Saturday, 31 May 2008

Speak roughly to your little boy...

...And beat him when he sneezes
He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases

James Thurber was once asked by a publisher to provide the illustrations for a new edition of Alice in Wonderland, but he knew where his talent lay. 'No,' he said, 'keep the Tenniel drawings and I'll re-write the text'.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

The real Professor de Worms

In G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday an actor successfully takes on the identity of a distinguished academic. He tells how this came about:

"When I was on the stage I mixed with all sorts of Bohemian and blackguard company. In some den of exiled dreamers I was introduced to the great German Nihilist philosopher, Professor de Worms. I did not gather much about him beyond his appearance, which was disgusting, and which I studied carefully. He was lame, shortsighted, and partially paralytic.
When I met him I was in a frivolous mood, and I disliked him so much that I resolved to imitate him. If I had been a draughtsman I would have drawn a caricature. I was only an actor, I could only act a caricature. I made myself up into what was meant for a wild exaggeration of the Professor's dirty old self.

When I went into the room full of his supporters I expected to be received with a roar of laughter, or (if they were too far gone) with a roar of indignation at the insult. I cannot describe the surprise I felt when my entrance was received with a respectful silence, followed (when I had first opened my lips) with a murmur of admiration. The curse of the perfect artist had fallen upon me. I had been too subtle, I had been too true. They thought I really was the great Nihilist Professor. I was a healthy-minded young man at the time, and I confess that it was a blow.
Before I could fully recover, however, two or three of these admirers ran up to me radiating indignation, and told me that a public insult had been put upon me in the next room. I inquired its nature. It seemed that an impertinent fellow had dressed himself up as a preposterous parody of myself.
I had drunk more champagne than was good for me, and in a flash of folly I decided to see the situation through. Consequently it was to meet the glare of the company and my own lifted eyebrows and freezing eyes that the real Professor came into the room.
I need hardly say there was a collision. Those all round me looked anxiously from one Professor to the other Professor to see which was really the more feeble. But I won. An old man in poor health, like my rival, could not be expected to be so impressively feeble as a young actor in the prime of life. You see, he really had paralysis, and working within this definite limitation, he couldn't be so jolly paralytic as I was.
Then he tried to blast my claims intellectually. I countered that by a very simple dodge. Whenever he said something that nobody but he could understand, I replied with something which I could not even understand myself.
'I don't fancy,' he said, 'that you could have worked out the principle that evolution is only negation, since there inheres in it the introduction of lacuna, which are an essential of differentiation.'
I replied quite scornfully, 'You read all that up in Pinckwerts; the notion that involution functioned eugenically was exposed long ago by Glumpe.'
It is unnecessary for me to say that there never were such people as Pinckwerts and Glumpe.
But the people all round (rather to my surprise) seemed to remember them quite well, and the Professor, finding that the learned and mysterious method left him rather at the mercy of an enemy slightly deficient in scruples, fell back upon a more popular form of wit.
'I see,' he sneered, 'you prevail like the false pig in Aesop.'
'And you fail,' I answered, smiling, 'like the hedgehog in Montaigne.'
Need I say that there is no hedgehog in Montaigne?
'Your claptrap comes off,' he said; 'so would your beard.'
I had no intelligent answer to this, which was quite true and rather witty.
But I laughed heartily, answered, 'Like the Pantheist's boots,' at random, and turned on my heel with all the honours of victory.
The real Professor was thrown out, but not with violence, though one man tried very patiently to pull off his nose. He is now, I believe, received everywhere in Europe as a delightful impostor. His apparent earnestness and anger, you see, make him all the more entertaining."

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Two into one

Ogden: what a man he was! Linguist, philosopher, inventor of Basic English, co-translator of Wittgenstein's great Tractatus, co-author of The Meaning of Meaning (which quoted the inimitable phrase "The gostak distims the goshes"), described as America's laureate of light verse, creator of memorable couplets such as "If called by a panther / Don't anther"; "You can have my jellyfish / I'm not sellyfish"; and "The Lord in His wisdom made the fly / And then forgot to tell us why" and, most famously, the poet who replied to Dorothy Parker's dictum "Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses" with:
A girl who is bespectacled
She may not get her nectacled
But safety pins and bassinets
Await the girl who fassinets.

But actually he wasn't a man; he was two men, and I foolishly conflated them in my mind for many years. Now I have got them sorted out: one of them was called C K Ogden (1889-1957) and the other wasn't; he was called Ogden Nash (1902-1971). W
hat I listed above were the achievements of one or the other of them, and very creditable too.

Confusion of this kind has not come to me with the passing of the years: I have always been prone to it. When I was very young I saw at a cinema in Dijon a film called Méfiez-Vous des Blondes, starring Martine Carol or possibly someone else. The behaviour of the character she was playing seemed to me to be quite inexplicable: sometimes she would be a sweet young blonde happily married to a bank clerk, and at others she would be member of a vicious gang planning a robbery; even her hair style would change from scene to scene in what seemed to be a random manner, though she remained startlingly blonde. The plot became a total mystery to me, for I couldn't understand her motivation at all, or anyone else's.

Yes, you've guessed it: towards the end of the film she appeared to meet herself in a bar, and I at last tumbled to the fact that there were two different blondes in the film. My grasp of French was such that I had simply failed to realise that they were not the same person. They weren't supposed to be twins or anything like that and when they were on the screen together I saw that they didn't even look much alike.

Ever since then I have méfied myself of all blondes, with the exception of my blonde daughters who are identical twins; they really do look alike, but when they were born I knew almost at once that there were two of them, and never had any difficulty at all in distinguishing between them, even when they were very small.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

No "reform"

A resounding raspberry was delivered in the House of Commons last night to Cardinal O'Connor, David Cameron, Ruth Kelly, Nadine Dorries and other assorted nasties who had proposed amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Many of these were disingenuous, part of a campaign to scupper the bill altogether or to use debate on it to block or reverse enlightened changes.

Happily, all were defeated. They were free votes and it is encouraging to see that a majority of Labour MPs do still have consciences in good working order. It is unlikely that many of these were influenced by the fact that the Prime Minister shares their views, but Gordon Brown will have had a much needed boost to his morale.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Life is not widescreen

I can remember the thrill of seeing the Cinemascope version of The Robe. When it opened the screen got wider and wider and we all gasped in amazement as we turned our heads from side to side to scan the stunning panorama. However, after 135 minutes of Richard Burtonism and Victor Maturity, with only Jean Simmons and Ernest Thesiger (as Tiberius) to relieve the boredom, we had stopped feeling the width and were minding the quality of what was really just another slab of epic piffle.

The super-wide Cinemascope on the New Miracle Curved Screen didn't last. Here there is comprehensive note on widescreens generally and here is a detailed list of film formats from 1888 to the present.

It is a complicated story, but the sad fact is that the 4:3 format which largely dominated the first two-thirds of the history of the cinema and the whole of TV history except for the last few years is now dead, and 16:9 rules, whether we like it or not.

I don't like it, much. It seems to me obvious that widescreen is best suited for showing either vast prairies or scenes where one or two people are lying prone or dozens are marching or standing still facing the camera in a long line (it's significant that formats in photography called portrait and landscape).

For almost anything other than corpses, the Last Supper or Alberta, 4
:3 is artistically, dramatically and practically much better. For one or two talking heads, which after all account for a high proportion of what goes on drama, widescreen is pointless and distracting. It's not as if the format can be adjusted to suit the action: letterboxing and pan-and-scan can only be applied to the whole film.

However, one gets used to 16:9 after a bit, and when it comes to watching old films at least the format can be changed at the press of a button. I find I am offered a choice of seven ways of handling 4:3, though if you leave it on Auto you get the one that simply stretches it sideways, so that everyone looks like the late Stubby Kaye.

[Computer monitors have always had something like a 4:3 format and the screen is the wrong way round if you are working with documents, which most of us are, most of the time; ideally, you need to turn it round to portrait and have a widescreen one as well.]

Thursday, 15 May 2008

For beauty and for virtue she was of far renown...

Funny how things stick in the mind. It is many years since I last heard tell of a girl named Nancy Brown, and I thought I had forgotten the story, but Hillary Clinton's win this week has reminded me that Nancy lived in the hills of West Virginia...
...Now she went up in the mountains
With the deacon one fine day
And came rollin' down the mountains
A wiser girl they say
She came rollin' down the mountains
She came rollin' down the mountains
She came rollin' down the mountains, mighty wise
But she didn't give the deacon
That there thing that he was seekin'
She stayed sweet and pure as West Virginia skies.

Now there came along a cowboy
With laughter and with song
And he took her in the mountains
But she still knew right from wrong
She came rollin' down the mountains
She came rollin' down the mountains
She came rollin' down the mountains, mighty wise
But in spite of all his urgin'
She remained a blessed virgin
Just as sweet and pure as West Virginia skies.

Then there came a city slicker
With his hundred-dollar bills
And he drove her in his Packard
Right up in them thar hills
And they stayed up in the mountains
And they stayed up in the mountains
And they stayed up in the mountains all the night
Then she came down bright and early
More a woman than a girly
And her pappa kicked that hussy out of sight.

Now she's livin in the city
Now she's livin in the city
Now she's livin in the city, mighty swell
And her life's all beer and skittles
And she dines off fancy vittles
And the West Virginia skies can go to hell.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Archetypal French melodrama of the thirties

I have just been watching Le Quai des Brumes, Marcel Carné's 1938 film with Alexis Moncourgé, better known as Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan and Michel Simon. It was acclaimed for its melancholic realism, downbeat poetry, foetid atmosphere and unity of time, space and action, and as an early exemplar of the doomed lovers syndrome which Hollywood picked up after World War Two. This still from it suggests, perhaps partly because of the dreadful hats, that it was a kind of French Brief Encounter, but of course it was nothing of the sort.

It's not really all that enjoyable nowadays, not as good as other Gabinerie of the period such as La Grande Illusion, La Belle Equipe and above all Pépé le Moko, with which it shares its ending—a ship sailing off while the hero dies. It is many years since I last saw the film, and I had remembered only Gabin's line which many of us have found worth stealing: T'as de beaux yeux, tu sais, and the bit where he lies in the street with several bullets in him and whispers with his last breath: Embrasse-moi, vite! On est pressé...

The villain was played by Pierre Brasseur, who had apparently been unkind to Michèle Morgan while they were filming. Gabin was much angered by this, and when they came to shoot a scene in which he was required to clout Brasseur twice he did not fake it in the usual way. Thus it was that "...on obtint alors l'une des plus belles paires de claques de l'histoire du cinéma".

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Laughing Sickness

I posted a note recently about the misunderstandings that can be caused by constipation and constipado. This sort of thing happens often with the Romance or half-Romance languages because they are similar and yet different, as you will discover if you travel to Portugal with the idea that your small knowledge of Spanish will be useful. It probably won't; it is more likely to confuse you as well as the locals with whom you try to converse.

This does not happen with German. This is a language characterised by accuracy and precision: you can build cars with it. You have to say what you mean; it is not as easy as it is in English to have grammar, syntax and vocabulary absolutely correct while being at the same time totally incomprehensible.

But in a piece he wrote forty years Michael Frayn observed that there is one big problem with the German language which is that it must be very difficult to keep a straight face if, when you go to visit a relative in hospital you have to ask for the Krankenhaus, or when you want the way out you must ask for the Ausfahrt.

Frayn suggested that life for Germans must be just one long struggle to keep themselves from laughing at their own language:

...That would explain a lot. That's what the object of all that iron Prussian discipline must have been. That's what all those duelling scars were for—to camouflage all the dirty grins on the face of people inquiring about the Ausfahrt. Now that the old traditional codes of discipline have gone it's terrible. The approach to every Ausfahrt, Einfahrt and Krankenhaus in the Federal Republic is jammed with people falling about and holding their sides. But that's nothing to what it's like inside the Krankenhaus. Inside it sounds like 14 different studio audiences trying to earn their free tickets simultaneously, as the patients describe their various comic-sounding symptoms to the staff. Here's a new admission scarcely able to speak for giggles as he tells the doctor he has a pain in his elbow:
'A Schmerz in your Ellenbogen?' repeats the doctor without any sign of amusement—he's heard the joke before, of course. 'Which Ellenbogen?'
'Both Ellenbogens,' replies the patient, trying to pull himself together. 'I also get agonising twinges which run up and down my leg from my ... from my ...'
But it's no good—he's off again. Unable to get the words out for laughing, he points silently from his thigh to his ankle.
'From your Schenkel to your Knöchel?' says the doctor, the corner of his mouth twitching very slightly in spite of himself. The patient nods helplessly.
'And sometimes,' he gasps, 'and sometimes ... all the way down my ...'He closes his eyes and vibrates silently, shaking his head from time to time to indicate that speech is beyond him.
'Come on,' says the doctor, frankly grinning himself now. 'Get it out.'
'All the way down my ... my Wirb ... my Wirbel ...'
'You'll start me off it you're not careful. Your what?'
'My Wirbelsäu-hau-hau-hau-hau-hau-hau ...'
'Your Wirbelsäule? Your backbone?'
The patient nods, his eyes covered with his hand, his shoulders shaking rhythmically. The doctor bites his lip hard to stop himself giving way.
'Any other symptoms?' he demands gruffly.
'Yes,' croaks the patient weakly, 'verstopfung!'
At this the doctor can hold out no longer. A great snort of laughter forces its way past his clenched jaw muscles, and he puts his head back and laughs until he cries.
'Verstopft, are you?' he manages at last. 'Constipated?'
'Verstopft up solid!'
Eventually they both simmer down a bit, and sigh, and wipe their eyes, smiling anywhere but at each other.
'You know what your trouble is?' says the doctor. 'You've got Kniescheibenentzündung. Housemaid's knee.'

'Don't!' pleads the patient, 'You'll start me off again!'
'And a rather bad dose of ...'

'No, honestly, I've got a pain as it is ...''No, listen, a rather bad dose of Windpo-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho ...!'
'Stop! Sto-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho...!'
'Wind ... Wind-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi...!'
'Oh ...! I swear I'm dying ...!'
'Windpocken! Chickenpox!'
'No, honestly, shut up ...!'
'And ...'
'I'm not listening!'
' ... You've sprained your—no, listen—your nostril, your Nasenflügel ...!'
Well, the poor devil's in stitches already, of course. By the time he's had a splint applied to his Nasenflügel and been wheeled out towards the Ausfahrt, he's probably just about what German doctors call blühendekopfabgelacht—laughed his blooming head off. That's going to take a stitch or two to fix; it's yet another case of someome coming out of the Krankenhaus a whole lot kranker than he went in.
Gott, as one might say, in Himmel! It makes you glad to be English.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Guarding Old Redsocks

Nowadays his minders are just like those of any other celebrities: highly trained, inconspicuously dressed, watchful eyes in expressionless faces, weapons concealed but ready for instant use. In earlier times they were much prettier although possibly less effective; today the Swiss Guards still exist, but have only a ceremonial function.

The one pictured here looks a bit sulky. This might be because he knows that he will never have a chance to defend the Pope heroically like those being commemorated at this wreath-laying ceremony (they were all slaughtered in May 1527), or merely because he feels a bit of a buffoon standing to attention in a fancy hat and comic pantaloons.

And, the little man in the black suit behind him is undoubtedly up to something.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

For Pierrot and Columbine

When I was very young I heard an old Russian folk ballad called Volga, Volga mat' rodnaya or Stenka Razin and thought Hullo, that's a good tune, no copyright, I could put English words to it, get a group to record it, make a great deal of money. Of course I didn't actually do it, but years later Dusty Springfield's brother Tim did, and in 1965 The Carnival Is Over was a very big hit for The Seekers in the UK and Australia.
Stepan (Sten'ka) Timofeyevich Razin was a Cossack leader who led a major uprising against the Russian nobility in the seventeenth century. Legend tells that once, while he was sailing the Volga in a pirated ship, his men almost mutinied because he was dallying with a Persian princess he had captured and neglecting his chieftainship, so to appease them he threw the Persian princess into the river to her death. The song describes this event and HERE is what the great Russian bass Boris Shtokolov made of it.

Apart from the melody, the Seekers' version has something else in common with the legend, for it also tells of someone dumping a partner (though not quite so literally) with some regret ("... I will love you till I die"). So same tune, similar sentiment but a very different style: Stokolov booming away is not a bit like Judith Durham warbling sweetly while swaying gently from side to side on a fifties kind of stage (actually this version was recorded in 1968).

However, as a corrective to the blandness of their presentation, the bass player has a face made of wax and wears some really scary spectacles.

Monday, 5 May 2008

The Periodic Table

With its Saturday edition The Guardian gave away a pretty multicoloured chart of the periodic table. I remember finding the one on the wall of my classroom a depressing sight, partly because it had over the years turned a rather nasty shade of beige. It may even have contributed towards my lifelong dislike of chemistry, which then and now seems to me to be basically about uninteresting substances in menacing little glass jars. It is pleasant to think that thousands of classrooms will now have a lovely new chart, replacing the faded and dusty one that's been pinned up there for years.

But even smartened up, it's not something that lifts the heart. It took the combined talents of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Tom Lehrer and Mike Stanfill to make The Elements really amusing. If my chemistry teacher had presented something like this to the class I might have paid more attention to his lessons, though I doubt if it would have influenced my career choice (which turned out to be a big mistake anyway).

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The "London" Wreck

No need to commiserate with those who have chosen to put an idiot in charge of their city; they will get what they deserve, all 1,168,738 of them. Many of them are not proper Londoners. anyway: I mean, Bexley? Bromley? Barnet? To hell with the inner city oiks, they said, let's get a toff to sort out our problems.

But for the other 1,028,966, those who had the good sense to put aside their dislike of Ken and vote for him, we must all feel sorry; perhaps it will cheer them up to read about some people who suffered an even worse disaster.

Many of the awful poems of William Topaz McGonagall were accurate and harrowing descriptions of terrible things which happened to innocent people. The best known of his two hundred poems is The Tay Bridge Disaster, but there is another one more appropriate for today. It is called The Wreck Of The Steamer "London":

'Twas in the year of 1866, and on a very beautiful day
That eighty-two passengers, with spirits light and gay,
Left Gravesend harbour, and sailed gaily away
On board the steamship "London,"
Bound for the city of Melbourne,
Which unfortunately was her last run,
Because she was wrecked on the stormy main,
Which has caused many a heart to throb with pain,
Because they will ne'er look upon their lost ones again.

You can read the whole of this magnificent account by following the link above, but here are some couplets from it which will give you the flavour:

'Twas all on a sudden the storm did arise,
Which took the captain and passengers all by surprise...

...To hear mothers and their children loudly screaming,
And to see the tears adown their pale faces streaming...

...A beautiful young lady did madly cry and rave,
"Five hundred sovereigns, my life to save!"

...For three stormy days and stormy nights they were tossed to and fro
On the raging billows, with their hearts full of woe...

Happily, though, there were twenty survivors, who "most heroically behaved". Probably these did not include the beautiful young lady, since:
..she was by the sailors plainly told
For to keep her filthy gold.