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.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Gentleman composer

The first in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

April 1904: HSL tells Arthur Deakin in Gravesend: "I have been staying in E'bourne for Easter".

Elgar was by now Sir Edward: a festival of his music had just taken place at Covent Garden. Here is the epitome and examplar of the Edwardian country gentleman: no nuance is missing, right down to the pipe in kid-gloved hands.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Think that's just a strawberry, eh? Picked up a bit of French, have you? Like to ask the waiter if the fraises des bois were flown in this morning, do you?


Far from the sophisticated polyglot man-of-the-world you have always imagined yourself to be, you are in fact an ignorant and pretentious oaf. If you had had a proper education you would have known that Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary had this entry for the word:
fraise n.s. [French, the caul of an animal.]
A pancake with bacon in it

But this is not the end of the matter; let us go further. My Shorter Harrap gives the soft fruit definition and also this:
fraise n.f.
Culinary: crow (of calf, lamb)

Here I must confess my own ignorance: what is a calf's (or lamb's) crow? On then to the OED; after Corvus Corone (or Americanus), and the noise that cocks make, we have the third meaning (the fourth is a North American Indian):

crow, n
The mesentary of an animal (1818 Young Woman's Companion: The liver and crow are much admired fried with bacon.)

So Samuel's "caul" may have been wrong but his reference to bacon suggests that he was on the right lines.

Hang on, what's this mesentery? That's new to me too. It's a word widely used since 1425 and I wish I hadn't looked it up. According to the OED:
mesentary, n.
Anat. and Zool. Originally: the folded sheet of peritoneum in which the jejunum and ileum are suspended from the dorsal abdominal wall. Later also: any of several other folds of peritoneum serving a similar function for other organs; the embryonic precursor of these structures, a double layer of splanchnic mesoderm attached to both the dorsal and ventral walls of the body, which also temporarily supports the organs of the chest.

A double layer of splanchnic mesoderm sounds to me to be a bit over the top. Admirable it may be, but I don't think I'd like it fried with bacon, and even less if served with cream, à la Romanoff.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A century on a postcard

This is the book I wrote about the other day. With 452 large glossy pages and weighing in at nearly six pounds it would be merely a coffee table book, except that it is also a magisterial survey of the social history of the twentieth century. It tells its story year by year not only in the pictures, but also in the words, written in so many different hands, that accompanied the cards when they were posted.

Each year includes views of Piccadilly Circus and the New York skyline. Though centred on the UK and USA, cards come from every part of the world, from Los Angeles to Beijing, from Antarctica to Alaska. Several themes emerge strongly, most notably those which evolved with the century, for example transport, the cinema, the role of women, fashion and holidays. Changes in the English language as used informally by Britons and Americans are powerfully registered. Here is a unique glimpse into the hearts and minds of that turbulent century.

The choice was made from over ten thousand cards which were collected for the purpose. Selecting these by searching through nearly a million, providing a commentary on the pictures, giving a perceptive and thoughtful context for each of the two thousand messages and writing a lengthy introduction might be considered a creditable life's work but in fact is merely a tiny part of the enormous oeuvre of Tom Phillips, artist, poet, painter, musician, sculptor, stage designer, translator, critic and almost any other kind of creator you can think of.

Simon Callow wrote a brilliant piece about The Postcard Century and its remarkable author when the book was first published in 2000, and Tom Phillips has his own website.

Monday, 8 September 2008

I'll send you a PC

A hundred years ago, that is what you might have said to a friend when you were going away, and you wouldn't have been referring to any of the things for which we use this abbreviation today.

Picture postcards became legal towards the end of the nineteenth century and this one appeared in 1995 to celebrate their centenary. The publishers, Bamforth & Company, entered the postcard business in 1902 and could have produced both images from stock; they probably took some liberties with dates, for the girls on the left look more like early twentieth century bathers, and daring for their day.

Throughout the entire length of the twentieth century the postcard was in popular use, and it may be that this was the last as well as the first century of which that might be said. It is hard to imagine that anyone will be sending (let alone collecting and delivering) so physical an object in 2099.

One of the most worthwhile of all the projects inspired by the 2000 millenium was the publication of The Postcard Century, which tells the story of the previous hundred years in its own words and images: two thousand picture postcards and their messages give a vivid account of people's daily existence and a glimpse of what mattered to them, pleased them, shocked or amused them via the cards they chose to send and what they wrote on them.

Other Men's Flowers will try to do justice to the book over the coming months, but reading about it and seeing snippets is no substitute for owning it and passing many happy hours devouring its contents.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Sarah Hockey Mom Palin

I had not intended to jump on the band wagon by offering a link to any of the several hundred tributes to the Republican vice-presidential candidate which are currently on the net, but it seemed to me that this spoof by New York comedian Sara Benincasa should not be missed by anyone who wants to get the feel of Sarah, as it were.

And if you're not already bored with the woman you could look here as well.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Police constables and personal computers

...and political correctness; it's a handy abbreviation with several uses and there is one more which will be kept for a later post.

We keep colloquial abbreviations like that one for things which are prevalent or familiar, but everything must be named; some semanticists suggest that if a thing has no name it cannot exist. This was one of the principles of Orwell's Newspeak, and there is a story, probably apocryphal, that during the second world war the Académie française banned the word défaitisme because the concept was un-French.

However, we can always use the original foreign words for non-native concepts, so that we might invite a friendly judoka to join us in the dojo for some randori. Similarly, the French refer to le binge-drinking, classifying it as an English vice like sadomasochism, or putting mint sauce on roast lamb. We all accepted that French children grew up with the right attitude to alcohol, mastering the art of moderate drinking fom the age of six, and it was certainly true that public vomiting was rarely to be seen in French towns. Long-term adult drinking was another matter: in 2005 a government study classified 5 million French people as "excessive drinkers", and estimated that alcohol was directly responsible for 23,000 deaths in France and indirectly a further 22,000.

But it seems that this is changing, and that there is a trend among French youth to drink more, to drink in the streets, and to drink in order to get drunk. They have a long way to go to catch us up with these sad practices, but the omens are not good: measures are being taken to try to arrest the trend among the young (e.g. a video entitled Boire trop featuring rape, fighting and collapsing in a coma), but if these are not successful it may be that in a few years tourists strolling along the trottoirs of Montmartre will have to be careful where they tread.

At any rate, they no longer use our term for it exclusively: they have coined la biture express and la défonce minute, though the awesome power of our language may mean that they will go on talking of le binge-drinking for a while yet.