Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Danse Macabre

I really cannot say why I find this picture of the Rambert Dance Company hugely funny, but I do, I do. Is it the sheer panache, or is it just the feet?

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Capturing the President

George W Bush has been such a gift to cartoonists that many of them must be concerned about his successor, wondering whether he/she will be as easy to draw. The Guardian asked some top caricaturists for their views on the possibilities offered by the current candidates.

Their own Steve Bell writes as well as he draws: "George W Bush is a figure of such towering political idiocy that he will be an extremely easy act to follow politically. Could anyone possibly do a worse job? But in cartoon terms, it's a different prospect. Not one of the three potential presidents will be able to fill that vacant monkey suit.
It's not that they aren't good subjects for caricature. Each has a distinctive set of features that make them recognisable even from this side of the Atlantic. Clinton has two mad eyes that explode into life whenever she is surprised, delighted or feigning orgasm. McCain looks like an eager hamster that happens to wear a truss. Obama resembles that rubber man out of the Fantastic Four.
This is all grist to the mill of any self-respecting cartoonist, but there is even more promising material in store. Obama is black, Clinton is a woman and McCain is old.
Yet there are problems. Not one of them is as stupid as Bush, and they all speak perfect English. Worse still, they all have at least one redeeming feature. Obama is a stunning orator and has opposed the war in Iraq from the start. Clinton has a gratingly whiny voice and has flip-flopped on the Iraq war, but at least she has had the good grace, not to say common sense, to finally come around to calling for troop withdrawal. And McCain may be dementedly pursuing victory in Iraq, but he has bravely given the finger to the religious right in his own party."

Barry Blitt: "Obama’s ears and heavy eyebrows are his obvious features. "If you get those right, it’s hard to mess up. He’s actually pretty easy to draw, even for me. His body language is relaxed. You want to capture that — it’s not the norm among politicians".

Steve Brodner: "Clinton has a long, sloping nose that draws her face down and almost crowds out her mouth, which is small and feisty. It is as if her face twists to accommodate her various constituent groups. I see a kind of conflict in there. There is also something in her intensity: there may be traces of latent Nixon chromosomes in her sullen, victimised, enemy-listing, openness-averse, highly ambitious mien".

And finally Rick Meyerowitz: "John McCain has got 'the hunch', a stiff—shouldered, slightly forward-tilting pose. And then there is that under-bite, where the Arizona senator shows his bottom teeth like a wily old badger ready to take a piece out of anyone".

Friday, 25 April 2008

Carlos Gardel

This singer starred in a number of mostly unmemorable films, though the Paramount low-budget film-revue Big Broadcast of 1936 also had Bing Crosby, Richard Tauber, Ethel Merman and the Vienna Boys' Choir so can't have been totally without interest. But he gained enduring fame as the originator, in 1917, of the tango-canción. He recorded 514 of these and his unerring musicality and dramatic phrasing made miniature masterpieces of many of them.

I've just downloaded from iTunes one of my favourites. It is called Chorra, which I think means Thief; you can hear it here, and then if you close the file you will find the complete lyrics. These are in Argentinian Spanish with some words not in the dictionary and I am not at all sure that I have grasped the plot. I think the singer is complaining about some evil character who has stolen his wife: he describes him as like an ...agente 'e la camorra, ...malandrin y estefador and as ...profesor de cachiporra. That last word is in the dictionary and I take the phrase to mean that he is an expert with a cosh, but then my Cassell says that cachiporra is a stick with a big knob, so perhaps I am missing the point.

I would welcome any comments from speakers of Lunfardo.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Bunged up

At the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 I was a sort of official, so they provided me with a car and a young student to drive it. Antonio spoke quite good English, and when he needed an English word which he didn't know he would simply anglicise the Spanish. This usually worked well, but once when we were having dinner together I sneezed, and with some concern he enquired: "Are you constipated?".

When we explained, he laughed as much as we had. It was an easy mistake to make: constipado means congested. There are both English and Spanish words deriving from the Latin constipare (to cram together) but for us the general sense is obsolete: nowadays we use our word only to describe a medical condition.

My six-year-old grand-daughter probably knows this; she is totally bilingual , although in Spanish she has a strong Andalusian accent. The Spanish way of life seems to suit her and she loves her school, particularly the flamenco lessons on Wednesday afternoons.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Formidable millinery

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the longest-serving female member of Parliament, able, fiercely independent-minded and an all-round good egg, died last week. She will be greatly missed, even by those in the Labour party whom she had sometimes shamed or embarrassed by being persistent and outspoken in pursuit of the truth.

It was well-known that she did not much mind being described as a battleaxe and was indifferent to her personal appearance, but this photograph taken early in her career suggest that she was well aware of the role a significant hat can play in politics, and I am including it in my gallery of Hats That Changed the World.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The full Monti

In 2000 I spent a highly convivial evening at a restaurant in Prague, towards the end of which we asked the little orchestra to play the finest piece of Hungarian music ever to be written by an Italian: Vittorio Monti's Csárdás, published around 1904 and played frequently ever since by gypsy orchestras and every other kind of musical ensemble. The musicians at this restaurant were probably asked for it at least once a week but were quite happy to play it again and bring us all to our feet.

I looked the other day for a reminder of the evening to replace my old 10-inch 78rpm record of it (you know, black disk with a hole in the centre). There are fifty versions offered on YouTube but although no version of this classic piece can be totally without merit (except perhaps for the one of an infant singing German words to it, and another of a woman yodelling it), it was not too difficult to choose one.

For this kind of music, feeling for the idiom is more important than classical skill; Yehudi Menuhin, after some joint recitals with Stéphane Grappelli, said of him: "He plays the twiddly bits better than I do". So I rejected Nigel Kennedy and all those those whose names didn't suggest any claim to gipsy or at least Hungarian blood. This ruled out offerings by the United States Navy Band, Royal Danish Brass, Hørsholm Percussion & Marimba Ensemble, the Black Dyke Mills Band, and James Last.

Csárdás was written for violin and piano so I was not keen to have it on cembalom, accordeon, cornet or harmonica. In the end I settled for a version in iTunes which sounded much like my old recording. It is by The Mazmanians, who are a family of Armenian origin very popular in California who seem to me to get it just right. Anyway, it's a good 79p worth.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Computer to love, heaven to hell

These cryptic and intriguing words are part of the subject line of an email I have just received. What can the email be about?

It is in fact about the latest quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, which focuses on the revision of key words rather than on a specific alphabetical range. By key words they mean important English words whose meanings or application have developed most over the past century, like the four in the subject line.

On heaven and hell, they have this to say:

"... Heaven is expansive and open, its phrases largely positive (e.g. a marriage made in heaven, to move heaven and earth), though a flutter of frustration can intervene (heaven knows, for heaven's sake). Heaven occurs in Beowulf, and so has coexisted with all the changes that have taken place within English over the years.
Much the opposite can be said of its counterpart hell (which, however, shares with heaven its longevity in the language). Hell is a bleak word: its main senses fiery, and its phrases and compounds rough (all hell breaks loose, hell on earth, hell-mouth, hell-ship). Such description has, of course, no place in an OED entry, and so we should return to the facts.
Hell is the larger entry (with one hundred and forty-two sections to heaven's forty-six). Yet heaven has eleven new senses whereas hell has only six."

Another key word which has been recently brought up to date—clearly not before time—is one which can be used as a verb, a noun or an interjection; the revised entry for the verb alone runs to 4,431 words, including quotations: the word is fuck.

The email does not quote the revised entries for any words, but clearly the writer realised that this one is of absorbing interest, so he provides a useful note on its history, written with that sly wit for which top lexicographers are noted:
"The term... perhaps confronts lexicographers with the most significant challenges of the current release... a taboo word in English... Its relative absence from the record presents issues in terms of describing its history... it is now possible to reassert an early sixteenth century date, with indications that the word is earlier... The first definite evidence for the word comes from a manuscript in Oxford dated 1528. Fuck presents a number of other issues for the lexicographer... the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century causes quotation difficulties... When the term or its associates do appear they are likely to be masked to avoid scandal or prosecution... The use of asterisks to mask the word is also problematic lexicographically... We might be happy to accept 'f—k' in the right context, but how much less certain might we be of 'f—'? And sometimes there is no letter at all to clarify what has been omitted (''). The entries for fuck and related words have been considerably expanded since OED2 (1989)... There the number of meanings and associated verbal phrases under the verb amounted to six... In the revised entry for the verb there are thirty-five components, showing a significant expansion of meaning and phrasal patterning (mainly from the mid twentieth century onwards)."

If you want to glance through these components, or the 2,039 words about the noun, or the half-dozen vigorous quotations listed for the interjection, you will need to go to the dictionary itself. In the UK a subscription to the online edition costs £195 a year plus VAT, or nothing if you have a ticket to an English public library. This does, of course give you access to the entries for another half a million words illustrated by 2½ million quotations, in addition to the ones mentioned above.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Actually, it didn't

A mantra which was current and much quoted in the twenties and thirties expressed a sincere but, as it turned out, erroneous belief that Communism was not a bad dream but would bring about happiness and prosperity for the world. In 1919 a more widely used word was Bolshevism, and an American journalist named Lincoln Steffens who was on his way out of Russia after having made contact with Bolshevik agents wanted to publicise his admiration for them and their policies. After much thought he perfected a one-line telegram which he hoped would electrify the world.

It read: I have seen the future and it works.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment

Maybe, but the song pointing this out has lasted well; it is a poem by Jean de Florian set to music by J P E Martini (né Schwarzendorf) around two hundred years ago. I have always loved it, and even hearing the dreary Joan Baez sing it in her twee style, missing out the centre section, or Elvis Presley turning it into something quite different, could not spoil it for me.

But when I wanted to get a recording of it I found that the choice was so huge that it took a very long time to choose one to share my life with. Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Scharzkopf, Jacques Brel, Richard Clayderman and hundreds of others have rendered it with varying degrees of distinction: iTunes alone offers 150 versions, so I sat down to try out the snippets which you can listen to for nothing.

Not all of them, of course. I felt I would not miss much by skipping the likes of Nana Mouskouri, Marianne Faithfull, Mary Hopkin (in Welsh), Mantovani, André Kostelanetz, the Schwenk-
Baum Virtuose Akkordeon and Charlotte Church, though out of curiosity I did dip into a few seconds of Ray Ventura. Also, I tried Ronnie Ronalde, and I have to say that if it's a whistled version you are after, then he's your man.

Finally, I did it by elimination, rejecting those not in good French (which sadly ruled out several pleasing ones such as Tauber's elegant but accented English version), and those with orchestral accompaniments (though Berlioz wrote one in 1859).

This left me with three, all different but each with something to recommend it: Tino Rossi, the second most famous son of Corsica, was more than a Latin lover and cabaret artist, being no mean hand at the art songs of Massenet and Reynaldo Hahn, and his 1955 version of Plaisir d'Amour with harpsichord accompaniment is smooth and seductive. The song is really for a man (the singer gives up everything for the ungrateful Sylvie), but my other two choices were both women. Yvonne Printemps sings it well in an utterly French manner but her recording was made in 1931 and is a bit scratchy with a poor tone. Maggie Teyte's recording is also scratchy but is beautifully sung and has Gerald Moore at the piano, so that was my final choice; it is well worth the 79p I paid.

From Wikipedia:

Maggie Teyte changed her name from Tate because when she was studying in Paris she found that the French invariably mispronounced it. She became a pupil of the celebrated tenor Jean de Reszke and later, to prepare for her role in Pelléas et Mélisande, was sent to study with Debussy himself, every day for six months. By reputation he was a terror and a martinet, but according to Teyte he rarely corrected her and in fact hardly spoke to her at all.

Despite her early singing successes, she did not easily establish herself in in France and moved to America, performing with the Chicago Opera Company and the Boston Opera Company from 1914-1917, singing in Philadelphia and elsewhere.. Returning to Britain in 1919, she went into semi-retirement until 1930, when she performed as Mélisande and played the title-rôle in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. After an absence of nearly a decade she had difficulty in reviving her career and ended up performing music hall and variety (24 performances a week) at the Victoria Palace in London. Finally, in 1936, her recordings of Debussy songs accompanied by Alfred Cortot attracted attention, and recordings remained an important factor in her renewed fame, as she gained a reputation in England and the United States as the leading French art song interpreter of her time. She sang at the Royal Opera House in 1936-37 in Hansel und Gretel, as Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and as Butterfly, and appeared in operetta and musical comedy between the wars.

During World War II, Teyte sang in a series of concerts sponsored by the French Committee of National Liberation for which she received the Gold Cross of Lorraine for services to France. She made her first New York appearances in 1948, including a Town Hall recital followed by performances of Pelléas at the New York City Center Opera. She continued to record and perform in opera until 1951, making her final appearance in the part of Belinda (to Kirsten Flagstad’s Dido) in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Mermaid Theatre in London. Her final concert appearance was at the Royal Festival Hall on April 22, 1956.

In 1958, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Also in 1958, her autobiography Star at the Door was published. She died in London at the age of 88.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Yamamah done tole me

(Blues In the Night, Dinah Shore 1942, but that's irrelevant, really)

So the pleasingly named Lord Justice Moses has ruled that Tony Blair and his government acted illegally in halting the long-running investigation into secret payments made by BAE to Saudi Arabia. It is alleged that Prince Bandar, the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, threatened that the Typhoon contract would be stopped and intelligence and diplomatic relations pulled unless the investigation was dropped.

Prince Bandar (in Hindi, monkey) denied that the payment to him of £1 billion was in any way improper.

Back in 1994 the Guardian published two answers sent in by readers to the question: What is the difference between bribes paid to foreign politicians and consultancy fees paid to British politicians?

1: The difference is not unlike tax evasion and tax avoidance. In both cases, the objective and hence the end result is the same. The issue is not intention, but declaration. If it is not declared, then it is illegal. If it is, then it is merely unethical. In a fair world, however, there is no difference and there can be only one interpretation: corruption.

2: Some politicians need extra incentive to support decisions which are against the interests of those they supposedly represent. Others are willing to do such things without apparently needing outside inducement. So the answer is: bribes are necessary, consultancy fees are not.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008


I gather that the French, or at any rate a few of their literati, are getting their culottes in a twist about an alleged decline in the use of semi-colons which they seem to believe is largely the fault of the Anglo-Saxons. The Guardian took this bit of paranoia seriously enough to print on 4th April an exhaustive piece about semi-colons; a letter the next day aptly described the row as "an agonised and pretentious debate". So read it if you like, but don't pay too much attention to any of it. It seems that modern French writers like François Cavanna and Philippe Djian are anti, while Proust and sundry Academicians were or are pro; over here, Shaw was ridiculously pro, Orwell was anti, but so what?

Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves provides a clear, witty and sensible summary of the long history of the semi-colon and of its proper use. My guess, not based on any real evidence, is that, in English at any rate, it is less popular than in the last century but is still widely used and is certainly not in terminal decline.

So far this year I have published on the net around 12,200 words, using 65 semi-colons. This is probably more than the average rate of usage by all those who use them at all, which many perfectly adequate writers do not. Perhaps half of these could be replaced by full stops or colons (never by commas except in lists) without damaging the sense or clarity, but replacing the others would, I think, be a pity.

Using a semi-colon just because a sentence looks a bit long and you want to split it up is to be avoided except where the separate parts have a closer relationship than that of sentences which are merely consecutive. It is also usually unnecessary: even a sentence like the first one here would not be improved by chopping it up.

When I looked back at pieces I had written in my twenties I was surprised to find that in those days I hardly ever used semi-colons. It may be that a predilection for the little dears is something that creeps up on you with advancing age, like arthritis, dribbling, and forgetting things.

As you see, I quite like Oxford (a.k.a Harvard) commas as well.

Monday, 7 April 2008

London Pride

It is heart-warming to know that millions of people all over the world watched the TV pictures of the Olympic Torch Relay through London yesterday, though to get a real lump in the throat you had to be there.

Even foreigners who despise the English have to admit that when it comes to putting on a spectacle we are among the best in the world. It really was a splendid sight: trolling along the streets came this colourful swirling mass: an outer ring of dark-clad riot police in their stab-proof vests, inside them more police in bright yellow jackets and those quaint cycling helmets ("in case they need to use cycles", though they didn't seem to have any with them), then a ring of Chinese heavies in rather fetching powder blue shell suits and baseball caps and finally, at the centre, a mêlée of assorted characters pushing each other about, falling over and generally carrying on.

An effective touch was provided by the flicker of flame which could occasionally be seen among the writhing bodies, and the merry cries of the spectators added to the fun.

All this excitement, contrasting with a very quiet and moving handover ceremony featuring about four people and taking place in the middle of an otherwise empty stadium, made a terrific show aptly symbolising whatever it was intended to symbolise. The opening ceremony in Beijing cannot but be an anticlimax.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Mayors, billiard tables and popery

The general view, and Ken Livingstone's, seems to be that the revelation (not that it was ever a secret) that he has five children with three women will not damage his chances in the election for Mayor of London.

It may even improve them, if we are still influenced by Victorian values: there is a story about Disraeli's principal political opponent, the septuagenarian Lord Palmerston, being caught in flagrante delicto with a chambermaid on a billiards table in a stately home in Suffolk. One of Disraeli's advisers then suggested that the story be spread around, to which the great man replied: "Good heavens, no! If this gets out, he will sweep the country!".

The same anecdote, which may well be apocryphal, sometimes crops up with Gladstone substituted for Palmerston. That version seems unlikely, as it is generally accepted that Gladstone was a man of the utmost probity: allegations that his work in founding the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women and arranging employment for ex-prostitutes was not inspired entirely by altruism were investigated in a court case after his death, and the jury unanimously found that the evidence "completely vindicated the high moral character of the late Mr W.E. Gladstone."

It may be that the allegations were made by those who had been outraged by Gladstone's attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, which in pamphlets he had described as "an Asian monarchy: nothing but one giddy height of despotism, and one dead level of religious subservience". He also commented that Church's Decree of Papal Infallibility had placed British Catholics in a dilemma over their loyalty to the Crown and their loyalty to the Pope, urged British Catholics to reject papal infallibility as they had opposed the Spanish Armada of 1588, and asserted that the Pope wanted to destroy the rule of law, replace it with arbitrary tyranny, and then to "hide these crimes against liberty beneath a suffocating cloud of incense". These remarks have a resonance today in the current dispute over the Embryology Bill.

This was strong stuff. It is hard to imagine a modern prime minister disparaging even a minority faith in such a way: it would lose more votes than any amount of alleged hanky-panky on billiard tables.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Ethnic dressing

Back in the seventies I was responsible for the overseas marketing of a range of home dyes manufactured by a small company in London, and we had the idea of running a campaign based on a photograph of some models from around the world wearing clothes made using our products.
I forget the names of most of the models, but the one wearing the silk batik sari was Persis Khambatta, a Parsi who had been Miss India at the age of 15 and later, with shaven head, played the part of Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: the Motion Picture; sadly, she never really achieved stardom in Hollywood or in Indian films, and died from a heart attack in 1998.

Those were days of (relative) innocence and simplicity in advertising and this photograph was a fairly banal concept. Nowadays we might have done it with a little more wit by changing round the clothes, with the Nigerian girl wearing the sari, the big Canadian redhead in the tie-dyed dress and head-dress, the blonde in the kimono, the girl from Tokyo in the green stockings, and Persis in the peaked cap.