesting if not attractive personality: scruffy, unshaven, diabetic, a self-confessed crap dad and not smelling very nice, he also lacks social skills and tends to converse by twitching his thin lips in silence while you try to guess at what he might be very slowly thinking, if anything. Often, he just wanders away without a word when he gets bored with whoever he is talking to. So of course women fall about with admiration for him, and his chief (male) assistant is madly and secretly in love with him until he is brutally murdered by a transvestite: the assistant, that is. It's a rich full life in the quiet little town in southern Sweden where the stories are set.

Although he can run quite fast and shoot straight when necessary, Wallander is totally exhausted most of the time, or possibly in some kind of coma. This introduces a note of real suspense: one is constantly wondering whether he is going to make it to the end of the episode before he drops off to sleep.

The plots are preposterous, and it is all brilliantly done. There is talk of another three Wallander adaptations being made in a year or so, and I eagerly await them.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Two years at the pictures

Over the last two years I saw these films in the cinema:

Notes on a Scandal — Becoming Jane — Curse of the Golden Flower — Children of Men — Atonement — Michael Clayton — When Did You Last See Your Father — Elizabeth: The Golden Years — Les Témoins — Into the Wild — The Magic Flute — Earth — I Am a Legend — The Golden Compass — Bee Movie — The Valley of Elah — No Country for Old Men — Le Scaphandre et le Papillon — There Will Be Blood — 10,000 BC — The Other Boleyn Girl — My Brother is an Only Child — Wall-E — After the Rains — Man on Wire — The Duchess — Il y a Longtemps Que Je t'Aime — Dean Spanley

I have completely forgotten several of these and it is too early to say yet whether any of the others made sufficient impression be added to a list of all-time memorables. I do remember clearly several of the hundred or so films which I saw on the small screen in the last couple of years, including these two:

Vatel (Roland Joffé, 2000), for its extraordinary lavishness (it lost money); you can get an idea of just how lavish from the trailer (ignore the childish commentary). Gérard Depardieu as the seventeenth-century cook is not at his best in English, but the spectacular goings-on are hugely enjoyable.

El Aura (Fabián Bielinsky, 2005). I think we would all agree that playing the part of an epileptic taxidermist calls for great subtlety and restraint; Ricardo Darín handles it superbly by remaining almost expressionless for most of the time, though he does frown quite a lot and at one point almost smiles. One critic described the film as being "overly freighted with symbolism and meaning". That's as may be, though I have to say I didn't notice it, but this is an exceptional heist movie in that you have no idea of what is going to happen, but you want to find out. This trailer gives you the flavour.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Border incident

Exactly thirty years ago, in December 1978, I took the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. No doubt nowadays it is full of happy tourist parties off for a jolly time with Our Dear Leader in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, but at that time no-one much wanted to go there or could get a visa if they did.

Clearly I was going to be the only gweilo on the train, and I nervously asked the Chinese minders seeing me off in Beijing how I would manage about ordering food and so on. "No problem", they reassured me, "the guard speaks Russian". In the event I just ate whatever came round, which wasn't much.

I can remember nothing of the twenty-four hours as the train rumbled through Manchuria; there were some stops but only one of them was at all memorable. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled out and stretched my legs along the deserted platform while they were changing the locomotive, and a Chinese border guard hurried towards me. There was nothing menacing about him and when he accosted me in passable English I found that he was not going to check my passport and visa, or arrest me for some unspecified crime, but simply wanted to talk.

He seemed to have some managerial responsibilities, but with only two trains a day and apparently no-one getting on or off them his duties could not have occupied much of his time: after he had polished his belt, boots and pistol holster the days must have dragged terribly. Generally my impression is that Chinese people cope well with boredom, being inured or impervious to it; this young man had spent his time teaching himself English. As I was the first native Anglophone he had ever met he was determined to make the most of an opportunity to practise.

I have heard other European travellers in China say that earnest students met by chance often demand answers to difficult questions about such things as the proper use of the mandative subjunctive, but happily the problem which had been bothering my new friend was easy to for me to solve. He was supervising the installation of some new bins to keep the station tidy: should he have them labelled TRASH or GARBAGE?

Of course I said it should be RUBBISH; REFUSE would have confused him. I wrote it for him on the back of my card (ming pian) and we parted with a handshake and expressions of mutual esteem. I like to think that he kept my card as a souvenir and that he retains as happy a memory of our encounter as I do.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

About to be Führer

No 7 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
January 1934: From DW in Berlin to Reginald Braad in Gordon Street, London: I send you this without comment. Don't show it to Derek it might encourage him.

This short message makes a present day reader bristle with speculation. Few comments are as loaded as 'without comment', and Derek becomes a tantalising figure (perhaps on the fringes of Mosley's British version of fascism). Hitler has been Chancellor for a year and the Third Reich is only six months old, yet the familiar imagery is all in place with a proliferation of swastikas and uniforms and the beginnings of the Hitler Youth.

The caption on the reverse reads 'Reichschancellor Hitler greets his young people'. These boys will be ready for the war when the call eventually comes. The Führer himself (though he will not assume that title publicly until Hindenberg's death later that year) is iconically complete, the often parodied walk and salute and compelling charm perfected. Was this received with a dismissive chuckle in Gordon Street and did Derek catch an all too exhilarating glimpse of it?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

God Trumps

Here's one of the twelve cards from a cut-out-and-keep metaphysical card game that gives you the low-down on the world's top sects, cults and religions. Try it at home as fun for all the family, or take it down the pub and have a stimulating evening of good-natured dispute and friendly banter!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bollywood poster

No folk-art is livelier than an Indian film poster, which characteristically includes a space rocket, a clutch of skyscrapers, a distant view of Kashmir, a group of skin-divers, a submarine, two or three Mercedes cars and a fattish young hero, centre front, who, while gazing moistly into the eyes of his beloved, seems to be searching her long black hair for nits.
from An Indian Journey by Jan Morris

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Episcopal charmer

A new biography of Rowan Williams suggests that he was—perhaps still is—very attractive to women, to whom he seemed surrounded by a "great white light" and "gave off an aura". A modest man, he was totally unaware of this, even when one besotted admirer killed herself, mentioning his name among her last words to a friend.

For many of us this is difficult to understand. One can see how having a roguish smile and spectacular eyebrows, and being an all-round nice chap, as well as a theological heavyweight and Primate of All England, would give him a certain charisma, not to mention his reputed ability to wrap one of his legs around his neck, but none of these qualities seem likely to have inspired such extreme devotion.

Perhaps de gustibus non est disputandum is the explanation, though Julius Caesar made this observation in quite a different context, referring to the cockroach-eating habits of the Helvetii.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A sonnet for the New Year

Last year the OMF sonnet-writing competition generated world-wide excitement (well, five people entered); there is a report on it here, together with a link to all the entries.

We are fast approaching the season when post-prandial torpor afflicts many and there are long periods during which eructation is the only physical activity that can be undertaken, so a new competition is launched today which may keep a few minds alive. Well, actually, it's not a competition this time; all entries which comply with the conditions will be published and I will send a cheque to the Save the Children Fund for five pounds for each accepted entry, excluding the really rotten ones.

The rules are the same as last year except that there is a new set of line-endings:
might sway sight day
ill deeds skill exceeds
more hate abhor state
me thee

Closing date is 1st January 2009.
At 11th December, four entries have already been received

All entries will be published on 8th January.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Paris Belle Epoque

My friend Thierry Fournier has lived in England for 57 years, and, together with his wife Ginette, is completely attuned to the twenty-first century zeitgeist of the Home Counties; nevertheless they remain cent pour cent lyonnais and parisienne respectively.

The other day Thierry sent me a link to this website*. It is a slide show of magnificent black and white photos of twenty-four great buildings of Paris, published as postcards between 1902 and 1904.

The clothes and the traffic have changed but many of the buildings have not. This one, sadly, is no more; called the Palais du Trocadéro, it was constructed in 1878 for the third Paris World Fair and in its garden the completed head of the Statue of Liberty was on display. It was pulled down in 1937 when the present Palais de Chaillot was built.

[The website* is a PowerPoint file. Before you run it you might want to switch off your loudspeakers; if you do not, while clicking through the pictures you will have to listen to Charles Trenet warbling the title song from a terrible 1941 musical called La Romance de Paris, with its "whimsical gallic appeal... enchanting airs and loveable characters".]

Thursday, 4 December 2008


The mention of Raymond Chandler's fondness for Bourbon in one of last month's posts reminded me of a story:

The scene is a glittering reception at the U.S. embassy in Vienna. An American matron dripping with jewels is clearly having trouble with the barman and becoming more and more agitated.

A white-haired gentleman, his chest covered with the insignia of noble orders, approaches her and asks if he can be of help:

"Yeah, I wanna Bourbon!"

The old gentleman inclines his head in a courtly bow:

"Would a Habsburg do?"

Sunday, 30 November 2008

London to Paris

No 6 in a fortnightly series of extracts from The Postcard Century

June 1929: Mr Sherwood, a passenger, writes aboard the aeroplane to his wife in Providence, RI, and posts the card when he arrives in Paris: Great trip! Half way to Paris - eating a bit of lunch.

The London to Paris route became a scheduled service in 1927. Here, presumably at Croydon Airport, stands City of Birmingham, one of the Armstrong-Whitworth Argosy fleet, its clean profile enhanced by the functional Art-Deco livery with fine lettering.

[The gentleman at the bottom right of this picture might well have been Mr Sherwood.]

Friday, 28 November 2008


Last month the universally admired playwright and author Alan Bennett, in an interview about the donation of his archives to the Bodleian, is alleged to have said, "...at no point did my parents or me have to pay anything for my education", and "Me and my partner, we're relatively well off..."

He was talking, not writing, and it is possible that the interviewer, Maev Kennedy, misquoted him.

But if he did say it, would it have been the writing on the wall? Should Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells turn his attention to more serious matters? Never mind the pedants who foam at the mouth when they see this sort of thing in print, is it now time that we all stopped bothering about the distinction between nominative and accusative?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

A man of letters

Max Beerbohm describes in a 1910 essay his pleasure in finding on a station bookstall a book entitled How Shall I Word It? and sub-entitled A Complete Letter Writer for Men and Women:

“I had never read one of these manuals, but had often heard that there was a great and constant demand for them. So I demanded this one. It is no great fun in itself. The writer is no fool. He has evidently a natural talent for writing letters. His style is, for the most part, discreet and easy. If you were a Young man writing to Father of Girl he wishes to Marry or Thanking Fiancée for Present or Reproaching Fiancée for being a Flirt, or if you were a Mother replying to Undesirable Invitation for her Child, or indeed if you were in any other one of the crises which this book is designed to alleviate, you might copy out and post the specially-provided letter without making yourself ridiculous in the eyes of its receiver—unless, of course, he or she also possessed a copy of the book.”

But Beerbohm notes that “the author's style of letter-writing is informed as much by a desire to give his public what it needs, and will pay for, as by his own beautiful nature; and in the course of all the letters that he dictates you will find not one harsh word, not one ignoble thought or unkind insinuation. In all of them—though so many are for the use of persons placed in the most trying circumstances, and some of them are for persons writhing under a sense of intolerable injury—sweetness and light do ever reign.”

So he suggests to the author that he should sprinkle his next edition with a few examples of letters that make their point in a less kindly and more effective way:

[The English law is particularly hard on what is called blackmail. It is therefore essential that the applicant should write nothing that might afterwards be twisted to incriminate him.]

Dear Sir
To-day, as I was turning out a drawer in my attic, I came across a letter which by a curious chance fell into my hands some years ago, and which, in the stress of grave pecuniary embarrassment, had escaped my memory. It is a letter written by yourself to a lady, and the date shows it to have been written shortly after your marriage. It is of a confidential nature, and might, I fear, if it fell into the wrong hands, be cruelly misconstrued. I would wish you to have the satisfaction of destroying it in person. At first I thought of sending it on to you by post. But I know how happy you are in your domestic life; and probably your wife and you, in your perfect mutual trust, are in the habit of opening each other's letters. Therefore, to avoid risk, I would prefer to hand the document to you personally. I will not ask you to come to my attic, where I could not offer you such hospitality as is due to a man of your wealth and position. You will be so good as to meet me at 3.0 A.M. (sharp) to-morrow (Thursday) beside the tenth lamp-post to the left on the Surrey side of Waterloo Bridge; at which hour and place we shall not be disturbed. I am, dear Sir,
Yours respectfully,


Dear Mr Pobsby-Burford,
Though I am myself an ardent Tory, I cannot but rejoice in the crushing defeat you have just suffered in West Odgetown. There are moments when political conviction is overborne by personal sentiment; and this is one of them.
The great bulk of the newspaper-reading public will be puzzled by your extinction in the midst of our party's triumph. But then, the great mass of the newspaper-reading public has not met you. I have. You will probably not remember me. You are the sort of man who would not remember anybody who might not be of some definite use to him. Such, at least, was one of the impressions you made on me when I met you last summer at a dinner given by our friends the Pelhams. Among the other things in you that struck me were the blatant pomposity of your manner, your appalling flow of cheap platitudes, and your hoggish lack of ideas. It is such men as you that lower the tone of public life. And I am sure that in writing to you thus I am but expressing what is felt, without distinction of party, by all who sat with you in the late Parliament.
The one person in whose behalf I regret your withdrawal into private life is your wife, whom I had the pleasure of taking in to the aforesaid dinner. It was evident to me that she was a woman whose spirit was well-nigh broken by her conjunction with you. Such remnants of cheerfulness as were in her I attributed to the Parliamentary duties which kept you out of her sight for so very many hours daily. I do not like to think of the fate to which the free and independent electors of West Odgetown have just condemned her. Only, remember this: chattel of yours though she is, and timid and humble, she despises you in her heart.
I am, dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,
Yours very truly,


Dear Lady Amblesham,
Who gives quickly, says the old proverb, gives twice. For this reason I have purposely delayed writing to you, lest I should appear to thank you more than once for the small, cheap, hideous present you sent me on the occasion of my recent wedding. Were you a poor woman, that little bowl of ill-imitated Dresden china would convict you of tastelessness merely; were you a blind woman, of nothing but an odious parsimony. As you have normal eyesight and more than normal wealth, your gift to me proclaims you at once a Philistine and a miser (or rather did so proclaim you until, less than ten seconds after I had unpacked it from its wrappings of tissue paper, I took it to the open window and had the satisfaction of seeing it shattered to atoms on the pavement). But stay! I perceive a possible flaw in my argument. Perhaps you were guided in your choice by a definite wish to insult me. I am sure, on reflection, that this was so. I shall not forget.
Yours, etc.,
PS. My husband asks me to tell you to warn Lord Amblesham to keep out of his way or to assume some disguise so complete that he will not be recognised by him and horsewhipped.

[You can read the full version of this essay and others HERE, enjoying the peerless elegance and clarity of all Beerbohm's prose.]

Monday, 24 November 2008

Blackguards and bigots

We don't hear much about the former nowadays; there are still plenty of the latter around, and we can learn their views in some newspapers and on many websites.

Here are some edited extracts from the OED:

blackguard: The origin is from black guard. It is possible that senses 1 and 2 began independently of each other; or the one may have originated in a play upon the other, black being taken with a different sense. It is even possible that there may have been a guard of soldiers at Westminster called the Black Guard, or that, as some suggest, the attendants or torch-bearers at a funeral, or the link-boys of the streets, may have had this name.

1. The lowest menials of a royal or noble household, who had charge of pots and pans and other kitchen utensils, and rode in the wagons conveying these during journeys from one residence to another; the scullions and kitchen-knaves.
2. A guard of attendants, black in person, dress, or character; a following of ‘black’ villains.
3. One of the idle criminal class; a ‘rough’; hence, a low worthless character addicted to or ready for crime; an open scoundrel. (A term of the utmost opprobrium.)
4. Of or pertaining to the dregs of the community; of low, worthless character; brutally vicious or scurrilous.

All these meanings are obsolete except the last, which is a period piece rarely used except as a joke: "You're a blackguard, sir!" (Compare: "The fellow's a mountebank!")

Middle French bigot, person who shows excessive religious zeal, a religious hypocrite, (15th cent.), of uncertain origin, perhaps ultimately from either English by God or an equivalent expression in another Germanic language (although there is apparently no evidence for this supposition). It is uncertain whether the Middle French word shows a direct connection with Old French bigot, attested in the 12th cent. as an offensive name given to the Normans.

1. A religious hypocrite; (also) a superstitious adherent of religion. Obs.
2. A person considered to adhere unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief, practice, etc.
3. In extended use: a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Rejoicing in Thimphu

Over the past five years forty-four hats have been featured in Other Men's Flowers. They are variously impressive, frightening, preposterous, awe-inspiring, puzzling, of historical significance or just good for a laugh, and have nothing in common except that at some point in history they have been put on someone's head.

Until now, none of them have been pretty, but this one is. So too is its wearer, who could easily be a new and instantly popular character in any soap. In fact, he is the fifth king of Bhutan and his name is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. He was crowned earlier this month by his father, the former king who resigned in 2006.

His crown is unusual as crowns go in that it looks really comfy (and certainly it is much more fetching than the one his fellow Himalayan monarch, King Gyanendra of Nepal, was forced to wear). The thing on top of it I took to be a model of a Buddhist monk, but in fact is a raven's head, and the whole thing is called the Raven Crown, which inexplicably makes its wearer the druk gyalpo, or Dragon King.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Froog, the Boulevardier of Beijing, has some notes here on the wondrous things, in pronunciation or translation, that the Chinese can do with our language. My favourites among them both concern films: one of his students was eager to see Devon Cheese Cold (think D. Brown). Another didn't know the title of one he had seen, but crisply summarised its plot thus: "About a BIG sheep. She eat a piece of ice. Everybody die."

Some of the Chinglishisms he quotes do have a mad logic to them: the concept of "going Dutch" on a restaurant bill has become popular in China, but they have a different expression for it: AA. This mystified Froog, until online research established that some years ago a Chinese man searching for a convenient expression to use for this quaint new Western custom of splitting the bill at dinner tried to look up the English for equal shares, and found algebraic average.

This was almost as clever a computer translation as the one I have quoted before, which I found when I asked Google to give me an English version of a theatre review: leading lady in Spanish came out as bellwether in English. Brilliant!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Voices from beyond the grave

Andrew O’Hagan in this month's issue of The London Review of Books looks at some compilations of recordings by writers issued by the British Library, one 3-CD set for 30 British writers and one for 27 Americans. He notes that hearing the actual voices of dead writers can come as a shock:

....The British one gets off to a startling beginning by bodying forth the ghostly voice of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom one expects to sound like Basil Rathbone. In actual fact he sounds like Gordon Brown. It’s somehow easy to forget that Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, and his voice, recorded in 1930, is here filled with lilting plangencies about the age of materialism and the fact that death is not the end.

The conversation of writers can often seem so unbearably silly in the light of our expectations. We think Virginia Woolf should sound like her style, but she doesn’t: in her British Library recording (the only one in existence), she sounds like a person imprisoned by her sensibility and her class as opposed to someone who floats somewhere above it. Woolf was recorded in 1937 and we listen for the sound of her prose and find instead a person fast in the grip of banality.

Some of the recordings take the form of interviews, and the presenters don’t make matters any easier; John Lehmann, for example, speaks to Aldous Huxley as if he were questioning him with a view to offering him something at the Foreign Office. None of the English writers on the British Library CD has a regional accent: Joe Orton doesn’t sound like a boy from Leicester, but like someone from RADA, which claimed only a few years of his life but all of his voice.

Thankfully, some of the writers do sound as we might wish them to: like their style or like one of their characters. Among the British contingent, none is more satisfying in this way than Noel Coward, who was caught at Heathrow. It is 6 a.m., but it is not too early in the morning for Coward to have a pop at both theatre critics and Angry Young Men. ‘Propaganda is death in the theatre,’ he says. But the viry viry wonderful Gertrude Lawrence is lovely.

Listening to these recordings, we learn that writing words and speaking them are distinct businesses. It’s not just about accent, but also about inflection, pace and the degrees of excitement or reticence that ground the talking. James Baldwin tells us he’s a blues singer but he sounds like Prince Charles. Raymond Chandler sounds like someone who had recently downed a quart of bourbon (he had) and Saul Bellow’s voice is nearly musical (in the way of an advertising jingle) with self-belief. Henry Miller sounds like a longshoreman ordering his breakfast.

But the overall prize goes to Nabokov, whose voice can be described as one might describe a mysterious and expensive perfume: it is limpid and exotic and crazy, with a definite touch of Ninotchka. Of all the writers on these CDs, he is the one who sounds most like his prose, beautiful but also completely unreal, like a figment of his own imagination.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Three Royal Princes

No 5 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

September 1922: D from Harrogate to Miss Bowling in Hutton le Hole: We have called to see Miss Bellamys. They have a nice house & Dr Bellamy has just been nice and invited us out on Friday... Es gibt etwas unterschied zwischen Ellie and Miss Bellamy but I suppose they'll get on all right. I shall come early on Saturday it gets so busy later - so if you've asked a tennis crowd I shall be back in time.

D breaks into slightly misunderstood German to convey secretly that Ellie and Miss Bellamy are at odds.

Here are the princes at the races, young men seemingly at large and only just emerged from an almost brutal upbringing. Had they met Macbeth's witches they would have been amazed at at their prophecy that two of them would be King but only one crowned, that one would be King and Duke thereafter and another the reverse.
On the left and looking more at home than the others in sporty gear is the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor). In the middle is Prince Henry (later Duke of Gloucester). On the right is the future King George VI.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Not all who go to Jesus are brilliant

I wrote a couple of days ago about the table tennis champion who went on to a distinguished career as an administrator after gaining degrees at universities in China and England and then studying for a PhD at Jesus College, Cambridge.

A grumpy old friend of mine sent me a comment to the effect that although Deng Yaping is clearly a very bright lady indeed and he would not wish to detract in any way from her achievements, getting in to Jesus, Cambridge is not necessarily evidence of academic distinction, because among its alumni is the appalling right-wing hack Quentin Letts, who currently has a Christmas book out called, charmingly, 50 people who buggered up Britain. Extracts from this toxic drivel are currently being serialised in (of course) the Daily Mail.

I take my friend's point and would be the last person to look for any redeeming characteristics of this columnist, whose output makes Jeremy Clarkson's mouthings sound like profound wisdom, diffidently expressed. But it must be said that no-one who despises Tony Blair as much as Letts does can be all bad.

[By the way, the review of Letts' book to which I gave a link above is from an admirable website called Septicisle. Earlier this month it carried this salutary comment on Poppy Fascism.]

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Deng Yaping

I am to sport what Amy Winehouse is to post-structuralism, but I did make a living from it for some years (sport, not the other thing) and in the course of my work had the opportunity of meeting a number of top sportsmen and sportswomen. I got the impression that some of them had difficulty with joined-up writing, leading me to the conclusion that academic and sporting prowess do not always go together. When they do, in spades, it is worth saluting.

I never actually spoke to Deng Yaping but I watched her win two of her four Olympic gold medals and several of her other gold or silver medals at World Championships and World Cups. When she retired at the age of 24, she had won more titles than any other player in the sport and was voted Chinese female athlete of the century.

After her retirement Deng gained a bachelor's degree from Tsinghua University, a master's degree from the University of Nottingham, and in 2006 studied for a PhD. in Land Economy at Jesus College Cambridge. She was professionally involved in marketing, management and development of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a member of the Beijing Organizing Committee.

It is pleasant to reflect that Ivor Montagu, the Communist youngest son of a Jewish peer, was also at Cambridge (though not at Jesus) when he first played pingpong. It was he who made Deng's sporting career possible, for he had a leading role in popularizing the sport by establishing and financing the first world championships in London in 1926 and initiating the creation of the International Table Tennis Federation, serving as its first president for 41 years until 1967.

Monday, 10 November 2008


From Dorothy Parker's Not So Deep as a Well (1937):

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.

Marie Alexandra Victoria made the most of being Queen of Romania in the first half of the twentieth century. She was the daughter of the then Duke of Edinburgh and thus a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and great-grand-daughter of Tsar Alexander II. Her husband King Ferdinand was a Hohenzollern, but she retained her Englishness from first to last, though she did take the trouble to learn Romanian. Her persuasive gifts brought Romania into the First World War on the side of France and Britain and she went to war herself as a Red Cross nurse. She published several books, was a fine horsewoman and was said to be fabulously beautiful.
She died in 1938 and is honoured among Romanians to this day.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Isn't it a nobby one?

Where did you get that hat?
Where did you get that tile?
Isn't it a nobby one
And just the proper style?
I should like to have one
Just the same as that
Wherever I go they'd shout "Hello!
Where did you get that hat?"

Joseph J Sullivan had been a blackface comedian and acrobatic singer (?) who introduced this song at Miners Eighth Avenue Theatre in New York in 1888. It became an immediate hit and the title became a slang catch phrase; the song then crossed the Atlantic to make its mark on the British music hall. The words above are the amended ones written later by James Rolmaz and sung by J G Heffron.

You can get the tune as a ringtone, but never let it ring in Saint Peter's.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Finding the right address

We are all much more relaxed nowadays about how we address one another: your plumber won't care whether you call him Mr Chrascz or Sid, assuming that those are his names. Formality is acceptable in any circumstance and we can all judge when informality is considered improper—senior members of the royal family, for example would probably be a bit miffed if you used their first name on first acquaintance and you would be justifiably offended if they did it to you.

The other day I had to see a consultant surgeon (nothing serious), who introduced himself as "Mr Smith", and then proceeded to call me "Tony". Was he just socially inept, or trying to put me at my ease, or was he speaking de haut en bas? I do not know, but I failed to warm to him; next time I will ask someone else to give me an opinion on the surgical options for my obstreosis of the ductal tract (tertiary, but only mild), first looking him up in the register and then greeting him with an outstretched hand and a cheery "Hello, Arthur!"

This encounter was in the back of my mind a few days later when I telephoned the Council's Rubbish Disposal Hotline to ask about having the remains of our demolished garden shed taken away. The telephonist grasped the problem immediately, and said, "Right, I'll put you through to Bulky Waste".

This summoned up a mental picture of the honest fellow, a little overweight, certainly, but fit and alert, ready at a moment's notice to send out one of his crack teams to the aid of desperate householders unable to get out of their front doors because of all the broken boilers and old mattresses blocking their hallways.

However, the transferred call was answered very quickly so I didn't have time to worry about whether I should open the discussion with "Good morning, Mr Waste" or "Hi there, Bulky!"

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

They could, and they did

November 4th 2008

It's five minutes to midnight here in the UK and five minutes to seven in Washington DC. It looks as if the result most of the world hopes for will be achieved tonight, so now we can all go to sleep.

That's all right then, and we uncharitable curmudgeons have a new source of delight to sustain us through financial catastrophe and a hard winter: our schadenfreude (no italics: the word was appropriated by English-speakers more than 150 years ago) will keep us warm and chuckling.

It will be immensely pleasurable to contemplate the discomfiture, anger and fear of thousands of gun-toting Christian fundamentalists, neo-cons, creationists and all the other mindless nasties as they slowly realise that they are in a minority, being greatly outnumbered by millions of evil ant-eye-American commie-loving gun-hating libtards, the spawn of Satan, led by the socialist Antichrist himself, against whom they have struggled in vain for so long. It will be quite a revelation to them, and not the one from which they are so fond of quoting.

But we shall all miss Sarah Palin: the Ignorant Bigotry Show will be no fun without her.

Thursday, 30 October 2008


No 4 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

July 1913: From Brixton, Miss E Toombs in Sussex receives this torrid card. Isn't this saucy. Do you like the position? If so, we can try and see if we can do likewise. Roll on Sunday and home eh? That's the place for spooning eh what? Toodle oo, Derrick.

There's spooning and spooning and this may have brought a blush to E's cheek. This is as far as you could go on a sendable postcard in 1913 and one hopes that E got to the post that morning ahead of her parents. But the days of spooning in the firelight are not long and Derrick may soon be marching to oblivion.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

More food in Europe

Observations and recollections by Jan Morris after half a century of European eating.
[...continued from HERE]

A Lithuanian national dish is called a capelinas, a "Zeppelin", because it looks like an airship: it is made of tightly packed potato dough soaked in bacon fat, with mushrooms or a sausage in the middle, and is the most repulsive-looking food I have ever set eyes on.

My guidebook to Helsinki in 1995 promised me thirteen cuisines to sample in the city—Finnish, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Mexican, Spanish, Swiss, Tex-Mex and McDonald's. My guidebook to Paris in the same year said that Arpège, a restaurant famous for its carpaccio of langoustines with caviare and its lobster with turnips "is not the place for a casual tourist, but for people who really understand about food, such as the sophisticated and often most influential Parisians who fill the dining-room twice a day". Ugh!

I spent a week once in a pension in Haute-Savoie, eating gargantuan breakfasts, ample picnic lunches and stout dinners every day; on the way back to the airport at Geneva I stopped at the Auberge du Père Bise, than one of the most celebrated restaurants in France, for a lakeside lunch of of little fishes with white wine. It was exquisite. The bill came to more than the bill for all those breakfasts, all those packed lunches, all those dinners and a week's accommodation at the pension, and I did not regret a franc of it.

The most puffed-up restaurant in Europe seems to me the Wierzynek in Kraków, Poland, which claims to have started its career with a dinner party in 1364 attended by King Casimir the Great of Poland. the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, King Louis of Hungary, King Waldemar of Denmark, King Peter of Cyprus, princes from Austria and Pomerania and the Margrave of Brandenburg. It has been entertaining kings, emperors, shahs, presidents and prime ministers ever since, and is hung all about with courtly trophies.

"In numerical order," said a taxi-driver to me in Stockholm. "what are the chief attractions of Wales, first, second, third?" "I don't know," said I, "but I know what's forty-eighth." "The food," he instantly and perceptively replied.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Food in Europe

That perceptive traveller Jan Morris has these observations and recollections after half a century of eating European:

The Italians eat most sensibly. The British eat most unheathily. The Spaniards eat most abstemiously. The Scandinavians eat most fastidiously. The Greeks eat most monotonously. The Belgians eat most indigestibly. The French eat most pretentiously. The Germans eat most.

Irish oysters are best. German asparagus is best. Dried cod is best in Portugal, eaten with onions and scrambled egg. Raw herrings are best in the Netherlands. The richest dish I ever ate was a soup made of baby eels, in Valencia.The best food I ever eat is pasta al burro with a local red wine and a mixed salad almost anywhere in Italy.

My favourite café in Europe is the Grand Café in the main square at Oslo: this is dominated by a huge mural of the place identifying regular customers of its nineteenth-century prime—Master of the Horse Sverdrup, Landowner Gjerns, Writers Olsen and Ibsen, and many another—all of whom, mutatis mutandis, are to be seen to this day eating prawns and smoking at its tables.

My favourite European restaurant is the Walnut Tree near Y Fenni, Abergavenny, in Wales, one of whose famous specialities is Lady Llanover's Salted Duck. My favourite European bar is Harry's in Venice, where sultry Italian aristocrats swapping modish gossip confront self-conscious tourists laughing nervously when they see the bill.

In Cognac, France, they offer you soup, pâté and sausages for breakfast. In Aachen, Germany, they sell twenty different kinds of liquorice. Belgian specialities include deep-fried sausages stuffed with shrimps, and mussels with chips.It used to be said (although I find it hard to believe) that in Burnley, Lancashire, more Benedictine liqueur was drunk than anywhere else in Europe, the Lancashire Fusiliers having picked up the habit in France during the First World War. An advertisement for the Hostinec u Kalicha in Prague says that its cuisine is Heavy, Fat and Unhealthy, but Very Nice. In a little shop beside the canal at Colmar, in a part of France that used to be German, the family of J-B. Werz have been selling fish since 1686; they keep live crayfish in a tub, and their motto is "Pensez Poisson!" - "Think Fish!"

...continued HERE

Friday, 24 October 2008

Season of smoke

Mists we shall probably have, and maybe a hint of mellow fruitfulness, but the other manifestations of this time of year are less romantically enjoyable; the dreary imported Halloween will be closely followed by our own Guy Fawkes night. But it's not much fun in China, either, according to a netfriend of mine who lives in Beijing. He has a civilised blog called Froogville in which he writes perceptively about life generally but particularly in China, and had this to say recently about what happens there in October:

The air has been freakishly clear for the past week or so. One rather suspects that the country's entire manufacturing industry has been shut down until further notice because of the global economic meltdown. Then again, maybe we've just been lucky to have a long run of cleansing easterly breezes (rather than the more usual westerly ones that bring in the industrial fug from the rest of the country, or the occasional southerly ones that pin the city's accumulated smog up against the mountains to the north and west).

Clear, that is, by day. The nights have been horrendous. The beginning of the tenth lunar month in the Chinese calendar is yet another of those appeasing-the-ancestors festivals. At other times of the year, they burn money (or, more and more often, elaborate paper effigies of consumer goods) to make sure that their departed forebears can continue down the capitalist road in the afterlife. In autumn they burn clothes - so that the dead can dress warm in winter. I think it's the first day of the month that is supposed to be devoted to this, but in practice it drags on for a week or more. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people are out building mini-bonfires on the streets. And the damp autumn air quickly becomes saturated with the soot this produces. This year has been worse than ever, the very worst I can recall. The air quality after dark has been just poisonous this week.

The decades of hardcore Communism were remarkably ineffective in rooting out these antique superstitions; and now these fatuous practices are once again freely tolerated (if not actively encouraged, as a charming manifestation of China's "rich and ancient culture"). How long can we continue to condone a quaint tradition that is so massively pointless and so shockingly deleterious to the environment? There are a lot of Chinese customs that irritate me, and this is one of the worst. And I don't suppose the majority of Chinese really believe in this ancestor-worship nonsense - any more than we Westerners believe in Father Christmas. But our customs - hanging out stockings, etc. - are innocent, non-noxious. The Chinese custom of lighting millions of small bonfires across the country every night for a week is a massive assault on the environment - and it needs to be ended. Soon.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

He that regardeth the clouds shall not reap...

Ecclesiastes, 11:4 (...he can just lie around)

As Member Number 8158 of the 13,580 members (in 66 countries) of the Cloud Appreciation Society I note that the Society's current newsletter features this as Cloud of the Month for October; there is a better picture of it here.

What it shows, of course, are not exactly clouds, they are contrails; these are the long lines of cloud that form behind high-altitude aircraft, and can make a latticework of the sky. Are they a cloud type that we in the Cloud Appreciation Society should appreciate ? The society is polling its members to see whether they feel we should. At the moment the voting is 65% in favour, 35% against (there are no Don't Knows; we in the CAS do not equivocate).

The argument for appreciating them are:
They can serve as early indicators of a change in the weather, for when contrails persist and spread across an otherwise blue sky, they can be the first sign of the arrival of a weather front, which will eventually bring rain. Also they can be very beautiful. When the conditions are right for contrails to persist in the air, they overlap, bisect and spread in the high-speed winds at cruising altitude, adding a modernist counterpoint to the chaotic, impressionistic formations of the natural clouds.

...and against:
The water vapour element of aircraft exhaust may not be the most significant from the point of view of climate change but it is the most visible expression of the effect that aviation is having on our atmosphere. Contrails also encourage the formation of other high clouds, like Cirrus and Cirrostratus, which tend to trap in the Earth’s warmth, rather than reflect away the Sun’s heat like low clouds. This only affects ground temperatures while the clouds are in the sky, but the ever-increasing amount of air travel means the overall warming effects caused by contrails might well be significant.

There might just be a possibility of reversing global warming by increasing the whiteness of clouds over the world's oceans. A report by scientists at the universities of Edinburgh, UK, and Boulder, Colorado, US, has been published in the journal of the Royal Society; it proposes the use of automated ships to spray sea salt up into the clouds. This should encourage the clouds to form more droplets and reflect away more of the sun's heat.

If this happens—and actually works— the CAS will soon be receiving membership applications from Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other grateful world leaders. They will have to pay the four pounds plus postage membership fee, just like everyone else.

You can join here, or just go there and look at some lovely pictures.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Attention all zamak mold users

419 scams aren't amusing any more. It is hard to believe that even now they sometimes work, but apparently there are still people who fall for them and are bitterly disappointed when their bank accounts not merely fail to increase by the $15 million languishing in The State Bank of Nigeria, of which they will keep 10%, but instead become unaccountably empty.

These are the foolish people who might equally well have handed over all their money to some organisation with a head office in Reykjavik, not realising that the excellent Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is no longer in charge up there and that her successors are not to be trusted with anything more than a couple of buckets of wet cod.

So it was a nice change to receive the other day an email from Wu Sha Industrial Zone, Changan Town, Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, China, which is unquestionably a genuine offer sent out by a reputable company with whom one could deal while having every confidence that they will do exactly as they promise. It is sad, therefore, that for reasons which will become obvious, I cannot take advantage of this opportunity. It is as follows:

How are you ? This is Lisa From New Orient Mold. Nice to know your esteem company from internet. We can figure out the potential business scope between our both parties.

I will be honored to inform you that we can reduce your product cost so that they should be more competitive in your market. We are a professional ISO9001 Mold Manufactory. Being specialized in the designing and producing all kinds of precision zamak mold /plastic injection molds and parts. We offer OEM and ODM service. Moreover, we use hot-runner molds from YUDO, DME, INCOE and etc.

We also have precision equipment such as CMM, projector, slow wire cutting machine etc. Our tools are mainly exported to Europe, USA and Mid-East areas with high quality in HASCO or DME standard in reasonable lead times. Plastic products also are exported to all over the world with high quality. If there is any project that we can assist you, please don't hesitate to send us for quoting. We will respond to you within 2 to 3 working days. Let us demonstrate our capability and service to you.

Your kind attention to New Orient Mould Company will be highly appreciated. We are looking forward to your favorable news.

Have a nice day

These are clearly serious people; they don't mess about with old-fashioned cold-runner molds, or unreliable fast wire-cutting machines. But what makes it unlikely that this is an attempt at fraud are the details which are given; I mean, there would be no need to dream up all that stuff about HASCO and DME standards if you were simply intending to ask customers to send money in advance for non-existent goods; you would just offer 1,000 gross of giant teddy bears at a ridiculously low price. It is true that Lisa's chat-up line sounds a bit forced and there is a slightly unworldly feel about the whole thing, but if you were a professional ISO9001 Mold Manufactory in, say, Blandford Forum, and your sales letters in Cantonese were translated by the student son of the owners of your favourite takeaway, how convincing would they be?

No, the only major error is in the mailing list which identified me as a good prospect; perhaps it was flogged to them by the same unscrupulous Australian EFL teacher who did the translation.

You have a nice day too, Lisa, and all the lads in the Wu Sha Industrial Zone as well. I wish you every success in trying to break into the SE England market, and I am publishing your letter in full in case it catches the eye of someone who is in the right line of business and has urgent need of some high quality molds, or possibly moulds.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Why didn't I think of that?

The other day I referred to the widespread lack of knowledge in North America about the tale of the two old ladies. On reflection, the unfamiliarity with it over there is quite understandable, for bathroom or john simply wouldn't fit into the rhyme scheme; anyway, I shouldn't have been so patronising.

The discussion had been sparked off by a note on cucumber sandwiches, and I can now make amends to my American friends, some of whom are really quite knowledgeable, by noting that where these are concerned Americans are streets ahead of the rest of the world: two years ago, United States Patent D527165 was published, covering the ornamental design for a cucumber sandwich. The inventor was Alexander Stenzel of 15332 Anticoh St., Pacific Palisades, CA, and this was one of the patent images he filed with the application.

I don't really expect anyone to believe this; those who, with good reason, have a low regard for OMF's truthfulness and accuracy should look here (there is a white space after the ads and you have to go on down the page to see the details); the illustration above is described by the inventor as "a side elevation view showing two pieces forming my design separated from one another, the opposite sides of each piece having a similar appearance".

If this is a joke, it was an expensive one: Californian patent attorneys like Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zafman do not come cheap.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The bestest band what am, honey lamb

No 3 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

July 1912: Rose Todd in Moorhead, Minn. writes to Borgie Danielson in Detroit: Are you going back to the TBI next Fall? I think I may.

Irving Berlin's song needed no further caption even when only a few months old: the title already sang itself. Berlin lived to be a hundred and was still writing songs when the Beatles made their debut.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Now the pressure is on

One of the advantages of advanced age is that you are liberated from most of the commitments which make the prime of life so stressful—earning money, bringing up children, playing a role in the community, being nice to people and so on. You still get out of bed most mornings but it isn't absolutely necessary, and in other ways you can do anything you like and, more importantly, fail to do things you don't like.

Five years ago I decided to make a commitment; self-imposed ones are little danger to one's mental well-being because no-one is disappointed—in fact no-one need know—if one drops them because they have proved difficult, or just boring, to fulfil. I resolved that I would write something every second day and post it on the internet, allowing myself some latitude in execution by defining "something" very loosely: I would not aim at consistency of theme or focus and the pieces I wrote could be of any length, in any style and on any topic. In summing up the whole publication, the phrase "dog's dinner" springs to mind.

This, I thought, would make the project a doddle, and so it has proved. Later I realised that on days when no words at all came to mind I could just shove in some kind of picture instead. This made the task even easier, and it has not been much of a strain.

Now that has all changed. Last week an English polymath ex-lawyer with the net name of Froog, resident in Beijing, posted in his urbane and witty blog a compliment—nay, an encomium—nay, a panegyric—directed at Other Men's Flowers. I was feeling a bit low when I read it and it lifted my spirits: you might call that complimentary medicine. Incidentally, his praise was not fulsome, for that means disgusting by excess and I was not at all disgusted.

Actually I was very pleased, for after stealing other men's flowers since 2004 it was gratifying to be given a bouquet for oneself. However, the sad truth is that the good fellow has done me a great disservice: no longer can I sit at the keyboard light-heartedly tapping out a load of old codswallop just for my own amusement, not caring whether anyone appreciates it or even reads it. I would really hate to disappoint such a kind and generous reader, and now as I sweat through the 48 hours gestation of each post I shall always have at the back of my mind a nagging question: Is Froog going to like this one?

This means keeping up some kind of standard, something quite foreign to my experience and inclination. I cannot say yet whether the constant worry will inhibit me or even cause a writer's block or some other kind of breakdown. Time will tell.

[Modesty restrains me from reproducing here what Froog actually wrote, but someone with IT skills may be able to work out a way of locating it.]

Sunday, 12 October 2008

A distinguished bunch...

...who achieved fame in a variety of ways but have one thing in common. What was it?

Anne Bancroft, Claire Bloom, Alfred Brendel, Leslie Caron, Christopher Chataway, James Dean, Basil D'Oliveira, Lonnie Donegan, Mikhail Gorbachov, Goswell Frand, Larry Hagman, John le Carré, Arsenije Milosevic, Leonard Nimoy, Igor Oistrakh, Mordecai Richler, Boris Yeltsin.

[Of course, there are many possible answers, such as that all of them have, or had, two elbows but only one nose; this is not the answer I want. Other correct but unwanted answers are that
none of them married Zsa Zsa Gabor and none of their names rhyme with Butterworth.]

Here is a helpful clue: the answer would be the same if you added Françoise Arnoul or Lionel Blair but NOT if you added Al Jolson or Tony Blair.

The answer is HERE.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Embarrassing incident at the vicarage

Writing a couple of days ago about cucumber sandwiches, I mentioned that these, typically, would have been offered by the vicar to the two old ladies. I was amazed to receive three requests to explain the reference: I would have thought that virtually everyone in the Anglophone world was familiar with this epic tale, but then these were Americans, whose cultural heritage overlaps but does not coincide with ours.

The tune is very old, and the original words, which are on the theme of Oh, dear, what can the matter be? seem to have a Geordie flavour. Here you will find both sets of words and melodies, the traditional one and the nursery rhyme which came from it. Google provides many versions of more recent words some with dozens of verses.

With varying degrees of indelicacy, they tell the story of the old ladies—numbering anything between two and sixteen—who were locked in the lavatory, and the version I was thinking of in connection with cucumber sandwiches has a verse which goes:
They went one day for tea with the vicar
They went in together because it was quicker
They couldn't get out for the door was a sticker
The vicar had tea by himself.

I was going to add that there is nothing more to be said about cucumber sandwiches but I would have been quite wrong: a future post, lavishly illustrated, will reveal a little-known fact about them which will amaze everyone.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Remember Blondie Bumstead, née Boopadoop?

I noted in a post the other day that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was not a very interesting character, but the same cannot be said of the things which may or may not have been named after him. Unlike Cleopatra, age does tend to wither them, but custom cannot stale their infinite variety: other foods cloy the appetites they feed, but they make hungry where most they satisfy.

Here are just a few:

The Reuben sandwich is a New York Jewish creation, combining corned beef and Emmenthal with sauerkraut on pumpernickel, the whole being grilled.

A club sandwich first appeared in print in 1903. It is usually a three-decker toast affair with chicken, lettuce, mayonnaise, tomato and bacon. Some believe that it was originally a two-decker, perhaps matching the two-decker 'club cars' running on US railroads from 1895.

The BLT is another popular and long-established item in North America and also wherever Americans go, which is everywhere.

The Dagwood is a colossal, overstuffed and many-layered sandwich favoured by the character of that name in the comic strip called Blondie.

The submarine, or torpedo (in New Orleans) is a long and substantial cylindrical sandwich, consisting of French bread generously filled with various savoury ingredients.

That's enough about varieties of sandwichius americanus. Sandwiches were a European invention from around 1760, and the English have two slang terms for them: butties are North country and long established and sarnies are more recent. In terms of gentility, the Liverpool chip butty is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the delicate little cucumber sandwiches (crusts cut off) which would have been served, for example, when the two old ladies went for tea with the vicar (though of course on that occasion the vicar had to eat them all himself).

Finally, back to the United States for a recent news item which I have not yet been able to verify: I heard that at the annual Peanut Festival in Plains, Georgia, the 2008 JimmyC Prize for the best Peanut Butter 'n Jelly Sandwich was won not by a native of the state as was usually the case, but by a guitar-playing law professor from Greensboro, NC, whose recipe controversially included a layer of curried sushi.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Happy Birthday, you stupid ******

The Guardian published a four-page article last Monday about the way in which we have taken to sending each other greetings cards with obscene, insulting or merely vulgar messages. Apparently we sent more than two million of them last year .

There were illustrations of a dozen or so examples, monotonous in their lack of wit or originality (the online version doesn't show these). Apparently the recipients are rarely shocked by them, so what's the point?

The writer takes a fairly indulgent view, quoting executives from some of the firms who make the things explaining why they have become acceptable: "our confidence with swearwords is all about our communications skills improving"... "The success of rude cards reflects the average British person's growing ease with loose, informal communication"... "Sharing swearwords almost means that people think highly of you"... "It's just how people speak to their friends"... "Between two men, they're just expressions of affection"... "that passion, that naughtiness, that boldness of expression—it shows that we're proud of our madness, as well as our flaws and faults"... and so on.

Yes, well, they would say that, wouldn't they? It's all bollocks, of course: a card with a message consisting of a four-letter word repeated fifty times is boring and infantile. Unlike the old smutty postcards, which featured mostly willy/bum/tit jokes but relied on innuendo and were rarely explicit, hardly any of this new kind are funny.

But it is true that we have become accustomed to the wide and frequent use of what used to be called bad language; this is very sad, because we need swearwords for special occasions, and using them constantly just for emphasis or even merely for punctuation or for no reason at all robs us of a valuable tool.

I raised this point once with a barrack-room acquaintance. It is not easy to have a reputation as a foulmouth among soldiers, but he did; most of his converse consisted entirely of obscenities, with whole sentences—noun, adjective, verb and adverb—constructed from them. He was a decent man; he didn't mean anything by it, he had just acquired this habit.

I put it to him that it seemed such a waste to use these five or six powerful words all the time and then have nothing different to say when he was really angry, or contemptuous, or wanted to shock: how would anyone know? I suppose I might have guessed what his response would be: "Fuck off!", he said, and added his favourite four-letter epithet.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Global meltdown

The world panics, but not Le Monde, which has this:

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Voices from a century ago

No 2 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

March 1908: Jess in Birmingham sends Josie in Bath a stark document of the mine disaster at Hamstead Colliery a fortnight before, in which twenty-five miners and one rescue worker died.
" for your album... This is the message one of the miners wrote before they died. "

[Clearly the men's trust was misplaced, but we may hope that leaving this message brought some comfort to them in their final hours.]

The full story of the disaster is here.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Two earls and their legacies

It has long been recognised that if the 4th Earl of Sandwich and the 7th Earl of Cardigan had exchanged ideas then we would now be munching ham cardigans while wearing our woollen sandwiches.

Lord Cardigan had a full and colourful life, beginning with his expulsion from Harrow for fighting. He was involved in some marital scandals, dismissed from the army, prosecuted for murder but acquitted on a technicality, may or may not have behaved badly when in command of the Light Brigade, and died after falling off his horse. A collarless knitted jacket that buttons down the front was named after him but there is nothing interesting to say about cardigans.

Lord Sandwich was by contrast a bit of a dull stick, an incompetent and corrupt First Lord of the Admiralty whose wife went mad. However, a touch of colour in his life was provided by Martha Raye, a talented opera singer who gave him several children before being murdered in the foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, by the Rector of Wiveton, a jealous suitor.

It is not even certain that the fourth earl actually thought of the idea of putting meat between two slices of bread to sustain him at the gaming table. His biographer suggests he was more likely to have eaten it at his desk; anyway, it was possible that he got the idea from his brother-in-law Jerome de Salis, but such a name would have made a clumsy eponym, so sandwiches they became.

Friday, 26 September 2008


This has recently been brought up to date. Or rather, sport has been brought up to date: the entry for this word in the OED is one of the revisions which were made to the Dictionary on 11th September. (A few new words or meanings have also been added; you can see them here.)

The word sport has a different feel today than it had a hundred years ago. Sport was becoming 'organized' in the late nineteenth century. Before then, the term was largely used in the sense 'entertainment' (betraying its origins in 'disport') or in the narrow sense of hunting, shooting, and fishing. The semantic movement of the word over the centuries is demonstrated in the various senses it develops, but also in the evolution of phrases and compounds associated with its various meanings (early period: in sport, to make sport; 18th century: the sport of kings; modern period: sports clothes, sports centre, sports psychology, sport utility, etc.).

The entry for sport and its associated phrases, compounds and derivatives, together with the quotations, runs to over 19,000 words. For the benefit of those sad people who have no access to the OED Online I would have liked to have cut and pasted the entry here, but this would have made an over-long post. Anyway, the annual subscription is only $295; many institutions all over the world have it, or you could move to England where a (free) subscription to a public library will enable you to log on to it at home.

It has be said that many of its half-million entries do not make particularly engrossing reading. Under sport, for example, we can find a note about sportswomanship: The performance or practice of a sportswoman; skill in, or knowledge of, sport; conduct characteristic or worthy of a sportswoman. It includes a quotation from Tait's Magazine indicating that the first recorded use of the word was in 1833; all this is, I suppose, quite interesting, but not tremendously interesting and not really very useful to know.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Keeping tabs on me

For many years I have been using the free version of a photo/video storage program. It serves my purpose well enough and they don't often pester me to pay for the upgrade, but every few months they do send me a friendly but extraordinarily ill-conceived message. It is always the same: the subject line is "Someone's been busy!", it addresses me with "Hi!" and my name and then:

"We bet you've been busy: spending time with friends and family, jetting off to foreign locales, perhaps even trying out a new activity. Now it's time to upload to your account and share all the great photos and videos you've taken...."

Their suppositions are laughably wide of the mark: it is true that I do have some friends and a family with whom I spend time occasionally, but otherwise there is nothing there that suggests they have found out anything whatsoever about me during all those years. What makes them think I have been busy, for example? And are their airport watchers confusing me with some tycoon frequently spotted at the first class check-in for flights to Ulan Bator?

None of this has any relevance to my life style: they might just as well have enquired how I am enjoying my job as equerry to the Prince of Wales, or whether my new interest in pole-vaulting has proved rewarding.

But my friend Grumio has pointed out that such inaccurate profiling is rather re-assuring. If their data collection technique is so poor that they can only make wild guesses about what I am up to, then any attempt by them or anyone who hacks into their website to steal my identity is bound to end in failure.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Duck Soup

Rufus T Firefly to the magnificent Margaret Dumont as Mrs Teasdale:

"I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thoughts I'd rather dance with the cows and you come home."

Saturday, 20 September 2008


This was taken in Andalucia the other day and the one on the horse is my grand-daughter. Although the hat is only a peripheral element here, I could not resist using the picture as the forty-first in the series.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Dangerous drugs

For some years now I have been a user, regularly and in some cases daily, of a number of drugs. All of them are legal and not intended to give me any kind of fun but merely to alleviate some symptoms I have or to prevent various minor ailments from getting any worse. This is fine; taking them is a small inconvenience, they don't cost me anything, and all of them seem to work or at least to do me no harm.

But I had no idea how potentially dangerous they all are because I had never read the leaflets that came with them; three a day after meals seemed all I needed to know. The other day in an idle moment I glanced at one and, filled with alarm, immediately settled down to read the lot, taking particular note of the warnings about side effects.

It seems that some or all of these wonder products might well induce nastier things than those they had been so successful in treating: unless I was very lucky they could land me with diarrhoea, constipation, giddiness, intestinal bleeding, stomach cramps, various kinds of ulcers, aching limbs, migraines, insomnia, mood swings, palpitations, confusion, itching, drowsiness and fits.

There was no mention of a plague of boils, but otherwise this sounds just like the sort of thing that Jehovah used to visit upon tribes who had displeased him, or on anyone who happened to be around when he was in one of his wrathful moods. Happily, I haven't noticed any such effects while I have been on these drugs—well, a bit of confusion perhaps, and an occasional itch, though nothing that a good scratch doesn't cure—oh, and I get severe attacks of drowsiness after a good lunch. So I suppose I don't need to worry.

The instructions say that if these things do crop up you just have to stop taking the tablets and tell your GP, and if necessary that's what I'll do. After all, the print was very small so the dangers must be slight and the manufacturers know that no-one will read the leaflets; the whole point is that if some poor fellow does suddenly succumb to several of these unpleasant things after swallowing one of their nostrums they can just say: well, tough, we did warn you.