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, " 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.