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: